A bunkering tanker traveling near the coast of Somalia has fallen prey to what seems to be the first successful hijacking of a commercial vessel by Somali pirates since 2012. The ARIS 13 — a vessel with Comoros flags and a crew of eight Sri Lankan sailors — was diverted to the coastal Puntland town of Alula on March 13. But the incident doesn't necessarily mean that the threat of piracy near Somalia is once again on the rise.
In 2012, states and companies took several steps to destroy the vast criminal networks behind organized piracy in the region. But they did not eradicate piracy altogether. Sporadic attempts to hijack vessels continue to take place, though the limited resources pirate groups have access to these days don't stack up against the countermeasures they face.
The ARIS 13, however, was not employing many of those countermeasures. It was traveling slowly, at a speed of around 4 knots, near the coast of Somalia on its way to Mogadishu from Djibouti. Prior to its port call in Djibouti, the tanker also entered the port of Bossaso in Puntland. Because the vessel had traveled to Somalia before, it is possible that local criminals had become aware of its patterns and vulnerabilities prior to the hijacking. The ARIS 13 is also an easier target than the larger container vessels and supertankers that Somali pirates once targeted. Some of Somalia's remaining pirates likely launched an opportunistic attack and it paid off, though their operation cannot be considered a full success until they can translate the hijacking into ransom for either the crew or the vessel, or until they can offload the oil the tanker carried.
Naval patrols and security countermeasures on commercial vessels will continue to limit the long-term risk of an attack.
Prior to their collapse, pirate networks consisted of criminal investors, pirate team leaders, pirate crews, informants at global shipping and insurance companies, and negotiators with language capabilities. These networks required significant resources to launch one or more motherships with multiple skiffs for extended periods of time at sea. Eventually, in 2012, countermeasures and naval patrols in the area cut into the groups' profits, as did lengthy ransom negotiations and falling ransom prices. And as their profits declined, the pirates' finances took a hit. That year, the United Nations obtained permission to strike pirate bases on land. Coincidentally, 2012 was also a year of bad weather, and several pirate crews were lost at sea.
Given these factors, the hijacking of the ARIS 13 may not signal the return of a larger threat of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. After all, an isolated success does not mean that pirate organizations have regained the ability to sustain themselves and their operations. If the ARIS 13 hijacking yields substantial revenues for the pirates, it could certainly lead to an uptick in hijacking attempts in the short term. But naval patrols and security countermeasures on commercial vessels will continue to limit the long-term risk of an attack. Unless Somali pirates can achieve multiple, sustained successes to finance a return of bigger organized crime groups, they will remain a minimal threat to commercial vessels.