The Threat of Piracy: Red Flag in the Indian Ocean

17 November 2008

The U. S. Navy announced that pirates have seized a Saudi-owned oil tanker (also reported as an United Arab Emirates-owned tanker). The BBC reported: “The Sirius Star is the biggest ship ever to be hijacked, with a capacity of 2m barrels – more than one-quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output.” Strategic Forecasting had this situation report: “Pirates who seized a Saudi-owned supertanker fully loaded with oil off East Africa on Nov. 16 are taking the vessel to the Somalian port of Eyl, the U.S. Fifth Fleet announced Nov. 17. The supertanker Sirius Star held up to 2 million barrels of oil and was hijacked about 520 miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya, far from where most pirate attacks on shipping in the region have taken place.” The oil on the ship is worth about $100 million.
site of escalating piracy

The Indian Ocean: site of escalating piracy

The efficacy of the pirates in the Indian Ocean is a function of the success of their previous exploits. Shipping companies don’t like to discuss it publicly, but they have paid out millions of dollars in ransom payments in order to free their ships and crews held hostage. To date, the hijackings in the Indian Ocean have been remarkably peaceful. Some freed hostages who have spoken to the press have reported that they were treated well enough. Very few deaths have resulted. This cannot be expected to last when large amounts of money are at stake, and when others with motivations that are not purely mercenary become involved in large-scale piracy.


Success not only has a thousand fathers, it also has a thousand imitators. There are many groups in the horn of Africa, as well as around the Indian Ocean and indeed around the world, who will be paying attention to the remarkable successes of Somali pirates. If decisive action is not taken, success in piracy will breed further success, and this further success will breed imitators. As piracy in the Indian Ocean escalates, competition for prey will will escalate the acquisition of arms and equipment, and this escalation will attract arms dealers, black market financiers, and criminals of all types. Someone must sell the pirates their ships and arms.
The east African coast facing the Indian Ocean

The east African coast facing the Indian Ocean

As the stakes increase and competition increases, the pirate industry will not remain so peaceful. Pirates fueled by success will become ambitious for more success. They will not content themselves with small prey. We have already seen this. The hijacking of the Sirius Star is evidence of this. It is the largest taking by pirates ever. As this escalation and competition increases, the pirates will become both more comfortable and more expert with using their weapons, and the private shipping firms will arm their ships and their crews. Violence will escalate. People will be killed, both pirates and the crews of ships. Perhaps hostages will be killed as well. We know what the media impact is in industrialized nation-states to spectacular executions that are broadcast to the media. Sometimes such actions can be counter-productive, but they also sometimes inspire rapid and quiet payoffs in the attempt to free further hostages and to avoid further televised executions.

There are only a handful of nation-states in the world who have the capacity to project power globally. These nation-states have a responsibility to act before piracy in the Indian Ocean escalates out of control. We know that both US and Russian naval forces are patrolling in the region, but it is also apparent that their rules of engagement currently err on the side of non-engagement. They watch and inform the world of the hijackings, but have not intervened even in the case of the Ukrainian freighter MV Faina, carrying tanks and other armament, still in limbo and awaiting ransom. Also, the patrols are inadequate to the area that needs to be covered. The financial success of the pirates has allowed them to buy larger ships that can operate off shore and launch the smaller craft that actually assault targeted shipping. This allows the pirates both more time at sea and a greater range.

Piracy in the Indian Ocean is a red flag, which, if not heeded, could lead to death and property damage on a frightening scale. The nation-states surrounding the Indian Ocean do not have the ability to project power with blue water navies. Somalia, the source of many of the pirates, has not had a functioning government in more than a decade. Does this sound familiar to anyone? Somalia, in at least one important sense (viz. providing a lawless haven for criminals), is the Afghanistan of our decade. It is lawless, and a lawless region of this size is both a haven and a breeding ground for terrorists. Terrorists around the world will be paying attention to the successes of Somali pirates. One of the reasons that Al-Qaeda was as “successful” as it was in the recent past was due to its international range. We can expect that other terrorist masterminds will have learned this lesson, as well as the lessons of “high concept/low tech” terrorism pioneered by Al-Qaeda operatives. Al-Qaeda is not the only internationally-minded terrorist organization. Thus it is not only a responsibility of those nation-states capable of projecting power in the Indian Ocean, but such nation-states also have both a short-term and long-term self-interest in eradicating piracy. The short-term self-interest lies in addressing the immediate losses due to piracy (financial and property losses) while the long-term self-interest lies in addressing the potentially disastrous lawlessness in the region and thus avoiding another failure to “connect the dots”. We have been warned. Will the warning be heeded?


Since writing the above I have posted a new piece on piracy, Piracy at the Tipping Point.

4 Responses to “The Threat of Piracy: Red Flag in the Indian Ocean”

  1. eyl said

    BOSASSO, Somalia (Reuters) – A Saudi supertanker hijacked by pirates with a $100 million oil cargo in the largest ever such seizure was approaching the north Somali coast on Tuesday, maritime sources said.

  2. MOGADISHU, Somalia, Nov. 12 (UPI) — With warships from NATO operating off the coast of Somalia, the U.N. World Food Program says crucial aid is successfully reaching the war-ravaged country. NATO deployed seven ships in October to defend

  3. Tags: Africa Blog , Africa economy , Global News , Security , Somalia , africa , africa , conflict , east Africa , Europe , gulf of aden , horn of africa , islamist , oil , peace , peacekeeping , saudi arabia , Somalia , suez canal , united

  4. DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The U.S. Navy says pirates who seized a Saudi-owned oil supertanker are taking the ship to a Somali port where hijacked vessels are often held. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen of the U.S. 5th Fleet says

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