Somalia's growing piracy threat

Hijacking of a Saudi supertanker points to widening ambitions and capabilities.

Hijacking of a Saudi supertanker points to widening ambitions and capabilities

This undated picture made at an unknown location shows the the MV Sirius Star a Saudi oil supertanker which has been hijacked by Somali pirates. ((Christian Duys/Associated Press) )
Make no mistake about it: Amateur hour is over in the Gulf of Aden. Somalia's pirates are now playing in the big leagues. The very big leagues.

In their most audacious attack yet, they recently hijacked the MV Sirius Star, one of the world's largest oil tankers, laden with more than 2 million barrels of crude oil. The assault took place nearly 450 miles off the coast of the Horn of Africa.

The hijacking highlighted the vulnerability of even very large ships and pointed to widening ambitions and capabilities among ransom-hungry pirates who have carried out a surge of attacks this year off Somalia.

Saturday's hijacking of the Sirius Star occurred in the Indian Ocean far south of the zone patrolled by international warships in the busy Gulf of Aden shipping channel, which leads to and from the Suez Canal. A U.S. Navy spokesman told the Associated Press that the bandits were taking the ship and its 25-man crew to a Somali port that has become a haven for seized ships and bandits trying to force ransoms for them.

HMCS Ville de Québec was deployed to the waters off Somalia in August at the request of the UN World Food Program. ((Pte. Johanie Maheu/DND))
The tanker, owned by Saudi oil company Aramco, is one of the largest ships to sail the seas. It is 1,800 feet long, or about the length of an aircraft carrier, and can carry about 2 million barrels of oil.

Fully loaded, the ship's cargo could be worth about $100 million US. But the pirates would have no way of selling crude and no way to refine it in Somalia, the AP said.

Last week, pirates hijacked a Philippines chemical tanker with 23 crew members near Somalia. In September, Somali pirates captured a Ukrainian ship bound for Kenya that had a cargo of 33 T-72 tanks and other military equipment in the Gulf of Aden, a critical trade corridor linking the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal. More than 70 shipping vessels have been attacked off the coast of Somalia in the past year. Eleven of those ships and more than 200 crew members are still being held for ransom.

Roughly 11 per cent of the world's seaborne petroleum passes through the Gulf of Aden. If the incidents continue unabated, shipping vessels may opt to avoid the Gulf of Aden by taking the longer route to Europe and North America round South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, which would almost certainly drive up commodities prices.

"The Gulf of Aden is a vital international trade route, and it is intolerable for it to be disrupted by pirates in this way," Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau recently told a Malaysian shipping publication.

While previous attacks have taken place within 200 nautical miles of land, the Sirius Star was hijacked roughly 450 miles southeast of Mogadishu, Somalia, according to the International Maritime Bureau. In addition, the targets have shifted from fairly insignificant to critically strategic resources. The seizure of the Sirius Star is the first hijacking of a very large crude carrier on record.

Foreign navies have begun patrolling the Gulf of Aden to rein in the pirate gangs off the coast of northern Somalia, but they have had only limited success. As a result, ship owners have seen insurance premiums for coverage of passage through the Straits of Aden climb from an average of $900 to $9,000.

Hired protection

It's bad news for shippers, but an opportunity for Blackwater Worldwide, the North Carolina-based private military contractor. The company is currently finalizing plans to dispatch the MV MacArthur, a 183-foot vessel with a crew of 14 and a helicopter pad, to the Gulf of Aden to provide escort services for ships in need of security.

"Billions of dollars of goods move through the Gulf of Aden each year," said Bill Matthews, executive vice president of Blackwater Worldwide, in a press release earlier this month. "We have been contacted by ship owners who say they need our help in making sure those goods get to their destination safely. The McArthur can help us accomplish that."

The mercenary outfit — founded by former Navy SEALs in 1997 and heavily involved in U.S. military efforts in Iraq — has tentative plans to build a small fleet of two or three anti-piracy vessels, each able to carry several dozen armed security personnel. Although the Blackwater vessels will not be armed, the crew will be.

With files from Associated Press