Few years ago, the maritime industry was reeling under the effects of piracy on the Somali coast and the Gulf of Guinea, but now a remarkable drop of piracy incidences in 2015 is something to write home about.
It was a rare fete to see that the designated high risk areas reported no attack on large merchant vessels or even a disruption of such by the naval forces coalition that monitor the regions.
Nevertheless reports of suspicious vessels in the Indian Ocean persisted; much so because some private maritime security companies (PMSCs) and understandably nervous ships’ masters continue to misreport regional fishermen and smugglers as potential pirates, alongside advisories issued by official reporting authorities.
Cases are rampant of fishermen with valid navigation aids, IMO numbers and international call signs being reported as pirate mother ships. There have also been reports of Somali pirates at extended ranges beyond the boundaries of the high risk area (HRA), none of which have resulted in an attack.
While the large merchant vessels had incident free year, smaller crafts were not as lucky. Notable incidents targeting such crafts included the hijacking of three Iranian fishing dhows in alleged fishing disputes.
The fishing vessel MV Muhammidi was hijacked by pirates in position 0616North 053.30East. With her 15 crew members, it was taken by gun men some 305 nautical miles while heading to Somali waters in November last year.
Earlier in August of 2015, still, two Iranian dhows MV Jaber and MV Siraj were taken captive along with a total of 46 strong crew members. However, the vessels managed to escape from Somalia after four months of captivity.
Many in the maritime industry would hope to see total eradication of the piracy. But judging by these incidences that target smaller crafts it means still more efforts are needed. For instance it is hard to completely rule out the return of a long-range, open ocean piracy, as the pirates can easily use the Iranian dhow they still have in detention as a mother ship. The world should also not forget that 3 Kenyan nationals and 47 seafarers remain hostage in Somalia and that any complacency on the part of a ship owner or captain could easily lead to a merchant vessel ending up in a Somali anchorage, re-energizing criminal cash flows.
Currently they are few pirate action groups (PAGs) taking to sea, but Somalia pirate business model and gangs are still active. And contrary to the highly publicized claims of the removal of pirate land bases, piracy networks continue to operate with little interference from the government, in the zones outside the jurisdiction of AMISOM (AU forces in Somalia).
Pirate anchorages are distributed along the central Somalia and Puntland’s north east and northern shoreline and often operate with the complicity of local administrations, political figures, clan elders, militias and local communities.
Piracy networks continue to operate on land by engaging in alternative criminal enterprises. The gangs have evolved the piracy model to protection schemes for international fisheries conducting illegal fishing in Somalia waters. Serving as ‘security guards’ they provide armed protection onboard vessels engaged in smuggling and illegal regional trade.
Ironically, Somalia piracy appears to have come full circle, with some pirate gangs now becoming the enablers of illegal fishing off the Somalia coast as opposed to the original justification for piracy that was based on the need to defend Somalia’s waters against illegal international fishing boats.
The pirates have clearly adapted to a new modus operandi in response to new security challenges and business opportunities.
OFFSHORE OIL AND GAS
Such transformation of piracy can impact on the oil and gas sector as exploration and offshore drilling operations increase along the East coast of Africa.
The operational profiles of survey vessels and drill rigs are vulnerable due to the slow speed for seismic runs, limited maneuverability with seismic arrays or static with drill rigs, and the numerous support vessels required.
The Somali pirate groups will turn their attention to these operations and adapt their techniques, tactics and procedures’ to a similar model as their West Africa counterparts. The war in Yemen is another factor that is creating concern in the maritime industry. The complex situation on the ground has seen ports closed, approaches blockaded and weapons discharged toward and from Yemen’s shores.
Such climate of chaos can prove to be a fertile breeding ground for jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Whilst there does not appear to be an imminent threat to vessel transits adjacent to Yemen, not least due to the large naval coalition presence, one cannot ignore the unfolding situation altogether.
Increasing friction between Saudi Arabia and Iran does not help the situation either as it is likely that further tension could lead to the re-deployment of any forces currently engaged in anti-piracy operations.
The main land based threats to offshore oil and gas companies relate to political transition, civil unrest, secessionist movements and transnational terrorist networks. Secessionist movements in Kenya such as Mombasa Republican Council and Tanzania for example, have complained that oil and gas licenses are being issued by central government for their advantage, while local communities fail to benefit from the resource exploitation.
For example, UAMSHO in Tanzania is demanding that Zanzibar and the Isles have authority over the issuance of licenses and any revenues generated. This could lead to offshore Oil and Gas companies and their personnel being targeted as governments attempt to navigate such political dynamics relating to lucrative natural resources.
Kenya has experienced Westerners being targeted for kidnap for ransom. Offshore Oil and Gas personnel may be viewed as potentially high value targets that could generate substantial ransom payments.
Plans to develop new refining capacity in Lamu Port, will place Offshore Oil and Gas assets in close proximity to the Somali border and Kenya the country that has seen attacks and kidnap for ransom against Western tourists.
It is therefore critical to consider the non-state actors present in countries, their motivation and capacity, as well as any previous incidents of kidnap for ransom of international staff.
There is an increasing appeal of energy infrastructure to terrorist groups. The benefits for ideologically motivated militant groups that come with attacking the energy sector have risen considerably due to the worldwide media attention, economic turbulence and short-term supply disruptions.
With the presence of such a strategic resource emerging in off eastern Africa, terrorist groups may realize that they do not need to carry out attacks in Europe and the US to generate global attention and cause economic damage.
Militant groups operating in the region may see the value in energy company attacks. There have already been attacks on land-based energy sector projects in Sudan and Ethiopia in eastern Africa.
The security alert issued by US and UK governments during the Holy month of Ramadan in Yemen last year also identified ports and Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) such as Suez Canal and Bab El-Mandab as potential targets for terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab has publicly made threats against resource extraction companies in Somalia, and they may turn their attention to offshore Oil and Gas exploration interests.
While some eastern Africa littoral states did not recognize the implications of Somali piracy to the economy and security of the region, offshore oil and gas discoveries have triggered states to step up provisions to ensure the protection and effective exploitation of their natural resources.
There is also growing recognition that a secure maritime environment can bring increased prosperity to a country. How eastern Africa littoral countries address these threats and enable a supportive security environment will form an intrinsic part in the development and success of offshore oil and gas in the region.