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November 18th 2019
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Mixed Signals

Written by David Rider 
December 2nd 2016
Written by David Rider
The announcement last week that NATO’s mission in the Indian Ocean, Operation Ocean Shield, was coming to an end surprised few observers. Since 2009, NATO has maintained a limited presence in the Indian Ocean off Somalia, keeping an eye on merchant traffic and reassuring the region that piracy would be suppressed.

 

However, it was one of several similar missions, such as EUNAVFOR’s ongoing Operation Atalanta, the Combined Maritime Forces’ CTF-151 and the convoy escort programme through the Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden, which includes naval assets from China, Russia, Korea and India. Despite the huge size of the area to patrol, the navies have generally done an exceptional job in the last few years, particularly since EUNAVFOR began a more proactive approach to their mission and began interdicting vessels closer to the Somali coast itself; there are few things more off-putting to pirates than the sight of a warship just offshore.

 

The main problem with the NATO withdrawal, however, is the message it sends. On the face of it, it’s mission complete, we’re off to the Mediterranean and Black Sea. The reality is, unfortunately, that NATO is leaving precisely when the threat of piracy has poked its head over the parapet and new threats off the coast of Yemen have emerged.

 

October saw the first significant pirate attack against merchant shipping in several years, as well as at least one – if not two – attacks against merchant ships in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

 

The NATO withdrawal, then, sadly sends the wrong message to the international shipping community. Far from being safer, the region is, if anything, more dangerous now than it was six months ago. It’s a topic that PMSCs and security analysts will no doubt be keen to point out over the coming weeks, and will just as swiftly be decried for trying to drum up business. But the facts rather speak for themselves. Indeed, the news that EUNAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta is to be extended until 2018 has been warmly welcomed by a great many, including BIMCO, whose head of maritime security, Giles Noakes, told Seatrade Maritime: “There are very clear indications that the capability and opportunity remains for violent small boat or skiff attacks on merchant ships in the region.”

 

The concern is, of course, that pirates will now see the reduced naval presence as a sign that the shipping community has dropped its guard (no pun intended) and that attacks will follow. The situation ashore has not improved in a measurable way as far as economic opportunities are concerned, meaning the criminal gangs who made money from piracy are still plying their trade as land-based criminals. The third postponement of the Somali election illustrates the lack of stability at a governmental level and Islamic State are in danger of becoming established in Puntland. Their recent move into Qandala, one of Puntland’s port towns, illustrates the current, vulnerable situation. Should Al Shabaab or Daesh gain a foothold in Puntland, the pirate gangs will not be far behind them. Lawlessness is what they thrive on.

 

Hopefully, on the water, at least, EUNAVFOR and others will continue to ensure that pirates and would-be maritime terrorists don’t get their own way.