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Piracy and the High Risk Area

Written by David Rider, Editor 
December 18th 2015
Written by David Rider, Editor
On December 1st the East African High Risk Area (HRA) was redrawn* by the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia and other interested industry parties. The move was partly pragmatic and partly political. Littoral States in the region have spent the last few years pointing to the lack of recent attacks off the Indian and Pakistani coasts as reason enough to re-draw the HRA map, and shipping associations in a number of countries now hope to see a fall in insurance rates. 

So far, however, there has been no word on this from the Joint War Committee who set those rates with the marine insurance companies. 

The new, smaller HRA is a better reflection of pirate capability in the last couple of years, thanks primarily to the work of naval forces who have done a much better job of interdicting suspected pirates before they get too far out in to blue water. Indeed, this change of naval tactics has had a major impact on the operational ability of pirate action groups (PAG) off Somalia, tipping the risk versus reward formula in favour of the navies and making the life of a pirate much harder. Equally, a greater adherence to Best Management Practice 4 (BMP4) by vessels and the use of armed security teams has done a huge amount to mitigate against the threat of attack. 

In the face of this, many former pirate commanders have looked to other ways to 'earn' a living, such as gun running and drug smuggling ashore. After all, they're only pirates when they're on the water; the rest of the time, they're simply common criminals. The same has been true of the pirate investors, who would regularly sink sums of £50,000 into pirate gangs. 

The security world has spent many months warning that the shipping industry risks becoming complacent with the situation, and a number of larger shipping firms have discussed doing away with armed guards altogether, even though the costs have fallen dramatically in recent years. 

Although we can offer you no official comment from the military, we know that privately, they are not keen on this idea. Piracy, they continue to state, has been suppressed, not beaten. While their Somali-based intelligence often passes on information on PAGs that put out to sea, they're not infallible, and it only takes one success to change things.

This was reinforced on November 22nd, when the Iranian dhow, Muhammadi, was hijacked well outside the Somali EEZ following a number of reports from the region of armed men sighted in skiffs. The vessel and its 15 crew were shadowed by a Combined Task Force warship en route back to Somalia, but no action was taken against it. Media reports then stated that on the 29th of November, the crew fought with their pirate captors, killing several in the process, and managed to free the dhow. Reports further suggested that several crew may have lost their lives in the incident, but there have been no additional reports to date. 

The hijacking was just one of several incidents involving dhows in 2015, with three confirmed hijackings of fishing dhows. Illegal fishing is often cited as the root cause of the issue (as though that in any way excuses the act of piracy), but rather than confiscate the catch, scuttle the vessel or send it home, they are held and ransomed. Not really the act of fishermen. However, regardless of cause and blame, the fact remains that pirates are still active in the waters off Somalia and we would all do well to remember that. 

Under-reporting and a shift by agencies to offering maritime advisories rather than investigating incidents, combined with the fact that vessels under 500GT aren't registered with the IMO and fishing fleets don't check in with UKMTO all mean that we still do not have full domain awareness in the region. Yes, piracy has largely been suppressed, but we need to remain vigilant. If pirates continue to take dhows without resistance, there is every chance that they will turn their attention to bigger prizes and try their luck with the merchant marine once again.

* The High Risk Area is now defined as being bounded by: 

   In the Red Sea: Latitude 15oN
   In the Gulf of Oman: Latitude 22oN
   Eastern limit:  Longitude 065oE
   Southern limit:  Latitude 5oS