India’s pirate catch, a drop in the ocean - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 18 March 2011

India’s pirate catch, a drop in the ocean

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Mar 11

In 17th century London, shipping merchants gathered at Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House to pool money for underwriting the risks faced by trading galleons that sailed into pirate-infested waters like the Caribbean Sea. Today, some 300 years later, Lloyds --- now housed in an ultra-modern building in the same area --- is witnessing a dramatic resurgence of the marine insurance business through which it has become one of the world’s biggest insurers. Over the last three years modern-day pirates, operating largely from war-torn Somalia and island hideouts around the Strait of Malacca, have hijacked 174 ships, most of them cargo vessels, earning an estimated US $60 million in ransom annually. The International Maritime Organization says that 30 vessels and 685 crewmen are currently held along the Somali coast.

The pirates follow a simple modus operandi. Operating from a “mother ship”, usually a captured cargo vessel that can remain at sea for extended periods and sail as far as India’s western coast, they are alerted to vulnerable vessels by watchers on the Somali coastline who talk to them over satellite phones. Having identified their target, a boarding party of young Somalis, armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers and equipped with grappling hooks, approaches the unarmed cargo vessel in a small, fast-moving skiff that is powered by outboard motors. The pirates, usually high from chewing the popular Somali intoxicant, khat, compete to board the target vessel. The first man to scale the side of the vessel with his grappling hook is rewarded, usually with a car.

The captured vessel, its crew hostage, is sailed to the Somali coast, where the pirates are in cahoots with the radical, Al Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab militia that controls much of Somalia. The ransom paid by insurance companies for the release of vessel and crewmen is shared between the pirates, Al-Shabaab and local officials. There is concern that this ransom money indirectly bankrolls Al Qaeda.

Little has been achieved by patrolling the waters around the Horn of Africa by warships from the European Union Naval Force (EUNF), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a US-led coalition, and by several navies that operate independently, including those of Russia, China and India. Indian naval warships have carried out anti piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since October 2008, escorting some 1500 ships. But with cargo vessels reluctant to adhere to the irksome rules of convoying, in which naval warships escort groups of freighters through the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) --- a piracy prone, 500-nautical mile stretch at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden ---- pirates are hardly short of prey.

Now, according to The Times newspaper, Lloyd’s is leading an initiative in which insurance companies will bankroll a private fleet of 18 armed patrol boats to protect shipping around the Gulf of Aden. Called the Convoy Escort Programme (CEP), this is reportedly being supported by the shipping industry, including the Baltic and International Maritime Council (Bimco), as well as by the governments of UK and the USA.

India has been more successful in patrolling its coastal waters, particularly around the Lakshadweep Islands, where the Indian Navy launched Operation Island Watch last November. After capturing a pirate ship in January and another in February, the navy achieved its most significant success on 12th March, when a naval task force captured a pirate mother vessel, along with 61 pirates.

But there remains concern, as Defence Minister AK Antony told parliament on 14th March, that piracy is moving from the Somalian coast towards the Indian coastline. The reason for this is the bottleneck between India’s Lakshadweep Islands and the Maldives, into which all vessels transiting between West Asia and South East Asia are funnelled. For the pirates, the predictable flow of oil tankers and cargo vessels through this maritime superhighway provides attractive pickings.

The MoD’s annual report, which was tabled in parliament on Wednesday, notes, “The presence of Somali pirates in the waters around our western island territories has been an unwelcome development which requires heightened vigil… The linkages between terrorists based in Somalia and transnational organized crime is also a cause of major concern globally.”

While the MoD focuses on security, the Ministry of Shipping is concerned at the adverse impact on India’s sea trade. Insurance rates to and from India’s west coast were hiked 300% in mid-December after “war risk premium” was extended from the mid-Arabian Sea (longitude 65 degrees East) to the entire Indian west coast. The government hopes to ease insurance rates by delivering greater security around its own patch of the Arabian Sea, but has concluded that it will take a United Nations-led operation to tackle piracy holistically, especially the instability in Somalia that breeds piracy and provides safe havens to the pirate groups.

The MoD’s annual report states, “India is in favour of strengthening multilateral cooperation under a UN framework to meet the complex challenges of maritime security.”


  1. Well, I do not see why the world navies are treating the symptoms while the real problem is Somalia. If that country is brought to accountability, piracy will stop. Just like Pakistan and terrorism.

  2. Ajai sahab!!! thanx for touching a hot topic...sometime ago the russinas have caught the pirates and ruthlessly burnt the pirates along with their vessels..i have suspicion that ISI may be passing info on ships with indian sailors and india bound ships to the pirates thro' its network in somalia and links with its self created demon Al-Qaeda...thereby pakis can choke supplies to India and make shipping to India a costly you have any statistics up till now the number of piracies on the GA area by somali pirates involving indian ships ,sailors,pakistani ships and pakistanis ,chinese ships and chinese?By seeing the trend we can predict its paki sponsered terrorism on high seas.

  3. i hear the financial costs of maintaining a task force are $1 billion anually. i may be wrong but i receieved the info from a credible source...

    on side note.. how does india handle the pirates she captures?

  4. Ancient pirates were loaded and dumped in to the oceans. Remnants among them formed English economy.

  5. ^^^and Australian too !! LOL

  6. From Pirates of the Caribbean to the Pirates of Somalia, it seems the world has stayed the same :)

  7. There should be a stable government in Somalia before the piracy can be checked from its roots. Unless that is done no matter how many armed men you put on boats and how many ships you put in patrolling the waters, it will not make a difference.
    Rather than dealing the problem at the root , the world governments are trying to minimize the symptoms.

  8. the better thing to do is spare the lives of the pirates, bring them to india and train them into targetting pakistani vessels and provide them with info about pakistani shipping and do the same as what they have done to India.

  9. I see a simple solution to the problem, instead of having an enormous fleet protecting the entire shipping lane, how about deploying those ships as a naval blockade on somalia only allowing unarmed ships to come out of it, the ships coulc be positioned outside somalis exclusive economic zone and check the ships coming and going to somalia

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