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Somali Pirates Target New Area, Adopt Tougher Tactics for Hijackings

Despite an increase in international naval patrols and heightened security on many ships, there's been an upsurge in Somali pirate attacks and hijackings. Are security measures faulty or are pirates adapting?

Jim Wilson, Middle East correspondent for Fairplay International Shipping News, has been following developments from his base in Dubai. He tells VOA that the ship hijacked Wednesday, a US-flagged, Danish-owned container vessel, was beyond the reach of any patrol vessels. The crew of the Maersk Alabama later retook the ship, according to US Defense Department officials.

Wilson says, "The Indian Ocean is just truly a vast sea space. If you're 300 nautical miles away, thenthere's not a lot of help from a warship. Not even an air asset, like a helicopter, is [of] much value at that distance."

The location of the hijacking is one of the reasons the pirates were successful.

"Now, the Gulf of Aden is where a lot of attacks have taken place. And that's the distance between Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula. This attack was not there. It's very significant," he says.

The pirates are changing tactics in part because of the Monsoon season in India. "What happens is basically the weather bounces off the Indian mountain ranges and hits this part of the world. That causes the water to get very choppy, very high swells, very windy and, especially in the Gulf of Aden, it makes it very dangerous for the pirates to attack vessels. However, if you go off the East African sea lanes…about 400 kilometers off the coast of Somalia, 250, 300, 400 nautical miles, the weather is a lot better. So, that's where this vessel was attacked," he says.

Besides better weather, the area offers pirates many rich targets. Wilson says, "The East African sea lanes are very, very heavily traveled with traffic. It's basically the route to go around Africa and also it's the route to go from the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan and India down to places like Mombasa in Kenya. So the pirates are switching their attention from the Gulf of Aden to the wider Indian Ocean."

What's more, the Gulf of Aden is now heavily patrolled by international naval vessels. Wilson says that for pirates to be successful in the Gulf they must be able to attack and board a vessel within 15 minutes. Otherwise, they risk an attack by a coalition warship or helicopter.

The Fairplay correspondent says it's also significant that a container ship was hijacked. "Container ships are fast and they have a high freeboard. That means they have a large height from the waterline to the deck. Now, the bigger the freeboard, the more difficult it is for pirates to get on board. And when those boats are moving and the vessels are bucking in the water, it's extremely difficult to get on board. The fact that they can do this on containers ships, which are fast, over 20 knots, and they have a high freeboard, indicates that the Somali pirate capability and competence are increasing dramatically," he says.

So, how do they get on board? Part of the blame may fall on the crews of the hijacked vessels. "They actually take them by surprise. One of the best and first lines of defense is looking out the window. In this day of satellites and GPS and all kinds of technological gizmos, there's no real substitute for the human…eyeball. Look out the window," he says.

Describing a Somali pirate attack, he says, "They come up fast and they'll do one of two things. Either they'll throw a grappling hook over (and) climb up. Or…they'll start shooting at you. Now, a lot of sailors will simply stop when they're confronted with pirates wielding AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs)."

"The pirates are getting increasingly vicious," he says, no longer just firing warning shots into the air. "I understand now that from naval sources and also security risk management sources that the pirates are now approaching vessels…targeting the bridges…deliberately shooting out the windows in an attempt to intimidate the crew. And they've now taken to the habit of firing rocket propelled grenades…directly into the accommodation bloc (crew quarters). The idea there is to start a fire. If a fire is started on board a ship it's exceptionally dangerous for the crew. So they have to stop the defense of the ship, which means deploying fire hoses…and put the fire out. When they do that, the pirates come on board."