The Piracy Problem

Secure Waters CEO Corey Ranslem discusses intelligence and countermeasures for pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden


This is another thing that has fed into the pirates’ evolution. From our experience, there have always been random attacks in the Gulf of Aden. There was no pattern we could figure out, other than we knew they liked certain types of vessels. But when they got the Ukrainian ship and the Saudi tanker, it appeared to us that they were becoming less and less random. We believe that the Sirius Star [the Saudia Arabia-flagged supertanker which was captured on Nov. 15, 2008] was targeted by the pirates, and we believe that because the hijacking was done so far outside their normal zone. There is speculation that the pirates were operating with an international network to be able to target this vessel.

Are the numbers of attacks and hijackings of sea vessels rising?

According to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau, there were 263 total attacks for all of 2007. In the first half of 2008, there were 114 attacks reported by the International Maritime Bureau, but in the first half of 2007, there were 126, so if you just look at the numbers, they are actually down slightly. Of course, these are numbers for the ones reported to the bureau. What we’ve figured is that maybe only 25 to 30 percent of all pirate attacks are actually reported to International Maritime Bureau.

I get a sense that other than what we’ve seen in the Gulf of Aden, most pirates are simply opportunistic robbers. Is that right?

What is classified as piracy is anytime a ship is boarded at sea for robbery or hostage taking. Basically everywhere else in the world, the pirates are simply petty thieves and robbers who are out for money or items of high value that they can sell. But we have seen escalation of violence in other areas of the world like we’ve seen in the Gulf of Aden. They are not as scared of the crews anymore; they know the crews are generally unarmed.

Then what is the answer – putting armed teams and weapons aboard a ship?

We approach it from a different view. I’m not a big advocate of putting armed people on every one of the ships that goes through the Gulf of Aden. It is expensive and it doesn’t match the statistical data. We tell our clients, let’s take a look at the threats, the routes, the readiness of the crew, even the ship’s ability to outrun the pirates. One of the things we’ve seen is that the majority of the pirates are attacking during daylight hours. I’d say that 95 percent of the attacks are during daylight. Route and trip planning can mean going through these areas at night. That might sound crazy at first, but it is much harder for pirates to identify and board these vessels at night.

We look at other things, like whether the ship has fire hoses to potentially repel pirates? We ask if you can pull the lifelines up so pirates don’t have a way to get their way aboard.

There are also less-than-lethal technologies. There is a sound device that puts out a pulse blast of sound which can temporarily incapitate the pirates. But this isn’t foolproof. They are known to use multiple vessels, sometimes as many as five vessels, and a single one of these sound devices can only point in one direction. There are also vision impairing devices with essentially what are lasers, but anything you have to aim, the sea conditions could make this difficult to use. I have also heard of the availability of some type of electric pulse devices that can stun attackers.

Arming vessels is usually one of the last recommendations. Arming your own crew takes a good deal of training. It’s not impossible to do, but it takes an awful lot of training.

The other option is to put armed teams aboard ships. If you put an armed team aboard where the flagged state [the vessels country of origin] doesn’t allow people to have weapons, then you are breaking the law of that country. If we put aboard a team which then shoots and kills a pirate, we could potentially be tried for murder or manslaughter. It makes it really interesting to put armed teams aboard; you really have to understand the laws. Additionally, it’s not logistically easy to get a team onboard ships.

What I definitely would not recommend is adding unarmed security. Unarmed security on a vessel adds no more readiness than a general crew.

Is that actually being done?

I didn’t think that was happening until a chemical tanker was hijacked. Pirates hijacked the vessel and there were reports of an unarmed British security team aboard. When the pirates boarded, they were said to have jumped overboard into the water. That team was lucky that there was a Dutch naval vessel nearby to rescue them.