Piracy - Red Sea Attacks Mark Shift in Tactics

September 2011

Red Sea Piracy Map - CCI 0911

(From ICC Commercial Crime International of September 2011 and reproduced here with kind permission.)

A marked shift in pirate tactics during attacks primarily in the southern Red Sea is worrying observers and has led the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) to issue a new warning to ships transiting the area.

According to the IMB, the pirates in this area have taken to attacking vessels from multiple heavily armed skiffs that approach from several different directions at once. The tactic is apparently aimed at drawing fire from the armed guards now increasingly stationed aboard vessels, whilst having enough attacks points to increase the chances of success.

The IMB says vessels in the area around Assab (see map) have been simultaneously attacked by as many as 12 skiffs at once, though the average number is usually around five or six. The irony of this switch of tactics is that, at the moment, it seems it has yet to be perfected. Of the 28 vessels attacked in the southern Red Sea so far this year, only two have actually been boarded. Boarding was attempted in another 18 instances, and in a further eight the vessel was fired upon. The fact that no vessel has yet been hijacked is probably due to the assistance quickly rendered by international naval forces in the area, but the IMB points out that in some cases this is limited by the fact that the attacks take place in Yemen or Eritrean national waters.

“We are seeing many different vessel types being attacked using this new tactic, with ships carrying liquid and gas cargoes seemingly amongst the most popular. This is of particular concern given the large amount of random fire reported during the attacks. Of course, the tanks aboard these vessels are built to withstand these types of forces, but one lucky shot could be disastrous and the loss of life and pollution consequences would be devastating,” says IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan.

“Moreover, given the current lack of success at boarding vessels, it may not be long before the pressure from their paymasters to get results forces the pirates to start using more powerful weapons and press home their attacks,” he adds.

The IMB says that speculation continues as to the origin of the skiffs. The evidence suggests they are almost certainly manned by Somali pirates, but with no reports of mother ships in the vicinity, they may be operating from a nearby base. If this were Assab, they would probably be noticed. More likely, it is thought they may be hiding within the Jabal Zugar and/or Hanish al Kabir islands to the northeast (see map).

The southern Red Sea has witnessed pirate attacks before, mostly when the SW Monsoons force a switch from the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. But never on this level or with this degree of organisation and force. As a result, owners and managers with vessels in this area are advised to warn their crews to be especially vigilant.