Off the Somali coast, pirates, terrorists and Pakistan army mercenaries make a Molotov cocktail. The toll – 43 ships hijacked, over $ 80 million ransom in just under nine months. There are clear indications that sea piracy targeted at ships of some specific countries has become a new strategic depth doctrine for the Pakistani military establishment, says Policy Research Group (poreg)in a report posted on its website, www.poreg.com.
Majority of the pirates are Somalis with an occasional exception. Terrorists are mostly Islamists from Pakistan’s hinterland and lawless tribal lands with their affiliation to al Qaeda and Muridke (near Lahore) based Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT). The trend of army officers and soldiers joining the pirates is a new phenomenon. So is the shifting of base of some militant groups from Pakistan as a part of what appears as a deliberate strategy in view of heightened US pressure, Poreg report adds.
Pakistan’s angle came to light for the first time in April last year. Subsequent investigations have confirmed the nexus of Pakistanis with pirates. A Russian naval ship ‘Admiral Panteleyev’, during anti-piracy operations off the Somalia coast, apprehended ‘Shaheen-I’, which attacked a tanker, Buwai Bank, heading for Singapore.
Iran – registered Shaheen-I was the mother vessel of pirates. A large number of weapons, ammunition and equipment were reportedly recovered from it.
Investigations show that Shaheen -I was captured by Pakistani nationals in an operation akin to the way Pakistani navy seized an Indian fishing trawler (and anchored it in the Karachi harbour) for transporting militants and their weapons for the 26/11 attack on Mumbai in 2008.
Iranian crew – six in all, were held hostage on their own vessel by the pirates and their Pakistani friends who boarded it during night and commandeered it. 12 Pakistanis and 11 Somalis were involved in the ‘operation’. Luck ran out for them when Admiral Panteleyev entered the scene to rescue Buwai Bank, according to the website.
Security experts don’t rule out collaboration of Pakistani military mercenary-militant combine with the notorious underworld Don, Dawood Ibrahim, who is into smuggling on the high seas in a big way. The don’s gang still has considerable presence on the coastal belt.
A quick analysis of the development shows that the trend of Pak army officers and the militant groups joining the piracy is a dangerous prospect with far reaching implications. Firstly it poses a great threat to shipping particularly bulk cargo carriers and tankers. Secondly, it points to emergence of a ‘new targeted’ piracy to undermine and even disrupt the economic development of countries seen as ‘enemies’.
A close study of piracy off Somali coast highlights the dangers of the second threat in particular. Crude oil tankers and bulk carriers are the favourite targets of pirates and they have collected highest ransom from these relatively slow moving vessels with ‘expensive’ cargo.
Owners of a Philipino tanker, ‘Stolt Strenght’, had paid by far the highest ransom of US$ 25 million; the initial demand was for a modest US $ 5 million but as negotiations dragged on to 174 days ( 10 October 2008 to 25 April 2009) the ransom amount peaked.
Turkish tanker, ‘Karagol’, paid US$ 16 million following a 61- day seizure although the initial demand was only US $ 6 million. Chinese ships, ‘Di Xinghai’, ‘Tian U’ and ‘Delight’ (Hong Kong), paid US$ 4 million, US$ 1.2 million and US$ 2 million respectively.
With the induction of ‘Pak military-militant combine, the negotiating skills of pirates have exponentially improved, going by field reports. Till then, there was no set pattern or bench marks for ransom; it all depended on the negotiating skills of the parties concerned. The Somali pirates are not that highly educated and sophisticated; their approach had been to make a quick buck and ‘disappear’ into darkness. Not for them protracted negotiations are of any interest, the website points out.
The new ‘breed’ of Somali coast pirates have improved their techniques, upgraded their equipment and honed up negotiation skills. They are game for prolonged negotiations which attract media attention and thus place the ship owners and their governments under tremendous pressure to end the ordeal of the ‘hostages’.
Easy money syndrome appears to be luring more Pakistanis, who are accustomed to ‘high risk’ life style.
The year 2009 saw a phenomenal upswing in number of ships hijacked off Somalian coast. A total of 43 ships were hijacked; as many as eight of them were flying Panamanian flag, followed by three each with the flags of Bahama, Male and Antigua. Two carriers were with the Chinese flag and one of Hong Kong. Negotiations for their ‘release’ averaged from one day to 304-days.
While one of the container ships, flying American flag, freed itself after being seized on April 8, 2009, a French cargo ship was rescued by French Navy after a swift and surprise attack in the sea off Somalia.
The emerging security scene off Somalia coast with nexus between pirates, militants and trained Pakistan army men is of considerable concern to India which depends on energy imports. It is not possible to provide a ‘fool proof’ security on high seas even without the Pakistani angle to piracy.
India is in a unique position to take the initiative to checkmate the ‘sea villains’. As of now, ships of many countries are deployed off the Somali coast on anti-piracy operations but all of them work in isolation notwithstanding joint discussions. Mutual suspicion is what hinders coordination.
A command structure will bridge the gulf of suspicion and pave the way for coordinated drive against pirates. East African countries which are friendly with India, have invited deployment of Indian ships closer to their coast to thwart piracy. India has been positively responding to calls of African countries and also South-east Asian countries to police the sea lanes.
It is not clear whether the Indian leadership is fully ‘ready’ to lead the ‘command’. Also unclear is whether India can deploy enough funds and ships to make an effective contribution. There are occasions when New Delhi dithered in taking timely action and thus gifted precious lead time to the pirates. Whenever India acted decisively, results were quite encouraging.
So, an Indian initiative for a maritime conference on anti-piracy operations will be in order. The effort should be to work out a road-map for command structure and to put in place a legal framework for putting on trial the pirates caught in action. Also welcome will be a capability to pursue pirates into their own harbors and defeat them like the French did, Policy Research Group (Poreg) notes in its analysis.