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Published: August 7, 2009

By Cobus Classens, Managing Director, Pilgrims Africa

The current piracy threat in and around Nigeria and Somalia proffers significant risk to businesses, from ship owners to oil companies, working, or planning to work in the region. With the correct knowledge, planning and processes in place, this risk can be mitigated. Risk assessment and security expert Pilgrims Africa highlights the reality of the piracy threat and what practical actions can be taken by businesses operating in the area to protect their vessels and staff.

The global economic crisis, particularly the marked change in commodity prices, is likely to have a strong effect on sub-Saharan economies and will likely have an effect on criminality in the Niger Delta. Oil theft will continue in the region as militant groups need to raise funds for weapons in the face of offensives against them by the Nigerian security forces. Likewise, piracy along the coast of Nigeria remains notably high and could see an increase in the short term.

A recent intelligence report by Pilgrims Group reported pirate attacks on vessels off the Nigerian coast are going unreported and could approach those that take place off the coast of Somalia. Michael Howlett, divisional director of the International Maritime Bureau also stated that although approximately 40 attacks were reported in Nigerian waters in 2008, the actual figure was likely to be closer to between 150 and 200.

Despite the world’s nations patrolling dangerous waters with modern warships and air assets, pirate attacks continue un-abated. International law and regulations hamstring the effectiveness of naval forces and the size of the theatre of operations limits the impact of these patrols. Rather than fish for a pittance, simple fishing craft, now equipped with powerful outboard motors, serve their owners as platforms for piracy. Instead of the traditional view of a single menacing pirate vessel, these pirates operate in swarms of small open craft, sometimes from shore, often supported far out at sea by bigger vessels (often stolen trawlers). The smaller vessels carry limited fuel and no victuals, but are capable of speeds up to 50 knots on calm water. The pirates often hide amongst regular fishing fleets.

The pirates themselves are often untrained youths that understand they have a better than average chance of success. The window of opportunity for action from naval forces is extremely narrow; once pirates have targeted a vessel, friendly forces have a very small period of time in which to intervene. Once pirates have managed to board their target, friendly forces have to back off and are often not allowed to manoeuvre aggressively.

Pirate equipment and armament is rudimentary. Mostly small arms (AK47, RPD and PKM light machine guns) or the much over rated RPG7 - rocket propelled grenade launcher - are used. On few occasions a heavier calibre machine gun has been observed. Seldom does one see anything more sophisticated than a fishing radar, handheld GPS or off-the-shelf handheld radios.

Intelligence is often gleaned from inadvertent reporting by CNN and other news services. Targets are sometimes selected based on a cell phone call or sms from relatives or co-conspirators watching ports of departure. Most often pirates put to sea simply on the assumption that they will avail themselves of a target of opportunity.

Pirate tactics are based not so much on ability as on fear and helplessness of their intended victims. Intercepting a slower moving cargo vessel the swarm of smaller vessels (often no more than 4 or six) will approach quickly. They make contact through the international channel 16 marine VHF radio frequency, ordering the crew to stop immediately or face escalated consequences when captured after a chase. They often direct small-arms fire at bridge windows and radar domes and in most cases brandish the infamous RPG7. Crews unfamiliar with the capabilities of the pirates and their weapons often capitulate or follow corporate standing instructions and heave to. This allows the pirates to board by means of hook-and-rope methods or by coercing the crew into actually assisting them. Once on-board they subdue the crew and force them to sail towards land. Captured vessels are often anchored near small remote ports where these pirates are based.

Negotiations are usually opened by using the vessel’s bridge mounted satellite communications to contact ship owners directly, cellular numbers are exchanged and terms are made known. More often than not ship owners will receive many offers of mediation - navigating these murky interlopers can prove to be as difficult as negotiating with the pirates themselves. In almost every hijacking the pirates proved to be open for negotiations. Often the initial ransom demands will be exorbitant; however ransom fees have been known to be slashed through negotiations by as much as 90%. Negotiations sometimes drag on for months, crews are expected to live on board on own means. Captured ships are looted and every conceivable object pried loose and carted away, this has included big generators and communications equipment.

Resolutions to hijacking situations are often chaotic and disorganised, in one case millions of dollars were offered and delivered, only to see pirate factions fight one another for a share of the loot. In other cases vessels were released as agreed and sailed towards freedom only to be stormed and hijacked by a rival faction of pirates and held once more.

Countering The Threat

Training of crews
Effective training programs are presented at various training institutions. These focus on preparing the crews of ships on how to deal with a hijacking situation. Subjects taught covers preparation, resistance, co-operation, negotiation and survival. These programs have value in that they prepare crews for the reality of a piracy incident. However, they are often negated by corporate standing instructions of compliance and capitulation. These instructions are understandable in cases of expensive vessels, especially those carrying flammable or explosive cargos. However statistics show that vessels who offer strong resistance have an excellent chance of escaping capture.

Preparation of Vessels
Vessels are built out of steel. If the vessel is properly hardened with measures such as safety cells, lockable doors, retractable stairs and ladders, bulletproof glass, razor-wire and electric fencing, a ship can be made almost impregnable. Even if boarded, with anchors dropped and secured and the crew safely locked in, these vessels could be no prize at all to pirates, who will be forced to vacate in the face of approaching naval forces.

Safety Cells
Hidden and securely built inside the vessel, with enough supplies, communications and even weapons, safety cells have saved crews of stationary oil platforms in the face of boarding militants in the Nigerian Delta. Sophisticated versions have their own oxygen filters and essential ships’ systems such as anchor winches, steering and fire-fighting systems can be controlled from inside.

Communications and Electronic Tracking Systems
Reliable communications and status and position monitoring can enable the crew to report problems quickly, thereby summoning help and keeping the off-ship watchers informed on how the situation develops. Hidden satellite communications can enable the crew to continue reporting even if locked inside a safety cell. Tracking systems can be subscribed to as part of an emergency response service, with escorting vessels reacting to any threat.

Safe route planning
By co-ordinating with friendly naval forces, vessels can be provided with advice and updated information on which areas are under threat. By planning routes to avoid the more obvious danger zones, by making use of escorting vessels and by sailing at night without lights, vessels have a good chance of avoiding detection by pirates.

Non-lethal deterrence measures
Devices such as the LRAD, or long range acoustic device, had a positive impact when they were initially used. However, these devices are essentially non-lethal, and easily defeated by an informed enemy. Somali pirates know to use ear protection and scoff at the LRAD. Deploying the LRAD Pilgrims found its value more in the communications ability it provides by way of the built-in microphone and MP3 capability; the sound of gunfire broadcast over an LRAD sounds pretty convincing.

Fire Fighting Pumps and Hoses
Vessels are normally equipped with powerful pumps and hoses for fire fighting. With a few modifications these can become powerful tools to repel boarders with. A large ship’s fire pumps can deliver several thousand litres of water or foam per second; they can blow a person off the side of a vessel and can literally swamp and sink a small pirate vessel in seconds. Pilgrims has conducted tests to spray irritants and dye at pirate vessels. A more radical solution is to pump concentrated streams of fuel and threaten pirate vessels with fire.

Withstanding small-arms fire
Small-arms fire will not penetrate good quality steel plate, the building material of steel ships. Small-arms fire has almost NO chance of setting fire to a ship, even with flammable cargo. Most vessels can be steered and sailed from elsewhere than the bridge, normally from below the waterline and surrounded by tons of steel. When fired upon, crews should vacate the bridge in orderly fashion, maintain control of the vessel from the alternative steering position and not be intimidated by gunfire. Good training and preparation will further minimise the impact of small arms fire.

Defeating the RPG7
The RPG7 was originally developed in Russia to be a cheap, mass produced infantry weapon capable of defeating armoured vehicles. It functions on the cone-shaped propelled charge, stand-off principle. As has been proven in Iraq and during the South African conflict, if the warhead can be induced to detonate before actually making contact with the outer layer of the target, the resulting explosion loses most of its destructive power. The resulting shrapnel has little direction and velocity, proving to be ineffective even against personnel nearby. Premature detonation can easily be achieved by chicken wire cages or by dangling chain screens. CO2 Suppression systems such as fitted by the South African military to combat vehicles will further reduce the effectiveness of an RPG7. Double or triple hulled vessels need not fear the RPG7 at all. Diesel (Automotive Gas Oil) and crude oil itself is not very flammable, neither is Liquid Natural Gas or LNG. Once the largely false threat presented by this weapon is understood, it can be defeated and its effects minimised.

Modern vessels are often able to make 30 to 25 knots, which is almost as fast as the average pirate skiff. By increasing speed to max turns, turning into an oncoming sea and by manoeuvring aggressively, boarding can be made impossible. If other repelling measures are employed at the same time, it will take a very determined pirate to make his way onboard eventually. There are several examples of vessels, even large passenger liners, who shook off pirate pursuit by increasing speed and making for deeper waters.

Armed Security Teams
Placing armed security teams, preferably ex-forces personnel with maritime experience and an effective array of firearms can be the most successful form of protective options available. Snipers onboard a large vessel, equipped with good quality rifles and sighting systems, can disable oncoming pirate vessels by firing controlled rounds into their motors long before they themselves come into range. The judicious deployment of good men with automatic weapons and perhaps hand grenades will without exception deter and defeat a pirate attack.

Escorting Vessels and Aircraft
Any vessel purporting to provide security escorts to merchant shipping need be a military type vessel, capable of sailing and manoeuvring at 35knots plus. It has to be hardened, with military grade fire suppression and systems redundancy. It has to be armed, preferably with radar directed weapons on stabilised platforms. Ideally it should carry an armed helicopter. It should be professionally crewed and should be given clear rules of engagement and clear legal authority to execute its task. It should war-game possible scenarios with the vessel(s) being escorted and it should understand that it will be going up against multiple, fast moving adversaries, perhaps at night.

In conclusion, piracy is a real and current threat to all ship owners, oil companies, and any businesses shipping cargo in dangerous waters such as off Nigeria and Somalia. Planning, preparation and knowledge is the key to both surviving and ensuring the protection of assets. By consulting a professional risk management company with local knowledge and experience, effective procedures can be put in place and the risk of piracy can be greatly mitigated. Taking these cost effective steps will ensuring peace of mind for crews and business owners and ultimately may prevent substantial financial or human losses.

Pilgrims Africa is part of UK based Pilgrims Group Ltd. Pilgrims provides risk management, security and service support operations across the world’s most hostile environments, protecting businesses, individuals and the media in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Algeria. Pilgrims’ personnel include ex-Special Forces and Intelligence Corps operatives; specialist services include UK and International Operations and Consultancy, Manned Guarding, Intelligence and Information Services, Communications, Training, Equipment provision and Technical Support. Cobus Classens is Managing Director of Pilgrims Africa, providing specialised, knowledgeable risk and security services for businesses operating across the African Continent.