The seizure of the very large crude carrier (VLCC) Sirius Star (see previous article) unfortunately represents only the latest, though certainly the most high-profile, incidence of "piracy" in the Horn of Africa region. Indeed, as this article was going to press, numerous fresh incidents were being reported daily - notably the 30 November attack on the luxury cruise liner the M/S Nautica, carrying 656 passengers and 399 crew members. While the Nautica got away, largely by piling on speed and in effect outrunning the pirates (who reportedly got within 300m of the vessel and fired eight shots at it), the brazen nature of the attack emphasizes that virtual no civilian vessel is immune from attack.
While there has been a surge in piratical attacks in this region in recent months, the issue of armed attacks against shipping in these waters is of long-standing. Indeed, there were more than 700 piracy-style attacks recorded in the region in the 1993-2005 period. The seizure of such a large and modern vessel with such apparent ease and impunity has, however, seized the public imagination. At 330 metres long, the 318,000 dead weight tons Sirius Star is around the same length as an aircraft carrier. The ship cost around US$150 million to build and was only launched in April of this year. Even the (unsuccessful) 2005 attack on the luxury liner Seabourn Spirit, seizure of vessels carrying humanitarian aid and, more recently, the hijacking of a Ukrainian (though Belize registered) freighter, the MV Faina, carrying 33 Russian-made T-72 tanks in October this year, dramatic as these events were, did not make such an impression. This is despite the fact that, with regard to the latter incident, controversy arose over the actual destination of this arms shipment in question (whilst it was stated that the arms were destined for the Kenyan Army, there were allegations that they were actually meant for the government of independence-seeking South Sudan - a charge strenuously denied by the Kenyan government).
It is clear that there has been a significant surge in piracy attacks in recent weeks and months. According to the IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre, as of 22 November 2008, 92 attacks on vessels had taken place thus far in 2008 in the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia - 36 of which had resulted in vessel hijackings. On the same date pirates were holding 14 vessels and 268 crew hostage. The IMB noted that between 10 and 16 November alone there had been 11 attacks in the region with three vessels hijacked and a further four fired upon with the Director of the IMB observing, with some understatement, that "this criminal phenomenon is getting out of control." Citizens from many countries are involved: the crew of Sirius Star included Britons, Croats, Filipinos, Poles, and Saudis.
How do these pirates operate and what are the factors behind these attacks?