The past week has seen a surprising surge in media reports of pirate activity in the Southern Red Sea/Bab el Mandeb Strait. What’s interesting, is that these reports are based on two incidents which could at best be described as possible sightings, given the distances involved between the potential pirates and the merchant ships. The article below is an illustration:
Strait Provides Latest Targets for Pirates as Freight and Oil Tankers Transit Through
Several Reports of Increased Activity as Shots Fired
EAST AFRICA – YEMEN – RED SEA – With pirate attack statistics at their lowest levels for six years, a fact attributed to the steep decline in incidents reported off Somalia, a worrying trend has started to emerge, this time in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, a key chokepoint in international shipping which connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and which is now witnessing an upsurge of reports of possible pirate activity. The Strait is a busy waterway for freight and more than 3.4 million barrels of oil per day pass through Bab el-Mandeb, which translates from the Arabic as ‘Gate of Tears’ due to it being 18 miles wide at its narrowest point and tricky to navigate. These factors combine to make the slow moving vessels vulnerable to would be pirates as well shipping accidents and terrorist attacks.
On Wednesday 26 March, the Master of an oil tanker reported being pursued by six skiffs in position 13’16’’N – 042’57’’E. The number of men on board the skiffs remain unknown but it was reported that they came within less than two miles of the unnamed tanker. This was the third of such incident to occur in recent weeks with a previous one occurring just days before on Sunday 23 March, when five skiffs, each carrying three people, approached a chemical tanker sailing at high speeds with a reported position of 13’18’’N – 042’52’’E.
On that occasion the Master of the (again unnamed) chemical tanker raised the alarm and activated the fire pumps as a deterrent. It was reported that two of the skiffs held ladders as they closed the distance to within a mile. The armed security team on board fired one rocket flare towards the skiffs and showed their weapons which resulted in the pursuers aborting their approach.
A week previously, on Monday 17 March, a vessel reported 6 suspicious skiffs with several people on board. The position of the small skiffs was close to the other reports (13’12’’N – 043’04’’E). The bridge crew and the armed security team monitored the skiffs approach up to as close as 350 metres to port. Once again the security personnel showed their weapons and the skiffs continued to follow the ship until the vessels security guards then fired a warning shot causing the skiffs to move away.
The situation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is made all the more worrisome with the possible sighting of what appeared to be 2 motherships around 12:11.6N – 046:02.1E, at the end of February but, with the coast of four states in such close proximity it is entirely feasible that the attackers may be occasionally shore based, perhaps using a larger vessel to refuel or land supplies.
The Strait provides an excellent potential hunting ground for pirates as virtually nothing can pass through the natural chokepoint unobserved with the operation of two corridors for inbound and outbound vessels each at just two miles wide. It is also likely that the naval teams, such as EU Navforare reticent about entering the Strait as this would likely mean extending their range of operations out of the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea with the potential political problems this could conceivably cause, something in which the Strait has a history, having been blockaded by Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war and reports that it is now patrolled regularly by Iranian warships.
Maritime Security News Note:
The reality, of course, is that there has been a just handful of possible sightings in this region in recent weeks. However, if we look at the historical data, it paints a different picture. The map below shows incidents in the BAM/SRS from March 1st 2013 to March 19th 2014. As you can see, there have been no actual attacks here in the past 12 months. The two orange attack markers towards the top of the map occurred on June 3rd and June 6th 2013.
(Image courtesy of OCEANUSLive.org)
This second map, showing activity between January 1st 2014 and March 29th shows a different picture.
As you can see, there have been around eight reported incidents in the region since the beginning of the year.
While there may well be a PAG operating here – the sightings of ladders would suggest it, unless it’s a new fishing technique – there hasn’t been an attack and the distances at which some of these incidents occur make piracy highly unlikely. UKMTO reports that during the incident on March 23rd, the suspicious skiffs came within “less than 1nm”, while the incident on March 27th (initially wrongly dated by MARLO as the 26th) saw an oil tanker “pursued” at a distance of 1.8nm. If pirates were ‘pursuing’ me at a constant range of 1nm, I don’t know that I’d be overly concerned.
Why are these two incidents getting so much attention? There have been far more credible sightings near the Gulf of Oman in recent weeks which have received far less coverage and arguably are far more likely.
While there may well be pirates operating in the BAM, until they start shooting, it’s all speculation. Coverage like this is certainly useful in terms of ensuring all crews are aware of the potential risks, but at the same time, if too many people cry wolf, shipping companies will stop believing more credible reports and leave themselves open to greater risk.