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Home > India > News > Columnists > B Raman

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If pirates can take a supertanker, so can al-Qaeda

November 19, 2008

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Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the US Navy's 5th Fleet, said on November 17 that the MV Sirius Star, a Saudi-owned oil super-tanker, was hijacked by Somali pirates off the Kenyan coast on November 15. The tanker, owned by Saudi oil company Aramco, is 330 meters (1,080 feet), about the length of an aircraft carrier. It can carry about two million barrels of oil. He stated that the Sirius Star was carrying crude at the time of the hijacking, but he did not know what quantity, but, according to some news agency reports, it was carrying crude worth $100 million (about Rs 500 crore). He also did not know where the ship was sailing from and where it was going with the crude.

According to a press release issued on November 17 by the 5th Fleet's Middle East headquarters in Bahrain, the super-tanker was overpowered and captured by the pirates more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa in Kenya. It was built in South Korea's Daewoo [Get Quote] shipping yards and was commissioned last March. It was categorised as a 'Very Large Crude Carrier' and had 318,000 dead weight tons.

According to the Associated Press, the NATO has three warships in the Gulf of Aden and the US Navy's 5th Fleet has its ships in the region. But the Sirius Star was seized far from their normal area of patrol. The Gulf of Aden, off Somalia, connects to the Red Sea, which in turn is linked to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal. The route is thousands of miles and many days shorter than going around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern tip of Africa.

AP has reported that the Sirius Star was anchored on November 18 close to Harardhere, the main pirates' den on the Somali coast, with a full load of two million barrels of oil. The pirates have managed to have the supertanker moved for nearly 450 nautical miles without being intercepted by any naval ship in the region. It is not yet known how many pirates were involved in the capture and how they managed to board the supertanker and take control of it without facing any resistance.

Since the beginning of this year there has been a worrisome increase in incidents of strategic piracy involving the capture of ships carrying food grains and one Ukrainian ship carrying about 50 tanks and allegedly also some chemicals. According to the Ukrainian authorities, who have not confirmed the presence of any chemicals, the tanks had been ordered by the Kenyan government, but US naval sources reportedly suspect that the tanks were actually meant for a dissident group in the Sudan. The Ukrainian ship is still under the control of the Somali pirates since September 25.

This year, there have so far been 81 incidents of piracy attack -- 58 in the Gulf of Aden, 12 off the East coast of Somalia and 11 off Tanzania. In 36 of these incidents, the pirates managed to hijack the ships. Twelve of these ships, with a total of 250 crew members, are still in the custody of the Somali pirates without a multi-naval force called the Combined Task Force 150 based in Djibouti, which has reportedly established a 960-km long safe corridor for commercial ships, being able to prevent incidents of piracy outside this corridor. Nor have the naval ships in the region been able to intervene and get the hijacked ships released.

Somalia itself, which is facing an insurgency by al Qaeda and pro-al Qaeda forces, is not in a position to act against the pirates. The only sporadic armed interventions have been from the security forces of northern Somalia's breakaway Puntland region. They have occasionally confronted the pirates. They freed a Panama-flagged cargo ship on October 14.

This is the first time the Somali pirates have seized a supertanker carrying crude and that too in an area far away from their normal zone of operation. Their intention in seizing a supertanker with such a large quantity of crude is not yet clear. Are they interested only in ransom as they were in the case of other ships seized in the past? Or do they also intend selling the crude to smugglers to make extra money? Do the pirates operating in this region have links with al Qaeda and pro-al Qaeda groups active in the Somalia region? Is there any danger of the pirates, acting jointly with the terrorists or at their instance, blowing up the supertanker in order to disrupt maritime trade passing through the region? These are questions to which answers are not yet available.

Scenarios of terrorists, acting with the support of pirates or on their own, seizing supertankers and blowing them up at or near important ports or in maritime choke points have been worrying maritime security experts since 9/11-- particularly since it came to notice that al Qaeda had contemplated such scenarios. It was to prevent such scenarios that the maritime security architecture in the Malacca Strait and the neighbouring areas was strengthened with the countries of the region, including India, and the US co-operating in the matter.

The bringing into force of such a maritime security architecture against pirates and terrorists in the seas to the west of India has not received adequate attention so far. India itself was remiss in this matter till recently. Only after the hijacking of a Japanese ship with a largely Indian crew by the Somali pirates that the Indian Navy decided to deploy one of its ships with helicopters in the region to protect Indian ships and foreign ships with a large Indian crew. The deployment of the ships of countries such as the US, France [Images], Russia [Images], Iran and India separately of each other has not had a deterrent effect. They have not demonstrated a capability for active intervention against successful pirates. Not even US naval ships.

Apart from the navies of the US and other NATO countries and Russia, the only other navies with a capability for operations in the seas far away from their base are those of India, Pakistan and Iran. Saudi Arabia's largely French-assisted navy has very little experience of operations in the high seas. No mechanism for maritime security in the region can be effective without the co-operation and participation of the Iranian Navy. The present state of non-relations between the US and Iran comes in the way of any participation by Iran.

The bulk of India's foreign trade and practically all its energy supplies transit through this region. So too the energy supplies of China, Japan [Images] and the ASEAN countries. Instead of leaving it to the US, India should take the initiative in bringing like-minded countries -- including Japan, China, the ASEAN countries, Pakistan and Iran -- together for working out an effective maritime security architecture. India should also examine how to associate the US, other NATO countries and Russia with this architecture despite any US reservations regarding the participation of Iran. The matter brooks no further delay.


B Raman



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