by Roberto Pucciano CEO of http://www.anchoragegroup.org
A number of dangerous trends seem be coming together to signal a general decline in security for ocean-going traffic in the Gulf of Aden. Since the autumn of last year the international waterway has seen a number of violent incidents between criminal groups and commercial vessels, contending military units and suspected incidents of so-called friendly fire. Some of these, such as the hijacking of the Aris 13, an oil fuel tanker passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb straits, suggest an ominous return to the sort of instability of ten years ago, which cost the shipping industry billions of dollars to address in insurance costs and private security fees.
The eight Sri Lankan crew members of the Aris 13, a Comoros-flagged fuel tanker hijacked off the coast of Somalia, were recently released without a ransom being paid out according to the Sri Lankan government. It was the first successful incident of piracy off the East African nation’s coast since 2012, after a major international naval effort to suppress the illegal industry gradually made life for the pirates more dangerous. Critics pointed out that the Greek owned Aris 13 left itself vulnerable to an attack by passing at slow speed through the Socotra Gap, a shortcut (which runs between between Ethiopia and the island of Socotra in Yemen) used by ships seeking to save time and money.
Oceans Beyond Piracy, a not-for-profit organisation, warned that the conditions which allowed piracy to flourish in Somalia had ultimately not changed, and said it had seen an increase in the number of attempted attacks in 2016, as well as the diversification of Somali coastal crime syndicates into people trafficking and smuggling. Fears that piracy was making an opportunistic return to Somalia seemed confirmed shortly afterwards when the ocean going dhow Casayr II (operating out of Bosaso) was hijacked and then released near the notorious pirate nest of Eyl. African focused corporate security companies offering maritime monitoring services like Salama Fikira are again reminding commercial vessels of the extra risks to them unless they stay within the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor during passage through the Gulf of Aden.
The return of pirate attacks comes at a time when the Gulf itself is becoming increasingly dangerous due to the military conflict in Somalia’s near neighbour Yemen. As well as pirate attacks, the month of March saw also dozens of Somali refugees fleeing the Arab state killed in a suspected Saudi Apache helicopter ‘friendly fire’ attack in the strategic Bab el-Mandeb waterway. That incident in turn followed a series of naval clashes in the autumn of last year, which saw an Emirati vessel hit, killing two crew, as well as two US navy ships come under anti-ship missile fire from Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Subsequently the US destroyed several Houthi-controlled radar sites inside Yemen and under Donald Trump it continues to strongly back the Saudi coalition fighting the Shia Houthi rebellion against the Arab country’s internationally recognised government.
Instability in the two countries most abutting the Gulf of Aden is extremely worrying for international security experts as the waterway is part of the important Suez Canal shipping route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean. Tens of thousands of ships use the route every year and it represents a potential choke-point similar to the Straits of Malacca in Southeast Asia to naval tacticians and armed non-state actors alike. The EU’s Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) estimates that between 12.5% and 20% of global trade passes through the Gulf of Aden every year. That makes disruption of the trade route via piracy, terrorism or warfare extremely costly to the global economy and explains why the great powers agreed to each commit naval task forces to suppress the growth of the Somali piracy industry when it became a serious problem starting about a decade ago.
The situation is now complicated by global politics however; the war in Yemen has cut off a traditional escape route for Somali migrants heading to the Middle East for work, and has reversed the refugee flow between Yemen and the conflict-wracked Horn of Africa. This has proved a boon to the smuggling and people trafficking networks which operate in the region, and also engage in opportunistic acts of piracy. The war in Yemen has also brought an unspecified amount of Iranian gunrunning for Yemen’s Houthi rebels to the Gulf of Aden. The rebels have also used military equipment acquired from units of the Yemeni armed forces who are allied with them to attack targets out to sea, such as the missile launches against the USS Mason and the USS Nitze. The overlapping effects of state and non-state conflict in the Gulf may be starting to make the region a risky proposition for ordinary commercial shipping.