Bold, or rash?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am


To understand the tactics of the Somali pirates plaguing key shipping routes to Asia, and why they are so difficult to combat, think of them as guerilla warriors. In classic style, the successful hijacking of the Hong Kong-managed chemical carrier Fairchem Bogey this month revealed the pirate-guerillas' ability to constantly adapt, find a target's weaknesses and exploit them to the fullest.

The Fairchem Bogey was taken at anchor off the busy port of Salalah within Oman's territorial waters. Never had the pirates moved so far north and never before had they struck a ship at anchor. Professionally managed by the prominent Hong Kong firm Anglo-Eastern Ship Management, the Fairchem Bogey had armed guards on board but discharged them at Muscat to get them off the vessel before offloading its cargo, as per local regulations.

Instead of using their usual fibreglass skiffs, the pirates launched themselves from a dhow carrying cattle - a vessel indistinguishable from thousands plying the Omani coast.

The vast international naval effort - permanent Nato and US-led patrols through the Gulf of Aden and convoy escorts by nations including China, Russia and Japan - was essentially powerless given the location and audacity of the raid.

The ship and its 21 crew are now being held at a lair on the Somali coast as talks to free them continue.

The raid has sent shivers down the spine of the regional shipping communities. With international naval efforts increasingly co-ordinated, merchant captains better prepared and the use of armed guards increasingly common, there had been a growing sense that pirates were at last finding life considerably tougher. Naval officials say pirates are having to stage more attempts to make each successful attack - a far cry from the early days when they struck in the Gulf of Aden choke-point at will.

'All the hard work and effort that has gone into protecting ourselves against piracy in the last few years, and it feels like we are back to square one,' said one Hong Kong shipping executive. 'The pirates are always one step ahead. If they are now able to strike ports at will, where will it end?'

Certainly the Fairchem Bogey attack raises some dark questions. Did the pirates have an inside track on Salalah port operations? Do they have knowledge of local regulations and anchoring arrangements? If they are working with local sources in Arabian Sea ports, it would mark a significant development.

But amid the gloom, there may be some positives. It could be said that the raid inside Salalah port highlighted the pirates' mounting desperation and is the type of attack that can't be sustained. It is possibly easier to secure ports than ships on the high seas. Significantly, too, attacks within a nation's territorial waters become armed robbery - something that may prove easier to enforce and prosecute than the jurisdictional nightmare that is modern piracy.

Could it be, then, that in their increasing range and audacity, the pirates are sowing the seeds of their own destruction? Any optimism that they might be needs to be tempered with the fact that the ultimate answer to the scourge of piracy is fixing the failed state of Somalia - no easy task.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.