The Indian Ocean: Too much change, too soon?

At a time of increasing activity by Somali pirates, it is perhaps a good time to ask if our risk assessments of the situation in the Indian Ocean are fit for purpose.
Gerry Northwood is COO of MAST, the leading maritime security company, and a former Royal Navy officer experienced in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations.
MAST recently commented on the Joint War Risk Committee decision to move the eastern boundary of the High Risk Area (HRA) to 65 degrees East, saying the following:
“We are apprehensive about the JWC’s decision to reduce the insurance HRA in the western Indian Ocean but welcome their caution in only reducing the eastern boundary. This ensures the HRA is still broadly aligned to the UKMTO reporting area and sends a clear message that all voyages by commercial shipping through the Indian Ocean should be comprehensively risk assessed. 
“The decision recognises our concerns that the Somalis are continuing to mount speculative approaches by armed skiffs in the GOA, and that the recent attack on an Iranian Dhow was conducted a long way offshore outside the Somali EEZ. This demonstrates that they have the reach and intent to mount pirate action groups (PAGs) deep into the Indian Ocean shipping lanes.
 “Now is not the time to be relaxing the Indian Ocean security posture”.
It is very clear that the JWC has given this decision careful consideration and have, in our view, wisely avoided the temptation to follow the lead set by the Contact Group to reduce the insurance HRA to the same coordinates applied to the new BIMCO BMP 4 HRA.
Nevertheless, the eastern boundary has been reduced at the very time that the Somalis are actively demonstrating that they have retained the capability to operate over 200 nautical miles offshore.
The recent capture (and then loss) of the Iranian fishing vessel needs to be seen as much for what it could have been as for what it turned out to be. Instead of an Iranian dhow, the captured vessel could just as easily been an unwary commercial vessel transiting the Somali Basin.
Given my first hand experience of Somali pirates and their methods from my time in EUNAVFOR, and  leading a UK Royal Navy Task Group dedicated to disrupting their operations, the geographical co-ordinates of the attack on the Iranian dhow come as no surprise.
One of the notable assessments of Somali pirate capability made during our patrols off the Somali coast was that no matter how closely their activities were watched, they seemed to have the ability to generate dhow mother vessels whenever they wanted to.
Clear evidence of this was that the five or so PAGs that were intercepted in various parts of the Indian Ocean by maritime forces in January 2012 were not spotted leaving the Somali coast by any of the naval patrols then in place. In fact, while one set of watched dhows was being prepared for operations, numerous other pirate action groups had successfully made unseen break outs into the wider Indian Ocean. In some ways, we should not be surprised by this. The Somali eastern coast is 1,000 miles long and therefore a vast area to police, with the areas close to the Horn of Africa often crowded with large numbers of trading and fishing dhows. Any one of these has the potential to be pressed or purchased into piracy service.
Sadly, all indications from military assessments that Somali piracy has been suppressed, not eradicated, are coming true.
Threat is a function of capability and intent. In the case of the Somalis, they have demonstrated that they still have the capability. It only now remains for them to shift recent activity targeting Iranian and Thai fishing vessels in the Somali Basin into targeted activity against commercial vessels. Yes, even then, the risk of being captured by Somalis is admittedly small, but the impact on those who are is significant. Even today, there are ship owners and managers who are still living with the fall out from having their vessels captured 5 years ago.
Somalis may not live in a well governed State. But they are well connected, internally and externally with the wider world. When destroying their stores on the beaches was discussed at various international conferences, the Somalis were quick to move those stores inland to gain protection from the villages they were operating from. They will therefore have listened to the recent HRA dialogue with interest. They will be noting that there is much talk about reducing the number of naval units on patrol. In short, they are being sent all the right messages that the international community is relaxing its guard, and that their time will come again.

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