Gerry Northwood is COO of MAST, the leading maritime security company, and a former Royal Navy counter-piracy commander
With a number of Suspicious Approaches being reported by MVs in the Gulf of Aden over the past week or two, including an approach this morning on a MAST transit, I thought it might be worth reprising this photograph (above) taken by the unarmed security advisors embarked in the MV Montecristo when she was captured by Somali pirates on 10 October 2011.
On examination, the picture tells us quite a story, and at many different levels. One of the most obvious observations is that the Somalis are surrounded by BMP 4 measures, from razorwire to firehoses. Off camera there are manikins and dummy weapons.
On this occasion, BMP 4 passive measures were no obstacle to this well organised pirate gang. They cleared Montecristo’s bridge of security advisors and crew with some well-aimed RPG fire through the bridge windows, and used that distraction for the boarding team to approach the vessel via the port quarter. They were able to easily negotiate double rolls of razor wire, climbing on board, approximately where the pirate wearing a blue cap and dark t-shirt is sat on a bollard at the top of the picture shown.
Not all of the people in this picture are pirates. Far right in the green t-shirt is the Mate of the Pakistani dhow that the pirates had used as a Mother Vessel. He claimed he was forced to join the pirates in the Montecristo and his engineering expertise was used in an attempt by the pirates to retain Bridge Control of the main engines. For a while they enjoyed some success in this endeavour, before the Montecristo crew in the Engine Room / Citadel were able to finally take control and retain control of the engines.
The picture shows that an unarmed security team can add value. Granted, an armed team would have stopped the pirates in their tracks before they got a chance to board. But the unarmed team, once safely in the Citadel with all other members of the crew, used their time and skills wisely. They were able to observe the pirates from the top of the funnel, hence the photograph. They placed a listening device on the funnel so that they could monitor and record pirate activity, all of which was useful in providing continuity of evidence and allowed the Italian authorities to make a successful prosecution case.
Most importantly though, they were able to support the Master in stiffening the resolve of his crew to stick it out in the Citadel. It was a tense time for all members of the crew during their 32 hours trapped in the there. The Somalis worked hard to find a way in and tried several means of forcing the entrance or through trying to set fire to the superstructure, to get the crew to panic and leave their sanctuary.
The importance of Citadel training, to ensure that crew members have the right mind set in the event of a pirate attack, should not be underestimated. In the event, the crew of the Montecristo rose to the occasion, and held out until naval forces were able to rescue them.
My final observation from the picture is that the pirate wearing the Manchester United “Rooney” shirt tells us that Somali Piracy is not just a Somali phenomenon. It is a reminder that they operate in a globalised world. The same globalised processes that allowed the pirate to obtain (and want) a Rooney shirt are those that financed and encouraged their expedition and ultimately the attack on the Montecristo.
And does BMP 4 work? Well, it depends. This case shows that even unarmed security – much derided in some quarters of the shipping industry – has its place. It shows us that the presence of passive BMP 4 measures drove the Somalis to be very well organised in the RPG attack, to enable them to get a good run at boarding the vessel over the port quarter or fantail. However, it is quite clear from this that passive measures on their own do not slow them down by much and that while Somalia remains a permissive environment for piracy, and while there is evidence that Somali skiffs are probing merchant vessels transiting the GOA, it is the armed element of BMP 4 that will actually make the difference.
For more information on the Montecristo incident:
Link to NATO report.
Link to Daily Telegraph
Link to Navy News