The Somali pirates have posed a threat to coastal shipping for years.
The capture of the Liberian-registered, Saudi-owned Sirius Star 450 miles off the Kenyan coast by Somali pirates, well outside the twelve-mile territorial limit, and their demand for a $25m ransom, creates a new challenge for the international intelligence community and is a development with potentially very wide ramifications.
The Somali pirates, operating in that lawless, failed state, have posed a threat to coastal shipping for years. Their usual tactics have involved a boarding, seizure of the vessel and then a demand for a ransom which invariably has been paid.
The result has been the deployment of various international warships to the area, and a rerouting of the vulnerable traffic to a safe distance from the dangerous waters in which the pirates operated, often in small boats.
In addition, the USS Winston Churchill interdicted a suspected mothership, and recently a French task force chased a gang of kidnappers into Somalia on helicopters to arrest the culprits and free their hostages.
The sinister aspect to the Sirius Star’s capture is that the supertanker, loaded with a cargo of two million barrels of Saudi crude oil valued at $100m, was heading not for the Suez Canal, but for the Cape of Good Hope and was far out in the ocean when the pirates struck, taking the crew of twenty-five hostage.
In this particular case the ship was too big to navigate Suez, but if other trade is to avoid the hazardous Gulf of Aden and opt for the longer route around Africa, thereby adding eight to twelve extra days to the voyage, there are considerable cost implications.
The task confronting the twelve warships in the area is impossibly large, to police 3.5 million square miles of ocean to find an estimated eleven motherships, one having been blown out of the water recently by the Indian Navy.
In contrast the Royal Navy, which arrested a group of a dozen pirates and delivered them to Kenya, has announced that it will not use deadly force unless fired on.
From an intelligence perspective, there are questions to be answered about the personalities and organizations involved, about the equipment used by the pirates and their method of disposing of their ransoms.
Until these answers can be found, all goods originating in the Middle and Far East, requiring the extra marine insurance, are going to cost a lot more. In the meantime the owners will have to consider placing armed guards on their ships, and the kidnap-and-ransom specialists will enjoy a boom in business.