"The safest ships of all are flying the Russian flag: armed guards aboard them simply blow pirate boats out of the water and leave any survivors to drown. Attacks on Russian vessels have abruptly ceased."
Spirit of Adventure (click for larger view)
Michael Nicholson, who was on board the Spirit of Adventure as it was chased by pirates last month, explains why attacks have become so common.
By Michael Nicholson
It reads like advertising copy for an upmarket cruise brochure. A formal black-tie dinner on the aft deck under the stars, a soft warm breeze wafting off the Indian Ocean, the Comoros behind us, Zanzibar ahead, lobster thermidor
and chilled sancerre
on the table.
Then: "PAPA-PAPA", the captain's familiar voice over the Tannoy. He repeats the code name again followed by "All crews to emergency stations, all crews to emergency stations." There is urgency in his voice. This is no practice drill. This is the real thing.
The 320 elderly passengers aboard the Spirit of Adventure, most of them Britons, are under attack by Somali pirates.
We file obediently to the lower lounge and the doors are locked from the inside. There is no panic. But then most of us with silver hair have been in one kind of war or other.
That same night, Wednesday January 12, a large container ship was attacked and boarded only 15 miles away. It and its crew are now held by pirates until a substantial ransom is paid. As of this month, some 40 ships are in their hands and more than 800 crew held captive in these seas south of the Gulf of Aden.
If you want to see where they are, simply click on Google Earth. According to Chatham House, there have been more than 600 reported attacks on ships in the past four years, doing untold damage to the economics of already chronically poor states along the East African seaboard.
When we finally ended our holiday in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, the port agent told me that ours was the only cruise ship to have berthed there in a year. Containers were piled high in this once busy harbour waiting for any cargo ship brave enough to run the gauntlet and carry them away. There is the same congestion in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For the first time, the pirates have crossed the equator and threaten ports as far south as Beira in Mozambique. This entire coast could be condemned to quarantine.
According to figures released last month, piracy is now costing world trade £10 billion a year. Insurance premiums have trebled, with many insurers refusing cover to ships that go anywhere near the piracy lanes. This means ships must be re-routed, either through the Panama Canal – too narrow for the largest vessels – or around the Cape.
A group of ship owners representing 75 per cent of the world's tanker and container fleets has called on the United Nations to authorise a naval blockade of Somalia and has even demanded that a multinational force invade the country to destroy pirate bases.
But given Somalia's 2,000-mile coastline, a sea blockade is not practical; and after the fiasco of "Black Hawk Down", the foolhardy attempt by United States forces to capture a Somali warlord in Mogadishu in 1993, who would relish an invasion?
The multinational Task Force 150, to which some 30 navies contribute on a rota basis, has done little to stop the pirates. At any one time there could be a dozen ships on patrol, but this is a vast area, their surveillance is random and even on those few occasions when they could intercept, they do little or nothing.
The US government has recently revised rules for its seafarers and now advises its merchant ships to carry armed guards. Security companies such as Argos International and Espada Logistics provide former Special Forces personnel as well as offering crew training in anti-piracy techniques.
Our own Royal Navy has shown its muscle only once: in November 2008, a frigate returned fire on pirates who had fired at it, and two of the attackers were killed. But a Ministry of Defence directive since has forbidden RN captains to confront or arrest pirates "for fear of breaching their human rights".
Some are not so meek. A Malaysian Navy patrol ship opened fire on pirates that had boarded the MV Bunga Laurei off the Comoros. Commandos fired more than 600 rounds before the pirates surrendered.
Perhaps Kenya's navy has the answer. Its patrol craft covertly operate a shoot-to-kill, take-no-prisoners policy. The Tanzanians almost certainly do the same. The safest ships of all are flying the Russian flag: armed guards aboard them simply blow pirate boats out of the water and leave any survivors to drown. Attacks on Russian vessels have abruptly ceased.
But without such military support, what are merchant ships supposed to do if they are attacked? Captains are forbidden from carrying guns; and who could expect the crew, being paid £2 an hour, to risk their lives? One popular measure is to run razor wire around the stern. Caging in access to lower-deck crew's quarters is another. Then there are high-pressure water hoses. But the most effective measure involves trailing lengths of heavy-gauge steel cables from the stern. When a pirate craft rides over them its propellers are ripped off. Many container ships are now trawling wire mesh behind them the size of a tennis court. Ingenious and cheap.
Hundreds of pirates have been arrested and hundreds released without charge. Even those few who are convicted get less than the maximum sentence. In the Netherlands a year ago a Somali, having served his prison sentence, was granted asylum because Somalia was considered "too dangerous for him to return to".
It has even been reported that one of the pirates who held a British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, for 388 days has a family in England and intends joining them here as an asylum-seeker.
About 700 suspected pirates are being held in 12 countries. Who are they? And how many more are currently active? Surprisingly little has been written about them.
They comprise three main gangs, altogether about 1,000 men, who originate from the Puntland, the coastal region of north-east Somalia. They are recruited from fishing communities but their ranks are now governed by hordes of military deserters, and as the stakes have got bigger they have been joined by educated computer specialists and accountants.
According to Global Security, a US-based world security surveillance organisation, Garaad Mohammed leads the National Volunteer Coast Guard, a questionable title. Yusuf Mohammed Siad Indaade heads the Marka. A third group – by far the most effective and dangerous – comprises Somali former marines, whose hierarchy resembles that of an established navy, with an admiral as head of operations and a financial director.
They buy their weapons, including the most up-to-date automatics and rocket-grenade launchers, from the Yemenis. Their small attacking craft operate from a mother ship, either a large captured fishing vessel or coastal freighter, and they home in on their targets using the most sophisticated GPS systems.
They are known to be supported by Somalis living in Europe, including Britain, and in Canada, which has the world's largest émigré Somali population.
Reports of their attacks, published in those countries' newspapers, are sent to the pirates via email, along with advice and information, which might include ships' movements taken from the logs of ship brokers with the connivance of port agents.
The coastal town of Harardhere in Mudug province, 300 miles from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, is the pirates' central base. It has become a boom town, where pirates drive expensive 4WDs and strut the filthy streets in designer clothes.
Harardhere's chief administrator, Mohammed Ad-aam, told Reuters that the town could not survive without them. A percentage of the ransom take is given to him to help fund the hospital and school and other local services.
There is also a stock exchange where the proceeds of piracy are traded daily with foreign-based Somali investors staking their money on future ransom payments. Lebanon is where most of the ransom money is laundered.
It has become a booming business with upwards of £100 million in transactions every year. Ransoms are paid in a variety of ways and invariably in high-denomination notes.
Sometimes they are delivered in burlap sacks or metal waterproof cases dropped from helicopters. Money has also been dropped by parachute: in January 2009, an orange container said to contain £3 million landed on the deck of a captured tanker, the MV Sirius Star. One drowned pirate, washed ashore near Harardhere, had $150,000 packed into his money belt. Such is the scale and thoroughness of their operation that the pirates have even bought currency-counting machines in Dubai, to check for forgeries.
Maybe we have brought all this on ourselves. Or rather we have preferred to turn a blind eye to those who have ruthlessly, and for many years, exploited the seas off Somalia by the dumping of toxic waste and intensive illegal fishing.
A report for the European Parliament says that dumping has destroyed Somalia's fishing grounds. It names two European companies, one Swiss, one Italian, that signed contracts with warlords to dump 10 million tons of toxic waste into the coastal waters in exchange for £10 million.
The UN reports "a distressingly high incidence of respiratory diseases in Somalia's coastal communities, indicating high levels of radiation".
Our own Department for International Development reckons that Somalia has lost £100 million in revenue because of the depletion of fish stocks through toxic contamination and illegal fishing.
Given this evidence and given that the livelihood of all those Somalis who live by fishing has been destroyed, is it any wonder that they have found another means to survive? When interviewed by Western reporters, the pirates defend themselves by saying exactly that. They have little to lose and everything to gain.
My mini drama aboard the Spirit of Adventure last month ended without mishap. Our captain, who had seen service as a gunnery officer with the Australian navy in Vietnam, cleverly outwitted our attackers.
Within the hour we were back at our dinner tables. Those who had ordered rare steaks probably found them well done. That was the limit of our discomfort and we were thankful. But there is bound to be a next time somewhere in this ocean. And next time it may not end as it ended for us.
* Michael Nicholson is the former chief foreign correspondent for ITN