For NATO (and others), it’s gloves off against Somali pirates

The incidents were published step by step. In the beginning of April, according to NATO’s counter piracy operation Ocean Shield, marines from the Dutch frigate Tromp boarded a pirate mothership off the Somali coast, killing two pirates when returning fire. Also around that time, the Danish Naval Command – but not NATO – informed last week, the Danish warship Esbern Snare had intercepted a pirate mothership off the Somali coast, wounding three pirates when returning fire.

You could have assumed that these two incidents have been connected. And indeed, yesterday NATO’s Ocean Shield command in Northwoo, U.K. confirmed that the Alliance’s anti-piracy operation is going tough on the pirates. Instead of patrolling the sea lanes and waiting attacks and disaster to happen as they did in recent years, NATO has started offensive operations against what they call the known pirate lairs at sea, close to the coast. In fact, that means interdiction operations against known motherships – even, and that’s a new thing, against those which are known to have the original crew still on board.

(A pirate ship, blown up by EU antipiracy forces. Foto: EUNAVFOR)

Here’s NATO’s press release (published April 13) which outlines, albeit clumsily, the new offensive tactics:

NATO Operation Delivers Severe Blow Against Armed Pirates

Earlier this month, NATO counter-piracy forces delivered a severe blow against armed pirates off the coast of Somalia by arresting 34 suspected pirates. The suspected pirates had previously been observed loading up their mother ships and skiffs with fuel and weapons in order to attack merchant ships further out to sea. In a well-planned operation, NATO warships conducted a night-time strike on the known pirate lairs at sea, close to the coast. As well as detaining the 34 suspected pirates, 34 innocent hostages, who had been held by the pirates, were freed unharmed by the NATO forces.

Recent months have seen an increase in pirate attacks, particularly in the northern Arabian Sea, and with the monsoon season coming to an end, and the weather improving, it was seen as crucial for counter-piracy forces to strike to help prevent pirates getting out to sea to prey on merchant shipping transiting the area.

Over an extended period NATO warships HNLMS Tromp, HDMS Esbern Snare and USS Halyburton, observed the known pirate camps, supported by Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircrafts from the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) and various other counter piracy forces.

On Friday, as part of the focussed operation, crew from NATO warship HDMS Esbern Snare boarded a suspicious whaler and found it to be packed with fuel, AK47 machine guns, a ladder and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and 3 suspected pirates. The whaler and weaponry were seized by the warship, and after being questioned, the suspected pirates were taken to a nearby beach.

On Saturday HDMS Esbern Snare then approached a dhow that was suspected to be involved in pirate activity. As the Danish boarding team investigated, the pirates started firing at them, who then fired back in self defence. In the fire-fight several pirates were wounded and as a result, a medical team from NATO flag ship HNLMS Tromp was quickly sent to the scene to render medical assistance.

Shortly afterwards HNLMS Tromp spotted another suspect dhow heading for a known pirate camp and as she closed in to investigate, her boarding team was also fired upon. Gunners on board Tromp and the boarding team returned fire, setting fire to the dhow. Ten pirates tried to escape in a skiff, but were quickly captured. When a team from HNLMS Tromp went to the dhow to assist the innocent crew, they found 2 fatally wounded pirates on board. At the same time, a previously pirated merchant vessel – MV Albedo, lifted anchor and headed straight for the NATO flagship. After some well-aimed warning shots across her bow, Albedo returned to her anchorage. HNLMS Tromp then escorted the freed dhow and crew to safer waters.

On several occasions during the operation, the NATO warships surveyed the anchorages and the pirate beaches. They will continue to do so for the next few months.

Speaking after the operation, Rear Admiral Hank Ort, Chief of Staff at NATO’s Maritime HQ in Northwood said, “This operation has shown the pirates that we mean business and will not tolerate their criminal activities. By conducting this operation close to the shore we have been able to deprive some pirates of a safe passage back to their anchorages and deprive others of the opportunity to go out and attack innocent merchant ships. We are pleased with the success of this operation but we are not complacent as we know there is still much work to be done.”

(Lines in bold face marked by me, T.W.)

Now, this is an announcement. First, NATO is well aware that some allies are very uncomfortable with the idea of operations on the Somali shore – hence the somewhat strange definition of pirates lairs at sea, close to the coast. Secondly, the intention now is to prevent the pirates from going out hunting in the first place, instead of looking for them on the vast waters between the coasts of Somalia, Arabia and the Indian subcontinent. And finally: it’s a message to the pirates that their retreats are under close observation – and NATO is willing to intervene if they go out to sea.

NATO seems to be the first of the naval forces patrolling the sea lanes off the Horn of Africa to admit tougher tactics against the pirates. Other navies, however, obviously are beginning to adapt a similar approach: a Finnish warship under European Union command boarding a suspected mothership, detaining 18 pirates, blowing up the vessel (pictured above). Am warship from the Combined Maritime Forces, type and nationality not released, that interdicted a pirate mothership. The Australian frigate Stuart intercepting a pirate mothership.

Don’t be fooled: usually, the press releases on these actions carry the headline xx hostages rescued off Somalia. Which just means: we indicted and boarded a pirate vessel, knowing there are hostages on board. And I’m wondering: If I count correctly, the various warships by now must have detained approximately 50 pirates in April alone. What are they going to do with them?