Uncertainty remains over scale of Maldives piracy threat

With two separate attacks this month by Somalian pirates within a 30 nautical miles of Trivandrum, India, one maritime expert has warned that the Maldives’ growing use as crossroads for shipping routes make its own waters and businesses an increasingly attractive target in the future.

Tim Hart, a security analyst specialising in piracy from around the Horn of Africa for Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants (MUSC), told Minivan News that the two attacks reported this month off India’s southern coast raised wider security issues for the Maldives that have previously affected other nearby archipelago nations like the Seychelles.

While the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) this week said that the country’s territorial waters had not come under direct attack from piracy originating from Somalia, a spokesman said it shared the UN’s concerns over possible threats in the Indian Ocean.

Tourism angle

Increasing numbers of refugees from Somalia are flooding into northern destinations such as Kenya and Yemen, and with limited opportunities for those remaining, Hart said piracy was at believed to be the country’s second largest source of revenue.

In this lucrative market place for piracy, the UN has expressed concerns that the Indian Ocean is becoming in key battleground in trying to stem maritime attacks as suspects move increasingly further from Somali shores.

Hart said that as cargo fleets moved closer to the Maldives to try and ensure safer shipping routes, pirates were likely to follow in the search of viable targets.

Aside from the potential impact to the country’s own shipping enterprises, the maritime expert added that tourism had also been affected by piracy in other Indian Ocean nations.

“The Maldives is a large group of islands that can make monitoring difficult like in the Seychelles,” he said. “The [Seychelles] back in 2009 had a pirate issue that seriously affected its tourism. This has also been seen around the coast of Kenya in areas like Mombasa, where cruise ships were coming under attack in some cases.”

According to Hart, although cruise ship attacks are relatively isolated occurrences, the UK parliament has recently raised issues over an incident in Kenya that directly targeted tourists on board a vessel – an event that significantly affected cruise interest in the region.

“With the Maldives’ territories made up largely of ocean, (the country is 99 per cent water) the concern is that pirates might become influenced to make similar attacks there,” he added.

Targeting isolated resorts would be outside the traditional modus operandi of Somali pirates, Hart said, explaining that they only attacked targets other than merchant vessels out of opportunity.

“It really depends on how desperate a particular group of pirates becomes, generally larger merchant vessels offer the largest incentives for ransom,” he said. “To set foot onto an island, highjack and kidnap tourists and then try to get back to Somalia using their vessels would be very difficult.”

Despite the challenges posed by such an attack, Hart said that it had not been unheard of for pirates to mount land-based assaults in areas like the Niger Delta.

“Pirates are known to be very adaptive in terms of their methods and targets,” he said. “Wherever someone has tried to prevent them from operating, they have changed their target areas and tactics.”

However, Maldivian tourism officials and insiders have identified piracy as a potential security concern for the resort industry.

Adapting to piracy challenges

Hart claimed that the Maldives could take some lessons from the Seychelles in terms of further tightening maritime security against potential acts of piracy, he added that adopting a fix-all approach to the problem was impractical.

“With regards to piracy, it is difficult to set out a one-stop shop in terms of reducing risks, though I would suggest looking at how the Seychelles has operated in 2009 and 2010. Because of recent monsoon weather [in the Indian Ocean region], defining attack areas and establishing operational islands is very difficult,” he claimed. “However, anything to support additional maritime surveillance to protect islands and [local] waters would be encouraged.”

In terms of a national strategy for piracy prevention, MNDF Major Abdul Raheem said earlier this week that the Maldives is already collaborating with international naval forces – under wider UN military programmes – to patrol and monitor its territorial waters from pirate threats.

Raheem said that despite the serious concerns raised over potential piracy attacks in the Maldives, the MNDF would continue with existing initiatives to try and protect its waters in collaboration with naval forces from other nations like India, Turkey and the US. These nations have taken part in patrols across the country in the last few years.

“Piracy is seen as a major problem in the Maldives and we are very concerned about possible attacks occurring in our waters,” he said at the time. “However, we have not recognised piracy threats flaring up [around the Maldives]. With help from other nations, particularly India, we are continuing patrols.”

Raheem stressed that some Somali vessels had drifted into the country’s waters – often with engine troubles – though it was not clear if they were potential pirate threats or refugees trying to escape the country. Hart claimed that the dilemma over confirming legitimate pirate suspects was a major difficulty in policing international waters against attacks.

“The difference between a pirate and a refugee is often a crew that have thrown their weapons overboard. You have to catch pirates in the act, otherwise it can be impossible to try and stop them.”

From his experiences of studying emerging pirate threats off the Horn of Africa, Hart said it was increasingly common – even in the Indian Ocean – for Somali vessels to wish up on local coasts with no traces of weapons on them, then claiming that they are fishermen lost at sea.

“In certain cases, as opposed to dumping weapons at the threat of being spotted by naval vessels, some pirates will use reconnaissance and GPS systems and have weapons stored securely nearby in order to prepare for possible attacks on vulnerable targets.”

Hart said the situation was further complicated by the tens of thousands of Somalian refugees trying to escape the country that is wrought with political and social instability.

Just this week, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency reported significant increases in the number of refugees from the country, with 20,000 nationals estimated to have attempted the arduous journey to escape to a Kenyan refugee camp in the last fortnight alone.

According to the report, the Dadaab refugee camp built initially for 90,000 people is now home to 360,000 displaced residents. The AFP report suggested that 1.46 million people are thought to have been displaced in Somalia.

Hart said that the domestic difficulties within Somalia, along with its geographic location, had made piracy a lucrative revenue source amidst the country’s many socio-political uncertainties.

“Piracy is a symptom of the problems being seen on the land. A lot of people have been trying to escape the civil war in the country’s south and have been trying to move north to areas like Yemen and Kenya,” he said. “Pirates have also used the very strategic [maritime] location that the Horn of Africa offers and exploited it.”

Amidst the difficulties of trying to find domestic solutions within Somalia as a means of confronting piracy, the UN Security Council has continued to discuss the formation of international courts and prisons to try and bring convicted pirates to justice.

However, Hart said that the effectiveness of these prisons as a potential deterrent to Somali nationals turning to piracy was uncertain.

“At present in Somalia, piracy is the country’s second largest industry. There are already huge risks, but you go out to sea and potentially have huge gains to make,” he claimed. “One possible deterrent would be being arrested and being held in prison. However, even these prisons are likely to be a better environment than life for many in places like Mogadishu – the Somali capital.”


MNDF plays down immediate piracy dangers despite UN fears for Indian Ocean

The Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) said it has not detected increased threats to the country’s territorial waters from piracy despite UN concerns over the growing attacks within the Indian Ocean.

MNDF Major Abdul Raheem told Minivan News that despite small vessels originating from Somalia washing up in the Maldives’ territorial waters – often with engineering problems – no reported attacks or activities linked to piracy were believed to have occurred in the country. Raheem conceded that potential pirate threats remained a “major problem” in ensuring the security of the archipelago, which depends on tourism for as much as 90 percent of its economy.

The comments were made as the UN Security Council yesterday reportedly raised fears that growing numbers of pirate vessels originating from Somalia were attacking ships within the Indian Ocean.  The council members claimed that tougher international sanctions would be required to punish suspected pirates.

Raheem said that despite the serious concerns raised over potential piracy attacks in the Maldives, the MNDF would continue with existing initiatives to try and protect its waters in collaboration with naval forces from other nations like India, Turkey and the US, who have all taken part in patrols across the country.

“Piracy is seen as a major problem in the Maldives and we are very concerned about possible attacks occurring in our waters,” he said. “However, we have not recognised piracy threats flaring up [around the Maldives]. With help from other nations, particularly India, we are continuing patrols.”

Concluding the first ever official visit of its forces to the Maldives last month, the Turkish navy told Minivan News that it was visiting the country as part of wider regional anti-piracy initiatives supported by the  NATO military alliance.

A naval spokesperson at the time said that the visit of the TCG Giresun to the Maldives was not linked to any specific threat or incident of piracy, but more a reaction to Somali pirates extending their operations from the Horn of Africa further into territories around the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

“We are trying to promote understanding to fight piracy, so one way to do this is to visit ports like Male’,” said the spokesperson at a media briefing during the ship’s visit. “The attacks of the pirates have widened into the Indian Ocean with one of the last incidents occurring approximately 250 nautical miles away from the shores of Male’, so NATO has widened the number of ports we are to visit to include Indian Ocean destinations like Mumbai and Male’.”

The MNDF confirmed that it received reports of small boats – believed to be Somali in origin – arriving into the Maldives’ territorial waters.

However,  Major Raheem said that the people discovered on board the boats were not confirmed to be pirates and were as likely to be refugees that had become lost at sea and drifted into the country. “We have observed some small boats drifting into our territorial waters often due to engineering problems,” he added.

While local security forces suggest the Maldives is not directly coming under attack from pirates, according to a report by the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency, 171 pirate attacks have been recorded this year by the UN as occurring off the coast of Somalia.

During the UN Security Council debate held yesterday, new international legislation relating to establishing international piracy courts to try suspected pirates were being discussed to try and combat concerns about attacks.

Speaking during the debate, the AFP cited India’s UN envoy, Hardeep Singh Puri, as raising concerns about the dangers posed to South Asian nations from pirate attacks. The debate included establishing special jails in the Somali autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland to hold convicted pirates.

Experts suggest that a growing number of Somali pirates are moving deeper into the Indian Ocean towards the Maldives as they come under increased pressure from international task-forces sent to limit piracy around the horn of Africa.

As a result of this movement, maritime security has become a notable security concern for the Maldives, even around the country’s secluded resort properties.