Gerry Northwood asks: is a relaxation of the security in the Indian Ocean the next big risk?

The close of 2015 brought significant changes to internationally recognised security policy in the Indian Ocean. In December, the maritime community scaled down the size of the Best Management Practice (BMP 4) High Risk Area (HRA) in the western Indian Ocean, followed closely by the Joint War Committee (JWC) at Lloyd’s of London reducing the area of the corresponding insurance HRA.

These major changes to maritime security policy in the region would suggest piracy in the Indian Ocean is now less of a risk than previously thought. There are however arguments to the contrary.

Somali pirate attacks began to make a real impact on commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean in 2008 and prompted the drafting of the initial BMP in 2009. At its peak, piracy cost the global economy around $6bn in 2012 and dozens of vessels and hundreds of seafarers were held hostage off the coast of Somalia. This unhappy state of affairs resulted in hitherto unheard of levels of co-operation between the shipping community and various national authorities to implement a series of radical security measures. These included enhanced naval patrols and BMP4, and when these did not radically reduce the numbers of vessels being hijacked, ship owners resorted to armed guards on their vessels. At which point, the Somali business model started to unravel as their pirate action groups ceased to be able to capture vessels in the face of armed guards.

The decision announced by the Contact Group for Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (GCPCS) in October 2015 to reduce the size of the HRA in the Indian Ocean assumes that the Somalis no longer have the will, or ability, to conduct missions out to the eastern extremity of the original HRA. It should be noted, however, that the military reporting areas have remained unchanged and are no longer aligned with the BMP 4 or Insurance HRAs. This reflects the fact that NATO, EU and US military commanders have all cautioned that Somali piracy has been suppressed, not eradicated. By which they mean that the conditions ashore in Somali remain largely unchanged and that they are concerned that the Somalis could easily return to wide ranging patrols of the Indian Ocean in search of vessels to hijack and ultimately hold for ransom.

The obvious risk is that financially pressured shipping companies may see the HRA reduction as an opportunity to reduce costs through reductions in security measures, thus leaving themselves exposed to attacks by opportunistic pirate groups. Something which is possible in the Gulf of Aden where the coasts of Yemen and Somali spawn a steady stream of local boat traffic which can be configured for, say, human trafficking one moment, and piracy the next. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly apparent that illegal fishing is taking crucial revenues away from coastal communities, which in turn is fuelling resentment among Somalis who may once again believe that they have nothing to lose by turning to piracy.

Given the uncertainty over the resolution of the Yemeni conflict and the lack of tangible progress in developing Somalia this is a time when the shipping industry should be maintaining a firm grip on its security and preventative measures. Business loss and ship damage caused by piracy attacks is ultimately replaceable, but the lives of crewmembers are not. While companies may be willing to take financial risks with their ships, there is an indisputable moral case that the industry should do all that is possible to protect crews. It would be ironic that the successful suppression of piracy in the Indian Ocean could lead to the same problems to resurface through complacency and over optimistic risk assessments.

Maritime crime is a problem that needs engagement and commitment from all players including governments, law enforcement, the shipping industry and its associates. With many countries under resourcing the policing of its territorial waters and economic zones, the maritime domain remains largely un-regulated and prone to piracy and illegal activity. Given the complex and uncertain environment, with threats shifting rather than disappearing, forward thinking companies, ship owners, managers and PMSCs need to be watchful for any form of criminal activity and should not tolerate those who cut corners. Up to now, the Indian Ocean has become one of the safest oceans in the world. Lapses in security could easily reverse that situation
Gerry Northwood

Gerry Northwood OBE, is COO of maritime security company MAST. MAST is a leading global security provider with the expertise and capability to provide comprehensive security advice, including the delivery of intelligence information, physical security solutions and technology. MAST is without doubt one of the pioneers in the maritime security industry, having been at the heart of development of the legal and operational standards that now allow clients to engage security services in the marine sector with confidence. With offices in the UK, USA, Malta, Oman, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Singapore and China, the company has the resources and the reach to provide clients with a complete solution.