The Gulf of Aden

Gulf of Aden

 

Significance

The Gulf of Aden marks the entrance to the Red Sea. There are approximately 33,000 vessels transits annually through the Gulf of Aden with the vast majority of reported annual incidents amounting to little more than irregular maritime traffic. It is clear that piracy, in its traditional form at least, no longer presents the most significant risk to shipping in the Indian Ocean.

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What is the actual risk to shipping security in the Gulf of Aden?

Whether the explanation of current events in the Gulf of Aden is attributable to human trafficking, the influence of maritime terrorism, the over-reporting of approaches cautiously labelled as suspicious or against all indications, a resurgence in Gulf of Aden piracy, it is prudent that a full and thorough analysis of events is conducted.

For the Gulf of Aden to be considered a hotspot of pirate activity we would at the least expect a mirroring of the intensity and frequency of incidents seen in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as escalated shows of force by piratical groups. When the volume of incidents recorded in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean are compared and contrasted with areas such as the Gulf of Guinea which experiences high levels of piracy, it becomes apparent that there is not yet sufficient evidence to suggest a ‘growing trend’ of piracy in the region.
Furthermore, the impact of COVID-19 should also be considered, and lengthy delays at ports and anchorages have increased the volume of potential opportunistic targets which are available to pirates. As the level of attacks has not increased significantly in line with this volume of targets, this would lead to a questioning of the piracy narrative.

Gulf of Aden Security Review

Current data, when compared with 2019/20 and seen in context, shows an increase in the volume of maritime incident reporting; however, there is no suggestion that Gulf of Aden piracy is a driving factor of incidents, and misreporting of approaches may be regular within the region. In a wider sense, these incidents may be part a migration of incidents from the Southern Red Sea/Bab-El-Mandeb to the Gulf of Aden; the two areas are intimately linked by the same geopolitical narratives.
Historically there has been a tendency within the maritime security market to adopt a ‘default response’ to suspicious activity within the Indian Ocean and define this as piracy. Whilst there are well-documented historic examples of piracy in the Indian Ocean, evidence of a sustained threat of piracy is far from compelling.

When the volume of incidents recorded in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean are compared and contrasted with areas such as the Gulf of Guinea which experiences high levels of piracy, it becomes apparent that there is not yet sufficient evidence to suggest a ‘growing trend’ of piracy in the region.
For the Gulf of Aden to be considered a hotspot of pirate activity we would at the least expect a mirroring of the intensity and frequency of incidents seen in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as escalated shows of force by piratical groups. Furthermore, the impact of COVID-19 should also be considered, and lengthy delays at ports and anchorages have increased the number of potential targets of opportunity which are available to pirates. As the level of attacks has not increased significantly in line with this would lead to a questioning of the piracy narrative.

By mid 2020, the number of incidents classified as attacks stood at 25%. This contrasts with 17% for 2019 and 39% for 2018. Thus, whilst higher than 2019, it would be unreasonable to assume that within 2020 levels of kinetic activity have returned to their pre-2019 levels. Most incidents so far this year (75%), have been reported to be suspicious approaches with no verifiable evidence of piratical intent. In incidents where shots were fired, the majority have not involved an exchange of fire, but were warning shots fired upon sighting of a suspect vessel. Such incidents themselves cannot be seen as definitive proof that the suspicious vessel was involved in piratical activity. These trends can also be contextualised in light of current security protocols, to assess whether they meaningfully impact dynamics. It could be suggested that vessels which are employing embarked security teams (AST) see the guards as the ‘ultimate deterrent’ and have therefore employed guards as a vessel hardening measures under BMP-5. This could potentially result in a situation where a vessel would appear at first glance to be undefended. However even in these circumstances, we would expect to see a higher level of approaches and attacks in 2020.

The absence of piracy within the Gulf of Aden is however likely to be representative of a temporary curtailment rather than an end. With the backdrop of a significant economic climate states are already making major cuts to foreign aid budgets which are likely to have a significant impact within states such as Somalia and Yemen across the longer term. In addition, Somalia is facing increased offshore prospecting for hydrocarbons which is likely in the medium to long term to increase the volume of opportunistic targets. Such factors could over time present a potent mix of issues that may precipitate a return to piracy. 

Anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden

An important factor in the downward trend in incident volume in the Indian Ocean has been the significant international naval commitments to counter piracy throughout the area. The presence of such vessels, particularly those safeguarding Gulf of Aden transits, is what led to a significant concentration of incidents deep offshore East Africa, where pirates were afforded a greater degree of freedom of movement.

With perpetrators of piracy acutely aware of the risks facing deep offshore operations, a concentration of incidents targeting vessels underway in the most protected of transit corridors would be a highly irregular occurrence. The recent taking of Socotra island, which circa 2011 was a hub or piracy has raised concerns of growing piracy, however the strong UAE presence on the island is likely to deny pirates the freedom of movement to conduct operations. 

The absence of piracy within the Gulf of Aden is however likely to be representative of a temporary curtailment rather than an end. Foreign nations are already making major cuts to foreign aid budgets which are likely to have a significant impact within states such as Somalia and Yemen in the longer term. In addition, Somalia is facing increased offshore prospecting for hydrocarbons which is likely in the medium to long term to increase the volume of opportunistic targets. Such factors could over time present a potent mix of issues that may precipitate a return to piracy.  

Is the Gulf of Aden safe?

Piracy remains an indicator of negative onshore conditions. Poverty, violence, underdevelopment, pollution, corruption, high levels of unemployment, and a lack of good governance create a climate where piracy can flourish. Somalia, the traditional heartland of Indian Ocean Piracy, has undergone considerable reform across the past two decades. This, combined with significant international anti-piracy efforts has led directly to the dramatic fall in the number of piracy incidents in the Indian Ocean. However, adverse conditions continue to persist in the wider region, particularly in Yemen which remains engaged in a state of civil war. 

Indian Ocean pirates have also shown the ability to adapt and overcome factors which limit their operational capability. The operational reach of pirate groups is the range from shore within which they can effectively target vessels. Range limitations have in part been overcome through the use of ‘mother ships’. The use of such motherships extends the potential range of piracy incidents and could be seen as a justification and interpretation of wider incidents in the Gulf of Aden which are outside the usual area where piracy is anticipated. 

Also Read

A gulf Between Narratives - Maritime Security in the Gulf of Aden 2020

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It is essential that companies have access to independent and impartial risk analysis which supports them to understand and mitigate risk in a cost effective and sustainable manner, whilst ensuring crew safety. With an ever increasing volume of companies looking to reduce their dependency on the AST model, both as a result of the reduction in risk and the pressures of a post COVID-19 trading environment, it is increasingly essential that companies have access to independent analysis that cuts through simplistic media-reinforced narratives that drive an over-reliance on commercially punitive mitigations. With the risk to vessels more dynamic and less clear than any other time in history, the issue of crew safety has never been more important.

 

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