Somali pirates hijack first commercial ship in 5 years

Pirates hijacked an oil tanker off the coast of Somalia on Monday, the first successful hijacking of a commercial ship by Somali pirates since 2012.

The tanker, named Aris 13, sent out a distress call on Monday before changing course towards the port town of Alula, Reuters reports. It had been carrying fuel from Djibouti to Mogadishu.

The Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement confirming the eight member crew of the 1,800 deadweight tonne oil tanker are from Sri Lanka.

Armed Somali pirates carrying out preparations to a skiff in Hobyo, northeastern Somalia, ahead of new attacks on ships sailing in the Gulf of Aden.
Mohamed Dahir | AFP | Getty Images

Gerry Northwood, chief operating officer at maritime risk management consultancy MAST, says it was only a matter of time before an attack like this would happen.

"With the current political situation in Somalia and the increasing confidence of those transiting through the Western Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden, it was very likely that such an attack was going to occur," he said in a press statement.

"The characteristics of the hijack are similar to some of the early piracy activity we saw around 2005, and those responsible will have analysed the changing economic and political situation around them and decided that now was an opportune time to launch an attack."

Piracy in the West Indian Ocean has been suppressed in the last few years through the use of counter measures and the presence of naval vessels. The economic cost of piracy was around $7 billion in 2010, decreasing to $1.3 billion in 2015, according to anti-piracy organisation Oceans Beyond Piracy.

However, the organisation reported incidents of piracy in October last year, when a chemical tanker was attacked, but managed to drive off the perpetrators, and warned that piracy could be making a comeback.

"Concerns about a potential resurgence of piracy are exacerbated by the drop in international naval force levels, the shipping industry's desire to return historic shipping patterns, and the reduction in armed guards on vessels in the High Risk Area," Oceans Beyond Piracy said in a report published January.

The decreasing military presence in the area may have encouraged an attack, suggested Northwood.

"Those who orchestrated the attack would have been acutely aware of the decreasing military presence in the area and the increasing numbers of ships which are not sufficiently capable of defending themselves against a hijack," he said.

"The international community can ill afford the Indian Ocean to again become a hotspot for criminal pirate activity. It is a vital trading route into Europe and those ships and crew transiting it need to be protected, as it is the seafarers working in the region who are the ultimate victim of such activity."

Emma Gordon, East Africa analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, downplayed these concerns, saying this incident does not indicate piracy is about to return to 2012-levels.

"Pirates need at least $30,000 to mount complex missions against large commercial vessels. With the rate of success dramatically lower due to international naval patrols, financiers will not want to fund expensive pirate missions," she told CNBC via email.

"Somali financiers already have a steady flow of income from migrant trafficking and have less need to resort to piracy. However, the incident does serve as an important reminder that the drivers of piracy are unchanged. Piracy would erupt again if the patrols were halted."

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