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Nov 18, 2008 | 00:06 GMT

Oil Tankers and Pirates on the Open Sea

KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
The U.S. Fifth Fleet announced Nov. 17 that pirates have hijacked the Sirius Star, an oil tanker en route from Saudi Arabia to the United States. Such a hijacking is very difficult and would indicate a significant increase in tactical capabilities of pirates. Not only is the ship massive and difficult to board, it also was far out at sea and hard to get to. The tanker was also carrying $100 million worth of crude, which could result in a very handsome ransom for the pirates — that is, if U.S. or other naval forces on patrol in the area don't try to recapture the vessel.
The Sirius Star, a United Arab Emirates-owned Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), was hijacked Nov. 15 by pirates, probably Somalians, 520 miles southeast of Mombassa, Kenya. The ship, which is 360 yards long and sits about 11 yards above the water line, was carrying 2 million barrels of oil worth $100 million for delivery to the United States. It is now reported to be en route to Eyl, in the Puntland region of Somalia, where up to 11 other ships are being held while ransoms are negotiated. The largest ship ever hijacked, the Sirius Star will not be able to dock at Eyl, but the hijackers will do their best to hold on to it and demand a ransom for its return. This is not the first time that pirates have targeted a tanker. In April, an attempt was made on the Takayama, a Japanese tanker, but it failed even though the pirates used rocket propelled grenades to try to intimidate the ship's captain into letting them aboard. These scare tactics have typically been successful on small fishing boats or yachts, but VLCCs are high enough off of the water to repel pirate attacks if the pirates are spotted in time. Pirates face a disadvantage when they attempt to scale the face of a tanker because the crew can more easily disrupt their attempts with water hoses or even weapons. However, Somalian pirates are heavily armed and more practiced with their weapons than the typical tanker crew. The location of this hijacking is far outside the range in which pirates are considered a threat. The world's most active waters for piracy are in the Gulf of Aden, located along Somalia's northern coast, south of Yemen. But the Nov. 16 attack was much farther south, closer to Kenya and Tanzania than Yemen. It was also much farther off shore than most pirate attacks, which typically poses a challenge because the boats are limited to how much fuel they can carry. Given pirates' emerging new tactics and technologies — using "mother ships" to transport smaller attack boats out to sea, global positioning systems, satellite phones — it should be expected that the range of pirate activity will increase. It is also possible that the Sirius Star, outside the traditional range of pirate attacks, had let down her guard. Given the location of the hijacking, it is likely that the pirates were trolling outside of their traditional waters as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and other NATO countries (as well as Russia) step up patrols and escorts in the Gulf of Aden. By expanding their range, pirates have managed to continue their operations despite increased policing of the gulf. This could, in turn, increase the range of antipiracy efforts that are currently constrained to the gulf and Somalian waters. Of course, the pirates would be happy to return the ship for the right amount of money. The highest ransom reportedly collected by Somalian pirates was $3 million, and pirates are currently asking for $20 million to release the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship that was delivering tanks and light arms to Kenya. Now that the Sirius Star is captured, it will be interesting to see how the international naval contingent patrolling the waters of Somalia will respond. STRATFOR has contended that piracy is being made easy and profitable by a lack of international interest in the welfare of ocean-going vessels, since most that have been hijacked belong to countries that lack the capability to take them back by force. But the United States certainly has an interest in the Sirius Star — and the capability to recapture the ship. And French special forces have demonstrated that if French citizens are in harm's way, as they were when the Le Ponant was hijacked April 4 in the Gulf of Aden, it is possible to take back a ship by force. Britain also has an interest in Sirius Star — two of its 25 crewmembers are British — as well as the capability to deploy special forces to capture a VLCC. Nevertheless, taking down a ship is very risky — especially such a large ship in hostile territory. If no country is willing or able to retake the Sirius Star, Vela International, the ship's owner, may find itself in ransom negotiations for the ship's cargo and crew. This kind of brazen hijacking will give the United States, Britain and other countries with a naval units operating off the coast of Somalia a chance to prove how committed they are to stopping piracy.
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Oil Tankers and Pirates on the Open Sea
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