On October 12, 2000, a boat filled with explosives with a suicide bomber of Al Qaeda rammed against a US destroyer named USS Cole in the Aden harbour. In the resulting explosion, 17 US naval personnel were killed and the ship was severely damaged. A subsequent enquiry brought out that a US naval officer on watch duty on the deck of USS Cole had seen the boat approaching USS Cole at high speed, but he did not fire on it to sink it. The rules of engagement of the US Navy then in force reportedly provided that US naval personnel should fire upon inside a harbour only if fired at. Since the Al Qaeda boat did not open fire, it was not fired at and sunk before it could ram against USS Cole. In justification of the seeming inaction of the officer on watch duty, it was stated during the enquiry that inside busy harbours such as that of Aden, many small boats operated by the harbour management keep moving around for providing logistics. It would have been difficult to assess the hostile intent of an approaching boat inside the harbour.
After this incident, the navies of many countries undertook an exercise to revise and update the rules of engagement when confronted with a possible maritime terrorism situation. Two possible scenarios received special attention:
- Scenario # 1: An unidentified boat approaches
a naval ship in or near a harbor. The revised rules of engagement
reportedly provide for immediate neutralisation of such a boat before it
could come within ramming or boarding distance of the ship without waiting
to verify the intention of the boat. Action can be initiated even at the
risk of casualties of innocent civilians.
- Scenario # 2: A naval ship moving or patrolling in high seas encounters an unidentified ship or boat moving around in suspicious circumstances or which seems to be coming towards the naval ship. This scenario gives some window for verification. The revised rules of engagement provide for opening fire if the suspicious ship or boat resists attempts at verification or opens fire or seems to be planning to open dire on the naval ship. Appropriately judging the situation and acting is left to the discretion of the naval personnel depending on the circumstances of the case.
These revised rules of engagement, which were designed mainly to deal with maritime terrorism situations, also apply to situations involving armed pirates, irrespective of whether they are acting on their own or in association with a terrorist organisation. These revised rules of engagement are now being brought into action by naval ships on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden and other areas to counter the activities of Somali pirates. The French naval ships operating in these waters were the first to start using more robust methods to deal with suspected pirate boats and ships.
Their example was followed by a British naval vessel. In a recently reported engagement (exact date not available), two Somali pirates in a Yemeni-registered fishing dhow were killed, and a third pirate, believed to be a Yemeni, suffered injuries and subsequently died. Some media reports described the incident as the first time the Royal Navy had been engaged in a fatal shoot-out on the high seas in living memory. The British media reported as follows on the engagement: Under rules of engagement which allow the Royal Navy to intervene when pirates are positively identified, the commandos were dispatched from their frigate in rigid-raider craft and sped towards the pirates’ dhow. The Ministry of Defence said the Marines circled the pirates’ boat to try and persuade them to stop. As they approached, however, several of the pirates, a mixed crew of Somalis and Yemenis, swung their assault rifles in their direction and opened fire. The MoD said the Royal Marines returned fire "in self defence", and then boarded the dhow — a stolen Yemeni-registered fishing vessel.
The Indian Navy announced on November 19, 2008, that the previous day the Navy's INS Tabar, which has been patrolling the Gulf of Aden since October 23, 2008, and has escorted 35 ships safely through the pirate-infested waters, spotted what looked like a mother ship of the pirates while patrolling 285 nautical miles (528km) south-west of Salalah in Oman. The pirates on board were armed with guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers. When it demanded the vessel to stop for investigation, the pirate ship responded by threatening to "blow up the naval warship if it closed on her", the statement said. Pirates then fired on the Tabar, and the Indian Navy said that Tabar retaliated and that there was an explosion on the pirate vessel, which sank. The naval statement added: :"Fire broke out on the vessel and explosions were heard, possibly due to exploding ammunition that was stored in the vessel." Some of the pirates tried to escape on two speed-boats. The Indian sailors gave chase but one boat was later found abandoned, while a second boat escaped. In an earlier incident in the second week of November helicopter-borne commandos from the Tabar stopped pirates from boarding and hijacking an Indian merchant vessel.
Many of the pirate attacks of the Somalis and Yemenis are launched from small speed- boats in the high seas far away from the coast. Even the hijacking of a Saudi oil super-tanker on November 15 was carried out from small boats in the high seas. Since such small speed-boats cannot travel far from the coastal waters, there has been a suspicion since 2005 that the Somali and Yemeni pirates must be possessing some big ships, which keep moving around in the seas of the region looking for remunerative targets. When they locate such targets, small boats with armed pirates are launched from the mother ship to board the targeted vessel and capture it. These so-called mother ships had till now proved elusive.
Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), was quoted as telling the media on November 11, 2005, that pirate attacks were being launched from at least two "mother-ships". According to him, speedboats carried out the attempted hijacks before returning to the larger vessels floating at sea. This meant that even ships sailing far off the coast were vulnerable to attack. In November 2005, the crew of a luxury liner called the Seabourn Spirit, which was steaming some 100 miles (160km) off the Somali coast, managed to scare away pirates who approached the liner in small boats, believed to have been launched from a mother ship, by activating a military-grade sonic weapon, which can cause permanent damage to hearing from a distance of more than 300 metres (984ft).
The Associated Press (AP) reported as follows on December 1,2007: " Following a rash of pirate attacks off the lawless Somali coast, an international coalition headed by a U.S. Admiral has come up with a new strategy — to target the elusive pirate motherships preying on boats. Pirates from two small skiffs seized the crew of a Japanese vessel off anarchic Somalia's coast. American forces fired on the skiffs and destroyed them. Now the navies of the U.S. and 19 other countries are after bigger prey. The U.S.-led coalition working to secure sea lanes beset by pirates believe skiffs like the ones used in the attack on the Japanese ship must have come from elusive "mother ships."
The AP report added: "No warship has located a mother ship yet, although that could be due to the continuous radio chatter they put out to warn pirates that they are patrolling the area in an effort to deter attacks. However, numerous ship captains have reported seeing the bigger pirate vessels. "I thought it was an ordinary ship, then I saw two small fast motorboats coming from it toward us," Capt. Ling Xinshen, now safely in Mombasa, Kenya, said in recounting his vessel's seizure by pirates. He and his crew were held for ransom for seven months on the ship by pirates who killed one crew member. Ling said he never again sighted the mysterious mother ship that loomed up so suddenly the sunny afternoon his ordeal began. "
The AP report continued: "Everyone has a theory about where the mother ships hide. Cmdr. Robert D. Katz of the USS Stout says Somali national waters remain a blind spot for the coalition forces because they are barred from patrolling that territory. International maritime law says a country is responsible for law enforcement within 12 miles of its own coast, but Somalia is a failed state. Somalia has not had a functioning government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Now the weak transitional government and its Ethiopian allies are battling an Iraq-style Islamic insurgency. The chaos, combined with connections between the pirates and powerful figures in key Somali clans that receive multimillion-dollar ransoms, mean that pirate ships can cruise the ragged coastline with relative impunity. Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers' Assistance Program, says the mother ships melt into the ordinary shipping traffic without notice once they have disgorged their packs of speedboats. Coalition warships have frequently passed a mother ship without even realizing, he says. The mother ships don't carry weapons, he says, preferring to arm two or three smaller boats with anti-tank missiles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They leave the small boats at sea, possibly with another boat loaded with fuel. When a merchant ship comes into view, the small, fast boats attack as a pack. Mother ships simply blend in among the fishing vessels, Mwangura said. "They won't find it until there are no fishing vessels in Somali waters."
There is no information so far as to how many "mother-ships" the pirates have at their disposal. The Indian Navy's action is the first successful attempt to locate an elusive mother-ship and sink it. It remains to be seen what impact it has on the capability of the pirates to operate in high seas. The previous estimates were that the Somali pirates possessed at least two mother-ships.
Action to stop piracy in these waters has to have three components: firstly, protection of the commercial ships and tankers transiting the waters of this region to prevent the pirates from capturing them. Secondly, location and neutralisation of the "mother-ships" of the pirates. Thirdly, identifying and neutralising the hide-outs of the pirates in Somalia through air strikes. The naval ships of India, the US, the UK, France, Pakistan and other countries deployed in the waters of this area are performing the first two tasks. Only the US is in a position to undertake the third task. The dilemma faced by the US arises from the fact that at any given time the pirates have about 10 to 12 hijacked ships in their custody. Air strikes on hide-outs or fire-fights with the hijackers on board the captured ships might not only endanger the lives of the crew, but, in the case of an oil supertanker, could also cause a huge environmental disaster.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai