By Karsten Von Hoesslin, Senior Analyst, Risk Intelligence
Strategic Insights, No. 32, May 2011
09/22/2011 – On 29 September 2010, the Panama flagged asphalt tanker ASPHALT VENTURE was hijacked by Somali pirates off the Tanzanian coast. On 15 April 2011, after 200 days of detention and an estimated US$3.2 to 5 million ransom pay out, the ASPHALT VENTURE was permitted to limp out of Somali waters, although with only half of its crew. In what seems to be the latest development in Somali piracy, seven Indian seafarers were kept in detention. This latest twist requires a moment of reflection.
There have been conflicting media reports: one claiming that the ransom was less than agreed, another that the seven Indians have been held back as a bargaining chip for Somali pirates kept in detention after Indian counter-piracy attacks on pirate mother ship operations.
The likely scenario is somewhere in the middle. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard have disrupted numerous pirate attack groups and immobilized (and in some cases even sunk) four mother ships. Furthermore, the Indians now have 120 pirates in their custody.
Although India has been an active member in the multi-national coalition since 2008, it has engaged in controversial interdictions such as the EKAWAT NAVA 5 (2008) where the crew were mistaken as hijackers and the vessel sunk (all but one seafarer survived to tell the story).
The significant change for India’s counter piracy operations off Somalia occurred in November 2010 when pirates targeted vessels well within the Indian exclusive economic zone off the Lakshadweep Islands. Thereafter, this was not only a threat to national interests abroad but to Indian offshore national security.
India’s rigorous counter-piracy approach has been relatively successful with only a few hiccups. Within a month, two of the three hijacked Thai-flagged PRANTALAY trawlers were disrupted (and one was sunk); the Mozambique-flagged trawler VEGA 5 was intercepted shortly thereafter; and finally the Iranian-flagged MORTEZA was also intercepted (and sunk).
Eleven crew remain missing from the VEGA 5 liberation, which brings back haunting memories of the EKAWAT NAVA 5 tragedy and their outcome has yet to be addressed.
After the MORTEZA sinking, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security amended its existing rules of engagement specifically for naval assets deployed on anti-piracy operations in order to enhance its special operating procedures.
In short, India pledged to take the gloves off and tackle piracy more aggressively, which was welcomed by the ship-owner community, particularly those from India and South East Asia.
The detainment of the seven Indians, despite the ransom payment, is a new twist in the great piracy game off the Horn of Africa. This form of reprisal is very different from what experts and the shipping community feared, which was expected to consist of targeting vessels from specific flag states more aggressively.
Retaliations were feared ever since threats were made after the French liberation of the luxury yacht LE PONANT (2008) and the dramatic American retake of the MAERSK ALABAMA (2009).
Similar claims were voiced after the liberation of the SAMHO JEWELLRY and BUNGA LAUREL (in 2011, by the South Koreans and Malaysians respectively).
However, thus far, there has been no evidence or cases depicting deliberate reprisals against seafarers of a specific nationality – until now. Indian nationals have typically received a harsher treatment than other nationalities when in captivity which, according to Somali pirates, is due to a less-perceived value of life compared to Westerners or Asians.
The crew seizure of ASPHALT VENTURE, however, is something completely different that has once again tilted the balance in favor of the pirates. Both pirates and India have “declared war” on one another, and in light of the crew detention, an Indian warship has raced to the coast and readied itself for possible special operations.
The signals are mixed, as India claims it has ruled out a potential military operation.
However, one must consider more carefully the consequences of the crew seizure and potential implications for the future.
Rules of the game
This incident is not a game changer as such, but it will have a tremendous impact on current and future negotiations as well as counter-piracy operations and the rules of engagement because it has affected the unwritten “code of conduct”.
Although pirate tactics continue to evolve, the one single constant since the first ship was hijacked was that after were released. The detainment of the ASPHALT VENTURE crew changes this dynamic significantly and has implications for not only all negotiation procedures in the future, but also for ongoing cases.
The actions by this particular pirate group have also directly challenged navies and this will undoubtedly test the Indian response. More so, it could change the trend and influence negotiation and release tactics of other pirate groups holding both current ships captive and planning to do so in the future.
Similar to the incremented ransom demands, releasing vessels without all of the crew may become acceptable for other groups as well. This poses an obvious challenge for negotiators, particularly those working on current cases where the vessels are in the process of release and may have Indian nationals on board. As of 24 April, it was reported that there are 55 Indian nationals in captivity in Somalia and/or on board hijacked vessels.
Politically or financially motivated?
The seizure of the seven crew members poses a central and interesting question: is this act financially motivated or is it politically motivated?
According to the media, the pirates are claiming that they are detaining the crew because of the heavy-handed tactics employed by the Indians and these crew members are to be exchanged for some of the 120 Somali pirates the Indians have detained.
This posturing is certainly more political than financial, especially when emphasizing rhetoric such as “swap deals”. This is a more common tactic for insurgent groups rather than organized criminal groups such as Somali pirates. The pirates are treading in dangerous waters, especially when nation states such as India and the United States are extremely eager to link pirate activities with recognized terrorist groups.
The reality is that it is highly unlikely that the Somali pirates are choosing to make political demands over financial incentives. The additional ransom potential for releasing seven crew members is far more appealing than having 120 pirates returned to Somalia.
Furthermore, there is no evidence suggesting that the ASPHALT VENTURE pirates are from the same group as those captured on board the PRANTALAY vessels, MORTEZA, and VEGA 5.
Pirate groups also rarely form long-standing alliances within Somalia (specifically alliances that are stronger than cash pay outs) and there are numerous corpses decomposing in post-ransom cash dispersal locations to prove this. Loyalty to comrades captured therefore is unlikely to be the case and this is merely a bluff supported by bargaining leverage to secure more funds.
The minute a dollar amount is offered for their release, the ASPHALT VENTURE pirates will quickly forget about their detained comrades in Mumbai. This is equally damaging to the code of conduct because failing to release crew with hijacked ships will complicate the entire process from negotiations to potential military operations. Finally, it will undoubtedly increase ransom demands.
As the seven crew members are allegedly sitting in Haradheere on land, the Indian Tawlar-class warship is on standby off its coast. There is no indication whether additional assets have been deployed from India to assist and in Delhi the current “swap deal” request is being debated by members from the home and external affairs offices, defense, and the shipping ministry. India, which has a reputation for being very confident and assertive, is unlikely to feel comfortable with negotiating at a disadvantage.
The last known swap deal occurred in 1999 when militants hijacked an Indian Airlines passenger aircraft in Kandahar. Three militants were released in exchange for the release of the 150 passengers on board. Returning to the six officers and one leading seamen of the ASPHALT VENTURE, although India has ruled out a military operation publicly, it may be the best option.
If India agrees to conduct a hostage swap, it is unclear how many the pirates want in return but they might as well reach for the stars. The cells in Mumbai are considerably over crowded and unlike the paradise conditions of the jails in the Seychelles or the Maldives, the pirates would surely prefer being released back to Somalia.
The implications are numerous: India would be seen as surrendering to the pirates and its perceived reputation would suffer. It would also likely lead to more EKAWAT NAVA 5 -type operations where India will shoot first and ask questions later out of revenge.
The pirates themselves will appear more like insurgents by pulling off a politically motivated tactic of prisoner exchange. This will undoubtedly change the landscape for future operations and possibly also force a more severe approach by the United States, which has longed for finding the nexus between piracy and terrorism off the Horn of Africa.
From a negotiation standpoint, the implications would be moderate. The breach of not releasing the seven crew with the vessel will require modifications to future negotiation strategies, although the lack of additional ransom payment will not inflate ransom amounts directly. Negotiation cases with Indian crews would, however, have to keep this incident in mind, which will prove to be difficult because pirate terms are yet to be clarified.
The likelihood of this scenario is low.
In addition to sending the wrong message, India is unlikely to engage in a swap and the pirates are unlikely to be overly interested in securing the release of their comrades when further money can be made.
Although the details are not clear about the ransom being lower than the pirates expected, an additional payment is a possibility, whether it is an “outstanding” or an extra payment.
During the government-level negotiation process, India or the pirates could suggest a financial resolution. The ransom demands are likely to resemble those of the LEOPARD case (2011) where the crew were extracted from the citadel and the ship was left dead in the water.
The actual ransom pay out, however, will be far less given that the LEOPARD crew were Westerners and a ransom has already been paid for ASHPALT VENTURE.
Regardless, it will hamper the negotiation process and will complicate both current and future cases. Thus far, it has always been accepted that crews are to be released with the vessel where agreeing to pay an additional ransom will only lead to copycat schemes by pirates and also inflate ransom amounts in the future.
Other pirate groups may look at this in two ways: they may see this as an opportunity to extract additional sums and further push up ransom demands or they may see this as a hindrance jeopardizing their operations.
Thus far there has been an invisible line that pirate groups, short of the QUEST and BELUGA NOMINATON anomalies, have chosen not to cross so as to maintain their business models and refrain from escalating violence to unacceptable levels. The ASPHALT VENTURE case may draw too much attention close to shore where potential military action could disrupt other groups.
The likelihood of this scenario is moderate.
The pirates will opt for a secondary ransom for the release of the crew over swap deal. It is also unlikely that India will support an additional payment for their release; however, they may turn a blind eye if the shipowner proceeds. Doing so will send a clear message to the pirates that their tactics are working and India will lose face.
The final scenario is for India to strike: to wait for the right opportunity and launch an operation to liberate the seven hostages.
This scenario holds the greatest degree of risk and will require the acceptance of multiple casualties (hostages, pirates, and possibly also military) as collateral damage. For India to follow through with its aggressive counter-piracy strategy, this is needed.
The obvious issue is whether the deaths of seven innocent seafarers is acceptable.
Many ship-owners have applauded India’s stance, however, the majority believe that the safety of their crew is the priority. This scenario directly tests the ship-owners and their perception of the role of navies off the Horn of Africa, especially of the consequences of a more assertive navy such as India.
Furthermore, launching a rescue operation on land would be the most dangerous to date where the likelihood of Indian military casualties must be considered. The death of military personnel, which has yet to occur, will be a definite game changer off the Horn of Africa. Is India prepared to take that risk?
A military operation, however, has the potential to avoid the inflation of ransom payouts as well as prevent this incident from becoming a trend.
The likelihood of this scenario is moderate to high.
From the time of writing, it had been released and the crew detained. The Talwar-class warship has been positioned off the coast. The longer they wait to strike, the more time the pirates have to reinforce their positions.
Simultaneously, the more patient the Indians are, the greater success rate of their operation given that previous counter-piracy operations such as the EKAWAT NAVA 5 were overly rushed.
Over all, it is a scenario that no one wishes to be in and for all sides it is a very consequential one.
If India successfully carries out the operation, it will maintain its reputation and continue to secure the respect of Indian and South East Asian ship-owners. It will also send a signal to the pirates that the ASPHALT VENTURE tactic was an unacceptable one. It will also send the message that India is prepared to accept the loss of human life as collateral damage, which has thus far been a bargaining chip for Somali pirates.
Simultaneously, a successful operation will prevent this incident from endangering current negotiations as well alter the ship to crew dynamic in future ones. If India fails, however, it will only make things worse, particularly for the remaining 55 Indians held hostage.
India does nothing
Another possibility is for India to ignore the current situation, which ultimately limits the effectiveness of the pirate’s actions.
The seven hostages are an ideal bargaining chip and should India ignore the scenario and continue on with its operations, it will limit the ability for pirates to find bargaining chips in future cases.
This scenario could backfire considering there are still 55 Indian hostages and India’s neglect could lead to their mistreatment, particularly for the seven connected to ASPHALT VENTURE. If India chooses this tactic, it is essentially conducting a war of attrition against the pirates, which would help it stay true to its hardened policy against piracy.
Doing nothing and ignoring the scenario could also shift the attention away from potential swap deals, which, in turn, is a political hindrance to naval operations.
Essentially, if India ignores the situation, it reinforces the platform that this act is not acceptable and there will be no negotiations at the state level.
However, this stance will have repercussions because it will trigger criticism from international organizations and possibly also the very ship-owners that originally endorsed India’s aggressive counter-piracy strategy.
Unlike choosing to act, doing nothing also saves India the potential consequences of acting and jeopardizing the life of additional military personnel or possibly blundering the operation due to unforeseen variables and losing face.
In any event, the current situation is a predicament for India.
Despite earning the reputation as the “bad cop”, is India’s heavy-handed approach towards pirates in the Gulf of Aden a necessary evil?
While Western naval forces operate under stricter rules of engagement, India’s policy has earned the respect of ship-owners from certain nationalities who demand an eighteenth century response to the piracy off Somalia.
The bottom line is the only way for India to continue playing the bad cop effectively is to accept potential casualties and consider the seven crew as well as the aforementioned 55 hostages as collateral damage by acting.
Alternatively, India can do nothing and continue on with its operations, leaving the fate of the seven hostages in the hands of the ship-owner and negotiator. Doing so successfully will prevent this case from becoming a game changer, whilst doing nothing will prevent navies from becoming further entangled in a prisoner exchange/payment dilemma with political consequences.
The ASHPALT VENTURE incident should remind everyone that navies cannot put an end to piracy, where all this is merely a chapter in the great book of Horn of Africa piracy.
Unless the international community can secure the collective will to fix Somalia on land, the navies will continue to shoulder the counter piracy burden with one hand tied behind their backs – and there will be plenty of chapters to come.