NATO has been urged to define what it means by “soft approaches” in its latest report on piracy in Somalia because, left undefined, it increases the risk of more shootings and confusion at sea, according to C-Level Maritime Risks founder Michael Frodl.
In its report Nato noted that recently, pirate action groups have made so-called “soft-approaches” to merchant ships transiting the high-risk area.
“A skiff will often approach a vessel in order to probe the reactivity of an embarked security team, if present,” the report said.
“If [there is] no response, the pirates may proceed with an attack, sometimes accompanied by a second skiff. This practice is likely more economical as they would avoid needless expenditure of resources, such as ammunition, and personal risk without a significant probability of success.”
However, Nato also said several incidents had been reported to counterpiracy organisations in the area involving small craft approaches to merchant vessels.
“Although these incidents may appear to be piracy-related, the majority actually are not and have been assessed as non-piracy-related activity common to the pattern of life in the area,” it said. “This can include fishing, small vessel trade, smuggling and other local traffic.
“Please note that if we assess an approach or incident to be piracy, we will issue relevant warnings and alerts, keeping the merchant shipping community fully informed at all times.”
Mr Frodl has urged Nato to explain how it assesses what constitutes a soft approach.
He said this was important, not only to prevent attacks but to ensure that private maritime security companies do not mistake innocent approaches for an imminent attack.
“Left undefined, the soft approach reasoning could lead to even more shootings of innocent fishermen — these venturing to close to a ship to… [sell] fresh catch to the vessel and also more confusion about whether and to file piracy reports,” Mr Frodl said.
“We don’t need more shootings and even less situational awareness.”
Mr Frodl questioned how many true soft approaches are noted and reported, but then dismissed by the reporting centres as simply fishermen.
“Reporting centres are in part responsible for having underestimated piracy incidents by their having overcompensated for the over reporting of suspicious activity since 2009,” he said.
“Back then ship masters were especially jittery and flooding centres with false reports as hijackings spiked. They were counselled to not overreact. And it also seems that some reporting centres overreacted themselves and dismissed too many reports out of hand.
“That was unfortunate and led to serious degradation of maritime situational awareness.”
Conversely, Mr Frodl said there was a concern that innocent fishermen approaching a low and slow-moving merchant vessel and trying to sell fresh catch to the crew would be mistaken for a “soft approach” by pirates after this Nato advisory.
“The problem runs in the opposite direction — even once one puts aside the incredulity of piracy reporting centres,” he said. “Bottom line, soft approaches are going to lead to more problems with reporting piracy incidents and to more confusion, ill-feeling on all sides, and less situational awareness.”
Mr Frodl said that this behaviour from pirates was not necessarily new as C-Level Maritime Risks had received unpublished reports a couple of years ago of Eritrean fishermen being obliged by the local security forces to go close up to merchant vessels pulling into port or simply transiting south and observe if there were any “hardening” of defences, including razor wire on the railings.
“We’d been told that reports were collected by the Eritrean special services and passed along to Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden to aid in their targeting of merchant vessels.
“That’s what Nato today might call a two-part soft approach: one set of men do the close-up [reconnaissance], then pass the report downstream to the attack team, who decide which ship to attack.”
Mr Frodl said it was not surprising that the Somali pirates who are now making it out to sea, most probably by eluding detection by aerial reconnaissance drones and warships, are being just as careful to avoid detection by armed guards.
“It’s inevitable that, as the navies and armed guards and best management practices weed out the pirates who can’t survive increased pressures, those who do survive and stay around are smarter.”