Now that monsoon season is over, Somali pirates are back in action in a big way.
Their latest catch – a South Korean supertanker on its way from Iraq to the United States with crude oil worth more than $170 million – is the ninth ship to be seized in the past few weeks. Similar hijackings have fetched ransoms of more than $5.5 million.
A South Korean naval destroyer has now caught up to the 300,000-ton Samho Dream, though it is unlikely to launch an assault on the ship due to the highly volatile nature of the cargo, reports the Associated Press.
When other tankers have been captured by Somali pirates – such as a Greek-flagged oil supertanker seized in November and a Saudi supertanker taken in 2008 – naval ships have done little more than shadow the ship toward the Somali coast, where pirates often keep the ship during ransom negotiations.
That's leading more ships to hire private armed security units to protect them, reports the Monitor.
But not the Samho Dream.
“Somali pirates were believed to be inactive in the area where the tanker was seized,” according to the shipping company.
Despite the rise in piracy farther out to sea, this is not unreasonable. The Indian Ocean is vast and thousands of ships pass through each week unharmed.
"It's understandable [that the Samho Dream did not have a security detail]," says Francisco Quinones, director of operations at Clayton Consultants, Inc., a security and risk management company based in Herndon, Va. "The odds of a piracy attack are still very, very low."
Then there's the cost. Hiring a security detail for shipments around the world can be very expensive.
There are also a range of sticky legal and logistical issues involved, says Quinones, whose firm offers crisis management training and ransom negotiation support for shipping crews, among a variety of other services.
It's not easy to coordinate weapons permits in different countries, for instance. And what if your armed security detail fails to repel the attack? Will angry pirates retaliate once on board? And who'd be responsible for what comes of that?
On March 23, private security guards protecting a commercial ship shot dead a Somali pirate, the first recorded incident of its kind.
As the Monitor reported, the incident could be a glimpse of dicey times ahead.
“This could be the beginning of a violent period,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, head of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi. “If [the pirates] see guys with shiny barrels pointing at them, they might fire first.”