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A Gulf Between Narratives: Maritime Security in the Gulf of Aden in 2020

In our 2019 annual report, Dryad Global posed the question that on the basis of current trends, could it be said that piracy no longer represents the most significant threat to shipping within the Indian Ocean? Since the publication of this report, however, we have observed an interruption in this downward trend of incidents. Six incidents were reported across the whole of 2019, yet by the midway of 2020 there have been eight incidents reported incidents within the Gulf of Aden alone. At Dryad Global risk analysis is the core function of our business. Therefore, we believe it is vitally important that in light of our previous proposal regarding the wider maritime security threat in the Indian Ocean, we seek to account for this increase in incidents, and provide a level of analysis which while still evolving, seeks to bring clarity to a complex situation, and aids the decision-making of our clients.

A Case of Piracy?

There has historically been a tendency within the maritime security market to adopt a ‘default response’ to suspicious activity within the Indian Ocean and define this as piracy. Whilst there remain well documented historic examples of piracy in the Indian Ocean, evidence of a sustained threat of piracy is far from compelling. Furthermore, forensic analysis suggests anomalies from previous case studies, with much of this work highlighted in Dryad Global’s 2019 annual report.  To establish a narrative that supports the persistence of piracy within the Gulf of Aden, it is prudent to highlight some of the consistencies between what has been reported this year and in other regions where the presence of piracy is beyond question. In addition, it is also prudent to draw consistencies with well documented acts of Piracy as they were at the peak of maritime insecurity in the Indian Ocean.

Acts of maritime piracy the world over are most often typified by the use of skiffs or small fast boats targeting areas where a significant number of vessels are concentrated. All of the incidents reported within the Gulf of Aden this year have cited the presence of such vessels. The use of skiffs provides pirates with several advantages – they can be hard to detect and undermine surveillance and detection of suspected pirate vessels. The average detection zone of a piratical vessels is within 3 nm of the vessel being targeted and is informed by the small radar cross-section of pirate vessels and the lack of visibility at night which provides cover for pirate vessels to operate.

Vessel used by pirates which are utilised at night are usually highly unlikely to be detected. So far, the majority of incident reporting in the Gulf of Aden has occurred within daylight hours. Small vessels are also ubiquitous in the maritime traffic in Gulf of Aden, which can allow piratical vessels to ‘blend in’.

This relative anonymity afforded to such vessels could serve to increase the attractiveness of this location to pirate groups. The high concentrations of similar vessels to pirate skiffs impedes the ability to track vessels suspected of being involved in pirate activities.  This issue is compounded by the speed of these vessels, which can exceed 25 kts and, in is bolstered by the fitting of twin outboard engines commonly 60 hp or larger in size. The speed of pirate skiffs also shapes the tactical approach of piratical vessels; a common feature in incident reporting is that pirate vessels sit in shipping lanes and wait for potential targets to approach, before making a last-minute rapid approach. Indeed the majority of approaches logged within the Gulf of Aden in 2020 have occurred within the IRTC. These advantages result in a situation where vessels used in piracy are highly mobile and have a strong degree of freedom of movement. Whilst these are strengths which pirate vessels possess, they are also commonalities which are seen in many other vessels within the region, and it is a tactical misunderstanding to assume any vessel with these characteristics is automatically associated with piracy.

Secondly piracy also remains an indicator of negative onshore conditions. Poverty, violence, underdevelopment, pollution, corruption, high levels of unemployment, and a lack of good governance create a climate where piracy and can flourish. Somalia, the traditional heartland of Indian Ocean Piracy, has undergone considerable reform across the past two decades. This combined with significant international anti-piracy efforts, such as EU NAVFOR Op ATLANTA and others, has led directly to the dramatic fall in the number of piracy incidents in the Indian Ocean in recent years. However, such conditions continue to persist in the wider region, particularly in Yemen which remains engaged in a state of civil war.

Lastly, pirates have shown the ability to adapt and mitigate issues which limit their operational capability. The operational reach of pirate groups is the range from shore within which they can effectively target vessels. Range limitations have in part been overcome through the use of ‘mother ships’, which allows for the extension of piratical vessel range. The use of such motherships extends the potential range of piracy incidents, and it could be argued, could be seen as a justification and interpretation of wider incidents in the Gulf of Aden which are outside the usual area where piracy is anticipated.

When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit

Not all incidents within the Gulf of Aden fit the typical profile of piratical activity. In 2020 so far we have seen a distinct lack of targeting of opportunistic vessels at either anchor or outside of the international recommended transit corridor (IRTC). Such opportunistic incidents remain common in both West Africa and South East Asia as well as emerging areas of insecurity such as the Gulf of Mexico yet remain conspicuously absent in the Gulf of Aden. Such issues would be anticipated to be observed if there was a heightened or indeed persistent threat of piracy.  In addition, when the volume of incidents recorded  in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean more broadly this year are compared and contrasted with areas such as the Gulf of Guinea which experiences high levels of piracy, then it becomes apparent that there is not yet sufficient evidence to suggest a ‘growing trend’ of piracy in the region. For the Gulf of Aden to be considered a hotspot of pirate activity we would at the least expect a mirroring of the intensity and frequency of incidents seen in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as escalated shows of force by piratical groups. Furthermore, the impact of COVID-19 should also be considered, and lengthy delays at ports and anchorages has increased the volume of potential opportunistic targets which are available to pirates. As the level of attacks has not increased significantly in line with this volume of targets, this would lead to a questioning of the piracy narrative.

An important factor in the downward trend in incident volume in the Indian Ocean has been the significant international naval commitments to counter piracy throughout the area. The presence of such vessels, particularly those safeguarding Gulf of Aden transits, is what led to a significant concentration of incidents deep offshore East Africa, where Pirates were afforded a greater degree of freedom of movement. For Piracy to remain a consistent narrative within the Indian Ocean, one would expect a similar situation to return. That no such incidents have occurred this year would indicate this is no longer the case. With perpetrators of Piracy acutely aware of the risks facing deep offshore operations, a concentration of incidents targeting vessels underway in the most protected of transit corridors would be a highly irregular occurrence. The recent taking of Socotra island, which circa 2011 was a hub or piracy has raised concerns of growing piracy, however the strong UAE presence on the island is likely to not enable pirates the freedom of movement to conduct operations.

So far within 2020, the number of incidents which are classified as attacks stands at 25%. This contrasts with 17% for 2019 and 39% for 2018. Thus, whilst higher than 2019, it would be unreasonable to assume so far within 2020 that levels of kinetic activity have returned to their pre-2019 levels. Most incidents so far this year (75%), have been reported to be suspicious approaches with no such indications of piratical intent being able to be verified. In incidents where shots have been fired, the majority of these have not involved an exchange of fire, but warning shots being fired upon sighting of a suspect vessel, and such incidents in and of themselves cannot be seen as definitive proof that the suspicious vessel was involved in piratical activity. These trends can also be contextualised in the light of current security protocols, to assess whether they meaningfully impact dynamics. It could be suggested that vessels which are employing embarked security teams (AST) see the guards as the ‘ultimate deterrent’ and have therefore employed guards in favour of adopting vessel hardening measures under BMP-5. This could potentially result in a situation where a vessel would appear at first glance to be undefended. However even in these circumstances if this was the case, we would again expect to see a higher level of approaches and attacks so far in 2020.

Is Maritime Terrorism Behind the Incidents in the Gulf of Aden in 2020?

If the incidents being reported in the Gulf of Aden are not piracy, then what might be an alternative explanation? One potential conclusion that has been proposed is that some of these incidents could be the result of maritime terrorism. However, it is important to clarify that maritime terrorism and piracy are not the same things and should be differentiated accordingly. Incidents of maritime terrorism are very infrequent and highly irregular occurrences. Notable examples include the Al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and in 2016, when Al Qaeda used small boats in two attacks in the vicinity of the Port of Al Mukala on the Southern Yemen coast.

One example of an incident in the Gulf of Aden in recent months which could display the hallmarks of maritime terrorism occurred on March 3rd, 90 nm SE of the Yemeni port of Nishtun. The attack was believed to have involved the use of three skiffs, which attempted to attack a Saudi flagged vessel and trigger an explosion. Reports at the time also suggested that one of the skiffs was unmanned and was a water-borne improvised explosive device (WBIED), with video footage and pictures seeming to confirm this.

The use of WBIEDs is an attack methodology that has been used by Houthi rebels within the Bab-El-Mandeb (BaM) strait, specifically in targeting Saudi vessels and represent a localised and limited extension of the war in Yemen. However, the location on Yemen’s SE coast comprehensively rules out Houthi activity, which is almost solely focused on BaM/the Southern Red Sea.  However, the attack on March 3rd is also unlikely to be piratical, due to its mismatch with traditional piracy tactics. This incident was followed by a comparable event, which occurred on May 17th in a similar location, when the British-flagged chemical tanker, Stolt Apal, was attacked by two skiffs which opened fire on the vessel. Again, a Saudi connection was present, as the vessel had previously set sail from Al Jubail. There was a large explosion as a result of the exchange of fire between embarked security forces and the suspect vessel which resulted in a large detonation causing the destruction of the skiff. Photos seen by Dryad Global indicate a large white plume of smoke, more commensurate with ignited explosive material than burning fuel.

Whilst the ultimate cause of these incidents is currently unknown, the incident on March 3rd could be attributable to a Saudi desire to exaggerate the threat posed by Houthis to vessels in the Gulf of Aden to justify its attacks in Yemen on Houthi positions. Nevertheless, the presence of a possible WBIED attack in the Eastern Gulf of Aden should give pause for thought, and implies that a full understanding of the threat profile in this region has not yet been ascertained by the maritime security industry as a whole. It would be reductive and symptomatic of institutional biases to frame such activity as piracy, it does not meet the threat profile of recorded piracy incidents.

Ideological motivations could be one such avenue to attributing the incidents on March 3rd and May 17th to terrorist activity. A group which would fit this profile is Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), who as well as having an ideological motive to attack Saudi/Western assets, were active in the South of Yemen up until 2016. However, such a course of action by this group has not been seen in this area in recent years and there is no credible evidence at this stage which would suggest a cause of anti-Saudi terrorism on the southern coast of Yemen. Furthermore, the targeting of vessels through the use of WBIEDs and/or other attacks in this area is unlikely to have a decisive strategic effect which can be perceived. Dryad Global assesses that ideologically motivated attacks are a less likely driver of possible maritime terrorism in the Gulf of Aden than more pragmatically focused attacks which tie into a broader realpolitik, as would be manifested by a nation such as Iran.

Beyond the significant concentration of commercial traffic in the Gulf of Aden, there is a considerable volume of traffic which supports the flow of illicit goods and the illegal migration of populations from Yemen and East Africa. The volume of this black-market maritime traffic is known to have increased as a result of Somalia’s continuing progress towards becoming a legitimate state and as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen becomes increasingly acute.

The crisis in Yemen creates a demand for goods which cannot be brought in through conventional ports such as Hodeidah and factional splits create multiple lines of communication through which goods and resources are sought. Vessels involved in such activities are often of a poor quality and frequently have no lighting. These vessels regularly conduct themselves in a manner that makes them stand out from legitimate maritime traffic and thus have the potential to significantly increase the false alarm rate – and are misattributed as vessels suspected of pirate activity. Individuals involved in the illicit trade of drugs and weapons are also likely to be armed and prone to conduct approaches which are irregular in nature. When combined with increased sensitivities towards regional insecurity, born of a turbulent 2019 for shipping in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, such illicit activities could explain why reporting of suspicious approaches in the West of the Gulf of Aden have increased. However, they do not sufficiently paint a narrative which can explain more serious incidents where vessels have been fired upon in the East of the Gulf of Aden.


Whether the explanation of current events in the Gulf of Aden is attributable to human trafficking, the influence of maritime terrorism, the over-reporting of approaches which are being cautiously labelled as suspicious or perhaps, against all indications, is a resurgence in piracy, it is prudent that a full and thorough analysis of events is conducted.  Establishing a narrative which explains the maritime security events in the Gulf of Aden so far in 2020 is complicated but may yield a bold and potentially uncomfortable conclusion. With approximately 33,000 transits annually through the Gulf of Aden and the vast majority of the very low incident reporting amounting to little more than reports of what could be irregular maritime traffic, it is clear that the assertion that piracy, in its traditional form at least, no longer presents the most significant risk to shipping in the Indian Ocean remains. Further still, current data, when compared with 2019 and provided with context, suggests that despite the increased volume of reporting, there has not in fact been a corresponding increase in risk profile to the region.

It is essential that companies have access to independent and impartial risk analysis which supports them to understand and mitigate risk in a cost effective and sustainable manner, whilst never compromising on crew safety. With an ever increasing volume of companies looking to reduce their dependency on the AST model, both as a result of the reduction in risk and the pressures of a post COVID-19 trading environment, it is increasingly essential that companies have access to independent analysis that cuts through the paucity of simplistic narratives that force an over-reliance on commercially punitive mitigations. With the risk to vessels more dynamic and less clear than perhaps any other time in history, the issue of crew safety has never been more important.

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