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Energy & Climate Change 

Hijacked Super Tanker Exposes Vulnerability of Energy Supplies 


By Michael G. Frodl 

The hijacking on the high seas by Somali pirates of a super tanker carrying 2 million barrels of crude oil destined for the United States created many troubling precedents and makes the vulnerability of energy supplies quite clear.

No less than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs expressed amazement at a hijacking 450 nautical miles out to sea. Most hijackings have occurred closer to Somali waters, usually 50 miles out at most, or in the nearby Gulf of Aden. The hijacking of the Saudi “Sirius Star” crude carrier was something that many piracy experts argued couldn’t be done. The $25 million ransom, which previously averaged $1 million to $3 million at most, was another precedent.

Because of U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the hijacking leaves us with no choice but to defend the supply lines long into the future.

Somalia’s implosion as a functioning nation dates back to the early 1990s. Soon afterwards, the United States attempted to protect humanitarian food deliveries that were being intercepted by warlords. Mission creep led us to “Blackhawk Down” and was followed by a retreat of the U.S. military from Somalia.

A region without much of a functioning national government attracted all sorts of trouble. International industrial fishing fleets were tempted by the unsupervised waters and over-fished with impunity. Criminal gangs in Europe saw Somalia as a good place to dump hazardous waste. And foreign Islamists found refuge in Somalia, too.

Somali fisherman formed their own “coast guard” in an attempt to repel the foreign fishing fleets. When that proved ineffective, some realized that “fishing” for foreign ships was more rewarding than going after dwindling fish stocks. Somalis turned the lack of an effective coast guard and police to their advantage. Pirates in other countries sometimes keep a ship, repaint it, remove all markings and sell it and its cargo to people who don’t ask questions. But Somalis have made a specialty of grabbing ships, kidnapping crews and holding them for ransom.

It didn’t take long for this cottage industry to get professional. Fishermen started using better weapons, hiring paramilitaries for boarding parties and “geeks” to run the high-tech tools. Clan members in the West procured their pirate cousins satellite phones, GPS devices, computers, and cash advances, all in exchange for a percentage of the ransom. Most ship owners paid the ransom after a few months of haggling. Somali ransoms became a sort of “toll” that had to be endured by shippers — not insignificant, but not prohibitive either.

Soon the fishermen were negotiating for million-dollar ransoms. At any one time they held maybe 200 to 300 crew members captive. The life of a pirate became something for young Somalis to strive after: fancy foreign sports cars, pretty girls, nice lodgings, big wads of cash. The economy of Somalia became pirate-centric — and so did the police and what remained of the government. Everyone benefited, and everyone became corrupt. Only southern Somalia where the Islamists are in control resisted the lure of piracy.

Then Somali pirates got greedy and seized the Saudi Sirius Star. A ship of more than 1,000 feet, she represents the largest class of oil tanker. She weighs 300,000 tons, has a draft of 17 meters and when fully laden transports 2 million barrels of crude — roughly a quarter of a day’s Saudi production. She cost $140 million to build and the day she was seized far off the coast of Kenya, her load of oil could have fetched $110 million. She’s the biggest and most valuable ship seized by pirates in history.

Somali pirates did not just stumble across her on the high seas: they had to have planned this hijacking meticulously. They probably had a spy at the Saudi port she steamed from who alerted them to her time of departure and intended path, and maybe he was even on board. For a “mother ship,” the pirates hijacked a tug boat in Nigeria months earlier and piloted it thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope. The tug allowed the pirates to go out far to sea and survive massive swells far better than the fishing ships they had used before. They loaded high-speed rubber craft onto the tug and then crept up on the lumbering tanker most likely at night from behind. Tankers used to move at 22 knots, but to save fuel now move only at 15 or less. If the crew of the crude carrier spied the tug as she commenced her attack, any attempt to put distance between them would have been fruitless — you don’t throw a 300,000 ton vessel into “all ahead full” and see any meaningful increase in speed before the hostiles board.

The pirates took her home and because of her deep draft parked her no closer than three miles out at sea. That they pulled that off without grounding her proved the experts wrong: no ship is too big to hijack and steer safely home. The pirates then demanded an eye-popping $25 million ransom.

When the pirates who seized the Ukrainian MV Faina in late September demanded $10 million from the owners to get the ship carrying 30 Soviet-era tanks back, ship owners and insurers were shocked but thought they still had a “one of a kind” case, given the unusual cargo. When the pirates who seized the Sirius Star demanded $25 million, ship owners and insurers realized that things were only going to grow worse.

While at least one ambitious insurer associated with Lloyds came out in December with new piracy insurance that protects a ship for one transit through the Gulf of Aden for up to $1.5 million, most others realized that they would not be able to charge enough premiums to keep up with the escalating claims. Lloyds denounced pirates as “terrorists of the high seas” and insisted that ransoms no longer be paid. The Saudi foreign minister agreed with Lloyds. Some oil tanker owners began looking to avoid the Gulf of Aden entirely and take the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, even if it meant 10 to 14 days longer for deliveries and about a half million dollars more in fuel and labor costs. Insurers and ship owners also started calling for military intervention against the Somali pirates.

The problem was that only a small handful of warships patrol the western Indian Ocean. U.S., U.K., French, German, as well as Russian, Indian and Malaysian warships numbered maybe a dozen. Barely enough to patrol a shipping lane through the Gulf of Aden, 15 miles wide and well over a thousand miles long. By some estimates, 22,000 commercial ships traverse the Gulf yearly, going to or coming from the Suez Canal. The small flotilla of warships was nowhere near what was needed to patrol the entire Western Indian Ocean — a million square miles of open water. Even with new warships dispatched from China, South Korea and elsewhere by the end of December, the international flotilla would still be woefully undersized.

If increased patrols weren’t the solution, insurers and shipping companies called then for a naval blockade of Somalia and attacks on pirate bases. Other than the longer and more costly trip around the Cape of Good Hope, shippers had little else they could do on their own than to hire private security guards. But that is by no means without danger — guards can sink a ship with their own arms if not careful — and the presence of armed guards can void insurance coverage. Nor are guards always effective. A chemical tanker attacked by just five well-armed Somali pirates saw its three unarmed British private guards jumping overboard to escape capture after a short fight with water hoses, which only angered the Somalis.
Some crews are simply stopping their ship dead in the water and refusing to enter the Gulf. Other crews are not letting pirates board without a fight. One Chinese crew pelted Somalis with Molotov cocktails and successfully repelled the attack. The captured crew of one hijacked ship staged an unprecedented and unsuccessful rebellion against their captors, and the crew of another hijacked ship released after a ransom was paid came up short three crew members.

Further complicating things, the Russian navy is eager to rush to the rescue. Moscow claimed that the nominal Somali national government invited it to enter its territorial waters and recover the Soviet era tank-carrying MV Faina. Even if true, why would Russia be allowed to recover a Ukrainian ship when no proof existed that Kiev had ever asked Moscow for help? More likely, the Russian navy was looking for a pretext to pose as the rescuer of choice, as well as gain leverage over Ukraine. The Russian navy and foreign office even threatened to go back to the old British Royal navy tactic of “cutting out” pirate bases and laying waste to Somali coastal towns.

What may really be motivating the Russians is the goal of resurrecting their massive Cold War naval base on the strategically located island of Socotra in the Gulf of Aden. In the 1980s the Russians spared no expense to build one of the world’s biggest military ports, with dry docks and a giant submarine base on the island, which is leased from South Yemen. We might see Moscow’s hand on the spigot for Middle Eastern oil to Europe, in addition to the other hand already controlling natural gas pipelines to Europe. If Europe has an energy security problem, by extension so does the United States.

By mid-December, the United States was falling in line with the United Kingdom and agreeing to pursue military operations against pirates in Somali territorial waters and even on land, if only to not leave a complete void for the Russians to exploit. The Pentagon, however, was publicly expressing reservations about launching such operations. A U.N. Security Council resolution will allow just that.

Not by coincidence, the terrorist attacks on the Indian port city of Mumbai in late November were perpetrated by operators who were delivered to shore by fast rubber boats that were dropped from a hijacked Indian fishing trawler. Islamist terrorists are taking advantage of the same thing Somali pirates exploit — poorly patrolled waters in the Indian Ocean.

Some insurers and shippers might give up entirely on this increasingly violent ocean. But other commercial interests will still be obliged to navigate its dangerous waters, including oil tankers leaving the Persian Gulf. Iraq’s Defense minister was quoted as saying that if U.S. forces were to leave “too soon,” the Gulf could become as pirate-infested as Somali waters.

Tankers leaving the Persian Gulf, even Iranian tankers, might soon have no other option in the western Indian Ocean than to move in convoys with military escort. In the Gulf of Aden, no less than 10 days after the hijacking of the Sirius Star, convoys of tankers and other freighters began spontaneously forming behind warships escorting individual commercial ships through the Gulf of Aden. It’s now standard policy for ships to wait, despite the added cost and delay, for a sufficient number to amass to form a convoy and for warships to provide escort.

Beyond the patrolled Gulf of Aden corridor, the U.S. and other navies should focus on locating and destroying the larger ships that pirates have hijacked and not returned to their rightful owners. These mother ships have become the aircraft carriers of the pirates, which allows them to project power well beyond their local waters. The navies of the world need to deny pirates this new improvised weapon and push them closer in to Somali shores.  

Modern international law defines piracy as any criminal activity for private gain on the high seas. Criminal activity for political reasons, for example, by independence groups is exempted, while criminal activity in territorial waters is the coastal state’s responsibility. International law limits the use of deadly force by warships to self defense. So, although limited, there is a legal way to rid ourselves of the problem, as long as Somali pirates cooperate and open fire on warships wanting a closer look at their mother ships — as did one recently hijacked ship that was promptly sunk by an Indian warship.

The United States already has satellites that can monitor sea traffic. Long range aircraft, including unmanned drones, can inspect suspicious ships more quickly, at greater distances and more cheaply than any warship.

A regional navy such as India’s — the fifth largest in the world — also intends to use satellites and aircraft, and should join the hunt against high seas mother ships. India already deployed naval reconnaissance aircraft to Djibouti, in a redoubling of its efforts to combat piracy after the sea-launched attacks on Mumbai. India’s navy has become the premier force combating Somali piracy and is a counterweight not just to the Russian navy, but also to the Chinese.  

China, along with India, have the most to lose or gain in the Indian Ocean, be it from shipping finished exports to Europe and the United States, or importing raw materials and oil from Africa.

The Indian Ocean sees 60 percent of the world’s commerce transit through its waters.                                              

Michael G. Frodl is a tax attorney, former chairman of the Environmental Law Committee of the Bar Association of Washington, D.C. and an advisor on emerging risks. He is a co-founder of the Forum for Environmental Law, Science, Engineering and Finance. His personal views do not represent those of FELSEF.

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Reader Comments

Re: Hijacked Super Tanker Exposes Vulnerability of Energy Supplies

nice article. its really innovative solution thanks for sharing

Adain on 07/23/2009 at 01:58

Re: Hijacked Super Tanker Exposes Vulnerability of Energy Supplies

This article is far-reaching and yet easily explains some of the conflict. Good work.

Steve Kennedy on 04/09/2009 at 19:18

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