Terrifying world of modern day pirates who make billions attacking ships with rocket launchers & machine guns

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PIRATES might be associated with eye patches, swords and cannons – but the reality of modern piracy and its bloodshed is much more terrifying.

Heavily-armed anti-terror troops had to storm a hijacked ship off the Isle of Wight this week after stowaways allegedly posed a threat to the crew's life.

Special Boat Service commandos seized stowaways on an oil tanker in just seven minutes

Special Boat Service commandos seized stowaways on an oil tanker in just seven minutes

The daring raid took place after the Nave Andromeda tanker sent out a distress call off the Isle of Wight on Monday morning

The daring raid took place after the Nave Andromeda tanker sent out a distress call off the Isle of Wight on Monday morning

But the oil tanker incident, which the SBS resolved in just seven dramatic minutes, is just the latest in a growing list of shocking crimes to take place at sea this year.

The first three months of 2020 saw a staggering 24 per cent increase in pirate attacks and attempted pirate attacks compared with the same period in 2019.

And with the economic effects of the pandemic being felt around the world, experts fear piracy may continue to spread as criminals look for lucrative income.

And it is big business – some estimates put economic losses from piracy as high as $13-16 billion (£10-12 billion) every year.

Somali pirate Hassan standing near a Taiwanese fishing vessel washed ashore after the pirates were paid a ransom and the crew were released in 2012

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Somali pirate Hassan standing near a Taiwanese fishing vessel washed ashore after the pirates were paid a ransom and the crew were released in 2012Credit: AP:Associated Press

But it's the threat to crews brought by modern pirates with sophisticated tactics and military-grade weapons which worries analysts, particularly in hotspots like the Gulf of Guinea.

"The violence towards the crew is quite high and significant," says Cyrus Mody, from the International Chamber of Commerce, told US News.

"The incidents are targeted at the kidnappings of the crew and the attacks are a lot more violent than other parts of the world."

Cash for kidnapping & rocket launchers

The so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" might have ended with the 18th century – but daring raids at sea have become a constant menace once again in the new millennium.

An explosion of piracy in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast in the 2000s brought the issue sharply into international attention.

Somali piracy rocketed in the 2000s after the country's navy disbanded

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Somali piracy rocketed in the 2000s after the country's navy disbandedCredit: AP:Associated Press

The collapse of the Somali government in 1991 and the following disbandment of its navy allowed foreign trawlers to illegally fish the Somalian seaboard and dump industrial waste in its waters.

Fishermen from Somali coastal communities responded by arming themselves to protect local resources.

But they soon found that taking over foreign ships and demanding ransoms was a highly profitable racket in and of itself, and they even gained backing from former militiamen looking to make money from the emerging crime.

Typical hijackings would involve pirates approaching vessels from the rear on fast boats, threatening the ship with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and rifles, and then boarding the target ship using ladders.

Pirates and hostages aboard the captured yacht Tanit in 2009 - French commandos eventually stormed the captured vessel, in which one civilian and two pirates were killed

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Pirates and hostages aboard the captured yacht Tanit in 2009 - French commandos eventually stormed the captured vessel, in which one civilian and two pirates were killedCredit: AFP

Once on board, they would take control of the bridge and detain the crew – as was the case in the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, depicted in the Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips (2013).

In the same year, Brit couple Paul and Rachel Chandler were sailing off the coast of the Seychelles in their 38-foot yacht, Lynn Rival, when they were shot at by eight Somali pirates in the dead of night.

The armed mercenaries climbed aboard and kidnapped them, first taking them to the previously hijacked merchant ship MV Kota Wajar and then to land, were they were held for 388 agonising days.

The terrified couple were eventually released after a reported £600,000 ransom was paid to their captors.

Paul Chandler being examined by a Somali doctor in 2010 following his release from pirates who kidnapped him in the Indian Ocean in 2009

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Paul Chandler being examined by a Somali doctor in 2010 following his release from pirates who kidnapped him in the Indian Ocean in 2009Credit: AFP

“We are just animals to them,” Rachel said after her release, Channel 4 reports.

“We have been kept caged up like animals. They don’t care about our feelings and our family and our lives and what they’ve taken.

"They don’t care whose lives they ruin. They just want the money.

“They don’t understand that we are just ordinary people.

"They think we come from a rich country and that if they point a gun at us and threaten us that we will find a way of raising money."

Rachel Chandler, pictured after her release, says pirates treat their hostages like animals

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Rachel Chandler, pictured after her release, says pirates treat their hostages like animalsCredit: AFP

By 2010, Somali waters had become the most pirate-infested in the world, accounting for 92 per cent of the 53 ships captured worldwide that year.

Tragically, eight crew members even lost their lives out of a total 1,181 hostages taken worldwide in 2010.

Since then, international efforts to disrupt attacks have caused the numbers of Somali pirate raids at sea to fall dramatically.

Successful attacks fell from 28 in 2011 to just 14 in 2012, and in August this year, the last three hostages of the thousands taken by Somali pirates were finally released.

Swedish navy fighters alongside the warship MS Carlskrona, the flagship of the European Union's force to hunt down Somali pirates in 2010

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Swedish navy fighters alongside the warship MS Carlskrona, the flagship of the European Union's force to hunt down Somali pirates in 2010Credit: AP:Associated Press

Taken hostage for over two years

In response to tightening security at sea, many pirates looked to take hostages on land – with some captives held for years.

US journalist Michael Scott Moore was held for a staggering 977 days after he was captured by armed men in January 2012.

He was in Somalia researching a book about piracy when he was taken in the city of Galkayo.

Michael Scott Moore being held at gunpoint by his pirate captors

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Michael Scott Moore being held at gunpoint by his pirate captors

Moore's wrist was broken in the abduction and he watched another captive being tortured during his imprisonment – pirates hung the hostage upside down from a tree and beat him with a bamboo cane.

"I was just afraid," Moore told NPR. "I was afraid of what was about to happen."

He was constantly moved around from place to place, including being put on the captured Naham 3 ship with its crew – some of whom remained hostages for five years – while his kidnappers negotiated his ransom.

They demanded $20million for his release, but Moore's mum negotiated them down to $1.6million.

In September 2014, two-and-a-half years after his capture, Moore was finally released when the ransom was paid.

Moore pictured in 2018, four years on from his nightmare pirate ordeal

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Moore pictured in 2018, four years on from his nightmare pirate ordealCredit: AP:Associated Press

"People say, 'You must have been overjoyed,' but any ransom is a filthy compromise, and I had long ago given up on hope as a dangerous indulgence," Moore wrote in The Guardian.

In a bizarre twist, one of his captors began sending Moore friendly messages on Facebook two months after his release – the pirate was ultimately arrested and charged with kidnapping, hostage taking, and other crimes.

'Everyone's vulnerable' to knives and guns

The crackdown on Somalian pirates has also meant there are now different piracy hotspots bubbling up around the world.

The Gulf of Mexico has seen several attacks thanks to Mexico's oil industry offering valuable targets to thieves in recent years.

And there were 51 instances of armed robbery and piracy in Asian waters between January and June this year – almost double the 28 incidents in the same period in 2019.

Members of a visit, board, search and seizure team from the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg investigating suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden in 2009

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Members of a visit, board, search and seizure team from the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg investigating suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden in 2009Credit: EPA

But it's the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa which now accounts for the majority of the world's maritime kidnappings.

"Violence against crews is a growing risk in a workforce already under immense pressure," International Maritime Bureau Director Michael Howlett said, Schillings reports.

"In the Gulf of Guinea attackers armed with knives and guns now target crews on every type of vessel. Everyone’s vulnerable."

And the problem is getting worse.

Captured Somali pirates sitting with their faces covered in Mumbai after taking a fishing trawler used as a pirate mothership off the coast of India

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Captured Somali pirates sitting with their faces covered in Mumbai after taking a fishing trawler used as a pirate mothership off the coast of IndiaCredit: EPA

According to recent IMB statistics, of the 85 seafarers kidnapped between January and September this year, 80 were taken in the Gulf of Guinea.

That's a whopping 40 per cent rise on the same period in 2019.

In just one incident in July this year, eight pirates with machine guns stormed a product tanker 196 nautical miles southwest of Bayelsa, Nigeria.

They took all 19 crew members of the MT Curacao Trader hostage, a ship owned by UK-based Lomar Shipping.

Nigerian naval forces on an anti-pirate interception exercise last year

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Nigerian naval forces on an anti-pirate interception exercise last yearCredit: AFP - Getty

The pirates escaped with valuable items and 13 kidnapped crew – but thankfully the sailors were released safely a month later.

Cruise ship passengers chucking chairs at pirates

While the vast majority of pirate attacks are aimed at commercial ships, seafaring criminals will hit anything they think can yield a profit – and cruise ships have been targeted before.

In 2005, the luxury liner Seabourn Spirit was attacked by two pirate speedboats launched from a mothership in the early hours off the coast of Somalia.

The Seabourn Spirit was attacked with automatic weapons and grenades in 2005

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The Seabourn Spirit was attacked with automatic weapons and grenades in 2005Credit: Seabourn

A British passenger on board the Seabourn snapped this picture of one of the pirate boats shooting at the cruise liner

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A British passenger on board the Seabourn snapped this picture of one of the pirate boats shooting at the cruise linerCredit: AP:Associated Press

The thugs menaced the 300 crew and passengers on board with volleys of machine gun fire and RPGs.

With bullets and rockets whizzing overhead, quick-thinking security officer Michael Groves fired a high-power hose at the pirates to try and deter them.

It kept them at bay for a while – but the pirates persisted with their lethal assault, seriously injuring the Seabourn Spirit's Master of Arms, Som Bahadur Gurung.

Groves witnessed the moment Gurung was shot as he tried to activate the ship's powerful sonic weapon, called the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD).

Blast damage on board the Seabourn sustained in the terrifying pirate attack

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Blast damage on board the Seabourn sustained in the terrifying pirate attackCredit: AP:Associated Press

The remnants of an RPG stuck in the hull of the ship, which had to be removed by ordnance experts

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The remnants of an RPG stuck in the hull of the ship, which had to be removed by ordnance expertsCredit: U.S. Navy

"I saw a spray of blood and he just went straight down," Groves told the BBC.

"I thought he was gone but he opened one eye. He looked like half his head had been blown off."

Groves was able to drag Gurung to safety and turn the LRAD on the pirates.

The loudhailer-like device can cause permanent hearing damage at a range of over 300 metres – forcing the pirates to abandon their raid.

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Groves was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal and Gurung received the Queen's Commendation for Bravery for their incredible heroics.

Passengers aboard the MSC Melody cruise ship even threw tables and deck chairs at Somali pirates who tried to board off the coast of the Seychelles in 2009 before the vessel's security forces arrived with pistols.

But thankfully no cruise ship has ever been successfully taken by pirates.

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