While the European naval mission Atalanta avoids definitive contact with the pirates who plague the waters around the Horn of Africa, shipping companies are protecting their vessels with armed private security personnel. SPIEGEL joined one such ship as it ran the pirate gauntlet on the world's most important trade route.
A cardboard carton the size of a shoebox bobs about in the Red Sea waves. As James Roles observes it through a telescope, a shot rings out. "Not bad," he says, "but you're a little bit short. Go ahead and aim it a little higher."
Kevin McGregor sets his rifle's telescopic sights on the box and pulls the trigger once again. Roles is satisfied. It's a hit. He's ready.
Roles and his British team arrived onboard two days ago. The GasChem Antarctic had just left the Suez Canal when a motorboat approached the ship carrying the men. They are four ex-Royal Marines who now work for the British security company Neptune Maritime Security. The men were sporting military-style close-cropped haircuts, wearing Bermuda shorts and polo shirts, and carrying large, black bags as they climbed the ladder onto the ship.
Roles and his colleagues fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Now their task is to protect the GasChem Antarctic on behalf of Hartmann, a shipping company based in Leer, in northwestern Germany. The gas tanker unloaded ethylene in Spain and is now en route to the United Arab Emirates, where it will be loaded up again with gas to deliver to Argentina.
But first the 155-meter (510-foot) ship must pass through the world's most dangerous waters -- the sea around the Horn of Africa, the hunting ground of Somalia's pirates. In the first three months of this year alone, seven people were killed and 34 injured in pirate attacks. This marks an escalation. "The first quarter of 2011 registered the highest number of piracy incidents since observation began in 1991," reads the latest piracy report from Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Globally, a total of 142 incidents were reported, with 18 ships hijacked and 350 sailors taken hostage. The number of cases has "more than doubled" from the previous year, according to the report.
And nowhere is more dangerous than around the Horn of Africa, where nearly all the hijackings occur. The stretch of the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman down to Madagascar is labeled a "high-risk zone." This passage between Europe and Asia is one of the world's most important trade routes, and is a vital artery for the global economy. And it is also where anarchy reigns.
The teleprinter on the bridge of the GasChem Antarctic provides continuous printouts of the latest alerts from international shipping organizations in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), giving Captain Torsten Köhler, 46, an idea of what risks he's facing.
1510 UTC, Latitude 12 33N, Longitude 04 26E, Bab el-Mandeb, Red Sea . Pirates attack a tanker using five skiffs. They have weapons and ladders. Captain sounds alarm, performs evasive maneuver, security forces onboard alert warship. Pirates retreat on its arrival.
1520 UTC, Latitude 12 37N, Longitude 043 19E, Bab el-Mandeb, Red Sea . Two skiffs approach container ship, pursue it from a distance of one-half nautical mile. Captain calls for help, accelerates, performs evasive maneuver. Skiffs retreat.