The first successful pirate attack of 2011 could scarcely have come more promptly. In the early afternoon of January 1st, monitors at the Maritime Security Centre-Horn of Africa, based in Northwood near London, picked up distress signals from the MV Blida.
Somali pirates had hijacked the Greek-operated, Algerian-flagged 20,586-tonne bulk carrier, its crew of 27 (mainly Algerian and Ukrainian) and its cargo of clinker. The ship was some 150 nautical miles south-east of the Omani port of Salalah and heading for Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Four days later the Blida’s Ukrainian captain sent word that the ship was berthed off the Somali coast near the pirate lair of Garacad. The crew, he said, was safe and unharmed but the pirates had yet to start haggling with the owners over the ransom.
The Northwood centre was established in late 2008 as part of Operation Atalanta, a European Union (EU) naval initiative against Somali piracy. It works with the Royal Navy’s UK Maritime Trade Operations office in Dubai as a reporting hub for pirate activity and as a communications hub for the multinational naval forces in the area. The seizure of the Blida was the fourth attack on New Year’s Day; the other three were unsuccessful, thanks to evasive action and other protective measures.
Since then attacks have been running at the rate of more than one a day. According to the International Maritime Bureau, which posts live data on raids, Somali pirates hold 33 vessels and 758 hostages. In January alone the bureau recorded 35 attacks. The raiders took seven ships and 148 new hostages. The United Nations estimates the annual cost of piracy in the Indian Ocean at between $5 billion and $7 billion. Later this month, as the monsoon ends and the seas calm, attacks will multiply and the numbers of ships and hostages held will rise (see chart).
Only a handful of attacks make headlines. The British media got into a state about a failed bid in mid-January to hijack The Spirit of Adventure, a cruise ship with 350 British pensioners aboard. A particularly violent rescue carried out by South Korean commandos a few days later attracted coverage, too: they killed eight pirates who had hijacked the Samho Jewelry. Anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the southern Indian Ocean now comprise up to 30 naval vessels. Even so, 2011 is set to be the worst year since Somali piracy revived following the collapse of the short-lived government of the Union of Islamic Courts three years ago.
Somali piracy takes the form of hijacking and extortion, rather than conventional robbery at sea. This predatory pattern evolved from “defensive” piracy that began early in the last decade as a response by local fishermen, mainly of the Hawiye clan, to unlicensed foreign trawlers and the dumping of toxic waste. These outsiders exploited the absence of a functioning Somali state capable of protecting its coastal waters. The Hawiye briefly ceased their activities in 2006 when the anti-piracy Union of Islamic Courts occupied their Haradheere stronghold in central Somalia, but the Darod clan, with bases around Bosasso and Caluula on the Gulf of Aden in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, energetically took up the slack.
Initially, almost all the attacks were in the calm, target-rich waters of the Gulf of Aden—a passage for 20% of the world’s commercial shipping. When anti-piracy naval flotillas began arriving in force a couple of years ago, the pirates quickly worked out ways to roam farther by using “mother ships”, often powerful deep-sea fishing vessels seized earlier, as floating bases for their fast skiffs . With no government willing or able to stop them, the pirates found they could operate with impunity, refining a simple but devastatingly effective business model.
Working capital used to come from Somali criminal networks in Dubai, Nairobi and Lebanon. But increasingly the pirates are able to finance missions from their own earnings, which may have reached $238m last year. The business is disciplined. The pirates usually aim to take vessels without having to fire more than warning shots or harm the crew after boarding. The goal is to extract the highest possible cash ransom and return the ship, its cargo and its crew in decent condition. The pirates tend to keep hostage crews on board their own ships and feed them—sometimes by bringing live goats for slaughtering on board.
What happens next depends on the ransom negotiations. According to Stephen Askins of Ince & Co, an international law firm, the the last six ships released endured hijackings lasting an average of 213 days. The record belongs to the Win Far 161, a Taiwanese fishing vessel that was held for ten months and used as a mother ship with the original crew held captive on board. Three of them died of malnutrition and disease before their release in February last year. Although most of the 1,600 or so seamen captured since 2008 have safely returned from their ordeal, about 30 are thought to have perished from neglect or violence.
Watch our videographic on the recent history of piracy around the world.Ransoms are paid in cash, partly because Somalia has no functioning banking system, and partly to hamper American anti-money-laundering investigators. Once the professional negotiators who work for both sides have agreed on a sum, the money is usually dropped from a light aircraft. Increasingly, however, the pirates accept money using electronic funds transfer. Colonel Richard Spencer, the British chief of the EU’s naval force, says the size of ransoms is rising inexorably.
Mr Askins notes that the average ransom rose from around $1.5m at the beginning of 2009 to $3.5m at the end. In early 2010 Maran Centaurus, a Greek-owned tanker, was reported to have fetched between $5.5m and $7m after being held for 50 days. In November last year a South Korean oil tanker, the Samho Dream, captured in April, set a new record when it was released after a payment of $9.5m. The pirates who hijacked her at first demanded $20m, an indication both of their growing confidence and a form of score-keeping. New records this year seem certain.
The efforts of governments and industry to curb piracy have had mixed results. Three main naval task forces now operate in the area: Operation Atalanta, the EU contingent, which was originally created mainly to protect the UN’s World Food Programme shipments to Somalia, but has expanded to take on a general anti-piracy role; Operation Ocean Shield, a NATO standing maritime group with a similar remit to the EU force and with overlapping national contributions; and CTF-151, a wider international effort based on a 25-nation coalition under American command and headquartered in Bahrain. China, Japan, India, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, among others, deploy their own naval forces under national command.
Since late 2009 all the ships in counter-piracy operations have had access to Mercury, a secure internet-based communication system set up by the British. This helps co-ordination. Ships from one navy or task force can request information or help from another, whatever the state of relations between their two countries. Even Iranian warships can discreetly work together with their American counterparts.
The combined naval forces have had some successes. World Food Programme supplies, on which nearly 2m Somalis depend, are getting through. There are now proportionately fewer attacks in the strategically important Gulf of Aden, thanks in part to escorted convoys and to a transit corridor set up in 2009. By registering his passage, the captain of a commercial vessel can trade information about pirate activity with naval patrols. Task-force commanders gain a clearer picture of vulnerable ships’ locations. Naval intervention disrupts around a fifth of the attacks. The UN estimates that about 700 suspected and convicted pirates are held in 12 countries.
Yet satisfaction at such successes is mixed with frustration and an overwhelming feeling that naval deterrence is doing little more than prevent piracy from getting out of control. Colonel Spencer says: “The military resource is finite and only treats the symptoms. We’re only holding the line.”
The biggest difficulty is that by squeezing the pirates hard in the Gulf of Aden the naval task forces have created a “balloon effect”, spreading attacks out to the middle of the Indian Ocean. In March last year an attack took place 975 nautical miles south of Haradheere, close to Madagascar; and in April the pirates struck 1,300 nautical miles east of Haradheere, nearer the coast of India than Somalia.
The result is that the area of pirate operation is now about the size of western Europe. Policing it, says Colonel Spencer, would require five times as many warships as the task forces can muster, each one with its own helicopter. Even then, a helicopter would typically need around an hour to get from a warship to the scene of an imminent attack. In reality, patrolling frigates get less than ten minutes’ notice of an attack.
By using bigger and better equipped mother ships, pirates can often stay at sea for more than a month at a time, launching a series of raids. They also use more sophisticated equipment, such a GPS tracking devices and radar, to stalk their prey.
A further problem for the task forces is that the pirates are all too aware of the restrictive rules of engagement that bind most of their foes. If a vessel attached to one of the three main flotillas believes that pirates have hostages under their control, it is under orders not to launch an attack. That is why the recent South Korean rescue was exceptional and controversial. Once pirates have taken a ship, they are usually in a strong position. By keeping the original crews captive aboard the mother ships, the pirates largely safeguard themselves from disruption even when their criminal intent is clear.
If they are caught in the middle of an attack, the pirates have no hesitation throwing their weapons—typically AK47 machine guns and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers—and their scaling ladders overboard to destroy evidence of their intentions. Even when a ship succeeds in capturing pirates, both sides know that the legal complexity of bringing prosecutions means the prisoners will probably be quickly released. Naval forces have let between 500 and 700 pirates go over the last three years, mostly ensuring they have enough fuel and other supplies to get home and, on more than one occasion, helping with engine repairs. Some pirates have been arrested several times.
The problems in bringing pirates to justice are numerous. They start with a lack of political will to prosecute them. Rich countries fear that, apart from the trouble and expense of putting pirates on trial, convictions will not deter them. Some may even see a short spell in a western jail followed by an application for political asylum as enticing. Much of the focus has therefore been on persuading regional states such as Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles to prosecute and imprison pirates.
Kenya has borne the brunt of the pressure. Eighteen Somalis are serving long prison sentences there and more than 100 are awaiting trial. In exchange for Kenyan help, the EU has invested about $3m in the country’s judicial system through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, some of which went on building a special court for piracy trials.
However, on September 30th the Kenyan government said that it was ending the agreement with the EU, accusing the outside world of failing to keep its side of the bargain. The internal security minister, George Saitoti, had complained several times that, without more support, Kenya’s justice system could not cope with the influx of pirate captives. The decision was popular with ordinary Kenyans, who felt uncomfortable with the role their country was being asked to play.
The EU, which has put much stress on judicial “capacity-building” in the region, points out that the economic interests of Kenya and neighbouring countries, such as Tanzania, depend on dealing with the threat of piracy, which is having an increasingly chilling effect on their ports. But unless outsiders stump up a lot more money, countries in the region will remain reluctant partners.
There are no easy answers. Outlawing the payment of ransoms seems unfeasible unless there is clear evidence (none exists so far) that some of the money is finding its way into terrorist hands. Making ransoms illegal would only add to the stress and uncertainty that hostage crews face. Although everyone agrees that the answer to endemic piracy ultimately lies on shore, not even the Americans are in favour of taking out the pirate bases. Apart from the pirates’ ability to regenerate quickly, making any such fix temporary, Western military forces have no desire to become embroiled in Somalia. One concern is that a foreign presence there would boost support for the Islamist Shabab militia, which has links with al-Qaeda.
The most encouraging development has been the spread of “best management practices” for deterring piracy. The naval forces and the shipping industry have worked together to advise ship operators and captains crossing the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea on how they should prepare their vessels and crews for the pirate threat. It seems to be working. In 2008 the target ship managed to beat off a pirate assault half the time. Now, three-quarters of the assaults end in failure.
The latest set of guidelines recommend hindering the pirates by maintaining a high cruising speed (supposedly, no pirates have succeeded in boarding and taking a ship doing more that 18 knots); practising evasive manoeuvres; erecting physical barriers, such as concertina razor wire along a ship’s side; and using hoses and foam cannons to deluge pirate skiffs with water when they are close.
Despite some calls to arms, the shipping industry is against stationing armed security guards on board, because of the risk that crews will be caught up in a lethal firefight. But there is growing enthusiasm for ships to have a “citadel”, a fortified area to which the crew can retreat during an attack and from which the sailors can control the ship’s engines and communicate with the task forces and the shore. A citadel needs to be strong enough to withstand the pirates’ determined assaults and to have emergency rations and air conditioning, so that the crew can stay safe for at least 24 hours. The idea is that citadels will give naval forces enough time to arrive and to protect the crew if fighting breaks out. In the past few months several attacks have been foiled this way. The worry is that before long the pirates will bring high explosives with them.
Ultimately, the only way to turn the tide against piracy would be to offer pirates and their families a better way of life. Sadly, there is little prospect of a functioning Somali state—such a thing has not existed for 20 years. Despite signs that an African Union “peacemaking” force is making progress against the Shabab in Mogadishu, the capital, the jihadists still control most of the south. The key, therefore, lies in breakaway Puntland in the north, where nearly all the piracy originates. It is no coincidence that piracy is almost unknown in neighbouring Somaliland, which, though still diplomatically unrecognised, makes a relatively good fist of government.
Weaning Puntland off piracy will be tricky. Investment in the region as an oil and gas producer and aid to rebuild its decayed ports might help in theory. However, Martin Murphy, a scholar of piracy, argues that its “corrupting tentacles” may have wrapped themselves too tightly around Puntland’s political leadership for such an approach to work. Instead, he suggests, support should be directed towards local leaders and clan elders. The money saved, he says, from naval vessels ceasing to plough the seas would be enough to build a civil infrastructure in Puntland.
Unfortunately, too many people like things as they are. Pirates gain wealth, excitement and glamour. Marine insurers, which last month extended the sea area deemed to be at threat from Somali pirates, are making good money from the business that piracy generates. At least for the time being, shipowners are willing to take the calculated risk of sailing in pirate-infested waters; so long as everyone bears his part of the extra $600m a year in premiums, they can pass the bill on to their customers. Patrolling foreign navies can demonstrate their usefulness to their sometimes sceptical political masters, while countries such as China and Russia are strengthening their operational experience.
Heading for the end of the worldOn January 25th Jack Lang, the UN’s special adviser on piracy, presented a report to the Security Council, outlining new security and legal weapons against piracy and calling for economic development in Puntland. Sadly, the extortion and violence will probably have to worsen before the outside world makes a coherent attempt to deal with the pirates. That is no comfort to the crews facing the constant threat of attack or to the mounting number of hostages, living in squalor, fearing for their health and their lives.
Piracy: No Stopping Them, Economist, Feb. 5, 2011, at 69