For Somali pirates, July was a very bad month

Private guards and international naval patrols – and some rough seas – have prevented successful high-seas hijackings by Somali pirates since June 19, the first zero-attack month since 2007.

Joseph Okanga/REUTERS
Five Somali pirates, who have been sentenced to a jail term of 20 years each, sit in court at the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa August 8.

As the trade winds shift on the Indian Ocean and Force 7 gales kick up fierce swells, all but the hardiest of Somalia’s notorious pirates stay home with their boats pulled up on the beach. 

There have always been a few, however, who continued to roam what have become the world's most dangerous waters, continuing the hijacks even as the weather worsened during July and August. 

But new figures from the International Maritime Bureau show something different for this year’s monsoon, currently in full force on the waters off the Horn of Africa

Since June 19, Somalia’s pirates have not successfully taken any vessel hostage, and since June 26, they have not even tried to carry out a hijack. 

This marks the longest unbroken stretch of peaceful shipping off Somalia since piracy emerged as a major menace in 2007, and the drop has been attributed to a greater use of armed guards on ships, international naval patrols, and the bad weather. 

“This is traditionally a quiet time for pirate attacks, but there have still always been a handful [of] incidences even during the monsoon months of July and August,” says Cyrus Mody at the IMB’s office in Britain.

“However since June 26 this year, we have seen no activity whatsoever in the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Arabia, or the Somali Basin.”

This is already after a 60 percent reduction in pirate attacks in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same stretch last year, from 163 incidents to 69. Despite this, Somali pirates still hold as many as 191 crew and up to 14 merchant vessels and fishing boats. 

“We’ve learned a lot about piracy and we’re being a great deal more proactive in disrupting their activities,” says Rear Adm. Duncan Potts, operational commander of the European Union’s anti-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta.

Roughly three dozen warships from the US Navy, Britain's Royal Navy, EU countries, NATO, Russia, China, and India are currently on anti-piracy patrol in more than 2.5 million nautical square miles of sea off the Horn of Africa, an area the size of the continental United States

Their new tactics have involved helicopter gunship attacks on pirate logistics bases onshore for the first time, and targeting teams working together in what are called “pirate action groups.” Merchant ships' captains have been taught how to accelerate and maneuver to evade attack. Hulls are festooned with barbed wire and powerful water hoses are used to deter pirates as they try to climb aboard. 

Efforts have also been made on shore to increase alternative ways for people to earn a living, in theory robbing the pirates of manpower. Perhaps most importantly, there has been a significant surge in the use of armed guards on vessels. 

“There has been a quantum increase in the number of private armed security contractors being deployed by the shipping industry, and they have had to date a 100 percent success rate preventing hijacks,” Adm. Potts says.   

A majority of vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden and the northwest Indian Ocean are now thought to be carrying contracted armed guards, who are mandated to protect ships first with warning shots and then with direct fire. 

“The naval forces would perhaps dispute this, but I would say that private security is by far the major factor, not the warships,” says Stig Jarle Hansen, an expert on Somali piracy based in Oslo, Norway. “Pirate commanders I have spoken to onshore tell me that it's those armed guards they’re most afraid of. It means that they just don’t target the most valuable ships any more.” 

In 2009, the most successful year for Somali pirates, one in three vessels that were targeted ended up hijacked and their crews held hostage. 
By late last year, that figure was as low as one in 20 for the most valuable prizes, most of which now carry private security staff. 

That has forced the remaining pirate cells to target fishing boats of limited value rather than large oil carriers, cargo ships, or private yachts. 

“No-one really wants to hijack a Tanzanian fishing dhow, hold it for a year, and then get almost nothing at the end of it,” says Mr. Hansen. 

“The return on investment is now just too low, and pirate leaders are basically saying that they are getting out of piracy and going into other business, like kidnapping.” 

That does not mean that the pirates have beached their boats for good, however. Once the monsoon passes, many are expected to be back at sea. And there were warnings that international cartels who fronted the investment to put pirates to sea would “bide their time and then come back” once the flotillas of warships left or on-board private security was cancelled. 

“All of this tactical and operational progress is however easily lost if we do not irreversibly change the strategic context on the ground that allows piracy to exist in the first place,” Potts says. 

“If all of our vessels moved on, and the shipping industry slowed down its vigilance over security, word would soon enough get around. Piracy still is one of the best ways to earn a living in Somalia.”

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