Pirate attacks off Somalia plummet thanks to navies, armed guards

The pirate attacks are down 65 percent to their lowest level since 2009.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/File
In this Sept. 23 file photo, masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia.

Pirate attacks off Somalia have plummeted 65 percent, to their lowest level since 2009, but analysts warn that these gains could be reversed without sustained efforts to cement security onshore.

Between January and September this year, Somali pirates carried out 70 raids, down from 199 for the same stretch in 2011.

During the monsoon months of July, August, and September, pirates attempted only one hijacking, which failed, compared to 36 such incidents in the same period last year.

Releasing these latest figures, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) credited international naval patrols and the use of armed guards on ships as the major factors that thwarted fresh attacks.

“We welcome the successful robust targeting of pirate action groups by international navies in the high risk waters off Somalia, ensuring these criminals are removed before they can threaten ships,” Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, director of the IMB, said in a statement.

Still 188 hostages

This year’s drop in attacks off the coast of Somalia helped pull global piracy figures to their lowest third quarter total since 2008, the IMB added, with 125 vessels boarded, 24 hijacked, 26 fired upon, and 58 attempted attacks.

Despite the gains, Somali pirates were still holding 11 vessels with 167 crew members hostage, as well as 21 other crew members being held on land.

More than 20 of those hostages have been held for more than 30 months, the IMB said.

“It’s good news that hijackings are down, but there can be no room for complacency: These waters are still extremely high-risk and the naval presence must be maintained,” Captain Mukundan added.

Piracy off Somalia’s coastline – Africa’s longest – soared from 2007, when armed gangs onshore began targeting the large numbers of ships carrying valuable cargo passing through the Gulf of Aden en route to the Suez Canal.

By 2010, the cost of the pirate attacks was estimated at $12 billion, taking into account higher insurance premiums, new security measures, rerouting ships, and ransom payments. Ransoms reached as high as $9 million for a South Korean oil supertanker seized in 2010.

Roughly three dozen warships from the navies of the US, Britain, the European Union, Russia, China, India, and others have since been
deployed to patrol more than one million square miles of ocean off Somalia.

Barbed-wire on railings

As many as four in five vessels motoring through the Gulf of Aden or south past Somalia’s coast now contract armed guards, roll barbed wire along deck railings, and carry powerful hoses, all as anti-piracy measures.

Piracy experts reckon that it is these new tactics that have made the most significant contribution to the reduction in successful attacks off Somalia in recent years.

In 2009, one in three ships that pirates targeted were successfully seized, their crew taken hostage. Now, that figure is closer to one in 20, according to Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian piracy expert.

“There is a golden opportunity at the moment, but the international community, the navies and the private security, cannot let down their guard,” Professor Hansen says.

“Rest assured that the organization and apparatus of the pirates onshore has not been dismantled, and as soon as there is any sign of a lack of continued interest by the international community, this thing will come back.”

It has long been argued that greater stability in Somalia itself will be the fastest way to stamp out piracy, by creating greater opportunities for legal employment, and instituting a national justice system to prosecute those that stray.

While there have been impressive recent gains for Somalia’s government, most of the new territory it now controls is south of Mogadishu, in areas once run by Al Shabab, the country’s Islamist rebels.

In pirate havens north of the capital, the warlords and armed gangs still rule, and it is likely that bringing these groups to heel will take far longer.

Kingpins still at large

At the same time, Prof Hansen adds, there have been no prosecutions of the main investors and “kingpins” who finance pirate groups in return for a slice of future ransoms.

“They are moving into other sectors – import, export, that kind of thing – but they are still there, apparently immune from arrest, waiting it out,” he says.

Key to consigning Somali piracy permanently to the history books is to target this relatively small number of men at the apex of the business, said Thomas Kelly, the State Department’s counter-piracy policy chief.

He aims to shift attention to this core group and seek prosecutions under money-laundering and corruption laws rather than sea piracy legislation.

“That's how we got Al Capone, he went to jail because of tax fraud. One of the main areas of multilateral work and in places like Interpol is to try to focus on the kingpins,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper recently.

"You have to go after the people who are buying the boats, buying the weapons, and then laundering the money in Africa and other places. Money laundering is a global business they're not keeping it in one place you need to have law enforcement in many different places talking to each other.

“Just incarcerating young Somali men who are the foot soldiers isn't going to eradicate the problem by itself.”

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