Does a military solution for Somali piracy work?

Somali pirate attacks have dropped, from 45 in 2010 to 24 in 2011, but there's no evidence that more naval patrols and aggressive private security firms are actually keeping pirates ashore. 

This March 2010 file photo, shows the EU NAVFOR French warship FS Nivose with Somali pirate skiffs off the Somali coast.

To some, the solution to Somali piracy is blindingly obvious. Patrol the seas. Capture the pirates. Send them to the briny deep. If it worked on the Barbary Coast, it should work in Somalia.

But with Somali pirates going further out to sea, such a solution is more difficult than it sounds. Patrolling the narrow waters of the Gulf of Aden – as the European Naval Force and some other countries such as China, India, Japan, Russia, and Taiwan are doing – is relatively simple. Patrolling the much broader Indian Ocean, where Somali pirates have moved, is more difficult.

And for those pirate crews who do get captured, there’s one more consideration. Where do you take them for trial? Very few nations – none of them, interestingly, in the countries providing naval patrols off the Somali coast – have taken Somali pirates to put them on trial. Most pirates who do get captured are simply disarmed, dragged in their skiffs closer to Somali shores, and released.

As a Guardian headline this week sums it up, “Outgunned Somali pirates can hardly believe their luck.”

Not all of the navies patrolling for pirates use gentle methods, of course. In November 2008, the Indian Navy sank a pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden. Russian Navy sailors apparently captured a Somali pirate ship earlier this year, and blew it up afterward. The video of this action went viral, alleging that the Russian sailors blew up the ship with the pirates on board, but there is no proof of that. (Advisory note: the video contains violence and may be difficult for sensitive viewers to watch). And on March 25, 2011, private security guards aboard a commercial freighter called the Avocet opened fire on an apparent Somali pirate crew aboard a skiff. The pirates never made it aboard the ship, but the video stirred controversy about the use of force in commercial shipping.

Does militarizing the seas actually deter piracy? The data don’t provide easy answers.

Since 2008, Somali pirate gangs have launched more than 800 attacks on commercial ships, with 170 ships hijacked, and 3,400 sailors held for ransom. Shipping firms have paid more than $530 million on private security firms during that time period, and $160 million was paid out to pirate gangs last year alone.

That, clearly, is the reason Somali gangs get into the pirate business. Do a few well-armed security guards onboard commercial ships, or a few naval patrol ships deter those pirates from taking to the high seas? Some point to the dropping number of pirate attacks – from 45 attacks in 2010 to 24 in 2011 – as a sign that naval patrolling and private security may be working.

It's unclear just why pirate attacks have dropped. Private security firms credit their use of guns and razor wire, while the European Naval Force takes credit with their increased patrols. The truth may be more complex, and even proponents of military force admit that the battle is far from won.

Indeed, there is no evidence that pirates are either staying home, or that they are being more selective about which country’s ships to attack and which to avoid, based on that country’s past tactics against pirates.

J. Peter Pham, a Horn of Africa specialist and director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington, says that the main motive for pirates to launch attacks is that the potential for profit, and the low likelihood of being captured or prosecuted.

“Although consistent statistics are difficult to come by, it seems that overall no more than approximately one-third of suspected pirates stopped are even formally identified and that, of these, only some are then taken into custody,” says Mr. Pham. “Of those taken into custody since 2006, only about 1,000 have been prosecuted and, of these, slightly less than two-thirds have been convicted. … One would have to be a truly unlucky pirate to end up facing significant legal penalties for one’s crimes on the high seas.”

Some nations, notably China, India, and Russia, are identified as having “more robust” rules of engagement in taking on piracy, says Pham, and the US Navy SEALs who rescued the crew of the Maersk Alabama “certainly did not lack in rigor.”

But whether this actually defers piracy is difficult to say, he adds. “We still see pirates not shying from even opening fire on US Navy vessels, including the five who shot at the frigate USS Nicholas and were sentenced last year to life imprisonment.”

“This would seem to indicate that while the overall lack of legal disincentive facilitates entry into piracy, severe consequences meted out by certain states – whether in anti-piracy tactics or subsequent prosecutions – does not deter behavior by those who actually have become pirates because, in the heat of the moment once a potential target is sighted, they apparently give little thought to what they’re attacking, much less what flag is flying from the mast.”

The answer, Pham and other Horn of Africa specialists say, is solving the political problems on Somali shores. Somalia’s lack of a strong authority, since the fall of the Siad Barre government in 1991, has created the conditions for political anarchy both on land and sea, and diminished the ability of Somalia’s fragile governing institutions to prevent pirate gangs from using Somali ports as a safe haven to hold hijacked ships and their crews for ransom. This is not a problem that a few gunboats can solve.

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