Better deterrents are putting the Somali pirates’ business under strain


It is too early to declare victory against Somali piracy, which cost the shipping industry and governments as much as $7 billion last year. But the fall in the number of successful hijackings since the peak of 2009-11 has been dramatic. The International Maritime Bureau, a body that fights shipping crime, counted 219 cases of pirates trying to board a vessel in 2010 and 236 in 2011. This year’s total is just 71, against 199 for the same period last year. Successful seizures are down from 49 in 2010 to 28 in 2011 and only 13 this year.
Pirate activity normally wanes between the end of May and late September, when the south-west monsoon is lashing the Arabian Sea and this year’s storms were particularly severe. The light skiffs (launched from bigger “mother ships”) that the pirates use to close on their prey can only operate in benign sea conditions.
But the pirate lairs along the Somali coast show little sign of preparing for a new hunting season. Associated Press reporters who reached one of them, Hobyo, found that the pirates’ flashy cars, booze and prostitutes had disappeared and the cash for new raids had dried up. Some think the pirate “kingpins” may just be stocktaking before reinvesting. But the “stock” of hijacked vessels and hostages has shrunk from 33 ships and 758 hostages in early 2011 to just nine ships and 154 hostages now. Some of these have proved hard to ransom and have been there a long time.
Tom Patterson, a maritime-security expert at Control Risks, a consultancy, points to three factors that have made piracy a lot riskier and less profitable. The first is that soaring insurance premiums and the threat to crews have forced shipowners to change their ways. Ships have been made harder to attack by a range of measures known as BMP, or best management practice. They cruise faster and practise evasive manoeuvres. Physical barriers such as razor wire are now fitted. Many have secure “citadels” on board for the crews to retreat to if all else fails. They also follow the reporting protocols established by the European Union’s naval task-force (EU NAVFOR) when crossing dangerous waters.
The second factor he cites is better co-ordination by the international naval task-forces. These include the EU flotilla, a similar one provided by NATO, an American-led coalition and warships under national commands from China, Japan, India, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. These all meet four times a year to discuss tactics and make better use of the intelligence coming from surveillance aircraft and Somalis who want to be rid of the pirates.
The legal issues around fighting pirates are still tricky. But the foreign naval forces have become more assertive. On October 11th an EU vessel arrested seven pirates because their dhow was carrying ladders and a large quantity of fuel and water drums. Pirate mother ships now face pre-emptive boarding and skiffs are destroyed rather than ordered home as happened in the past. Mr Patterson highlights the psychological importance of a strike in May by helicopters from EU NAVFOR on targets near Haradheere, a pirate haven. It destroyed fuel, outboards and speedboats. The force’s spokesperson, Lieutenant Commander Jacqueline Sherrif, says that disrupting logistics on land “sends a strong message” to the pirates and their investors who now know “they will no longer have impunity on the beaches”.
However, both Mr Patterson and Rear Admiral Anthony Rix, now of Salamanca Risk Management, say that the biggest game changer of all is probably a third factor. Mr Patterson reckons that more than a quarter of vessels now carry armed security guards. The shipping industry used to oppose this, fearing that armed guards would escalate violence. But not a single vessel with guards has been boarded. Usually a warning shot is enough to deter the pirates. Lieut-Commander Sherrif says: “The pirates go to sea to make money, not die in a firefight.” BIMCO, the biggest international shipping organisation, has recently produced a standard contract for the industry, known as GUARDCON. Most of the security firms supplying guards are British. Admiral Rix says that his company hires mostly former Royal Marines.
Nobody in the anti-piracy effort believes that a return to the epidemic levels of the past is likely, but some worry that complacency could allow the pirates to make a limited comeback. The shipping industry is in recession and under huge cost pressure. Defence budgets are under strain, too: the political will to support constant naval patrolling in the Indian Ocean may weaken. As Admiral Rix notes: “The pirates’ business model is still attractive. It would be naive to think that the current low level of activity suggests that they have found something else to do.”


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