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Winning: Somali Pirates Defeated, Not Destroyed

Strategy Page
Tuesday, January 14, 2014

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The Somali pirates have been beaten, but not defeated. The pirates captured no ships in 2013. Compare that to 2012 when 14 were taken, 2011 when 28 were, 2010 saw 47 grabbed and 2009 had 46 hijacked. Each of these ships yielded, on average, several million dollars. That kind of money attracted a lot more people to the business.

Pirate activity off Somalia and in the Indian Ocean has not been this low since 2006. In 2013 only nine ships were even attacked. It’s been so bad for the Somali pirates that even taking smaller fishing ships and dhows (small local cargo ships of traditional construction) has become more difficult.

The collapse of the Somali pirates in the last three years was no accident. It was all a matter of organization, international cooperation and innovation. It all began back in 2009 when 80 seafaring nations formed (with the help of a UN resolution) the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The most visible aspect of the Contact Group was the organization of an anti-piracy patrol. This came to consist of over two dozen warships and several dozen manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as support from space satellites and major intelligence and police agencies.

To help with the problem-solving the Contact Group formed five Working Groups to develop new solutions to the problems encountered. Working Group 1 handled coordination of naval forces and information sharing. This was essential for the creation of the anti-piracy patrol. Working Group 2 looked into legal and judicial issues, which were particularly crucial because international piracy laws had been changed after World War II making it very difficult to punish pirates (in the past you could just kill them, a rule observed for thousands of years). Working Group 3 worked with the shipping industry to encourage anti-piracy measures and ensure that all ships entering dangerous waters were aware of the dangers they faced. This became a key effort in making ships more difficult for the pirates to catch and capture. Working Group 4 handled public relations in general and sought to make sure the public got an accurate picture of the pirate danger. This countered the tendency of the international media to try and characterize the pirates as misunderstood victims. Working Group 5 handled tracking and disrupting the criminal and legitimate organizations that supported the pirates and helped them handle the huge ransoms they were obtaining until quite recently. This played a major role in destroying the infrastructure of agents and other paid supporters the pirates had outside Somalia.

As the Working Groups came up with more and more solutions the pirates found themselves with fewer and fewer options and opportunities. The most visible result for the pirates was that ships became more difficult to catch and board. That was because over the last four years more and more merchant ships trained their crews to deal with pirates. This involved basic stuff like paying attention to Contact Group bulletins on piracy off Somalia and posting more lookouts when in waters designated as “pirate infested.” The most valuable ships carried armed guards who fired back at approaching pirates and that has always driven the pirates away. The pirates eventually began operating as far east as the coast of India and ships that did not pay attention to Contact Group bulletins sometimes found themselves under pirate attack where they didn’t expect it. This was handled with expanded patrols, especially using manned aircraft and UAVs. The naval and air patrols became more efficient and effective and there was more and more cooperation between the ships from dozens of nations contributing to the patrol.

One of the more unnerving tactics was monitoring the pirate ports and following ships that left. UAVs or ships would observe these vessels and once they were in international waters (22 kilometers from the Somali coast) board and search any suspected of being pirates. If weapons and boarding equipment was found, the pirates were detailed, taken back to Somalia and left on a beach. Their boat was sunk at sea, along with their weapons and tools. Documents found on the boat were passed on to intelligence specialists. This degree of scrutiny was more than the pirates could handle. The pirates needed cash to keep operating as each multi-million dollar ransom quickly disappeared into the pockets of the pirates and their financiers and suppliers. Few of the pirate leaders wanted to invest their newly acquired wealth in keeping the level of activity where it had been until 2012, when it became clear that capturing more ships was frustratingly difficult and eventually nearly impossible. So the financing of the pirate gangs disappeared and most of the pirate gangs dissolved or went back to smuggling people to Yemen or what many of the pirates originally did; fishing.

Life was not difficult just for the pirates, but also for their financial advisors and suppliers (of cash, supplies and information.) Eventually the pirates found there were few people they could trust or rely on and the once lucrative pirate “industry” in northern Somali collapsed. Currently the pirates are not holding any ships or sailors they can get a ransom for. The pirates are still there, and until this generation dies out there are still men who remember how lucrative it could be when there wasn’t such an efficient Piracy Patrol out there. For that reason the Piracy Patrol has been extended another year, and will probably continue for a few more. The seafaring nations are hoping that real government will return to Somalia, a government that will make it impossible for pirates to anchor hijacked ships off the coast without fear of interference by local police or coast guard.

These days the “Pirate Coast” is off West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. Most of the pirates there are Nigerians and they attacked 31 ships and briefly hijacked nine of them in 2013. The Nigerian pirates have no safe place to keep captured ships while a large ransom is negotiated. Instead they rob ships they attack and quickly leave. In some cases they arrange to hijack much of the cargo, usually at sea, by transferring to another ship at night and then scampering away before the navy or police show up. Sometimes a few of the ships’ officers are kidnapped for ransom.


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