Thanks to greater vigilance and naval patrols, the seas off Somalia may be a bit less dangerous than they were. But they are still the riskiest in the world
TWO years ago Somalia’s weak transitional government agreed to let foreign navies chase pirates into its territorial waters. Since then, the sea off Somalia’s coast has seen an increasing number of warships mainly from rich countries trying—with partial success—to fend off pirates from the poorest. Ships steaming along maritime corridors in convoys are safer than they were. So the pirates are being forced to venture ever farther out into the Indian Ocean to seize their booty. This means that the remoter reaches are still very dangerous.
Many of the world’s most powerful navies are involved. The French and American ones have killed Somali pirates while freeing their own citizens. For the past year the European Union has deployed its first-ever joint naval force, named Operation Atalanta, to protect ships passing in and out of the Red Sea on their way from or to the Suez canal. Russia has an active anti-piracy mission, helping, among other things, to revive its rusting navy. China has asked if it could set up a naval base in Kenya or elsewhere in the region to support its anti-piracy patrols. The Japanese and South Koreans have sent warships to protect ships carrying their cars. India, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Africa have also joined the anti-piracy fray.
Yet the pirates are still hijacking ships and receiving ransoms with apparent impunity. In the past fortnight they have captured four more big ships. Two of them, the Singaporean-flagged Pramoni and the British-flagged St James Park, both tankers carrying chemicals, were nabbed under the nose of the foreign navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden.
The pirates’ methods remain rudimentary. They use hijacked tuna-fishing boats or local dhows as the mother ship, then launch attacks from skiffs, usually at dawn or dusk. They hold the crews hostage with machine-guns and semi-automatic pistols, then force the captain to anchor off the northern part of Somalia’s coast for several weeks until a ransom is paid.
The patrolling navies say they have begun to do better. Yet the number of recorded hijackings rose from 32 in 2008 to 42 in 2009. The average ransom paid by shippers also rose, from $1m to $2m. If unpublicised pay-offs are included, some by Spain’s government, the pirates probably earned around $100m last year. That must be shared with their financial backers, especially in Lebanon, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates. Well-organised criminal gangs in Yemen also help.
To avoid the patrols, the pirates’ geographical range has increased sharply (see map). Shippers must pay extra insurance premiums, even if they ply a course far from Somalia’s waters. A Greek-owned freighter, Navios Apollon, was captured by Somalis on December 28th, fully 370km (200 nautical miles) east of the Seychelles, which is more than 1,300km from Somalia.
Plainly there is no purely naval way to stop the pirates. Somalia’s coast is more than 3,000km long. They seem unafraid of the warships. If accosted, the pirates usually dump their guns and grapple-hooks in the sea. The patrolling navies are reluctant to arrest them because of the legal complexities. On the rare occasions when pirates are taken aboard, they are usually given medicine, water and enough fuel to go back to Somalia. Within days they will set off again to seek their prey.
The EU has signed a deal with Kenya to imprison captured pirates. But there are concerns that Kenya is asking for too many favours in return for embarking on what is bound to be a messy legal process. If the EU and other concerned countries could get the governments of Tanzania, the Seychelles and other countries in the region to agree to prosecute pirates in their own courts, the legal deterrent against them would be stronger.
The pirates’ main advantage is the lawlessness of Somalia which has long been enmeshed in a civil war. Western governments fear that if they were to send their security forces to attack towns such as Haradheere, a pirate haven, the Islamist fighters of the Shabab militia, which controls much of south and central Somalia and is linked to al-Qaeda, might be strengthened.
Besides, the pirates could yet prove to be odd allies in stopping the Islamists from spreading their jihadist net. The Shabab considers piracy for profit unIslamic. The militants violently disapprove of the pirates’ boozing and whoring. The pirates and the Shabab could yet fight each other, which might benefit everyone else. So far, however, the pirates’ wealth protects them at home. Somalia is one of the world’s poorest countries, yet a low-ranking pirate can probably earn at least $20,000 a year.
The EU says its naval force’s main mission is to protect freighters carrying the food aid on which Somalis have depended for the past five years, and has thus staved off a full-blown famine. Its next priority is to “deter and disrupt” piracy in general. The warships may also deter illegal fishing in Somali waters and the dumping of toxic waste. But they are a small force in a big sea. At last count, there were seven patrolling vessels from six EU countries.
In any event, some shipping people privately say that the effects of piracy have been exaggerated. It may still be cheaper and more convenient to pay higher insurance fees and risk being attacked by pirates than to incur the extra cost of diverting vessels around the Cape of Good Hope.
The International Maritime Bureau in London says that last year 22,000 ships passed safely through waters in range of Somali pirates, whereas actual attacks were in the low hundreds. The bureau also reckons that, as ships take more precautions, the pirates’ success rate will drop.
Most ships now steam along narrow corridors at night and at full speed. In the Gulf of Aden they are usually in a convoy. Many raise the height of the freeboard (between the waterline and the deck) to make it harder for pirates to haul themselves up the side. Others are poised to use sirens and fire hoses. Some American-flagged vessels now have security guards, though it is generally agreed that they should remain unarmed, otherwise the violence and deaths would probably increase.
Plainly, the problem is far from solved. As ransoms go up and get paid, pirates will think it worth taking the risk. Above all, they are sure to persist as long as most of Somalia, including its ports along the coast, remains an ungovernable hell.