At long last, a multinational task force seems to be winning the battle against pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. Pirate attacks reduced by a staggering 75% last year compared to 2011. What has made the difference?
Self-defence is turning out to be one of the most effective measures in thwarting pirate attack off the Somali coast in the northern Indian ocean. And vessels protected by on-board private security units are performing best of all.
“The ultimate security measure a commercial ship can adopt is the use of privately contracted armed security teams,” says Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs of the US State Department. “These teams are often made up of former members of various armed forces, who guard merchant ships during transits through high risk waters,” he told a recent briefing in Washington. “The use of armed private sector security teams has been a potential game changer in combating piracy. To date, not a single ship with armed security personnel aboard has been successfully pirated.”
Other protective measures adopted by merchant shipping includes passing through high risk areas at full speed and erecting physical barriers, such as razor wire, to make it more difficult for pirates to come aboard.
The debate on whether or not merchant ships should be protected by armed, on board protection units, has raged for years with naysayers arguing that armed guards would escalate the level of violence during pirate encounters.
This, however, did not materialise when the measure was adopted. “On the contrary,” reports Shapiro, “attempted attacks are usually aborted by the pirates as soon as they realise an armed security team is aboard. Pirates often break off their attempt to board, withdraw and wait for another less protected ship. These teams therefore have served as an effective deterrent. However,” he adds, “armed security teams come in varying sizes and, to be frank, in varying degrees of quality.”
Regardless of resounding successes, the emergence of private security forces riding shotgun on freighters and tankers in dangerous waters has also brought up a number of complications. Varying national legal regimes have complicated the movement of such teams and their weapons from ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore. Some countries do not have clear legal guidelines for addressing armed security personnel and are struggling to formulate positions vis-à-vis armed guards at sea.
However, such is the price of change, and as a means of moving the issue forward, the US government is encouraging maritime countries to permit the transit of armed security teams in the expanded use of armed escort personnel, a development a growing number of countries regard as essential, while others have mainly sovereignty reservations.
“Fully unravelling legal and policy conflicts related to armed private security will take some time,” concedes Shapiro, “and we continue to push for progress on this issue.”
The State Department is hosting a series of workshops attended by policy specialists from affected maritime nations and international organisations. The intent is to share information about national or organisational policy and provide a more complete picture of the overlaps and gaps in policy from country to country.
“This is an important step in figuring out a way forward that addresses the thorniest differences,” says Shapiro. “While we are finding ways to deter and suppress pirates and better protect vessels at sea, some still do not take all available security precautions. Approximately 20% of all ships off the Horn of Africa ignore proper security measures. And predictably these account for the overwhelming number of pirates’ victims. Hijackings will therefore remain a danger for the foreseeable future.”
A battle of many fronts
The war against the pirates is being fought at several levels which, when taken together, show that while the threat remains, the progress that has been made in addressing piracy “is real and remarkable”.
The numbers tell the story. The US Navy reports that anti-piracy measures have forced a roughly 75% decline in overall pirate attacks this year compared with 2011. Fewer attacks are being attempted because pirates are increasingly less successful at hijacking ships.
In 2011, the number of successful pirate attacks fell by half compared to 2010, and the number of successful attacks off the Horn of Africa continues to decline. Pirates captured just 10 vessels this year, compared to 34 in 2011 and 68 in 2010. The last successful Somali pirate attack on a large commercial vessel was more than six months ago.
“While there seems no limit to the growth of piracy, the collective effort of the US, the UK, NATO, the EU, the broader international community and the private sector is suggesting that we may have turned the tide on Somali piracy,” reports Shapiro. “Pirates are holding fewer and fewer hostages.
In January 2011, pirates held 31 ships and 710 hostages. Today, pirates hold five ships and 143 hostages. That is roughly an 80% reduction in ships and hostages held by pirates since January 2011. While this is still unacceptably high, the trend is clear.
Until quite recently, the problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia was spiralling out of control. Ships were being detained for months, crews kidnapped and held also for long periods, and millions of dollars were being paid in ransom money.
In 2007 and 2008, attacks off the coast of Somalia escalated suddenly and significantly. Motivated by rising ransom payments and a lack of other employment opportunities, more and more Somali men took to piracy. As a result, the problem of piracy metastasised from a fairly ad hoc, disorganised endeavour into a highly developed transnational criminal enterprise. Flush with money, pirates were also able to improve their capabilities and expand their operations further and further away from shore.
“This presented a perfect storm for the international community,” says Shapiro. “Somalia, a failed state, provided pirates with a safe haven on one of the most strategically important shipping lanes in the world – where there was virtually an endless supply of potential targets to prey on.”
The anti-piracy campaign got serious in January 2009 with the establishment of a diplomatic front pronounced as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. It is based on voluntary membership of over 70 concerned countries and was established as the UN Security Council passed its anti-piracy resolution 1851.
In 2009, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton noted that “We may be dealing with a 17th century crime, but we need to bring 21st century solutions to bear”.
“And that’s what we’ve done,” maintains Shapiro, outlining the prevailing integrated multilateral and multi-dimensional approach as the “smart power” solution involving “every tool in our tool kit”.
The focus is on multinational military power, collaboration with the private sector, legal enforcement, targeting pirate networks and ringleaders and development and governance in Somalia. The biggest physical blows against piracy were delivered by Combined Task Force 151, a naval effort charged with sweeping over 1.6m square kilometres of ocean.
“On any given day,” reports Shapiro, “up to 30 vessels from as many as 22 nations are engaged in counter-piracy operations in the region. International naval forces have thwarted pirate attacks in progress, engaged pirate skiffs and successfully taken back hijacked ships during opposed boardings. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, however, and pirates constantly adapt to such tactics. The broader use of mother ships has enabled pirates to expand their area of operations all the way to the west coast of India. This makes it difficult for naval or law enforcement ships to reach the scene of a pirate attack quickly enough.”
Today, over 1,000 pirates are in custody in 20 countries around the world serving or facing lengthy prison terms.