After a year of escalating piracy off the Somali coast, during which pirates seized more than 100 large vessels, in early 2009 the rate of attacks decreased markedly. On Feb. 22, pirates captured a Greek-owned vessel carrying coal. Despite this, the first two months of the new year represented a “lull” in piracy, according to the NATO Shipping Center near London.
The question is, why? And how long will the lull last?
In January, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terry McKnight, commander of Combined Task Force 151 (pictured) — a U.S., British and Danish counter-piracy force — chalked up the decrease in attacks to a combination of weather and the deterrent effect of naval patrols. There are now some 20 warships from more than a dozen nations patrolling East African waters, which experiences monsoon winds as high as 15 knots during the winter.
“These skiffs that the pirates have are not much bigger than a Boston Whaler, so when the weather picks up, they tend to stay at home and not out here,” McKnight said from his flagship during a teleconference with reporters. The U.S.-based Boston Whaler company is most famous for its 13-foot fishing boats.
“But I think the combination of the coalition working together and the maritime community has decreased the pirate activity dramatically over the last couple of months,” McKnight added.
Piracy expert Martin Murphy, from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., agrees with McKnight’s assessment, but adds a note of caution. He says there’s “a fair degree of posturing going on” among the nations and alliances battling piracy, a club that has expanded to the U.S., the European Union, NATO, China, Russia, India, Yemen, Kenya, Japan, South Korea and others.
The E.U. force — four frigates from four nations — was launched in December at a cost of $11 million.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how long they stay, in next few months,” Murphy says of the pirate-fighting groups. “They’re all significantly time-limited.”
Murphy says he suspects that, due to the cost of deploying warships far from home, many nations are looking for the earliest opportunity to declare victory over Somali pirates, and bring their vessels home. A continuing lull in piracy, however weather-related, could provide the requisite conditions for an early pull-out.
In truth, the only lasting solutions to piracy must play out on land in Somalia, Murphy says, but due to Somalia’s worsening civil conflict, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. “As soon as they [the warships] go away, if the situation on land hasn’t changed, these guys [the pirates] are going to be back,” Murphy says. “The economic incentive is too great.”
With low overhead and coffers fattened up by 2008 ransoms totaling more than $20 million, pirate groups can afford to “wait out” bad weather and international naval patrols, Murphy says.
On a related note, Murphy says that in the recent years of increased activity, pirate bands have reinforced their ranks with experienced bandits.
What were once an ad-hoc systems for recruiting and retaining skilled pirates have become more formalized, according to Abubaker Omar, a Kenyan maritime unionist. Omar says that many pirate bands include trainers: senior pirates who were members of the Somali military before the collapse of the Somali government in 1991. Many of these former soldiers received training in the Soviet Union.
(Photo: U.S. Navy)