Commodore Michiel B. Hijmans
Piracy is big business, and will be crushed by economic means.
In the past, the activity of Somali pirates mainly occurred during the two inter-monsoon periods each year. Within these periods, pirates launched skiffs directly from the beaches of Puntland, in the northern region of
For the most part though, the establishment of an Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) through the Gulf of Aden in 2009, patrolled by naval ships, and the use of aircraft and other naval units to patrol the eastern Somali coast, successfully contained and even reduced the number of attacks.
However, the last year or so has seen a significant change in piracy activities, which has led to considerable successes for these terrors of the high seas. This is highlighted by the increased numbers of attacks in January-
Several factors may be behind these successes. First, in response to the introduction of the IRTC and merchant shipping transiting further east, pirates have expanded their area of operations significantly. Now attacks can be found further than 15oS and 80oE, placing some of them over 1800 nautical miles from the coast of
Second, in the last year, pirates have hijacked many local trading Arabian sailing vessels - known as dhows - and fishing vessels. These, after capture, are returned to a pirate stronghold, embarked upon once again by pirates and deployed into the
i) They can carry significantly more pirates and weapons;
ii) Their endurance is several times that of a whaler;
iii) Their transit speed to their attack areas is significantly higher than that of a whaler;
iv) Multiple larger merchant vessels can be attacked and successfully hijacked in a single deployment of the pirate group;
v) The larger vessels are much less affected by the higher sea states during the monsoon periods and can thus loiter, awaiting days of less sea state when they can launch attacks Third, pirates have also started to use large merchant vessels as mother ships, the largest so far being a 319,000 deadweight tonnage crude oil tanker. The number of pirates on these vessels is significant (up to seventy) and their time on patrol can be very extensive. Merchant vessels also give the pirates access to sophisticated navigation radars, electronic chart systems, automatic authentication systems, and communication devices.
Lastly, the use of dhows and large merchant ships has led to the pirates almost always deploying with hostages on board. This severely limits the options that anti-piracy forces can consider when responding, as excessive pressure or action could put the hostages in an even more perilous situation.
However, despite the successes of the pirates, there have been some significant and positive achievements by the international anti-piracy forces, the merchant maritime community and the regional Puntland authorities.
Because of wide coverage of the IRTC by navy ships of the
The increased use of 'safe rooms' where the crew can take refuge for hours or even days allows sufficient time for anti-piracy forces to reach the scene and expel the pirates from the vessel. During a situation such as this, the crew members are secured in a safe compartment, unable to be accessed by the pirates, and thus direct action against pirates can be taken without risk to the life of the crew.
An increasing number of vessels are employing private security companies to provide merchant ships with both armed and unarmed vessel protection detachments (VPDs).
These private security companies employ well trained former military personnel and many have a comprehensive legal department to provide rules of engagement for the VPD.
One of the most encouraging, recent examples of anti-piracy action was the forcing out of pirates from former strongholds in Puntland, such as Eyl and Garacad. These expulsions were not a result of military action; rather, the population simply refused to tolerate the presence of organised crime in what was previously a small fishing community. The influx of pirates in these areas caused significant upheaval in the local economy - for example, the price of a can of Coke rose from a few US cents to several US dollars. Since these successful expulsions, further communities have expressed their concerns and have even seen anti-pirate protests occurring on their streets.
It must be said that the one thing that really might bring pirates to a halt is the fear of capture and prosecution or the risk to their own lives. Piracy thrives due to the lack of law enforcement and relatively little risk to life of those involved. However,
At this moment the chances of being killed or caught are still slim. If caught by international maritime forces, the main risk the pirates run is the loss of some material - like the skiffs with outboard engines, weapons, mobile phones and GPS navigation equipment - and being returned to shore, often not even into the hands of local authorities. Most national governments are not overly willing to hand over captured pirates to local authorities in, for instance
The governments of the nations that provide maritime forces are struggling to prosecute and detain the pirates their navy units have captured in the navy nations' own respective countries, unless there is a direct link between the country affected and the captured pirates - if the target vessel is sailing under its flag, is owned by a national or has nationals in the crew. There are also still nations that do not have the act of piracy codified in their national criminal law code, obviously making prosecution much more difficult. Advocacy for an
Some say that piracy is creating its own economy. There is a piracy stock market, where interested parties can invest in future hijacks. By paying money or by offering weapons, the party invests in a pirate group and if they obtain ransom money, the party gets its share. One rocket propelled grenade launcher with three grenades going for about
Additionally, insurance companies receive premiums from all 25,000-plus ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden every year. In total, about 150 have been hijacked since 2006 (about 1.5 out of every thousand) - the other 998.5/1000 are just adding to the profit the insurance companies are making out of the additional fees for ships that sail in these pirate danger areas.
The security companies hired for protection are not doing so badly either. Most of them are doing a good job, and are filling the gap between only non-lethal protection and having military armed Vessel Protection Detachments on board. But we also see more adventurous types that go for the quick win, without proper regulations or rules of engagement. Some create false alarms or fire warning shots at fishermen to 'prove' the value of their presence on board.
Besides the economic influence there is the enormous human impact, which is clearly lacking well deserved and much needed attention. On average 650 hostages are held at any given moment. Some of these hostages are held for more than a year on board their own ship or ashore, in very dire circumstances; ill fed, without medical treatment, beaten and sometimes tortured. And there seems to be very little public interest in them. Occasionally individual stories come to light in a flurry of media attention: the British couple that was released after a year in captivity, the Americans that were killed onboard the sailing yacht 'Quest' and, of course, the Danish family taken from the sailing yacht 'ING' with three young children; but very quickly the interest fades and with it the perception of the problem.
Merchant ships might be the preferred target by pirates, but they will take anything they can lay their hands on. This is more relevant now, because the merchant community is increasingly improving its self-protection measures. A sailing yacht travelling at slow speed with no apparent protection in place becomes an easy target.
A naval vessel will come to the rescue but, given the vastness of the area - the
Piracy prevention remains the top priority for every merchant ship. If every merchant vessel were to apply the best management practices, especially ensuring that it had a VPD and a strong citadel, it would make a huge difference. More vulnerable ships such as sailing yachts should either ensure an armed escort or VPD, or simply avoid pirate infested waters. Since sailing yachts are very easy targets, more should be done to inform this community to stay away.
One of the ways to reduce response times and to ensure continued patrols over a wider area is to get regional actors involved. Most of the countries or semi autonomous regions in and around the area of operations have not been involved much in acting against piracy. Fortunately there has been an increase in effort by the more capable countries like
Puntland, the self declared autonomous region in
Another long term shot is disrupting the pirates' business model. Possibilities include the ability to track and disrupt the flow of ransom money, continue to encourage the Somali people to expel pirates out of their communities, conduct more hostage rescue operations, disable mother ships and disrupt pirate logistic chains. Easier said than done perhaps, but there are certainly ways to achieve this.
But so far the full impact of piracy does not seem to have reached the general public. Given the protests all around the world against the poor economic situation, one would expect governments to leap at a chance to save
Piracy can be solved if the world is willing to take a collective, genuine interest and firmly act to remove it as a threat. In the meantime, naval forces will keep doing what they can to maintain the 'Mare Liberum' and protect those in need. But what is really necessary is to make the world see the true impact of piracy on those it affects.
(Commodore Michiel B. Hijmans is the former commanding officer of
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