Sea Transportation: Somali Pirates On A Roll Again


February 2, 2009: When foreign warships began to heavily patrol the Gulf of Aden in late 2008, the Somali pirates found their operations disrupted. While 42 ships were taken in 2008, the trend turned against the pirates as more warships entered the area. But the pirates appear to be adjusting their tactics in response to all those warships. January began well enough, with far fewer attacks, and no ships seized. But by the end of the month, three ships were taken, and a total of fifteen attacks for the month.

For all of 2008, there were 115 attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden (where over 80 percent of the attacks occurred off the Somali coast last year.) Pirates were successful with 46 of these attacks, most of them in the last five months of the year. During the first seven months, there were only 24 attacks, but ten of them (42 percent) succeeded. Then things got worse. In August there were ten attacks, seven of them successful. In September, there were twenty attacks, nine of them successful. In October, there were 18 attacks, five successful. November had 27 attacks, 11 successful. In December, the impact of protective measures (by the ships, and the arrival of over a dozen warships into the area) saw attacks decline to 16, with only four successful.

By the end of 2008, merchant ships had adapted. This included posting more lookouts, moving at higher speed, and often travelling in convoys through the Gulf of Aden, escorted by a warship. The international anti-piracy patrol (now called Task Force 151) heavily patrols a corridor through the Gulf of Aden, which has rushed to the scene of over half a dozen attacks and driven off the pirates. The fourteen nations with warships there, all have different rules for handing pirates. Most of the warships are allowed to kill the pirates, but most are forbidden from taking pirates prisoner (except temporarily, before releasing the thugs without their weapons). Even the United States Navy had to practice "catch and release" until recently,  when the U.S. government made arrangements to have Kenya prosecute any pirates captured.

The pirates have also adapted, and apparently carefully watch the warships, and cooperate to detect merchant ships that are far enough from warships to allow for a successful attack. It's all about timing. Most of these attacks failed because a warship was able to get an armed helicopter on the scene before the pirates were able to get aboard the merchant ship. Once the pirates are on board, and able to take the crew prisoner, it's almost impossible to get them off. In the last two years, there have only been two cases where the crew successfully fought back. That, and the presence of an armed helicopter or warship, was enough to drive away the pirates, or get them killed or captured. But most merchant sailors are advised to not resist, and most of them don't.

There are only guesstimates on the amount of ransom paid in 2008. Over thirty ships were released in 2008, and the highest known ransom was $3 million. Most 2008 ransoms appear to be closer to a million dollars, with several (for smaller ships) being less than that. So the ransom total is probably in the range $30-50 million for all of Somalia.

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