June 29, 2011:
Somali pirates have gone through some changes in the last four years, largely in response to growing pressure from the international anti-piracy patrol and the efforts of shipping companies to make their vessels more difficult to hijack. As a result, the pirates now threaten more (over a third) of the word's shipping by using mother ships. In this way, the pirates can search for prey between India and Africa, including traffic coming out of the Persian Gulf or headed for the Suez Canal.
Since 2007, nearly 200 ships and over 3,500 sailors have been taken by the pirates, and nearly two percent of them died before they were ransomed. Several hundred pirates have also died, although an exact count is impossible. That's because many merchant ships with armed guards do not report pirate casualties, because of the possible legal liability (and the fact that pirate speedboats are often sunk, and the surviving pirates left behind.) The pirates also accept that equipment problems (outboard engine or GPS failure) causes some of their number to be lost at sea.
Not all the sailor losses are known either. That's because, in the last four years, pirates have been seizing fishing boats and small coastal freighters and forcing the crews to serve them (in return for their eventual freedom). That doesn't always work out well. The pirates are prone to use these civilians as human shields, or simply kill them when no longer needed. The crews are sometimes only known to their families in some port back in Yemen or the Persian Gulf. Currently, a third of the vessels being held by the Somali pirates are smaller vessels for which no one will pay much of a ransom, and are probably being used as mother ships.
About a quarter of the sailors taken report abusive treatment by the pirates. This includes beatings, starvation and just all-round nasty behavior. When a ransom is about to be paid, the pirate behavior gets better, as does the food supplies and living conditions in general. The pirates understand that sending these sailors home feeling less bad is good publicity. As long as the pirates don't kill their captives in large numbers, there will be no outcry for an invasion of the Somali ports that serve as pirate headquarters.
That façade of civility is crumbling. Merchant sailors are getting tired of the pirate threat. While chances of being attacked in pirate waters are less than one percent, the tension for sailors is a hundred percent. Most of the threatened sailors are from India or the Philippines. India is in the neighborhood, has a large navy and a population that is increasingly calling for more aggressive action against the pirates. The pirates have responded by threatening harsher treatment of Indian sailors. All this could turn out badly, especially for the pirates.