Sea Transportation: The Pirates Who Can't Be Stopped

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March 5, 2009: The international anti-piracy patrol (now called Task Force 151) heavily patrols a corridor through the Gulf of Aden, and has already rushed ships to the scene of dozens of attacks and driven off the pirates. In the two months that Task Force 151 has been active, only one ship has been captured by the pirates. Thus the pirates  success rate went from 40 percent last year, to less than five percent this year, so far.

But the pirates are not discouraged. This, and much more information, has been obtained from captured pirates. The captured men usually talk freely, seemingly proud of the nice scam they have developed. The pirates also boast of how their chiefs spread the money around. While a dozen men may actually scramble aboard to capture a ship (and each gets a hundred thousand dollars or so for that), dozens of others get a cut. This includes the political and tribal leaders in Puntland, where the pirate bases are located. A typical $1-3 million ransom directly touches the lives of hundreds of people, and encourages thousands more. Northern Somalia has acquired a gold rush atmosphere, as young men from the south head north, eager to get a piece of the action.

Since the pirates know the warships cannot kill them (unless the pirates keep firing at a merchant ship once a warship or armed helicopter shows up), they mainly have to worry about getting tossed into the water by rough seas, or losing their weapons if arrested. The pirate chiefs are known to be working on new tactics, to deal with the problems presented by all those warships. The pirates have time on their side, and a tremendous incentive program.

The fourteen nations have about twenty warships there, and all have different rules for handing pirates. Most of the warships are allowed to kill pirates, if they witness an attack that is endangering the crew of a merchant ship, but most warships are forbidden from taking pirates prisoner (except temporarily, before releasing the thugs without their weapons). Even the United States Navy must practice "catch and release", unless enough evidence has been collected for the Kenyan courts to have a good chance of obtaining a conviction. The complexities of current international law make it unlikely that the U.S. government could successfully prosecute the pirates in the United States.

Last year, 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 of 2008, 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. So far this year, there have been nearly twenty attacks, only one of them successful.

For all of 2008, 46 ships (40 percent of those attacked) were captured. By now, 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. 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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