Special Operations: Somali Pirates are Back


March 25, 2024: The Indian Navy took 35 Somali pirates back to India for prosecution. The Somalis were captured in the Red Sea and face long prison terms if convicted. Pirates can also be given a life sentence or death sentence if their piracy activities included murder, rape or a pattern of depraved activity.

Somali pirates returned at the end of 2023 and captured Almeraj 1, an Iranian ocean going fishing ship that was headed back to Iran. The pirates were unable to get the $400,000 ransom they demanded. The pirates then said they would use the Iranian ship to go after other ships. Two days after Almeraj 1 was seized, pirates boarded and captured a tanker. The tanker crew issued a distress call and a nearby American warship soon arrived and arrested the Somali pirates. The Somali pirates persisted and at the end of 2023 seized the MV Ruen. The crew of this ship was forced to operate the ship for the pirates who used the Ruen to find and attack other ships. An Indian warship began following the Ruen, waiting for an opportunity to take the Ruen back from the pirates before the pirates could kill any of the Ruen crew they were holding as hostages.

There were several groups of Somali pirates operating in the area, using small speedboats to catch ships unaware, usually at night, climb aboard and capture the crew and ship. This worked against a Bangladesh cargo ship on March 12, 2024, but a European warship was assigned to follow the cargo ship and act against the pirates when they had an opportunity to do so without the pirates killing any hostages they held.

The 2023-2024 pirates are facing a lot more resistance from European warships who were in the area to deal with Yemeni Houthi rebels. Yemen is in the Arabian Peninsula while Somalia is on the other side of the Red Sea in Africa. At the northern end of the Red Sea is Egypt and the Suez Canal, which has lost a lot of business because of missile attacks on ships by the Yemeni rebels and renewed efforts by Somali pirates to seize ships and hold them in pirate-friendly Somali port towns until a ransom could be collected to free the ships and their crews. The pirates threatened to kill the crews of captured ships if other nations sent in warships to retrieve the ships by force.

Between the rebel Shia missiles from Yemen and the renewed activity of Somali pirates, more shipping companies are ordering their cargo ships to avoid the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and take the long route to Europe by going around the southern tip of Africa. This adds weeks of travel time and delays cargoes headed for Europe and North America. This disrupts trade and increases costs for firms expecting shipments by sea. At times like this, people realize how important ocean going shipping is. That has prompted India, European countries, and the United States to send warships and aircraft to deal with the situation quickly and use forces against the pirates.

This is similar to the situation back in 2013 when foreign warships arrived off the Somali coast and within a year pirate attacks were down 70 percent, and the pirates were no longer able to capture large commercial ships that they could get several million dollars ransom for. Better security measures on the large merchant ships and more effective patrolling by the international anti-piracy task force operating off Somalia halted the piracy. But there’s an even more important reason that gets little mention: math, data mining, and predictive analysis. These items resulted in PARS (Piracy Attack Risk Surface), a statistical model of pirate behavior as modified by weather, shipping traffic patterns, and whatever inexplicable things the pirates have been doing lately. This showed the anti-piracy task force which areas to watch most carefully and warned merchant ships what areas they should be most alert in. As a result, pirate attacks dropped from a peak of 181 in 2009 to 32 in 2013. That’s an 83 percent drop and that trend continued. Most importantly, it became extremely difficult for the pirates to get close to a likely target without the ship they were after spotting them and speeding away. Worse, an anti-piracy task force aircraft or ship, often both, tended to show up at the same time.

Some Somali pirate gangs went bankrupt, and others just shut down because the prospects of taking any high-value ships had evaporated. The Somali and Arab businessmen who provided negotiation and other services told the pirates about these new tools the anti-piracy task force was using. Some of the more educated pirate leaders (especially those who were businessmen) understood what was going on and none of them could come up with some way to defeat tools like PARS and several similar techniques created to defeat the pirates. The most effective tool was predictive analysis, which collected huge quantities of information and used data mining and other tools to analyze it for patterns, which reveal things the enemy is trying to hide.

When it came to the pirates, the naval intelligence analysts quickly found that weather was a major factor in where and when the pirates could go. Data could be collected from fishermen and foreign fishing fleets that operated off Somalia to find out the conditions that made pirate operations impractical. Weather satellites and easily available sensors made it possible to create a real-time map of what areas off the Somali coast were hospitable to pirate operations and when. This enabled anti-piracy ships and aircraft to narrow their patrol and search areas. Over a two year period the pirates got the impression there were a lot more warships and aircraft watching when, in fact, the number of ships and aircraft did not change that much. The same thing happened in early 2024, after a few months of pirate activity. Few of the current Somali pirates remember what happened over a decade ago. The shipping companies and navies of the countries where the shipping operates remembered and acted quickly to suppress the new piracy threat.


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