The Persistence Of Pirates

by Daniel Russ on April 27, 2010

French Naval Forces Overpower Pirates

A young hostage is taken to safety by French naval forces after they stormed the vessel. Two pirates and the boat’s captain were killed in the shoot-out. Three pirates were captured.”

Excerpts from, Time Magazine’s discussion of the persistence of Pirates.

“This time last year, Somali pirates dominated headlines in the U.S. The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a tanker captained by an American, led to a made-for-Hollywood intervention by sharp-shooting marines and triggered a media frenzy about the rise of piracy off the Horn of Africa. In the months that followed, a U.S. and E.U.-led naval task force stepped up patrols around Somalia’s coastline and lessened the threat posed by pirates there. This year there were only 17 attacks in the Gulf of Aden and waters surrounding Somalia between January and March — a peak time for piracy in the region because of a favorable weather conditions — compared to over 40 in that same period in 2009.

But Somalia’s pirates are far from defeated. On Apr. 18, they pulled off one of the most ambitious captures yet, seizing three Thai fishing trawlers far out into the Indian Ocean. The vessels had 77 crewmen on board and were 1,200 miles away from the Somali coast — making the hijacking the farthest off-shore heist ever conducted by Somali pirates as well as the largest in terms of numbers of hostages taken. Three days later, just four suspected Somali pirates armed with AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade managed to seize a Panamanian-listed bulk carrier 200 miles out from the Gulf of Aden corridor still patrolled by convoys of international warships.

Despite the vigil of many of the world’s powerful navies, it’s clear that the pirates’ reach seems to be widening, with the majority of recent successful attacks taking place closer to the Indian Ocean archipelagos of the Maldives and the Seychelles than Somalia. Currently, 15 vessels and 326 sailors are being held by Somali pirates — similar numbers to this time last year. Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre based in Kuala Lumpur, says his organization has been receiving frantic calls from shipowners asking what Indian Ocean routes are actually safe. “It’s difficult to know what to tell them,” he says. “The pirates have been popping up almost everywhere.”

Analysts say the increasing range of the Somali pirates is a tactical response to the foreign crackdown over stretches of sea closer to Somalia. Somali pirate captains “have learned the lessons of being hemmed in by these international navies,” says Roger Middleton, an expert on the Horn of Africa at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “They’re probably thinking, ‘The further away we go, the more scattered we are, the harder it is for the foreign navies to catch us.'” At the peak of the patrols, there are between 35 to 40 warships plying the waters off Somalia and safeguarding commercial vessels transiting through the Gulf of Aden. Given that Somalia’s 1,900 mile-long coastline is continental Africa’s longest, there are plenty of holes for pirate “motherships” — retrofitted fishing vessels that tow along smaller skiffs and often carry large reserves of fuel as well as GPS equipment — to putter into the deep sea of the Indian Ocean. Middleton estimates that it would take a mammoth flotilla of 700 or 800 ships in the region to actually neutralize the full, albeit rudimentary, capabilities of the pirates.

That sort of mobilization is unthinkable, not least because modern navies simply do not boast such numbers. The current international anti-piracy effort comprises separate American-led, NATO and E.U. task forces as well as independent detachments of warships sent by countries like India, China and Russia. Operations have been loosely coordinated from U.S. navy regional headquarters in Bahrain at monthly meetings of the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction group, coined “SHADE.” So far, this conclave has enabled better policing of the Gulf of Aden, a vital artery for commercial shipping, and the protection of vulnerable vessels like the World Food Program ships that bring aid to Mogadishu, Somalia’s beleaguered capital. But the now vital work of monitoring vast stretches of the Indian Ocean will require far more coordination, particularly in the sensitive military field of surveillance.

Sam Bateman, a maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, questions whether that sort of cooperation can be achieved. “Aerial and eventually satellite surveillance is going to be essential to countering the piracy threat,” he says. “But you can imagine the U.S. would be rather unwilling to reveal to, say, China the full extent of its capabilities.” The anti-piracy task forces are already dealing with a host of other legal and logistical headaches, from tight rules of engagement — innocent Somali fishermen have been mistaken for combatants — to the dilemma of what to do with pirates arrested in international waters. Eleven suspected Somali pirates appeared in a Virginia court on Apr. 23 in connection to attacks earlier in the year, but U.S. and European officials fear trials like this may open up a jurisdictional can of worms, as well as lead to many applications for asylum. Some policy makers have even suggested instituting a roving, U.N.-backed floating criminal court.”

Source: Time Magazine


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