What About Pirates?

On May 10th of this year (2013), pirate-busters celebrated the fact that one year had passed since a ship was successfully seized by Somali hijackers. Pirates have been attacking vessels passing the Horn of Africa since at least 2005, when they received a $315,000 ransom for Feisty Gas, a ship owned by a company in Hong Kong. Since then, payments have risen continuously, reaching a high last year of $9.5m for the Smyrni, a Greek tanker, and her crew of 26. But since its capture on May 10th 2012, the pirates have not hijacked any more vessels. Why are the pirates at bay?


Though the spoils are rising, pirate attacks have been falling off. Just 75 attacks took place in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia in 2012, down from more than 200 in 2011. As I write this, there are currently 71 sailors being held hostage by pirates, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a body that monitors crime at sea; in early 2011, the figure was 758. Estimates for how much Somali piracy has cost the world economy range from $7 billion to $18 billion, the latest estimate by the World Bank. One theory is that the pirates have spent the past few months stock-taking, clearing their stock of hostages and ships before restarting their campaign. Another possibility is that their business model is shifting towards kidnapping foreign aid-workers and tourists on land. Throughout our 2012 tour in Egypt, we had a strapping, tall gentleman dressed in a 3-piece suit positioned at the front of our bus; the seat next to him was occupied by a machine gun. Trailing us during the entire 400-mile (roundtrip) journey from Safaga to Luxor was an empty bus – just in case we encountered mechanical problems. We felt relatively safe.   


But the main reason for the drop in maritime hijackings seems to be that ships are now far better defended against attacks. Armed guards, now carried by more than 60% of vessels, have been essential in discouraging them. Pirates are playing it safe by first scouting for guards, whereas previously they opened fire to intimidate crews; seeing arms on board is a big deterrent. Higher cruising speeds in pirate-infested zones and rerouting also have helped, as have razor wire & high-pressure hoses. We were covered with these measures both voyages. In 2012, I recall leaving the ship in Bombay for a day-tour and upon returning to the port, the Amsterdam had taken on an entirely different personality, adorned with razor wire from stem to stern – literally hundreds of feet of barb-wire wrapped the entire ship, with several armed guards joining our journey! As we sailed from the harbor, Captain Mercer informed us over the PA system that as yet another precautionary measure, we would be cranking all engines at full-speed for the next few days & nights as we crossed the Indian Ocean. We did so without incident during our crossings in both 2012 & 2013, and were subsequently told both years that in fact, we were being watched – that there was “suspicious activity & curiosity” close at hand. Of course, we had several passengers on-edge. Any time a small vessel was spotted, the rumors started flying. Many were legitimate fishing boats – a few others remain a mystery to this day. We would occasionally see military vessels – a reassuring sight as you went to sleep.    


All these gains are fragile and reversible. The NATO navy mandates expire at the end of 2014. Defensive measures, particularly higher speeds and armed guards, are very expensive. Suppression at sea needs to be combined with better onshore government and deterrence, both sorely lacking. Kenya and the Seychelles have worked hard to drive pirates out or into prisons; yet war-torn Somalia is still an ideal cover. Research tells me that the pirate gangs are still intact and are waiting for their next opportunity. Their activities usually wane from May to September during the rough seas of the monsoon season, but they could still stage an autumn comeback.