It was been reported that there has been no successful attack of a ship off Somalia since June 19th and no attempted boarding since June 26th. This is good news. No one, however, believes it will last. The decline is attributed to naval action, ship self-protection measures including the use of armed guards, and, most pertinently, the weather. These are certainly relevant but not, perhaps, the whole story.
The effect of the monsoon has historically prevented the pirates from operating. This only changed once the pirates began the extensive use of ‘mother ships’ starting in 2010. At first they used the ships they had captured, keeping he crews on board as human shields. These large ships offered several advantages, particularly range and sea-worthiness, but two major disadvantages: their size made them easy for navies to track and they consumed large quantities of irreplaceable fuel. Consequently, over the last year to eighteen months the pirates have used motorized dhows instead, which are much smaller and ubiquitous. The navies have focused considerable attention on finding ways of tracking these these vessels as they leave the Somali coast, identifying which are engaged in pirate activity and intercepting or otherwise neutralizing their effectiveness.
While the pirates may be experiencing less freedom of action as a result of the navies relatively new focus on these vessels, self-protection measures that have now been adopted across most of the international shipping industry have almost certainly been a more effective deterrent. The immediate sight of razor wire and armed guards puts pirates off more than the possible arrival of a naval ship or aircraft. Plenty of local shipping take no – or very few – precautions and they continue to be victimized. Their main protection is that they yield almost no financial return and therefore offer unattractive targets.
Clearly, therefore, pirate attacks are down because naval and industry attention is up. What happens when naval attention declines and industry becomes complacent? The first is happening: the bulk of naval protection is provided by the Western navies that participate in the Combined Task Force (CTF), EU NAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta and NATO’s Operation Open Shield. All three are experiencing falling ship numbers as fiscal pressures ratchet up in Europe particularly.
Industry meanwhile is coming under similar pressures. Declining economic activity globally mean that freight rates are falling while energy costs, which usually decline in tandem, have remained stubbornly high. Saving on protection can help defray these: the two favored avenues are to cut the ships transit speed from the recommended 18kts to the more normal cruising speed of 14kts or, in the case of bulk carriers and tankers, much less. Below 18kts ships with low freeboards in particular are much more vulnerable to boarding. In these cases the burden of protection falls on the armed teams but in any unknown number of cases these too are being weakened through the embarkation of fewer personnel.
These developments lead to two thoughts.
First: If these trends continue then, sooner or later, a ship with an armed team on board will be taken and the game will start over again. The pirates have proved to be quick learners who can adjust their modus operandi more smartly than the navies can respond. If, as has been suggested, the pirates are most concerned about armed teams then all they need to do is wait and let cost and complacency weaken their prey.
Second: While it is true that the economic effects of Somali piracy are relatively inconsequential when compared to the value of international or regional trade, it is the most significant outbreak since World War II. Inevitably, therefore, it has political significance internationally and also domestically within Somalia. Piracy could not have happened at all if the the country had been stable. The groups responsible for that instability, and which have political power in regional entities such as Puntland and in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in Mogadishu, have pirate interests. The TFG is currently fighting to retain its recognized positioned as the UN-mandated central authority, which enables it to attract international aid and other support. According to a leaked UN report, much of this aid is aid is siphoned off. Given the connections between ministers and officials within the TFG and the pirate groups it seems reasonable to suspect that the pirates have been told to curb their activities while the political leaderships attempts to secure its own position and sources of revenue.
The world is dealing with an adaptable and intelligent adversary that watches and listens to what we do. So long as the potential for significant profits remains – and so long as the pirates’ on-land support infrastructure and international negotiating capacity remains intact – then the incentive to wait until the current counter-measures are stood-down will remain. Baring action against these assets the pirates will be back. Piracy is not over.
Image source: MOD/Crown