With little more than skiffs, ladders and Kalashnikovs, the pirates of Somalia once hijacked giant cargo ships, extracted millions in ransom and forced the world’s navies to send warships steaming to the Gulf of Aden. They stole headlines and Hollywood’s imagination as khat-chewing villains in the hit film Captain Phillips.
But after wreaking havoc in the sea lanes off the Horn of Africa, with more than 200 attacks every year at their peak, the once-notorious Somali pirates have virtually vanished. No cargo ship has been successfully hijacked off the coast of Somalia since early 2012. This year, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported only three incidents.
Defeating Somalia’s scourge of piracy required unprecedented co-operation by different navies, efforts to boost stability ashore and, perhaps most importantly, the use of armed guards on commercial vessels – a radical break with shipping practices.
The bad news is that while the counter-piracy recipe seems to have worked, shipping companies are already warning about complacency. Many fear the US and other navies could declare victory and go home, potentially allowing pirates to return.
What’s more, the Somali playbook appears unsuited to fighting piracy in the two corners of the world where it is still raging – West Africa and Southeast Asia.
Piracy off Somalia rapidly became such a concern for shippers and sailors because of the scope of the pirates’ hijackings. Unlike pirates elsewhere in the world, the Somalis would seize an entire commercial vessel and crew and demand millions in ransom. Because of Somalia’s lawlessness, the armed gangs could moor cargo vessels along the coastline without having to worry about coast guards or police.
The rapid decline in piracy off Somalia has taken the shipping industry and governments by surprise. And there is still debate about what caused Somali piracy to trail off.
A big part of the effort came on land. International efforts to roll back al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia, including US airstrikes and an AU military force on the ground, played an important role by bringing some order to the war-torn country, experts said.
As part of the AU mission in Somalia, Kenyan troops in 2012 captured the port of Kismayo and chased out al-Shabaab fighters. That removed an important stronghold where the pirates had been able to operate. At the same time, some Somali clans had come to resent the pirate criminal network that disrupted the traditional order with flashy cars, narcotics and prostitutes.
With al-Shabaab in retreat, regional armed forces on the ground, and a degree of stability emerging in Somalia, the pirate gangs could no longer operate with as much impunity.
But the most visible effort against the Somali pirates came at sea. In 2009, the US launched an international naval mission to fend off pirates along the busy sea lanes off the Horn of Africa. The EU and Nato set up counter-piracy flotillas. And China, Russia and India sent warships in separate efforts.
The US navy famously captured and killed groups of pirates in a few cases and prosecuted a small number in American courts. The international naval forces, however, mostly served as a deterrent, and as a source of crucial information and surveillance that was shared with commercial ships plying the Gulf of Aden.
But the biggest difference may have come aboard those commercial ships. Burdened by rising insurance premiums, shippers began trying to ensure their vessels were not sitting ducks. They started cruising at higher speeds, installed barbed wire on the lower decks and built “citadel” safe rooms for crews.
Finally, and reluctantly, in a sharp break from decades of convention, major shipping companies started sending out small teams of armed security guards on their vessels.
Perched on a ship high above the pirates’ speedboats, they could easily knock out a boat’s engine or kill gunmen long before they reached the vessel. Not a single commercial ship with armed guards on deck has been successfully hijacked off the coast of Somalia.
With attacks virtually eradicated, many Western governments are questioning the need for keeping up a round-the-clock naval presence off the Horn of Africa.
Nato has already announced it will end its counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. But European governments will probably extend to December 2018 the mandate of the EU’s Operation Atalanta, which is due to expire by the end of the year.
The shipping industry has warned of the dangers of complacency. The IMB said it “believes a single successful hijacking of a merchant vessel will rekindle the Somali pirates’ passion to resume its piracy efforts”.
The US navy has no plans to pull out of the 31-nation counter-piracy force it set up seven years ago, despite the sharp drop in hijackings.
There is so much interest in understanding what overcame Somali piracy because high-seas larceny and kidnapping are spiking in other parts of the world, especially West Africa. The Gulf of Guinea, stretching from Senegal to Angola, represents a crucial gateway for oil shipments from Nigeria and Angola. It’s increasingly a prized hunting ground for pirates looking to kidnap captains and crew.
There were 54 piracy incidents reported last year, with 37 crew members kidnapped off the Niger Delta, and 34 the previous year.
As a result, the area along Nigeria’s coast is now the most violent and dangerous area for shipping companies, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a US group that tracks piracy.
The problem could be even graver; the IMB estimates that only one-third of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea end up being reported. Shipping companies often would rather avoid having to inform insurers or endure a long investigation that often comes to nothing.
“You’re not seeing the pirates and criminals captured and brought to account. That’s a risk-reward ratio that is pretty good for the pirates,” said Ian Millen, chief operating officer for UK-based Dryad Maritime, a security firm.
The West African spike has prompted calls to employ similar methods, including armed guards, that wiped out piracy off Somalia. But the same playbook may not be applicable.
Unlike Somalia, the countries affected have functioning governments and militaries that are not ready to open the door to international naval forces or heavily armed foreign security guards sailing into their waters.
Millen said it was unlikely international armed guards would become a trend for commercial cargo vessels operating elsewhere, such as in West Africa, because armed attacks there often happened in or near territorial waters. In that case, the only option was for locally sourced armed protection.
For crews working along the African coast, the hijacking epidemic is a dangerous and growing reality. The Polish skipper of cargo ship MV Szafir recounted an attack on his vessel in November when pirates kidnapped him and four others for ransom.
“They were aiming at us with machine guns,” said Captain Krzystof Kozlowski. “Right between the eyes.
“There was not any possibility to do anything. We had to adjust to them; it was the only chance to survive.” – Foreign Policy