All quiet on the Eastern front – or just an operational pause?
The SW monsoon has predictably resulted in a cessation in Somali piracy in open ocean areas since its onset in June. As is the norm for this time of year, wind and sea conditions prevent pirate skiffs from being launched to attack and board merchant vessels in all but sheltered areas, such as the Gulf of Aden, Southern Red Sea and close in to the Omani coast. Getting off the eastern beaches of Somalia isn’t easy either, so the threat along this shoreline and further South toward the African ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam is also, temporarily at least, neutralised.
All of the above said, Somali pirates are nothing if not persistent and we have seen some indications of their continued attempts to keep their business alive. A recent double hijack of a dhow off Bosaso in August, along the northern shore of Puntland, followed by the use of this acquisition for an ‘upgrade hijack’ of a further dhow off Salalah (Oman) has shown, in the most practical way possible, that Somali pirates are not out of business, even if times are hard when compared to the success of earlier years.
The IMB reported July 2012 as the first month without a confirmed attack since 2007 and Lloyds List detailed the fact that year to date ransom payments were down from $160 million to $29 million dollars when compared to 2011. Even the recent Bosaso/Salalah double hijack met with failure as coalition forces intervened to spoil the pirates’ day with a coordinated operation to prevent their return to Somalia.
In the face of such figures, we could be forgiven for thinking that it is ‘game over’ for Somali pirates, beaten into submission by coalition maritime forces and frustrated by the layered defence of predictive intelligence, armed guards and effective physical protection. To do so, however, would be a big mistake because so little has changed when viewed through the eyes of the maritime criminals in question. Piracy is a very lucrative business and a very attractive line of work for young Somali men who have few other prospects. Endless supplies of them are lured by the glitter of earning more money in a single hijack than they might in a lifetime of scraping a living in the failed state of Somalia – a powerful motivator. Those that organise and bank roll the activity are also unlikely to shut up shop and invest their ill-gotten gains into property or the travel industry and will be looking forward to and hoping for better times ahead.
Just as clear as the pirates’ intent to spread more misery across the waters adjacent to the Horn of Africa is the fact that the combined efforts of effective intelligence, BMP compliance, armed security and the proactive efforts of Coalition Maritime Forces have made life very difficult for them. The pirates have seen a downturn in their profitable business since the end of the 2011 SW monsoon with only 15 successful hijacks as compared to 44 for the same period the year before – down by two thirds .
So what is the message? Is Somali piracy dead? No. Has the risk been treated better than before? Yes. Many recognise that piracy originating in the Horn of Africa is unlikely to go away until the root causes can be tackled on the mainland of Somalia, but after a sustained period of success, it appears that the medicine is having a positive effect. It would be a big mistake to think that we could metaphorically ‘stop taking the pills.’ Even if the pirate business has suffered a few setbacks, the threat remains a very real one; the capability is intact and the motivation of those engaged is unlikely to have been diminished to the point of defeat. At the time of writing, two large merchant ships under pirate control (Smyrni & Royal Grace), lie menacingly at anchor on the northern Puntland coast, within striking distance of the IRTC. The events of the recent double hijack also shows that pirates are still prepared to take to the seas to acquire new assets (Motherships) for longer-range operations when the time is right.
The threat is out there now, but will certainly increase in the weeks ahead. The SW monsoon will come to an end and a new ‘pirate season’ will begin. Determined young men in fast boats will once again put to sea in search of treasure. Unfortunately, the acquisition of such treasure will result in misery and probable harm for others. How successful Somali pirates are going forward will very much depend upon how well prepared the vessels they target are. Those who plan well, adopt a layered defence approach, observe BMP and remain constantly vigilant will be least likely to become prey with those who do not more likely to encounter misfortune. The message is a clear one – complacency is the greatest threat and constant vigilance, the greatest weapon in the fight against Somali pirates.
Ian Millen, Director of Intelligence