How do you tell the difference between a Somali pirate in a small boat and a largely identical but innocent fisherman? It all comes down to the ladders.
Pirates often take fishing gear out with them into the deep waters of the Indian Ocean to help feed themselves and fishermen from the lawless country often carry AK-47s for self protection. Grappling hooks can be easily hidden out of sight.
But if naval officers see a small boat with long metal ladders lashed to the deck, they say they know for sure the occupants have set to sea with only one thing in mind.
That means maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters flying along the Somali beach can pick out so-called “pirate action groups” putting to sea and feed the information back to warship and command centre operations rooms.
“You can see the giveaway signs that this is a pirate gathering,” says Andreas Kutsch, a German naval officer working as an assistant chief of staff for the EU’s anti-piracy task force, using a laser pointer to show the ladders among the brightly coloured plastic containers for spare fuel and water. “Fishermen don’t need ladders.”
Boarding merchant vessels, sailing them to the Somali coast and holding them and their crews ransom, the pirates have redrawn shipping lanes across the Indian Ocean. They have infuriated owners and insurers and prompted a surge of naval forces to the region.
On any given day, the United States estimates that some 30 to 40 warships are involved in counter piracy efforts from the EU, NATO and the United States as well as emerging Indian Ocean players China, Russia, India, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.
The latter tend to concentrate on escorting convoys of their own national vessels, while the Western-led forces spread themselves across the region saying they want to protect all shipping regardless of flag.
There is no overall commander although the navies meet once a month in Bahrain and coordinate through an Internet chat room.
Poverty, rewards drive piracy
At the British base northwest of London that houses the headquarters of both the EU and NATO forces, dozens of personnel coordinate and monitor shipping a quarter of a world away.
Two merchant navy liaison officers — tanker, cruise ship and freighter captains on loan from their companies — communicate with ships by email and phone, pointing them towards convoys and the safest routes.
But the military surge does not seem to be deterring the several thousand Somalis that Western military officers believe are involved in the growing piracy industry, with the numbers seen roughly tripling on a year ago.
Despite the risks of weather, high seas and being picked up by a foreign warship, the potential multimillion dollar ransoms from ships carrying Asian goods to Europe, Middle East oil and African commodities to the world is just too great.
“Unemployment in Somalia is very high, and even for those who are employed the average salary is only $500 a year,” says NATO force deputy chief of staff Commodore Hans Helseth, a former Norwegian submariner who has tracked the pirates for three years.
“A pirate can earn $20 000. Who would not be tempted? I would.”
Naval officers say heavy patrolling along the Gulf of Aden’s Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor (IRTC) — where they hope to get a helicopter to an attacked ship within 15 minutes — has been effective. Once the main focus of the pirates, only three ships have been seized there since July last year.
Many ships now take many more steps to avoid attack, passing through risky areas at night, using barbed wire to make it harder for attackers to board and keeping a good lookout. In the Gulf of Aden, officers say that if a ship can slow the speed of a pirate takeover from five to 15 minutes they are much more likely to get military support in time.
But most of the more than 15 ships and hundreds of sailors currently held off Somalia were taken south of Aden in the wider Indian Ocean, where navies simply lack the numbers to cover the vast area.
Tyranny of distance
“Distance really is the tyranny,” says EU Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) commander Rear Admiral Peter Hudson. “We can have a maritime patrol aircraft identify a pirate action group and it can take me two or three days to get a ship down there.”
Nevertheless, Hudson says the six ship EU force and other Western-led forces have disrupted 59 pirate groups — usually one “mothership” that can be as small as 5 metres long with several smaller attacks skiffs — in April and May alone.
Those “disruptions” can range from storming a hijacked vessel, arresting the pirates for trial, destroying their boats or simply prompting them to throw their ladders and other incriminating evidence overboard.
Some other nations have taken a rather tougher approach. Russian military officers told local news agencies that pirates captured when they took back control of an oil tanker were simply set loose in their boats without weapons or navigation equipment — and were not expected to have survived.
But Western officers say even simply forcing the pirates to dump their equipment is still a success.
The Somalis might escape prosecution but still face the long journey back to Somalia with nothing to show for it, driving up the cost of the industry and, the EU hopes, deterring them.
While reasonable weather allows pirates to prey on shipping in the Gulf of Aden throughout the year, twice yearly monsoons limit the party season in the rest of the Indian Ocean to two periods a year, March to May and September to December.
“Hopefully, we will put them out of business for the season at least,” says Hudson.
“Our aim is to contain the piracy problem and hold it at an acceptable level. We know we are not going to be able to eradicate it.”