More Somali pirates have taken to the water this year than ever before, NATO and EU forces say, but navies are combating them more effectively.
The Islamist takeover of a pirate haven last month seems to have had no impact on what has become a very profitable industry, they said, but monsoon conditions meant attacks would now fall sharply until September.
Alongside emerging powers such as China, India and Russia, NATO and the European Union have sent taskforces to combat piracy — a move they believe has made the chokepoints around the Gulf of Aden much safer but pushed the problem into the wider Indian Ocean.
Currently, pirates hold 17 ships anchored at locations along the Somali coast and 357 sailors.
“We would say there has been a threefold increase in the number of pirates since 2009,” Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, commander of the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR), told a briefing at his headquarters northwest of London. “I would say we are being more effective but against an increased level of threat.”
Naval forces disrupted 59 pirate groupings in the Somali basin between March and May, one of the two main piracy seasons of the year, up sharply from last year.
That could range from arresting the pirates, destroying their boats and putting them on trial in Kenya or the Seychelles to simply forcing them to throw ladders and weapons overboard and begin the long journey back to Somalia.
“A lot of it comes down to the balance of risk and reward for the pirates,” Hudson said. “The risks are very great — not just of being caught, but all boats being overturned or dying in bad weather — but the potential rewards are also very large.”
No Islamist crackdown
European, Russian and forces from Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland have all stormed ships to recapture them from pirates in recent months, but Hudson said that was not always an option.
“It depends on a variety of issues — risk of damage to the ship, cargo, environmental impact with something like a tanker and most of all the safety of the crew,” he said.
Somalia’s Islamists have usually taken a tough line on piracy, almost eradicating it when they briefly ran Somalia in 2006-7. But their takeover of the haven of Haradheere in May did not seem to have produced any such clampdown, NATO said.
“There were three pirated ships anchored off Haradheere when the Islamists took over in May and they are still there,” said NATO force deputy chief of staff Hans Henselth. “That tells me that they are not taking any action against the pirates.”
There had also been an increase in attacks launched from Islamist-controlled areas of the Somali coast, the officers said, but without any land-based operations they simply could not tell if the Islamists were directly involved in piracy.
NATO’s Henselth said most hijackings had been of relatively ill-prepared cheaply run merchant ships failing to take advice on self protection measures and routing.
“It would not matter so much except these ships are still generating ransoms, funding piracy and making it worse for everyone else,” he said.
Piracy would only ultimately subside when greater rule of law returned to Somalia, Hudson said.
“The answer to this is not charging around the Indian Ocean with expensive destroyers,” he said. “It has to be a Somalia-based solution on land.”