The sharp drop in piracy in the Somali Basin is puzzling security experts, who have been surprised by recent developments. While they are not heralding “mission accomplished,” they are asking what factors have led to the recent sharp demise in piracy off the Somali coast.
The High Risk Area off the Somali coast has seen over 700 attacks by pirates since 2009, but last year there were only 11 pirate incidents and no ship hijackings. No ships have been hijacked in the area since the start of January 2013. Toward the end of 2011, seven ships were being hijacked a month.
Security experts can point to no one reason for the quiet in the Somali Basin, but suggest several factors have combined to reduce the threat over the past year. Among these are the presence of three international naval task forces in the area, the extensive use by ship owners of armed private security guards, and improved best security practices for sailing through high risk waters off east Africa.
The High Risk Area in the Indian Ocean extends from the southern approaches to the Suez Canal and Strait of Hormuz in the north to 10 degrees south, which cuts across the northern tip of Madagascar, and 78 degrees east, upon which the southernmost tip of India lies.
In a presentation to the second Annual Africa Security and Counter-Terrorism Summit in London, Peter Cook, who heads the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, SAMI, put up a slide titled “High Risk Area – resolved?”
Cook said pirates still conduct “drive bys” of ships in the Somali Basin, but once private guards on the vessels clearly show their weapons they tend to rapidly speed away.
Cook said it was difficult to weight the factors behind the sharp drop off in pirate activity but the presence of three naval coalition forces, improved best management practices and voluntary reporting in the High Risk Area, and the presence of armed guards were all significant.
Speaking at the Counter-Terrorism Summit, Robert Missen, the Head of the European Commission’s Land and Maritime Security Unit said the key factor in the sharp drop in incidents was the greater presence of armed guards. “Armed guards is the tipping point” in the fight against piracy, said Missen.
The growth of the Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel has been unregulated, “but their use has proven to be effective,” said Missen.
Members of security companies say that industry standards allowing more aggressive rules of engagement for armed guards in face-offs with pirates have acted as a powerful deterrent to piracy.
Ugandan Major General Geoffrey Muheesi, who was Deputy Force Commander of the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, until the end of last year, believes one major reason for the decline in attacks on ships is that the pirates are feeling the pressure on land. AMISOM has pushed out Al Shabaab from some areas along the coast from which pirates operated. In addition, said General Muheesi, he has heard reports that the high death rate among pirates in open boats at sea is deterring new recruits even in the face of the possibility of immense rewards.
For some time analysts said they were unable to identify links between pirate groups and Al Shabaab. It is now widely regarded in security circles as highly likely that portions of ransoms had to be paid to Al Shabaab.
It is unclear to security officials who monitor Somalia how the pirates are now earning a living. Some suggest that former pirates may have diverted their attention to charcoal smuggling and that others might have invested the money they earned from ransoms in more legitimate assets in neighbouring countries.
The drop in piracy off Somalia may convince countries that have contributed to the international naval task forces to scrap or at least cut back on their presence. The mandate for the EU Naval Force expires at the end of 2016. With European defence budgets under severe strain, there might be pressures to limit the scale of the force, but an incident at sea could change such a decision.
With the reduced threat of piracy in the Somali Basin, ships owners are increasingly turning attention to piracy the Gulf of Guinea. However, the most severe area for piracy is in the South China Sea.