Somali pirates continued to increase their activity in 2010. They successfully hijacked 49 ships in 2010 (compared to 45 in 2009) and were holding 26 ships off the coast of Somalia as of Jan. 24.
They carried out more attacks across a larger geographic area in 2010, managed to overcome limitations on their activity by periods of bad weather, and increased their capacity for holding hijacked ships.
These trends point to increased sophistication and capability on the part of Somali pirates.
Several countermeasures to piracy emerged in 2010 as well, but it remains to be seen if the pirates will develop counter-countermeasures.
In any case, the countermeasures have not done much to cause a decline in overall pirate activity, something that is not likely until serious land-based efforts are undertaken to deny pirates safe-havens.
Somali Pirates Expand Their Range
In the year’s most significant piracy-related trend, Somali pirates expanded their geographical reach in 2010 farther east and south of their traditional hunting grounds in the Gulf of Aden, following a trend under way since 2008. Some recent successful hijackings occurred closer to India and Madagascar than to Somalia. For example, on Dec. 5, Somali pirates about 300 miles off the coast of southern India hijacked the Bangladeshi-flagged MV Jahan Moni, nearly 1,500 miles east of Somalia. Similarly, on Dec. 25, the Thai fishing vessel Shiuh Fu was hijacked off the eastern coast of Madagascar.
That pirate units have managed to navigate the open ocean on multiday missions shows they have developed a more sophisticated maritime capability. This trend has accelerated as the foreign naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia has expanded and higher situational awareness among merchant ships in the same area has made piracy there much less profitable.
Only 10 of the successful 49 hijackings occurred in the Gulf of Aden, and only seven of those 10 occurred along the International Recommended Transit Corridor where foreign naval forces like Task Force 151 focus their patrols, thwarting many attempted hijackings. In short, the pirates are expanding their range outside of the Gulf of Yemen in order to keep making money.
A Change in Seasonal Activity
In a second significant trend, the number of pirated ships held by pirates in January rose to 26; the previous high was 19 in 2008. Over the past three years, pirates have maintained a fluctuating inventory of hijacked ships correspondent to the weather, with the number generally rising in November through December and in April through May as pirates take advantage of favourable weather. Those numbers generally decrease in January through March and August through October, when monsoon winds cause rough seas, impeding pirate operations. In previous years, pirates have used the downtime during monsoon seasons to negotiate ransoms with the owners of hijacked vessels. By the time the monsoons are over, pirates have a much lower inventory of hijacked ships, freeing up resources to go after new ships.
This historic trend has faded in the last year, however. Instead, while the pirates’ inventory of captive ships rose in from April to May of 2010, there was no significant drop-off off in August through October. While pirates continued to release ships once ransoms were received to provide themselves a steady income, they were capturing more ships than they were releasing. Later, the anticipated sharp rise in the pirates’ inventory of hijacked ships began in November, but the rise continued through January.
The monsoon season has now started, and nothing indicates that this year’s monsoon is any weaker than usual. It is also just as strong (if not stronger) in the waters closer to the Asian subcontinent, so the pirates’ geographic expansion also does not necessarily explain the lack of a drop-off. Instead, it appears that pirates have managed to overcome unfavorable monsoon weather.
Larger mother ships for launching attacks on merchant vessels are one tool that might be allowing them to continue operations through monsoon season. STRATFOR has followed the trend of Somali pirates moving up from small, 30-foot skiffs to captured 100-foot and larger fishing vessels that offer increased stability on rough waters. Pirates are more likely to use fishing vessels like the Shiuh Fu, captured in December, as mother ships, since they do not yield the kind of ransoms large cargo ships owned by multinational corporations do. The pirates instead will hold fishing vessels’ crews hostage or coerce them into assisting the pirates in their next seizure. Pirates can hopscotch their way across the Indian Ocean by hijacking larger and larger boats until they capture a prized cargo ship or tanker that can bring in millions of dollars in ransom once secured off the coast of Somalia.
Holding More Ships for Ransom
Overcoming the challenges presented by monsoon season creates another challenge for the pirates: Holding the ships off the coast of Somalia while ransoms are negotiated with the shipping companies. Past years have indicated that Somali pirates cannot hold more than 20 ships. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the larger cargo ships are secured by 40-50 men three to five miles offshore after hijacking. During the negotiation period, which can take months, all those men — plus the hostages — must be fed and cared for. This takes significant organisation, manpower and cash. Expanding manpower is not terribly difficult, as Somalia is full of unemployed young men, and money coming in from piracy can be reinvested in hiring more pirates.
Anecdotal evidence, though not terribly reliable, combined with the increased number of ships pirates are holding suggests that pirates using time to their advantage. Somali news source Ahram Online reported Dec. 15 that pirates turned down a ransom payment of $500,000 for the release of the MV Suez because the offer “came too late,” according to the ship’s engineer. Previously, holding ships for ransom apparently took resources away from pirate operations at sea, which encouraged the pirates to settle quickly with ship owners. The increase in pirates’ ability to hold ships complicates the situation for shipping companies in negotiations with pirates, making it less effective to exploit the impending monsoon season to negotiate down ransoms — and giving the pirates the upper hand.
On the other hand, a few of the most recently hijacked ships (more than four in the past week) are not confirmed to have returned to Somalia. Until those ships are confirmed under pirate control, we cannot say with certainty that the pirates have significantly increased their capabilities.
The third trend that unfolded over the year to point out is the increase in piracy countermeasures. STRATFOR has noted that the “citadel” tactic, whereby crewmembers disable the ship and lock themselves in a safe-room when attacked, has been on the rise this year. This has gone hand-in-hand with allowing foreign naval forces greater ability to board and retake ships from pirates. The two tactics in tandem proved successful four times in the past year, and we can expect to see the tactics used more in 2011.
The pirates could catch up, however, and deploy counter-countermeasures. For example, they could find a way to breach the safe-room doors to gain access to the crew, complicating rescue attempts. We are watching closely for any indications that pirates are carrying cutting torches or explosives that could be used to breach safe-room doors or walls, though we have not seen any indication that pirates are doing so.
Our overall assessment from past years remains: Battling pirates at sea yields only marginal tactical successes. To deal a serious blow to the pirates, they must be denied a haven on land. As long as these pirates have safe-havens along Somalia’s coast, they will be able to replace men, weapons and vessels lost at sea to foreign naval forces — and will continue collecting ransom payments ranging as high as $10 million.
Such large amounts of money (especially by Somali standards) go a long way toward securing sanctuary when one is living amid chaos. While we have seen some isolated examples of Islamist forces from the south pressuring pirates on land, such as a purported al Shabaab operation against pirates in Haradhere, no sustained campaign has emerged, nor signs such isolated forays seriously affected the tempo of piracy.
Still it easily can be argued that piracy does not rise to the level of strategic threat, as it affects only a small percentage of regional ship traffic. Until the cost of piracy is seen to surpass the cost (and risk) of conducting ground operations in Somalia, no serious reversals in the trends laid out above are likely.
This article originally appeared at STRATFOR.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.