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Guest Post: Fighting Maritime Piracy: Mission Accomplished?

January 31, 2013

German forces patrol after destroying two boats off the coast of Somalia (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).
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Emma Welch is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action and the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In early January, Mohamed Abdi Hassan—dubbed a “pirate kingpin” by the United Nations—announced his retirement from piracy. In his farewell press conference, Hassan explained: "After being in piracy for eight years, I have decided to renounce and quit, and from today on I will not be involved in this gang activity.” He added, "I have also been encouraging many of my colleagues to renounce piracy too.”

Hassan may have an ulterior motive for quitting his career in piracy: business just isn’t what it used to be. In November 2008, pirates—reportedly led by Hassan—seized a Saudi tanker carrying over $100 million worth of oil. The tanker was released two months later, but only after the pirates negotiated a ransom of $3 million. Several months later, a Ukranian ship carrying weapons and ammunition was seized by the same group that ultimately claimed another handsome ransom. Oceans Beyond Piracy estimated that Somali piracy cost the global economy roughly $7 billion in 2011.

The twin attacks catalyzed the UN Security Council to action in December 2008. Resolution 1846 called on states and regional organizations to use “all necessary means” to take preemptive act against piracy off the coast of Somalia. A few weeks later, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1851 to legitimize the use of force on land as well as sea. Ad hoc coalitions of states including the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union began patrolling the Gulf of Aden as part of Combined Task Force 151, which was established to coordinate the various maritime operations in the region. Other countries ranging from China to Iran also deployed naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden. In May 2012, the European Union naval force took the unprecedented step of attacking a pirate base on the Somali coast, in the first land strike by external actors.

Major shipping companies also worked with such coalitions to develop “best management practices” to prevent attacks by pirates, including traveling at full speed through high risk areas, installing physical barriers like razor wire, and removing ladders. In addition, private security teams have been hired to protect an estimated 40 percent of large commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters, at the cost of $45,000 for a four-man team. So far, these teams have a 100 percent success rate: no ship with armed guards aboard has been pirated.

Thanks to increased international naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, as well as the effective—albeit controversial—implementation of best practices and additional security, pirate attacks fell by over 30 percent from 439 in 2011 to 297 in 2012. The number of hostages also decreased markedly from 802 to 585 over the past year. The success in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean demonstrates that a relatively simple, coordinated policing regime is capable of delivering real results, particularly when it involves cooperation with the private sector. The bottom line for enterprising Somali pirates: risks are higher and rewards are lower.

Despite these positive trends, it is premature to claim “mission accomplished” in the fight against piracy for several reasons. First, although attacks have dropped, they have only returned to levels witnessed in 2009, when the threat posed by piracy featured prominently on the international agenda. Second, criminal networks adapt and shift routes in response to enhanced policing and enforcement. In Somalia, pirates have pushed operations further offshore and beyond the Gulf of Aden. At the same time, the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria has emerged as the new piracy hotspot. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are considerably more violent than their counterparts in Somalia, and underreporting of attacks “continues to be a cause for concern.”

Third, prosecution of apprehended pirates is weak. The special adviser to the UN secretary-general on piracy, Jack Lang, estimated that 90 percent of captured pirates are released because many governments have been reluctant to take on the prohibitive financial and logistical burdens of prosecution. (Case in point: Hassan, one of the most infamous pirates, is conducting high-profile press conferences with impunity, and some of his former “colleagues” have been offering their services as counterpiracy consultants.) For example, after Kenya signed bilateral agreements with the United States, United Kingdom, and Denmark, its courts and prison systems were quickly overwhelmed. Now, Kenya only accepts pirates for prosecution on a limited case-by-case basis. In 2010, the United States convicted five men of piracy for the first time since the Civil War, and Germany held its first piracy trial in over four centuries. Unfortunately, these success stories are few and far between.

Although modern day piracy is dwarfed by its historical predecessors—when the nascent U.S. government paid nearly $1 million per year in ransom and tribute payments to the Barbary pirates—it still has profound implications for global commercial and security interests. Long-term and comprehensive solutions are needed to address the root causes of piracy. In the short term, however, states should work in partnership with the private sector to reduce the incentives of piracy by bolstering enforcement and improving prosecution mechanisms.