Pirates winning war off Somali coast

east as the Maldives and the southern coast of India.

“This is a vast area, and the navies cannot realistically cover it,” Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, said in a recent report. The bureau is urging vessels to stay at least 600 nautical miles away from Somalia’s coastline — although even that distance might be insufficient to protect themselves.

A senior United Nations official, Lynn Pascoe, described the piracy situation as “appalling.” In a report last month, he warned that the Somali piracy crisis is “outpacing” the international efforts to solve it.

A study by the U.S. government in September found that Somali attacks had soared dramatically in the past three years — from 40 attacks in 2007 to a reported 218 attacks last year. The number of hostages seized by the pirates rose fivefold in the same period, reaching 867 hostages last year, and the total amount of ransoms increased from $3 million in 2007 to about $74 million last year.

There are “not enough naval vessels among all of the combined navies in the world” to patrol the entire area of operations of the Somali pirates, the study concluded.

The Globe and Mail notes that the pirates are often surprisingly low-tech. They bump across the waves in small skiffs, clambering barefoot as they scale the walls of ships, and their weapons are often so old that they are rusty. They are increasingly violent and ruthless, however, not hesitating to fire their automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. They also have successfully dodged the anti-piracy fleet, putting their speedboats onto larger “mother ships” — or hijacked vessels — so that they can travel far away from the naval armada before launching their attacks.

The pirates are supported by shadowy financiers who are rarely caught. There is growing evidence that Somalia’s Islamic militants, including the feared al-Shabab radical group, are beginning to use piracy to raise money for their relentless rebellion against Somalia’s government.

Ship owners are responding with a dizzying array of defensive tactics: sonic beams; laser pointers; water cannons; rolls of razor wire; barred windows; lubricant foam to make stairways dangerous; teams of guards with sniper rifles, and “safe rooms” with reinforced steel walls to protect the crew if the pirates climb aboard. But none of this is working, and desperate governments are looking at new options.

They have searched for countries willing to put the pirates on trial and imprison them, but almost every country in Africa (and in the West) is unwilling.

Kenya has conducted most of the piracy trials, but it complains of being the “dumping ground” for arrested pirates. The Kenyan government is threatening to halt the trials unless it gets more money for its overloaded legal system.

Nobody knows what to do with the pirates. Hundreds of them are simply disarmed and released after they are captured. Shipping companies continue to pay ransoms, even to suspected terrorists, because they know that a refusal to pay ransoms could damage their commercial interests.

In desperation, many governments and ship owners are turning to mercenaries and private security armies. London-based insurance and shipping companies, for example, are planning to support a private navy of twenty armed patrol boats, with mercenaries on board. But the legal status of these mercenaries is unclear, and their existence could lead to controversial actions such as gun-running and executions at sea. In South Africa this month, police arrested four people who were allegedly smuggling weapons for an anti-piracy force in Somalia.

“A return to privateering indicates that the Somali buccaneers have overwhelmed the naval armada,” Osiro says. “The common thread of these anti-piracy responses is that they follow the path of least resistance. They seem to have been chosen to provide cosmetic solutions and circumnavigate the only obvious resolution: stabilizing Somalia.”