PiracySomali pirates adapt and thrive

Published 2 September 2011

Somali pirates have grown bolder and more clever in adapting to world attempts to curtail piracy; last month, they recorded their first hijacking of a ship anchored in port; total costs of piracy now reach $12B

As world commerce has adapted somewhat successfully to the ever-present threat of the capture and ransoming of commercial vessels and crews, the Somali pirate themselves have altered tactics in response.

In past years, the pirates’ tactic was to use a skiff with a crew of about eight to approach a ship, while brandishing automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and boarding the ships unopposed.

Crews were told to clear the decks, and not resist, and the brigands were free to take over the vessel and sail it into harbor in Somali waters, to await ransom for the ship, cargo and crew. The crews were treated reasonably well, knowing that the shipping companies would be negotiating the ransom, and they would continue on their way. In fact, the pirates had gone so far as to bring in chefs to prepare the crews’ meals.

Piracy thus developed into a low-risk, high return business with easy entry. All that was required was an easily-recruited armed crew, and a seaworthy motor skiff. Low investment for a return of millions of dollars.

Somalia was then, and still is, the ideal place for such an enterprise. Without an effective government that would attempt to stop the “business,” the pirates were free to act, and act they did.

According to businessdailyafrica.com, a recent study by the U.N. International Maritime Organization disclosed that in 2010, 629 crew members were taken hostage in East Africa waters, and the Somali pirates garnered $238 million in ransoms in that year.

The UNIMO places the total cost of worldwide piracy to the global economy at $12 billion, when it factors in increased insurance premiums, increased shipboard security measures, the re-routing of ships and the impact on regional economies.

The industry first re-routed ships, placing them further out at sea, outside the range of the pirate’s boats. The pirates responded by using captured oceanic vessels as “mother ships” from which the skiffs were launched, negating the benefit of re-routing.

As the world’s navies began patrols, and the commercial ships themselves began to fight back, and it became clear that one boatload of pirates would not be enough to take control of a vessel, the pirates again adapted.

A relatively new tactic is to use two or three “mother ships” to approach a targeted vessel from multiple directions, then each launches two or three skiffs to surround the target, making it more likely they would be able to board and overrun the crew.

And so, the cycle of adaptation and counter continues and likely will for some time and last month reached new heights of daring.

Rather than take the risk of attempting to hijack a ship far out at sea, Somali pirates boarded a chemical tanker anchored two miles offshore at the Omani port of Salaleh. They were able to hold police at bay by threatening to kill the Indian crew, while the vessel weighed anchor and set sail for Somalia. This marked the first time that Somali pirates captured a ship within a nation’s territorial waters.