News / Africa

Naval Patrols Reduce Somali Pirate Attacks, but Threat Continues


Joe DeCapua

International naval patrols against Somali pirates have made shipping lanes much safer.  But they’ve not been able to eliminate the threat altogether.  Naval experts look at what’s been done and what could be done to keep the pirates at bay.

Naval vessels from many countries now patrol the seas off Somalia and Kenya, protecting merchant and humanitarian ships.  Claude Berube, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, says generally they’ve done a good job.

“The short answer is yes, to a degree, and specifically to a geographic region,” he says.

Retired U.S. naval commander John Patch, an associate professor at the U.S. Army War College, agrees.  

“Success, yes, but in a very limited area.  And that is the transit scheme, a kind of traffic scheme they’ve set up, in the Gulf of Aden, where admittedly most of the most significant maritime traffic is going.  But it is in the large part only a small area,” he says.

Safer shipping lanes, so pirates seek booty elsewhere

Berube says the shipping traffic pattern is called the I.R.T.C, the International Recognized Transit Corridor.

“It’s very heavily patrolled by coalition and partner nations.  Consequently, the number of attacks have dropped precipitously.  And the number of successful attacks are down significantly as well,” he says.

Recent reports say Somali pirates have attacked more than 30 ships this year, with less than a third being seized.  Berube is currently co-authoring a book on private maritime security, dealing with responses to piracy, terrorism and other water-borne security risks.

He says since the Gulf of Aden is heavily patrolled, the pirates look for easy prey elsewhere.

“The first major shift was from the Gulf of Aden and the coastline of Somalia to a broader region off of Somalia and the Somali Basin, a couple of hundred miles.  The next phase was branching further out, several hundred miles out to sea in the Indian Ocean,” he says.

The Naval Academy professor adds, “There have been a number of attacks also in the Arabian Sea and some that have gone out as far as 1200 miles (1930 kilometers).”

Anti-piracy tactics

The pirates are willing to go great distances because piracy has become very big business, possibly in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The pirates use mother ships to launch skiffs against merchant ships that are not protected by naval patrols.  As a result, maritime firms have taken counter measures.

“Some are looking at ships that can do greater than 15 knots.  Some are looking at ships with far higher transoms that make it far more difficult for pirates to approach them and to climb aboard.  Some have actually pursued armed riders,” says Berube.

One anti-piracy company uses a device that bombards approaching pirate vessels with powerful sound waves.  Also, when naval patrols seize a pirate mother ship, they usually sink it after taking the pirates on board.

The rule of law

Recently, a U.S. Navy ship fired on a pirate skiff after it was attacked. A pirate was killed.  And in another recent incident, a private security team member also shot and killed a pirate after a vessel was attacked.  So, why not simply blow pirate vessels out of the water every time?  Retired naval commander Patch says it’s not that simple.

“I think it comes down to rules of engagement.  If you don’t see the act actually being committed or you’re not actually fired on, our rules of engagement are pretty strict on when you can use deadly force,” he says.

And he says rules of engagement also make it a legal issue.

“No commanding officer of any ship wants a situation where he used force and then is told a week later that he shouldn’t have.  That he violated the rules and under international law maybe murder would be applied to that.  It’s a dangerous line to cross,” he says.
Professor Berube says use of deadly force is the last option for maritime operators.  And the recent killing of a Somali pirate by a private security guard won’t be forgotten.

“One told me quite frankly that if we fired, we failed.  The point is not to engage offensive against Somali pirates.  Their goal is to protect their client,” he says.

But legal questions are being raised.

“What we are going to see, though, is some sort of litigation in the future, we suspect, because this hasn’t been done before.  This was just the first case of a private guard killing a pirate.  Nothing was done in the courts, as we know.  But this is something to keep in mind in the future,” says Berube.

And attacking pirate bases in Somalia is not an easy option because Somalia is still considered a sovereign nation.

Different approach

Commander Patch believes he has come up with a proposal to deal with Somali pirates.  He outlines it in the Armed Forces Journal.

“The proposal is send the warships home.  And let’s get an international task force together of maritime police and put them inside Somali territorial waters under U.N. auspices, with a U.N. Security Council resolution giving them authority,” he says.

The maritime police would be a preventive measure, too.

“Smaller ships, closer in, to prevent the piracy problem from leaving Somali territorial waters.  Let’s let what is essentially maritime crime be treated by police forces, by law enforcement,” says Patch.

Professor Berube says another option might be to have private maritime security companies eventually take over the mission.

Both Berube and Patch say the U.S. and other nations must support Kenya and the Seychelles, which have agreed to detain and try captured pirates.  But Kenya says it may not be able to continue that mission, saying it’s low on resources.  Patch says anti-piracy efforts would suffer greatly if pirates are not able to be brought to trial.

“If we can’t do that we’ve lost a very significant link on handing the end stay for these pirates.  My guess is if Kenya says no, there’d better be another regional state or some kind of consortium put together to handle this or these folks are going to go free because of a lack of evidence or a lack of ability to handle them,” he says.

Patch says currently there’s no credible evidence linking piracy to terrorists in the region, adding the “prime motivation is money.”

Berube says many analysts propose the real solution to piracy would be a peaceful Somalia.  But he says that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.  

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