Somali piracy 2017: the world is watching
The question as to whether Somali piracy is about to make a sustained return is based on a false premise. It never really went away.
What did change in 2012 was that successful attacks of large vessels plying international trade routes stopped. But attacks on small local vessels, particularly fishing boats, continued.
When, in March this year, the bunker tanker ARIS 13 became the first substantial merchant vessel to be hijacked in five years, there was a ripple of concern.
Several attempted hijacks followed. This time the world was watching. The ripple became a wave.
This was understandable. Between 2008 and 2011 Somali-based pirates were responsible hundreds of attacks on merchant vessels.
In 2010 for example, according to statistics published by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) there were 49 hijacks attributed to Somali pirates, with over a hundred other vessels fired upon, boarded or where boarding was attempted.
But from 2011/12 there was a coordinated and effective tightening of maritime security.
Shipping companies invested in armed guards and other shipboard security measures, some vessels took longer and safer routes – sometimes preferring to round the Cape of Good Hope rather than use the Suez Canal.
Foreign naval patrols increased in of the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. For the Somalia-based pirates, the opportunities for attacking international shipping were greatly diminished.
That said, the conditions for piracy – a weak and chaotic littoral state plagued by poverty, war, famine and drought – remained. What held it in check to some measure was that the balance of risks and rewards of piracy had changed.
Probing attacks were, however, constant and many incidents of attempted hijack went unreported.
According to Oceans Beyond Piracy, armed security teams deterred 11 attacks in 2016; that alongside the unrecorded attacks on fishing boats and dhows.
The attack on the ARIS 13 raised concerns that Somalia-based piracy could return to the levels seen in the four years to 2012.
However, there are a number of reasons why merchant shipping need not succumb to it.
It is true that conditions in Somalia favour piracy. There are parts of the coastline where there is virtually no government presence. It is also true that, alongside endemic violence and corruption, Islamic State has made inroads in certain communities.
But the shipping industry and the international community have the benefit of experience. Attitudes may have softened over time, but the response can be swift. The industry has been down this path before.
International naval patrols are still operating and moves to scale them down can be reversed if necessary. China has shown itself ready to let its navy play a bigger role.
Shipping may have become a little complacent over the risk but ships can be rerouted, their security posture – in terms of defensive aprons and other passive deterrents – can be improved. The procedures for carrying armed-guards have already been worked through.
And there are signs that some elements in Somali’s admittedly weak state structures are able to help in keeping piracy in check.
The hijack of the ARIS 13 ended swiftly without a ransom being paid, in part because authorities in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia didn’t want their ports to be regarded as safe havens for pirate networks.
In May 2017 the pirates involved in the attempted hijacking of the bulk carrier OS35, were handed over to Puntland’s maritime police by the Chinese navy. Puntland officials said the men would be tried before local courts.
The Chief of Staff of the European Union’s Naval Force (EU NAVFOR), meanwhile, has said he has been struck by the way naval forces, the shipping industry and what he called their “Somali partners” have been working together to counter a piracy resurgence.
The perception that vigilance was declining may have been a factor in encouraging Somali-based pirate networks to explore the potential of resuming attacks on vulnerable ships.
The Comoros-flagged ARIS 13 was sailing close to the shore when it was seized. It was moving relatively slowly, there were no armed guards on board and it doesn’t appear have been following Best Management Practices. There were also fewer international naval patrols in the area than previously.
These weaknesses can be put right, provided the shipping industry and the international community are willing to do so.
If not, and if Somalia continues as a failed state, then large scale piracy targeting ships on international trade routes off the Horn of Africa becomes, once more, a distinct possibility.
If the players controlling the pirate networks think there is money to be made they will pick-up where they left off.
This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.