Somali pirates forced to go further afield as merchant ships carry armed security teams
The Somali pirates did not have a good year in 2011, statistically speaking at least. According to Nato, they only managed four successful attacks off the coast of the country, and only one in the Gulf of Aden, just further north.
They had more luck in the more distant waters of the Arabian sea, where they captured 19 ships, and attempted to take almost 50 others. And therein lies the worry for all the nations that have supported efforts to rein in criminals who have demanded – and received – millions of dollars in ransoms for the ships and crews they have hijacked.
There is a whiff of desperation about the pirates at the moment. They are travelling further afield and taking more risks, after finding the tactics that worked in the past are bearing less fruit, particularly now merchant ships can carry armed security teams that fight machine-gun fire with machine-gun fire. But nobody expects the pirates to go away, or to give up. “Earning $10,000 for a Somali is like winning the lottery,” said one western official. “The question is, what are they going to do next? How are they going to adapt?”
There are signs they are already rethinking. Tighter security at sea may have driven some pirates to include kidnappings for ransom on land. In January, US Navy Seals swooped on Somalia’s Galmudug region to rescue two kidnapped aid workers. Nine of the pirates were killed.
Military sources say pirates have withdrawn some of their camps and logistical hubs away from the beaches. Further inland they can mingle more easily with local fishermen. This increases the risk of civilian casualties from airstrikes launched by nations contributing to Operation Atalanta, the EU-led mission (EU-Navfor) which is now in its fourth year. That scenario is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Sources have told the Guardian that in 2010, and again last year, EU-Navfor considered whether airstrikes were feasible, and legal. The answer to both questions was yes.
Support for robust action has been growing among some European nations, and has interested David Cameron, who has been briefed regularly on the situation in meetings of the national security council. “Somalia has been going further up the agenda at the NSC,” said one Whitehall official, who has been privy to some of the discussions. “We know where the pirate camps are, where they set up, and where they launch from.” Asked if airstrikes could come, the source said: “Yes. The political will is changing.”
However, the military remains cautious about what commanders call “over the beach” operations. While mounting them would be relatively simple, and probably only involve helicopters launched from warships, the risk of civilian casualties remains high.
Some have argued that with naval operations in the last six months proving much more successful, it might seem odd to up the stakes now. So, for the time being, the plans remain on the drawing board.
There are other pressing issues. More than 1,000 Somalis are awaiting trial in different countries accused of piracy offences, including dozens captured before and after Christmas by a team led by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Fort Victoria. The only place the pirates won’t end up facing trial is the UK. The Foreign Office has made clear it is much better and cheaper for pirates to be tried in the region, rather than being brought to Britain, where they might cause added embarrassment by claiming asylum. The UK government has poured money into the legal and prison system of the Seychelles, where many pirates are taken after capture. Two lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service are based there. But prison capacity in the Seychelles is very small, and what happens when it cannot take any more?
The London conference this week will have to start conjuring solutions if the EU and the US, which has also supported the anti-piracy mission, are to avoid the sight of captured Somalis being set free because there was nowhere to take them. A leaked draft of the final communiqué from this week’s conference, which was published on Somali websites, says the participants welcomed arrangements made by some members to capture pirates at sea, transfer them to the Seychelles and Mauritius for trial and then, if convicted, transfer them to prisons in the breakaway Somaliland region and in the semi-autonomous Puntland enclave.
Most of the costs to the shipping industry derived from pre-emptive efforts to protect ships. Shipowners paid an extra $2.7bn for fuel to speed through high-risk areas last year. Another $1.1bn was spent on security equipment and armed guards, with $635m going on insurance and between $486m and $680m on rerouting ships along the western Indian coast.
from Nick Hopkins, Clar Ni Chonghaile