Two daring commando raids by two nations in one day against Somali pirates show that some naval forces are taking a harder line, perhaps because nothing else they’ve tried has stopped the rise of lawlessness off the east coast of Africa.
The raids by South Korea and Malaysia on Friday could be a sign of more aggressive tactics to come — both by navies and by pirates responding to them. Experts say pirates could increasingly use hostages as human shields if raids become more common.
The EU’s naval force refuses to raid hijacked ships out of concern for the safety of hostages, but frustration is rising. Despite patrols by an international flotilla of modern warships, drones patrolling the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa and the Arabian Gulf and diverse strategies employed, including the sinking of pirate boats, Somali pirates have been relentless.
They captured a record 1,016 hostages last year and currently hold 32 vessels and 746 crew members of various nationalities after hijacking another six ships so far this year, according to a recent report by the International Maritime Bureau.
Eight crew members died and 13 were wounded in Somali pirate incidents last year, up from four dead and 10 wounded in 2009. There were no pirate killings elsewhere in the world last year.
The bureau said Somali pirates are operating more broadly than ever, from Oman on the Arabian Peninsula to Mozambique, more than 4,000km away in southeastern Africa. It also said navies have been more reluctant to intervene because pirates are using hijacked vessels to catch new prey.
Somalia’s long lawless coastline snakes around the Horn of Africa and provides the perfect base for pirate dens. The country has not had a functioning government since a socialist dictatorship collapsed in 1991, plunging the nation into clan-based civil war.
South Korean commandos raided a cargo ship in the Arabian Sea before dawn on Friday, killing eight Somali pirates and capturing five as they rescued all 21 crew members. The only crew member injured was the captain, who was shot in the stomach by a pirate. South Korea’s military said his condition was not life-threatening.
Their success came on the same day that Malaysia’s navy rescued a chemical tanker and its 23 crew members from Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. No one in the rescue team or the ship’s crew was injured and seven pirates were apprehended.
Alan Cole, the head of the UN’s anti-piracy program at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said the South Korean and Malaysian navies may have resorted to using the commando raids out of frustration that other strategies employed to tackle piracy were not working.
Before Friday, some raids had been launched by other countries to save ships boarded by Somali pirates within hours of the attacks or after being assured that crew members were locked in safe rooms.
The Malaysian raid followed that approach. It occurred soon after the pirates attacked and after the crew made it to a safe room. However, the South Korean raid happened a week after the Samho Jewelry was captured. It was unclear whether any of that ship’s crew had reached a safe room, but clearly the captain had not.
“The tradition has been to hang back and let the pirates take the ships back to Somalia. I think they decided to take a tougher line purely because the pirates are becoming more daring,” said David Johnson, a director at the UK-based risk management firm Eos.