The response to Somali piracy has so far seen a relatively codified game of cat-and-mouse play out on the Indian Ocean, but experts fear a dangerous escalation is under way.
After pirate attacks surged four years ago, naval missions deployed under European, US and NATO flags fanned out across the commercially crucial Gulf of Aden, but piracy morphed and grew around the obstacle.
Now Somalia’s sea bandits hold about 40 vessels and 700 seafarers for ransom, but observers fear the international community is still shunning more holistic remedies and simply doubling the dose of gunpowder.
“You cannot just send more warships ... Simply increasing the volume and the tone will not ensure sustainable success,” said Michael Frodl, founder and head of C-Level maritime risks consultancy.
While deadly incidents did occur in previous years, the scenario was well rehearsed and unwritten rules appeared to prevent an escalation. However, navies have in recent weeks appeared to adopt a more muscular approach.
Warships have in particular targeted mother ships — -previously hijacked vessels on which the pirates can take shelter before launching their attack skiffs — retaking or disabling close to 10 in barely a month.
“Things are changing and the situation is not good these days,” said Abdi Yare, a top pirate commander in Hobyo.
“Allied forces thwarted several hijacking attempts and dozens of pirates have been arrested, while several were also killed in the past few weeks. The circumstances will lead us to change our tactics again,” he said.
Ecoterra International, an environmental and human rights NGO monitoring maritime activity in the region, deplored the rise of aggressive operations.
“The main game-changer is a willingness to choose attacking hostage ships, as manifested in the case of the Beluga Nomination,” against which failed raids by the Seychelles and NATO left three crewmen dead, Ecoterra said.
One sequence could also prove a turning point: On April 15, the pirates released the MT Asphalt Venture, an Indian-operated tanker, for a ransom of US$3.5 million, but kept seven Indian crew members.
They want to swap the hostages for about 120 suspected Somali pirates captured by the Indian navy.
“India has become public enemy No. 1 for the pirates,” said Frodl, a US-based lawyer who also advises underwriters associated with Lloyd’s of London. “Now you have a nation that has accumulated many Somali prisoners, and is also returning fire quite liberally at sea when making a stop and even killing Somali pirates in numbers.”
He warned that as navies get tougher, the pirates could be inaugurating a new tactic by keeping a sample of nationals from naval powers onshore as an insurance policy against further military action.
Frodl also warned that ever tougher action by India could speed up a further expansion of the pirates’ scope east of the Maldives to an area south of India where the bandits could prey on an even bigger proportion of world traffic.
In 2008, the combined effect of the global economic downturn and spectacular catches by the pirates — most notably a huge Saudi tanker and an arms-laden Ukrainian vessel — sent the shipping industry running to the navies for help.
“Just like the US government bailed out the auto industry, the Western navies bailed out the world’s shipping industry when it was on the ropes after a one-two punch of lower orders and higher piracy,” Frodl said.