Pirate attacks have plunged in the last six months as naval forces stepped up their efforts to stop Somali outlaws from hijacking boats, the International Maritime Bureau announced Monday.
But as attacks are thwarted at sea, experts say Somali pirates are simply turning to other forms of crime, a symptom of the deeper problems plaguing the chaotic and destitute country.
Worldwide, 177 attacks were reported to the bureau between January and June, compared with 266 attacks the same time last year — a 33% drop in pirate attacks across the globe. The change is largely due to a dropoff in attacks by Somali pirates, who menace a vast stretch of waters from the southern Red Sea east into the Indian Ocean.
The long coastline of Somalia offers pirates ample bases from which to operate, taking on ships passing through the narrow choke-point between Yemen and the east African coast. But their fortunes seem to have changed this spring: Somali pirates made only 69 attacks between January and June this year, less than half as many as during the same period last year, according to the maritime bureau report.
The International Maritime Bureau credited the drop in attacks to international navies patrolling the dangerous waters and disrupting “mother ships” that supply smaller attack boats. Ships have also helped drive down the numbers by hiring armed guards for protection.
“The naval actions play an essential role in frustrating the pirates. There is no alternative to their continued presence,” bureau director Pottengal Mukundan said Monday.
Analysts believe increased efforts by local authorities in the Puntland region of northern Somalia to arrest pirates have also helped, though disrupting piracy seems to have pushed criminals onshore. Highway robberies and kidnappings reportedly have spiked in Puntland, a possible side effect of the crackdown.
“This is the nature of the beast,” said Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College who recently visited the region. “As long as you’ve got an enormous number of unemployed, heavily armed youth in a collapsed state, a certain number of them will find a way to make a living.”
A leaked United Nations report on Somalia and Eritrea says pirates have adapted as they face more pressure at sea, switching to onshore kidnappings or marketing themselves as “counter-piracy experts” for ransom negotiations. Even at sea, they remain a grave threat, the bureau said. Eleven vessels carrying 218 people were still in Somali pirates' hands at the end of June, a sign of their continued muscle.
Many analysts argue that to truly stamp out piracy, global powers must stabilize Somalia, an East African state dogged by chronic conflict and poverty. Somalis overthrew a military dictatorship more than 20 years ago, but opposing clans sparred over what to do next, leaving the country without a central government for years. Its transitional government has been derided as weak and dysfunctional.
The leaked U.N. report bemoans rampant corruption and theft of taxpayer funds, with an estimated $7 out of every $10 meant for the government going missing. Government officials have also colluded in the piracy problem, the report alleges, shielding a notorious pirate kingpin from prosecution.
Meanwhile, “the international community is investing enormous resources to pursue and punish those at the bottom of the piracy pyramid — most of whom are impoverished, functionally illiterate youth who are easily replaced — while virtually guaranteeing impunity for those at the top of the piracy pyramid who bear greatest responsibility and profit the most,” the U.N. report says.
Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told the Associated Press the allegations were “absolutely and demonstrably false.” But the frailty of the transitional government has long been recognized, with its U.N. mandate due to end in August. Somali officials are now rushing to appoint a constituent assembly that will be tasked with choosing a parliament, which will in turn select a president.
Though many critics argue that pouring money into patrolling the nearby seas is tackling the symptoms of Somali piracy, not its root causes, Menkhaus said redirecting that same money into creating jobs and development in Somalia could also backfire, rewarding “bad behavior” with foreign aid.
While Somali piracy has dropped, attacks have escalated in the Gulf of Guinea off the coasts of Nigeria and Togo, the International Maritime Bureau found. Armed pirates in skiffs have attacked boats farther from shore, suggesting they are using fishing boats or other vessels to reach their targets.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: French soldiers arrest suspected pirates off Somalia on Nov. 12, 2009. Credit: Associated Press / French Department of Defense.