Somali piracy: A broken business model?

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

image captionJust five ships have been captured by Somali pirates so far in 2012, a significant decline

The business model that has underpinned maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia for the past few years has effectively been broken, according to the Operation Commander of the European Union Naval Force (EU Navfor) in the region, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts.

He told the BBC that a number of factors had led to Somali pirates being "contained and restrained", and that a combined naval forces raid on one of their land bases back in May had had a profound effect in discouraging pirates from putting to sea.

But he warned that progress against piracy was fragile and still reversible.

The statistics show a dramatic reduction in pirate attacks off Somalia.

In 2011, according to EU Navfor Somalia, there were 151 verified attacks on sizable ships, with 25 vessels being successfully pirated.

So far this year, the number of attacks has shrunk to 31, with just five ships captured, the last one in May.

"October and November would normally be two of the busiest months for maritime piracy as they come between the two monsoon seasons," said Admiral Potts, "but this year they have been surprisingly quiet."

'Psychological effect'

He puts the drop in piracy down to four factors:

  • The deployment of armed private security guards on board ships who have been 100% successful in deterring or defeating attacks;
  • Better management practice by shipping companies, such as hardening their vessels or taking evasive action;
  • Pre-emptive action by combined navies in the region, helping to ensure that pirates do not get out of their anchorages;
  • A change in Somalia at national and local level, with Somalis far less tolerant of pirates.

On 15 May, EU Navfor conducted their first and only raid on a Somali pirates' land base.

It lasted just a few minutes, with a helicopter crew launching from a ship just offshore and raking beached and unmanned pirate speedboats - known as "skiffs" - with machine-gun fire.

Fuel stores and other equipment were also fired on, but EU Navfor says there were no casualties on either side and there were no European "boots on the ground".

"Surveillance by our reconnaissance aircraft shows this had a significant psychological effect," said Admiral Potts.

Somali pirates are probably now under more pressure than at any time in the last five years and the risk-reward ratio for putting to sea and raiding commercial shipping is now far less favourable than it used to be.

But Admiral Potts is under no illusion that the problem is already solved and knows it could still return.

In fact, there have been signs of renewed activity this week.

As ever, the source of the problem is on land, and until Somalia can reach a certain level of stability and prosperity, the spectre of piracy is likely to hover over its coast for years to come.

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