Whenever a report is issued on piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, a major pirate incident always provides background. January 2011 has been no exception. And for every successful rescue, there seems to be another capture--highlighting the Sisiphyian nature of the anti-piracy mission.
J. David Goodman, reporting earlier this week in the New York Times, highlighted the statistics amassed by the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau: Somali pirates "took 1,181 people hostage and killed 8 in attacks on 445 ships over the course of 2010. At least 53 ships were hijacked last year ... Attacks on ships were up 10 percent over 2009, as were the number of hostages."
The good news: attacks in the Gulf of Aden, where the international anti-piracy coalition has concentrated its patrols, were halved. The bad news: pirate groups have traveled further afield over a wider area to strike more targets. And the navies of the world are not going to be able to duplicate the levels of force in the Gulf of Aden in other shipping lanes in the western Indian ocean.
Events this week make this pooint. While the report was being issued and disseminated, Somali pirates seized a South Korean chemical tanker, the Samho Jewelry, in the Arabian Sea; it was traveling from Sri Lanka to the United Arab Emirates--not even planning to transit to Europe via the Suez canal or continue along the coast of Africa to points west . A South Korean military vessel, the Choi Young, shadowed the captured ship. But when the pirates on the Samho Jewelry launched an operation to capture the passing Mongolian vessel, and after intelligence was received that a pirate "mother ship" was on its way to provide reinforcements, Korean special forces stormed the Samho Jewelry, retaking it and killing eight pirates.
But the tally as of this morning is one ship freed, two taken. The pirate group which seized the Samho Jewelry did succeeed in taking the Mongolian flagged (and Vietnamese owned) MV Hoang Son Sun; and then followed it up by capturing another bulk carrier, the Syrian-owned and Togo-flagged MV Khaled Muhieddine K.
What the data tells us is this: despite the anti-piracy mission, we have not really changed the incentive structure for the pirate groups. Pirates always accepted that these missions were risky, and the prospect of death or capture has not really changed those odds. Moreover, given continued issues with successful prosecution and incaceration of pirates captured at sea, the possibility of deterring future pirates by the threat of clear and decisive punishment has been watered down. Success does breed success; a wave of new ransom payments purchases new and better equipment, encourages more recruits to join under the Somali version of the Jolly Roger, creates even more jobs and businesses in Somalia that are dependent on the pirates for their livelihood, incentivizes new "investors" to finance more pirate missions, and allows pirate groups to try and purchase immunity by donating to local leaders, warlords and religious figures.
The other reality is that even with the international coalition in place, there are far too few naval vessels to patrol the even larger areas of open seas that the Somali pirates can strike. And if the pirates begin setting up subsidiary locations in other ports and improve their mother ship capabilities to strike even further away from the coast of Somalia, this problem only increases.
But developments in Sudan next door might be a game-changer for finding a solution "on shore" in Somalia. The divorce of North and South Sudan, if it goes through, erodes some of the urgency about preserving the territorial integrity of Somalia, which itself has always been an uneasy fusion of different territories. In the past, the West had been leery of dealing with regional separatist governments in favor of trying to create a central administration. But the combination of the Sudan referendum--and the obvious limits of the current anti-piracy mission in being able to stop piracy altogether simply relying on seaborne methods alone--might open the door to a new approach in 2011.