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Piracy News & Commentary

The Perils of Piracy

In the late 17th century, buccaneer surgeon and author Alexander Esquemelin noted that pieces-of-eight were not “gathered as easily as pears from a tree,” contrary to the expectations of those new to piracy. The Somali pirates are quickly discovering just how right he was. After a year noted for attacks on more than one hundred merchant vessels (estimates range from one hundred eleven to one hundred sixty-five) and the capture of at least forty-two, as opposed to the capture of a mere thirteen during the previous year, and for the reticence of the majority of commercial enterprise and state governments to take effective action, the recently enlarged international naval coalition is making its presence known. By the end of January, an even larger, US-led coalition of naval forces from twenty nations--CTF-151--should be in place. Already the Somali pirates are feeling the effects of modern warships put to use against them. But it is not enough.

This past November, an Indian warship engaged pirates aboard a captured Thai fishing vessel, and destroyed it in a night action, believing it to be a pirate “mother ship.” Not long before, an Indian navy helicopter and naval commandos had deterred pirates from attacking an Indian merchant ship. In the same month a British warship rescued a Danish merchant vessel from pirate attack, killing two pirates in the process and capturing eight. A Russian frigate assisted in the capture. (Remarkably, a Ministry of Defence inquiry had to be held: the two Royal Marines were rightly found to have “acted lawfully and in self-defence” according to the BBC.) In early December, a Danish warship and Danish special forces captured seven pirates and destroyed their small craft. In mid-December an Indian warship captured twenty-three Somali and Yemeni pirates who were attacking an Ethiopian-flagged vessel. Also in December a Malaysian warship's helicopter foiled an attack on a Chinese merchant vessel, and similarly again foiled an attack on an Indian tanker on the first of January. A German frigate and its helicopter foiled an attack on an Egyptian vessel in December, and captured six pirates in the process. Unfortunately, the German government ordered the pirates released. In early January a French warship intercepted two Somali pirate craft and arrested eight pirates, and foiled another attack as well, as did a Malaysian warship. The French turned the captured pirates over to Somali authorities for trial. Soon after, another French warship foiled an attack and captured nineteen more pirates. Most recently, five or six pirates drowned after their vessel capsized while making a high speed run after $3 million ransom was paid for the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star. The pirates reportedly feared they might be attacked, as they were after ransom was paid for the luxury yacht Le Ponant. One dead pirate washed ashore; his family has been noted in news accounts as drying out the $153,000 in cash found on his body. Nonetheless, while piracy may no longer be quite as easy as it recently was--the true perils of piracy are beginning to show their faces--the Somali pirates have not given up, and will not until other, far more effective measures are in place.

It is still too soon to tell just how effective this increased presence will be in suppressing Somali piracy. More needs to be done, and governments can begin by permitting their navies to “take the gloves off” and even more actively seek out and destroy pirates and their craft. Certainly the larger force soon to be in place will increase the risk of consequences for engaging in piracy. Doubtless now the Somali pirates are doing what pirates have done for thousands of years in such cases: considering new tactics to deal with the increased naval patrols. Commanders should actively anticipate this, and be prepared for new pirate tactics.

(Warships involved in the engagements listed above include the French frigates Premier Maître L'Her and Jean de Vienne, the Danish command and support ship HMDS Absalon, the British frigate HMS Cumberland, the Russian frigate Neustrashimy, the Indian frigate INS Tabar, the Malaysian multi-role support ship KD Sri Indera Sakti, and the German frigate Karlsruhe. My apologies to the commanders and crews of any warships I may have overlooked. Please contact me if other naval vessels should be added to this list. A Bravo Zulu to all.)
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