Experts Assess Complex Issues Surrounding Piracy Off Somali Coast
By Andre de Nesnera
15 April 2009

The recent rescue of an American cargo ship captain held hostage for five days by pirates off the coast of Somalia has heightened awareness of the piracy issue throughout the world.

An 11 Apr 2009 French Defense Ministry photo of armed pirates and their hostages aboard French yacht "Tanit", off the coast of Somalia

The London-based International Maritime Bureau, or IMB, an organization that tracks crimes on the high seas, says the waters off Somalia, including the Gulf of Aden, are the most dangerous in the world for international shipping.

The IMB says last year was the most successful ever for the pirates: 111 vessels were attacked in the region, 42 of them were hijacked and 815 crew members held hostage. Analysts say if current trends continue, this year will surpass last year's numbers.

Experts, such as J. Peter Pham with James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia say the waters off the Somali coast are key sea lanes that connect the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and Europe through the Suez Canal.

"Approximately 20,000 ships every year pass through these waters, carrying about 12 percent of the world's oil and more importantly, carries about 80 percent of the commerce between Europe and the Middle East and Asia. So this is a vital artery in international commerce, especially at a time like the one we're in right now - with the economic downturn, any further pressures on international commerce are certainly not needed," he said.

Analysts say the Somali pirates target all sorts of vessels: from small pleasure crafts to cargo ships and even giant oil supertankers. Pham says pirates are members of armed gangs.

"Intelligence indicates that there are two primary gangs. One based in the town in Puntland, the northeast autonomous region of Somalia, the town of Eyl. Another gang is based in the south-central Somali town of Haraardheere. And these are the two primary gangs. There are other smaller operators," he said.

Analysts, such as retired U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Peters, say the Somali pirates work off so-called "mother ships", searching for potential victims.

"And when they find a likely target, they'll unload speedboats from the hold or have speedboats in tow. And the speedboats, with pirates armed with machine guns and perhaps some RPG-7 type rocket launchers, will skip over the waves and come up on the cargo ship and either threaten it or they'll throw up grappling hooks and board it the way pirates do in old movies," he said.

Experts say the pirates are not interested in the cargo or the crew - they only want ransom money which can reach several million dollars per vessel.

Peters says the pirates are successful because the crews of the ships being attacked are not armed. He says that is due to insurance issues.

"If ships were to fight back, insurance rates would skyrocket because the insurance companies, the maritime insurers, are looking at what costs the most. And by their calculations, liability claims, actual damage to the ships or cargo might cost more than the $1 million or $2- or $3 million ransom," he said.

Peter Chalk, maritime security expert with RAND Corporation, says there's another reason why not to provide weapons to the crew.

"If you had crew members who were armed, it's almost certainly going to encourage greater lethality on the part of the pirates, who may be far more willing to open fire as they board a vessel, in the expectation that they could be met with crews armed with assault rifles. So it is generally thought that to preserve human life, to keep the instance of violence as low as possible, and also for legal reasons, that it's better not to arm crew members," he said.

In an effort to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, the international community has sent navy ships to patrol the area. The task force includes vessels from the United States and the European Union. Russia, China and India have also ships in the area.

But Chalk says the area is too vast to patrol.

"Basically you've got an area now that if you take into account the wider vicinity of the southern part of the Indian Ocean, you are talking about two million square miles. So it's an enormous area to monitor. You've got an enormous amount of vessels transiting the region. So there's no way that the international naval presence could provide comprehensive security to cover that expanse and all those vessels," he said.

Analysts say a naval presence alone will not eradicate piracy in the region. They say the international community must seriously address the core problem: the lack of an effective government in Somalia - a country described by many analysts as a failed state.