Somalia's fearsome pirates: unbeaten but under pressure
Foreign navies and armed guards on boats have badly dented the cutthroat capabilities of marauding Somali pirates, but ending the scourge requires land-based solutions, analysts warn.
Somalia's pirates remain a fearsome force prowling far across the Indian Ocean seizing ships for ransom, costing the world billions of dollars each year and now branching out to increasing land-based attacks.
"Success rates have plummeted, and pirates have a hard time capturing ships," said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian academic and Somalia expert, noting increased assaults by foreign navies on vessels used as pirate "motherships."
One reason for the decline in successful attacks has been the increased use by shipping of armed guards and other security measures, said J. Peter Pham, of the Atlantic Council think tank.
"Most of the credit actually belongs to the shipping industry… whose adoption of defensive "best practices" and increased deployment of private armed security has effectively hardened vessels against seizure," Pham said.
But as successful attacks decline, ransom prices have risen: the average pay climbed to $5 million in 2011 from $4 million in 2010, according to the US-based Oceans Beyond Piracy monitoring group.
Somali attacks cost the world nearly $7 billion in 2011, including more than $2 billion for military operations, armed guards and equipment to protect ships, the group estimated in a report earlier this month.
Multiple pirate gangs hold a grim trophy haul of at least 34 vessels and over 400 hostages, according to the monitoring group Ecoterra, many seized by the use of small skiffs, grappling hooks and rocket-propelled grenades.
However, while such "aggressive levels" of foreign naval patrols have thwarted attacks, such tactics provide no long-term solution, said Rashid Abdi, a long-time Somalia expert.
"There has been a significant scaling up of these naval operations, but that in itself is no comfort," said Abdi.
"The counter-piracy naval patrols in Somalia may just be simply displacing the problem."
With warships only stopping individual attacks, analysts say that a land-based solution is required to provide impoverished communities with a reason not to resort to piracy.
"The solution is still onshore, especially to build up Puntland," Hansen said, referring to Somalia's semi-autonomous northern region, where many pirate gangs are based.
Ransom cash is funneled to Puntland's cities of Garowe and Bosasso with little long-term benefit for the coastal communities who carry out the attacks, Britain's Chatham House think tank said in January.
Efforts should be made therefore to approach coastal communities to "offer them an alternative that brings them far greater benefits than hosting pirates does," Anja Shortland wrote in the report.
The impact of piracy remains huge, and finding solutions to end the menace was a key driver behind Britain's decision to mobilise international players at a February 23 London conference on Somalia.
"If I were a Somali I would thank Allah for the pirates," wrote Richard Dowden, the director of Britain's Royal African Society, arguing that the world had ignored Somalia for two decades as "civil wars destroyed the country."
"But the seizure of more than 200 ships by kids with guns in small craft has changed all that," Dowden added in a recent paper, noting a recent upsurge in international calls to end the anarchy.
However, pressure at sea means the opportunistic bandits are also branching out to land-based kidnapping, including eyeing potential targets in neighbouring Ethiopia, or aid workers in Somalia's anarchic capital Mogadishu, Hansen said.
"The pirate groups have relocated to the hinterland – now they are kidnapping foreigners for ransom," said Abdi.
Kidnapping individuals may be an easier target than a merchant vessel bristling with guns and protected by warships, but have still proved troublesome targets for the bandits.
Reports suggest pirates have tightened security after a US Special Forces raid last month rescued two aid workers – an American and a Dane – and killed all nine kidnappers who had held them hostage for three months.
Several Western hostages seized on land are believed held by pirates, either kidnapped directly or sold on later to the pirates by other armed gangs.
They include a British tourist and two Spanish aid workers kidnapped in neighbouring Kenya, as well as an American writer seized in central Somalia.
Ending the problem cannot be done by a simple quick fix plan, however.
"We have to look for a comprehensive solution," warned Abdi.