While increased military efforts have dramatically cut the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia, only sustained support from EU member states will rid the seas of pirates once and for all – writes EU NAVFOR Lieutenant Commander Jacqueline Sherriff
As the latest Tom Hanks movie Captain Philips goes on general release across the country, international interest in Somali piracy has increased. The film depicts the hijacking of the American flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast in April 2009, and the subsequent rescue of the ship’s captain by United States Navy Seals. In the film, the pirates claim that they had been forced in to piracy due to dwindling fish stocks off the coast as a result of overfishing by international trawlers.
These claims have been challenged by some commentators, who argue that the Somali people have traditionally looked to the land not the sea for their livelihoods. What is clear is that the pirates have, over the last four years, made millions of euros in ransom payments by attacking ships in the Indian Ocean and taking innocent seafarers hostage.
Concerns over the increasing number of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa really came to the fore in 2008. Within a few months the European Union had launched Operation Atalanta with a fleet of member state warships tasked to patrol trade routes in to Europe and to protect ships carrying aid to Africa.
At the piracy peak in January 2011, some 32 ships were being held by Somali pirates and 736 hostages. Over the last 18 months, there has been a significant reduction in piracy off the Somali coast. So far in 2013 there have been just four pirate attacks, none of which have been successful. The last pirate attack took place on October 11, when a supertanker was attacked by armed pirates 230 miles off the coast. Thankfully, the security team on board was able to repel the attack and the suspect pirates were apprehended by naval forces. Today, some 50 hostages are being held by pirates and only one ship – the fishing vessel Naham 3.
The reduction in the pirates’ success has been due to a number of reasons including the efforts of several naval forces operating in the region. Nearly five years after Operation Atalanta was launched EU warships remain at the forefront of taking the fight to the pirates. Operation Atalanta’s mandate is as follows: the protection of World Food Programme and African Union Mission in Somalia shipping; the deterrence, prevention and repression of acts of piracy off the Somali coast; and the protection of vulnerable shipping on a case-by-case basis.
The sheer scale of the operating area is imposing: the ‘high-risk area’ dwarfs the size of continental Europe and despite the often diminutive size of the attack craft, the audacity of the pirates has regularly seen them operating more than 1,700 miles from the Somali coast. To fulfill the Atalanta mission, the EU Naval Force has a mix of warships – normally between four and seven from across Europe’s navies – and maritime patrol aircraft operating from Djibouti and the Seychelles. There are also autonomous vessel protection detachments or AVPDs. They are small military teams deployed on board vulnerable shipping providing protection as these ships deliver vital humanitarian aid to Somalia.
Before the use of AVPDs, a warship was required to provide a close escort. This tied it to the merchantman’s apron strings and limiting the force commander’s freedom of action at sea. The EU Naval Force has a 100 per cent record for delivering World Food Programme aid – some one million metric tonnes or half a billion meals – to Somalia. The success by the naval forces operating in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden has been achieved in concert with the rapid response from the maritime industry to work with navies to make themselves less vulnerable to piracy.
The EU operational headquarters is also home to the Maritime Security Centre for the Horn of Africa and, in conjunction with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Shipping Centre and the UK Maritime Trade Operation in Dubai, the MSCHOA works with industry to receive and provide real time intelligence and information to all merchant vessels transiting through the high-risk area. The establishment of best-practice guidelines – such as higher transit speeds making it more difficult for pirates to board and construction of security citadels within ships – have all contributed to the reduction in successful attacks. Although, all of this comes at a cost to the shipping industry already operating at a time of economic downturn.
Cultural awareness and local knowledge is helping develop increasingly powerful tools to understand the pirate business model and take a more proactive stance in many areas. The EU Naval Force has made full use of its extended mandate and responsive rules of engagement, which allowed for the first time in May 2012 the disruption of pirate logistic sites ashore in Somalia. This focused action has had a significant and lasting effect on the modus operandi of the pirates as they no longer enjoyed impunity on the beaches. With an increasingly joined-up approach to the ‘information campaign’, the success is being pushed to the Somali people through the traditional media and the rapidly developing Facebook and Twitter networks in the country.
While naval forces have so far been tackling the symptoms of piracy – ships being pirated at sea – we are seeing a shift towards confronting the causes of piracy; political, security and economic woes ashore in Somalia. And the EU is at the forefront of providing maritime capacity building, which provides training to local police and military forces to tackle piracy ashore and in the littoral.
We are also forging progressive links across the Indian Ocean to ensure that pirates are dealt with fairly and humanely but nonetheless prosecuted when there has been sufficient evidence to take them to court. Support to local prosecutors, monitoring of regional jails and establishing re-transfer agreements for convicted pirates back to Somalia from other countries once found guilty, are all helping take the fight a stage further.
The challenge we face now is to keep the lid on the pirates’ attempts to capture further shipping. While attacks have become more sporadic, the war on piracy is not yet won. The reduction in the number of attempts and successful attacks is entirely reversible if EU member states perceive that piracy has gone away and stop supporting the operation. Equally, if the shipping industry misjudges the risk and cuts back on its security teams and passive defensive measures, then the pirates will still be on hand to pick off the easy targets. The piracy threat remains all too real.
Jacqueline Sherriff is a Lieutenant Commander in the British Royal Navy and spokesperson for the EU Naval Force’s Operation Atalanta