June 20, 2010: The war against the Somali pirates is being won, sort of. In the last year, only three merchant ships have been taken in the Gulf of Aden. In that busy body of water, through which 20 percent of the world's seagoing cargo traffic moves each year, several dozen warships, aided by some maritime patrol aircraft, guard the shipping. There's no commander for all the naval forces. But there are informal communications arrangements, including representatives of shipping organizations, to keep everyone (military and civilian) up to date on who is where. The warships position themselves so that it will take, at most, fifteen minutes to get an armed helicopter to any merchant ship under attack. The ship captains know this, and many, if not most, have taken precautions (extra lookouts, barbed wire on the railings and a crew trained to repel boarders, and to flee to a safe room if all else fails) to insure that they can keep the pirates at bay until the helicopter shows up.
Somali pirates currently hold 16 ships and over 300 sailors. Most ships are now taken far out at sea, usually closer to the Seychelles islands (1500 kilometers from Somalia). Tankers exiting the Persian Gulf are also on high alert, and are sometimes escorted by coast guard or navy ships.
The key anti-piracy tactic way out there is basically maritime patrol aircraft and UAVs looking for sea going mother ships (sometimes just small, 5-6 meter, fishing boats with lots of fuel and water on board), towing two or three speedboats. Of late, 20-30 of these mother ships are spotted a month, and warships are sent to disarm them and remove boarding gear. The pirates then have to return to Somalia empty handed and in need of a loan to buy more weapons and equipment. Somalis believe some warships simply sink the mother ships and don't report it. Some mother ships do not return, but that's probably more because of poorly maintained ships, poor seamanship, bad weather and bad luck. Despite all these setbacks, it's estimated that there are three times as many pirates in action this year than last, even though pirates are making a lot less money this year.
Although most captured pirates are disarmed and released, there are over 500 imprisoned and awaiting trial. The UN has raised nearly $10 million for Kenya and Seychelles to prosecute and imprison pirates. The UN will have to continue to pay to keep convicted pirates in prison. Otherwise, poor countries will be tempted to set them free, just to save money, and make space for local criminals.