April 19, 2009:
Piracy off Somalia is nothing new, it has been a growing problem for over a decade. What is new is the use of professional negotiators (Arab agents from the Persian Gulf) to obtain the maximum ransom, moving the captured ships to a heavily defended anchorage, and keeping the crews imprisoned ashore. The pirates also perfected their tactics.
In the past, it was different. Back in 2002, German commandos freed a cargo ship that had been held for a month. That is much more difficult to pull off today. Seven years ago, a Greek ship was being held for $600,000 ransom, but the owners would only offer $35,000. The crew eventually (after six months captivity) overwhelmed their guards and got away. That doesn't happen much anymore either. The pirates have learned.
Through the 1990s, the ships most vulnerable to capture were ocean going foreign fishing boats, and small, local, coastal cargo boats. But by the late 1990s, the local fishermen had figured out that several speed boats, each with about half a dozen gunmen, and boarding gear (ladders and grappling hooks) could overtake a large ship and scramble aboard. This trend was interrupted by September 11, 2001, and the appearance of foreign warships off the coast, looking for terrorists. Not many Islamic terrorists were found, but it did make it a lot more difficult for the pirates. The warships stayed in international waters (about 20 kilometers off the coast), but that was enough to scare the pirates away from large ships.
But gradually, the pirates realized that using larger, high seas, "mother ships" to tow several speed boats, they could go hunting for larger ships. The pirates also became aware of the international law governing piracy. The 1990s "Law of the Sea" prevented warships from taking preventive action against suspected pirates. The mother ships were largely immune from attack, and the speedboats full of armed men were not attacked unless they were pursuing and firing on a ship. Many nations interpret their own law as prohibiting their sailors from punishing pirates at all. That, and the use of professional negotiators to get larger and larger ransoms, attracted more gangs to the piracy effort. There was high potential payoff, and low risks.
The Somali pirates didn't suddenly appear over the last few years, they evolved over more than a decade of trial and error. A major assist with this is that the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia is obsessed with avoiding violence, or punishment. The warships rarely fire on pirates, even when they catch the pirates in the act. When pirates are captured, they are usually released. When four armed pirates, and an American ship captain, were cornered recently, the president of the United States would not allow force to be used, until after first letting negotiations proceed for three days. Finally, on the fourth day, a local commander put his career on the line, and ordered the SEAL snipers to kill the recalcitrant pirates, and end the standoff. But that was the exception.
The pirates deliberately avoid hurting the crews. There have been a few casualties while taking ships (all that machine-gun, RPG and rifle fire is bound to hit someone from time to time), but not enough to tag the Somalis as "blood thirsty" pirates. What the pirates fear the most is more violence by the anti-piracy forces. The French have sent in commandos three times against pirates who attacked French ships. Over a dozen pirates have died. U.S. Navy SEAL commandos recently killed three pirates. The Somalis have vowed vengeance against France and America, but it is not in their interest to escalate the violence. The rest of the world has a lot more firepower, and European armies have conquered Somalia before. Many Somalis wish the European colonial government would return, but that won't happen. And no one wants a lot of dead bodies to complicate the piracy situation. The insurance companies are willing to raise rates and pay the ransoms. As long as less than one percent of ship traffic is taken for ransom, international trade is not harmed. No one will admit it, but this is a tolerable situation, despite more aggressive press releases from government officials.