Sea Transportation: Victory Over The Pirates Was No Accident


November 11, 2013: It’s been nearly two years since the Somali pirates captured a large commercial ship, and even smaller fishing ships and dhows (small local cargo ships of traditional construction) are harder for them to grab. The rapid collapse of the Somali pirates in the last two years was no accident. It was all a matter of organization, international cooperation, and innovation. It all began back in 2009, when 80 seafaring nations formed (with the help of a UN resolution) the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The most visible aspect of the Contact Group was the organization of an anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast. This came to consist of over two dozen warships and several dozen manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as support from space satellites and major intelligence and police agencies.

To help with the problem-solving the Contact Group formed five Working Groups to develop new solutions to the problems encountered with the Somali pirates. Working Group 1 handled coordination of naval forces and information sharing. This was essential for the creation of the anti-piracy patrol. Working Group 2 looked into legal and judicial issues, which were particularly crucial because international piracy laws had been changed after World War II, making it very difficult to punish pirates (in the past you could just kill them, a rule observed for thousands of years). Working Group 3 works with the shipping industry to encourage anti-piracy measures and ensure that all ships entering dangerous waters were aware of the dangers they faced. This became a key effort in making ships more difficult for the pirates to catch and capture. Working Group 4 handled public relations in general and sought to make sure the public got an accurate picture of the pirate danger. This countered the tendency of the international media to try and characterize the pirates as misunderstood victims. Working Group 5 handled tracking and disrupting the criminal and legitimate organizations that supported the pirates and helped them handle the huge ransoms they were obtaining until quite recently. This played a major role in destroying the infrastructure of agents and other paid supporters the pirates had outside Somalia.

As the Working Groups came up with more and more solutions, the pirates found themselves with fewer and fewer options and opportunities. The most visible result for the pirates was that ships became more difficult to catch and board. That was because over the last four years more and more merchant ships trained their crews to deal with pirates. This involved basic stuff like paying attention to Contact Group bulletins on piracy off Somalia and posting more lookouts when in waters designated as “pirate infested.” The pirates eventually began operating as far east as the coast of India and ships that did not pay attention to Contact Group bulletins sometimes found themselves under pirate attack where they didn’t expect it. This was handled with expanded patrols, especially using aircraft (and UAVs). The naval and air patrols became more efficient and effective and there was more and more cooperation between the ships from dozens of nations contributing to the patrol. Perhaps the biggest defeat for the pirates was the crackdown on their financial advisors and suppliers (of cash, supplies, and information). Eventually the pirates found there were few people they could trust or rely on and the once lucrative pirate “industry” in northern Somali collapsed. Currently only one large ship (which has been run aground) and 50 sailors are being held for ransom. Most pirate gangs have disbanded or switched to other activities (kidnapping, smuggling, and all manner of bad behavior). 




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