Sophisticated Planning Operations of Somali Pirates

A newly-released report by a UN agency (UNOSAT) statistically analysed 2005-2009 Somali piracy attacks and reached some surprising conclusions which contradict widely-held assumptions about the reactivity of pirates. It concludes:

• The dramatic expansion of piracy in the Indian Ocean was initiated during the spring of 2008 – predating major international naval patrols;
• Falling piracy success rates may be partially the result of a statistical bias due to changes in incident reporting over time, and may reflect a naturally occurring decline resulting from more aggressive pirate rules of engagement and a large influx of untrained pirate recruits;
• A significant majority of failed attacks on merchant vessels occurred without any direct international naval assistance;
• Counter-piracy training, technology and tactics of merchant vessels has likely had the greatest impact on improved maritime security levels and falling hijacking success rates in the Gulf of Aden

Many have assumed that the increasing use of international naval assistance (such as the EU NAVFOR Atalanta mission) have reduced the success-rate of pirate attacks. The UNOSAT report finds that pirate activity had moved away from the Gulf of Aden (formerly the primary targeted area) and into the Indian Ocean, before the international community created a safe-travel corridor and protected convoys in the Gulf. This suggests a level of sophistication and planning on the part of pirate organizations. Before the international community could react, Somali pirates were already picking their next targets.  As the report puts it:

The more convincing interpretation of the dramatic spread of piracy into the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean was that this was a deliberate strategy planned and initiated not in reaction to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf, but as part of a hugely successful piracy expansion program – most visibly and successfully demonstrated at that time in the Gulf.

The report also points out that falling success rates do not necessarily mean success in the fight against piracy. For the actual number of successful pirate attacks increased from 2008 to 2009 despite a reduced rate of successful attacks. Faced with more difficult conditions, pirates simply initiated more attacks. The report suggests that the higher number of attacks required use of less-experienced recruits and this may partly account for the reduced rate of successful pirate attacks.

One final point identified by the report is the correlation between a lull in attacks with the seasonal monsoon from May/June through mid-September. It is possible that the recent attacks on land-based tourists in Kenya were an attempt to increase ransom-revenues during the monsoon – when attacks at sea were not possible. Always looking for new opportunities, tourists located less than 100km from the Somali border must have appeared easy targets, especially considering attacks have been attempted as far as 1600 nautical miles from the Somali coast.

Although this report is not fully up to date, the implications are that pirate criminal organizations have a sophisticated planning apparatus, in which shipping lanes, vulnerabilities, sea conditions, and potential ship defences are all taken into consideration. It also suggests that pirates are proactively seeking new targets. This explains why countries far to the south, such as Mozambique and South Africa, are considering the potential of attacks in their own waters.

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