2018 has so far seen relatively low levels of pirate activity off the East African coast. NYA24 recorded two incidents in the Indian Ocean (south of latitude 12:00N) since 1 January. On 10 February two dhows approached a vessel approximately 850NM east of Hobyo, Somalia. The vessel’s onboard armed security team (AST) fired two warning shots and conducted anti-piracy evasive manoeuvres which caused the dhows to abandon their approach. Twelve days later on 22 February, armed pirates on board three skiffs opened fire on a merchant tanker, approximately 186NM east of Ceeldhere, Somalia. The tanker’s AST returned fire, forcing the pirates to disengage.
This indicates a continuation of a trend observed since 2014 – NYA24 has recorded an average of 10 maritime security incidents each year since the drop of piracy levels in the region. According to ICC-IMB Annual Reports, 435 attacks were recorded east of Somalia between 2009 and 2013, compared to nine attacks between 2014 and 2017. Between 2009 and 2013, Somali piracy was a lucrative enterprise – a Somali pirate could reportedly earn between USD30,000 and USD80,000 a year. A typical pirate operation could last for approximately two weeks – until the pirate action group (PAG) ran low on basic supplies – and cost Somali pirate investors around USD3,000, which would cover food, fuel, ammunition and boarding equipment. NATO representative Commander Stein Hagalid said in April 2011 that the average ransom payment to Somali pirates for kidnapped crew and vessels at the time was approximately USD5 million.
“Greater efforts to counter the Somali piracy threat”
However, after late 2011 and early 2012, the shipping industry as well as international governments made greater efforts to counter the Somali piracy threat. Recognising that civilian merchant vessels had little defence against Somali pirates armed with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) issued guidelines on the use of onboard private ASTs in May 2011. At the time, the BBC estimated only 1 in 10 vessels off eastern Somalia were carrying ASTs.
Based on the reduced frequency of successful attacks in the Indian Ocean after 2012, it is highly likely the increasing use of ASTs and other mitigation measures played a significant role in deterring Somali piracy. The UK government claimed in October 2011 that no vessel carrying armed security had yet been hijacked, and on 6 December 2011 it announced a change in policy regarding armed guards – releasing the publication “Interim Guidance to UK flagged shipping on the use of armed guards to defend against the threat of piracy in exceptional circumstances.”
Several Somali pirate syndicate leaders were arrested or abandoned piracy after 2010, which may also have contributed to a decline in Somali piracy. These included Muhammad Garfanj – described as the ‘second-ranking leader of Somalia’s pirate industry’ – who was arrested in August 2014, and the pirate leader and organiser Muhammad Abdi Hassan alias “Afweyne” who withdrew from piracy activity in 2010 and was arrested in 2013.
Although isolated incidents such as the ones described above will continue to occur east of Somalia, a return to the piracy levels seen in the Indian Ocean between 2009 and 2013 is highly unlikely in the long term.