With muted apologies for the delay in posting this, here are my thoughts on the year just past as it pertains to piracy. There have been a number of media musings relating to the International Maritime Bureau's recently released report on global piracy in 2008, with some saying it was the worst year ever since the IMB began collecting data back in 1991.
This is both true, and false. The reality is that the devil is in the details of the IMB's report.
The organization reports there were 293 reported incidents in 2008 - 200 actual attacks and 93 attempted ones. This is an 11% increase from 2007 (in which the IMB reported 263 pirate incidents), however it is still below the peak levels from 2003, during which 445 attacks reported occurred. Nevertheless, 293 incidents means that mariners were being predated upon for almost every day of the year.
Yet what is more troubling from the data is the dramatic increase in hostage-takings and the increased use of firearms by pirates. Some 889 individuals were reported to have been held hostage by pirates last year (another 21 mariners are still missing and 11 people were killed). And there were 1011 reported incidents in which pirates used violence in 2008, almost double the figures for 2007, and guns are now the primary weapon of choice for pirates. Of the 293 attacks acknowledged in the IMB report, 139 involved the use of firearms (68 involved knives).
Delving deeper into the IMB's statistics, one will find that that the vast majority of pirate incidents occurs off the Horn of Africa - which is no great discovery. Somali pirates are said to have taken 815 mariners hostage last year, carrying out at least 111 attacks and hijacking 42 vessels. At the time the IMB released its report a few weeks ago, there were still 242 mariners and 13 vessels being held hostage by Somali gangs. In the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea areas, pirate incidents rose to 92 reported attacks in 2008 from a mere 13 the year earlier. Coupled with attacks off the eastern coast of Somalia, this amounts to a whopping 200% increase from 2007's figures for those seas.
As for the rest of the world, the waters off Nigeria remain the second worst, with 40 reported incidents in 2008 (down slightly from 42 in 2007); Indonesian waters saw 28 (down from 43 a year before), and the Singapore Straits saw its figures go to 6 reported incidents from 3 in 2007.
Stepping back from all this data, one can see that global piracy is being condensed into three main areas: the Horn of Africa (Somalia), the Gulf of Guinea (Nigeria) and Indonesia. Each area has rampant corruption, endemic poverty and ineffective political structures willing to address the situations, plus a gaggle of vulnerable merchant vessels plying nearby waters. Piracy feeds on three elements - greed, lawlessness and opportunity - which are clearly evident in these places, in spades.
So what does all this mean for 2009? Well, we are all aware of the increased naval activity off the Horn of Africa, which will only get more intense as Spring comes. The foreign warships on station there is unprecedented: Russia hasn't sent warships to the region on active patrol since the end of the Cold War; China hasn't sent vessels in hundreds of years ; and Japan will shortly be deploying its navy outside the home islands for the first time since World War Two. (To say nothing of the Germans, French, Dutch, South Koreans, Malaysians, Indians, British, American and Canadian presences, among others.)
All that firepower concentrated in one region can only lead to activity of some sort. You simply do not deploy warships without intending that they are seen doing what their crews are trained to do. Somalia is one of the most effective ways the international community can appear to deal with an African problem that has come to affect the rest of the world (unlike, say, Zimbabwe). Unlike in the 1990s, this is a low-intensity conflict in which not a lot of Westerners - or others - will be killed. Somali pirates don't plant IEDs, after all. Deploying personnel to the region is a win-win situation for the countries involved, as it gives their navies the opportunity to stay sharp and reduce the threat of pirate attacks. (This is not meant as a slight, in any manner, against the various deployments. Naval forces are meant to ensure the safety of vessels and the security of nations, and Somali pirates threaten both.)
Meanwhile, Nigeria will fester for another year or so before our attention turns towards its piracy issues. Wait for the price of oil and gas to rise again before anyone really addresses things there. Two expensive operations dealing with African pirates is just a little much for the international community. Somalia first, Nigeria second.
If I were a gambler, I'd bet that global figures will come down in 2009 from last year. Maybe not immensely, but reduced nonetheless. However, I would also anticipate an increase in incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, if only because criminals operating there have seen how successful Somali pirates have become.
And I would add one last very important note: Not all pirate attacks are reported to bodies like the IMB. Those 293 reported incidents? The reality may well be two or three times higher.