Monday, June 14, 2010

Assessing The Number Of Pirates Operating Off Somalia

As the current piracy season off the Horn of Africa winds itself down - thanks to the coming monsoon season - we're beginning to get our first assessments of how things have changed in the last year. Reuters correspondent Peter Apps writes (here) that NATO and EU forces say they, "[A]re combating [pirates] more effectively." Unfortunately, those same sources say that many more pirates are plying the seas off the HoA than ever before.

The outgoing commander of the EU's antipiracy mission in the region (Operation ATALANTA), British Royal Navy Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, told a briefing in the UK late last week that, "We would say there has been a threefold increase in the number of pirates since 2009," referring to those operating off the HoA and adding, "I would say we are being more effective but against an increased level of threat."

Assessing the number of pirates working those seas is always problematic, inasmuch as no one is able to keep a tally of each and every individual embarking on a career as a maritime criminal. But while investigating piracy in the region a few years ago, the best guesstimates of total strength of Somali pirates I could discern from speaking with informed sources was that it was in the range of about a thousand individuals actively engaged in operations. Now, using RAdm Hudson's assessment as a marker, this observer would postulate there are now potentially at least 3000 pirates operating in those seas.

One might think that maybe the numbers are lower, and that the pirates are just busier in their activities. But having greatly expanded their scope of operations into the wider parts of the western Indian Ocean, while maintaining abilities to strike in inshore waters and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden, implies an increased manpower base for the pirate gangs.

Additionally, there has not been a noticeable decrease in piracy emanating from parts of Somalia under the control of Islamist groups (such as al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam). As the Reuters report points out, the takeover of the Somali port of Haradheere in May did not result in the release of any of the hijacked vessels being held nearby. The report also notes there has been, "[A]n increase in attacks launched from Islamist-controlled areas of the Somali coast." (The report's sources take pains to say that, "[W]ithout any land-based operations they simply could not tell if the Islamists were directly involved with piracy." But deeds speak volumes.

The fact that numbers of pirates are going up should not be a surprise to anyone familair with the region, as it is a criminal businerss endeavor that attracts opportunists, in a place with few other options. With at least 17 vessels currently being held - and some 357 hostages being held - the issue needs some new energy in order to stem the tide.

A decade ago there were maybe a hundred guys running around the seas off the HoA intent on attacking vessels. Now there may be 3000. And ten years ago there were but a handful of mariners being held hostage by criminals; now there are over 350.

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