An article from Somalia Report, a news agency specializing in Somali affairs, has suggested that Somali pirates are readying their boats for the end of monsoon season around Feb. 20, nearly coinciding with an international conference to be held Feb. 23 in the United Kingdom on Somalia and counterpiracy efforts. Indeed, calmer seas present greater opportunity for hijackings and other piratic activities. Of course, Feb. 20 is merely an approximation, and meteorological phenomena like monsoons may continue for weeks after this date. But soon the weather will clear, and Somali pirates will embark on a new season of activity.
Every year from 2008 to 2011 Somali pirates expanded the areas in which they operated. But in 2011, their areas of operation contracted, due in part to the increased use of armed guards on commercial vessels and monitoring by anti-piracy naval forces. It is unclear whether this trend will continue. So far in 2012, only one vessel and three fishing boats have been hijacked by pirates, whereas eight commercial vessels had been hijacked by this point last year. In any case, the end of monsoon season invariably will give rise to an increased pirate presence in the greater Indian Ocean Basin. Whether this presence leads to additional hijackings depends on a variety of factors.
So far in 2012, Somali pirates have favored the same ports as in the past, particularly those between Harardhere in southern Somalia and Bandar Bayla in northern Somalia. However, a new port known as Harfan, located on a northern Somali peninsula that juts out into the Indian Ocean toward Socotra Island, is gaining recognition as a port from which pirates conduct their operations. According to reports, heightened security in Haradhere, El-Dhanane and Garacad has led more than 100 pirates to relocate to Harfan in the past five months alone. Further security clampdowns could lead to the emergence of other alternative ports.
Already there is evidence that pirates are venturing outside their traditional areas of operations. On Jan. 20, there was an attempted hijacking of a commercial vessel in the Gulf of Oman. While Somali pirates have occasionally operated in the area before, they have never successfully hijacked a commercial vessel. Doing so would indicate their expansion into a new area.
In our 2012 Piracy Annual, we noted the relatively new trend that Somali pirates could begin hijacking vessels within or just outside commercial ports, evidenced by the August 2011 hijacking of the MV Fairchem Bogey within the Salalah, Oman port limits. Already in 2012 we have seen another instance of this trend. On Jan. 23, pirates attempted to hijack a commercial vessel just outside the port of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
There is also evidence in 2012 of a tactical development in Somali piracy not seen in recent years. In January, pirates who had boarded the FV Shiuh Fu No. 1 cut off the captain's arm to convince the ship's owners to pay a ransom. Typically, pirates eschew physical violence against hostages; pirates are happy as long as they get paid. If such violence becomes habitual, anti-piracy operations increasingly may be carried out by various special operations forces — though such operations would be conducted only by the country of the abducted individuals and in cases where it has the intelligence to do so.
Such was the case in January, when U.S. Special Forces rescued American Jessica Buchanan and her Danish co-captive. This demonstrated how the U.S. military will respond to such incidents. (The military had the requisite intelligence to act, and Buchanan's health condition provided an added impetus for action.) Accordingly, pirates may begin to house hostages on commercial vessels, given that vessels are more difficult to raid than smaller skiffs or land-based facilities.
While the end of monsoon season will result in a larger presence of pirate vessels, several factors may limit their successes. Armed contractors continue to be used on commercial ships in 2012, and this year no vessel carrying these contractors has been successfully hijacked. Thus, we expect they will continue to be deployed in 2012. In addition, the U.S. Navy reportedly is retrofitting the USS Ponce to be used by special operations forces in the Central Command area of operations, and anti-piracy operations fall into their purview.
Moreover, domestic Somali forces, including those of Galmudug and Puntland as well as the pro-Somali government Sufi militia Ahlu Sunnah Waljamaah, have been arresting pirates in the regions they control. This is an indication that land-based forces are also pressuring pirate activity. Such measures may be more effective at reducing piracy over the long term than arming merchant ships, but it remains to be seen if this pressure on land can be sustained.
In the past Somali pirates have been adept at developing countermeasures, so armed anti-piracy tactics alone may not bring about an end to piracy off Somalia's waters. The end of the monsoon season may embolden pirates to increase their presence, but it does not ensure greater success.