By Coast Guard Capt. Peter Troedsson

Pirates attacked 111 ships off the Horn of Africa in 2008.

Forty-two of these attacks were successful, meaning ships were seized, cargo was stolen or crews were held for ransom.

In 2009, the number of seizures rose to 46—nearly one a week. Many attacks occurred in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin, some of the busiest sea lanes in the world. The problem had been growing for years—since the Somali government disintegrated in the early 1990s—but attacks increased sharply in the mid-2000s.

The breakdown of the Somali government created social conditions conducive to piracy. The same breakdown left an absence of law and order, making the capture and prosecution of pirates almost impossible.

In response to the rising costs of piracy, both human and financial, the National Security Council released the Partnership and Action Plan for Countering Piracy off the Horn of Africa in December 2008. The plan had three primary goals: reducing vulnerability, interrupting and terminating acts of piracy and facilitating the prosecution of suspected pirates.

The international community recognized the problem and in January 2009, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1851. Subsequently, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) was established to promote coordination among interested nations. More than 60 countries and international organizations joined and five sub-groups were formed to address various facets of the problem:

  1. The Naval Cooperation Group to “ensure effective naval operational coordination and support the building of the judicial, penal and maritime capacity of Regional States to ensure they are better equipped to tackle piracy and maritime security challenges.”

  2. The Legal Issues Group to “provide specific, practical and legally sound guidance to the CGPCS, States and organizations on all legal aspects of counter-piracy”

  3. The Self-Defensive Actions Group to “discuss concerns of the participant states, maritime industry and labor groups regarding the actions that should be used to provide self-defensive actions to protect vessels from hijacking by pirates”

  4. The Public Diplomacy Group, focusing on “raising awareness of the dangers of piracy and highlighting the best practices to eradicate this criminal phenomenon” and

  5. A group addressing the flow of illegal funds and coordinating “international efforts to identify and disrupt the financial networks of pirate leaders and their financiers.”

Photo credit Navy photo

A visit, board, search and seizure team from the guided missile destroyer USS Pinckney approaches a suspected pirate vessel after the Motor Vessel Nordic Apollo reported being under attack by pirates.

This multinational effort led to significant success. A partnership of nations, known as the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), quickly became the focus of efforts to establish international naval patrols. The CMF is headquartered at Naval Support Activity Bahrain alongside the U.S. Naval Central Command and U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet, and led by the Vice Admiral who commands the Fifth Fleet.

In January 2009, at the same time the CGPCS was established, Combined Task Force-151 (CTF-151) was established under the CMF. While the role of the CMF is to conduct broadly defined maritime security operations, CTF-151 was given a specific mandate to “disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea and to engage with regional and other partners to build capacity and improve relevant capabilities in order to protect global maritime commerce and secure freedom of navigation.”

There are no mandates or agreements that bind the participating nations together, and the 29 nations that participate in CTF-151 operations do so voluntarily. They contribute assets and manpower based on availability and rotate command of the task force among themselves on a four- to six-month basis.

Together with the European Union Naval Force Somalia and independently deployed naval ships, CTF 151 helps to patrol the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Aden.

The shipping industry developed a set of counterpiracy tactics commonly known as Best Management Practices (BMP). These include removing ladders and other forms of access, and protecting against access at lower points on a ship’s hull; enhancing and improving deck lighting; installing netting, razor wire, electrical fencing, fire hoses and other anti-access measures; installing surveillance and detection equipment; maneuvering evasively and increasing speed during pirate attacks; improving awareness and reporting suspicious activities and forming convoys with other vessels.

These substantial improvements, along with the employment of armed guards aboard merchant ships, have been remarkably successful. Although the number of attacks rose from 111 in 2008 to 237 in 2011, actual seizures dropped from 42 in 2008 to 25 in 2011. In 2012, the numbers declined to 75 attacks and 14 hijackings.

As successful as the international naval patrols and BMP have been, there is much more to be accomplished. According to Jack Lang, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Piracy, more than 90 percent of pirates apprehended by naval patrols are released without prosecution.

Somali pirates who have been prosecuted in U.S. courts have faced stiff penalties, including life in prison. Of the 15 pirates prosecuted in Norfolk, Virginia, for their roles in the attack on the sailing vessel QUEST (in which all four American crew members were killed), 12 were convicted and face mandatory life sentences. The remaining three face capital charges.

Progress has also been made in East Africa. In June, nine Somalis were convicted in a Kenyan court—Somalia was unprepared to try them—for the hijacking of the MV Magellan Star in the Gulf of Aden in September 2010.

The sad bottom line is that piracy will continue without a sound governance system, including the ability to enforce laws, prosecute and punish violators, or legitimate and viable economic alternatives to piracy.

Assuring freedom of navigation has long been a priority of the United States, and of all nations whose economies rely on maritime trade. By all measures, the anti-piracy effort off the Horn of Africa represents both a successful cooperative effort and an effective response to help guarantee freedom of maneuver and access in those waters.

It remains to be seen if a similar multinational effort will be attempted, and if it will be effective in a new piracy hot spot. According to a recently released report, The Human Cost of Maritime Piracy 2012, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea on the coast of West Africa has overtaken Somali piracy. The root causes are the same: a lack of sound governance and a tempting source of illicit income. The report notes that tackling piracy in both West Africa and Somalia requires “cooperation between efforts at sea and those on land to build maritime security and provide job opportunities to potential pirates.”

The struggle continues.