By Shashank Bengali, Chicago Tribune
WASHINGTON ‚Äî With three accused pirates now facing trial in Virginia on charges of murdering Americans ‚Äî the first U.S. trial of its kind in modern times ‚Äî Somali piracy appears all but defunct.
An international naval operation combined with aggressive prosecutions and shipboard security measures over the last two years have nearly halted the Indian Ocean crime wave at an expense of $1 billion per year.
Dozens of nations have deployed warships, U.S. Navy drones have provided aerial surveillance, European jets have struck pirate lairs, and 21 countries have jailed more than 1,100 suspected pirates.
Half the ships in a region whose sea lanes carry 75 percent of the world‚Äôs crude oil now carry teams of armed guards, many hired from private American security companies, to ride shotgun against pirate attacks.
Some governments, including those of Iran, China and India, also have taken unilateral action, sending warships to escort convoys of tankers and commercial ships through waters once infested with pirates.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs really remarkable. I hope some historian is watching this,‚Äù said Donna Hopkins, a U.S. diplomat who chairs the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, an umbrella group of more than 60 countries and international organizations. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs totally voluntary, it‚Äôs not coercive, no one is in charge,‚Äù Hopkins said. ‚ÄúThe simple fact is that everyone hates pirates.‚Äù
Somali pirates, many armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, staged 176 attacks in 2011, the year retired California couple Jean and Scott Adam and their Seattle friends Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle were killed.
The pirates captured 25 ships and netted an estimated $160 million in ransom for ships and crews that year, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a Colorado-based group.
In contrast, pirates have launched three attacks so far this year. The last successful hijacking was more than a year ago.
The international naval response costs more than $1 billion a year, but U.S. officials and shipping industry leaders consider that money well-spent. Nearly three-quarters of the world‚Äôs traded oil and half the container traffic passes through the Indian Ocean.
‚ÄúThe sheer weight of the military effort has pretty much removed the pirates‚Äô ability to operate with impunity,‚Äù said Royal Australian Navy Capt. Robert Slaven, director of operations for the Combined Maritime Forces, which includes ships from the U.S. and 26 other countries. It is one of three naval coalitions that has sent armadas to the area.
New security measures aboard merchant ships also have helped. Crews now may unroll razor wire over the sides to stop pirates from clambering aboard, fire high-powered water cannons or ear-piercing sirens to keep small boats at bay, and take refuge from pirates in fortified rooms.
New industry guidelines instruct ships to travel in packs, and at greater speed, in high-risk areas. Many ships have resorted to armed guards. U. S. officials say Somali pirates have never hijacked a ship that has armed guards.
Kevin Doherty, president of Nexus Consulting Group, based in Arlington, Va., said his company has put armed guards on about 450 ships in the Indian Ocean since 2009. None had engaged in a firefight, but they fired warning shots three times, he said.
‚ÄúThe Barbary pirates went away,‚Äù said Doherty, referring to the North African privateers who terrorized the Mediterranean from the 16th to the 19th centuries. ‚ÄúSame way, Somali piracy is on its way out.‚Äù
A few cases have drawn attention, however. Last year, a video surfaced of guards employed by Trident Group, based in Virginia Beach, Va., firing dozens of rounds as two skiffs approached a freighter in March 2011.
Trident officials said the guards had spotted rocket-propelled grenades aboard the skiffs and had fired warning shots before opening fire. It‚Äôs unknown whether the skiffs carried pirates or whether anyone was killed or wounded.
U.S. officials say Somalia‚Äôs growing political stability could end the anarchy that allowed pirates to operate from safe havens along the lawless northern coast.
But unclassified U.S. naval intelligence reports include near-weekly sightings of what are described as suspicious fishing boats ‚Äî some carrying boarding ladders and weapons ‚Äî in shipping lanes off Somalia.
‚ÄúThe moment the ships relax or the navies withdraw, the pirates will be back in force,‚Äù said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, a trade group. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs very easy for them to remobilize.‚Äù
In federal court in Norfolk, Va., home to the U.S. Navy‚Äôs largest installation, the largest pircacy trial in moderns times has been under way.
Eleven pirates have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of piracy. Each was sentenced to life in prison. A 12th pirate was sentenced to multiple life terms for trying to negotiate a ransom.
Prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty for the final three members of the ring ‚Äî Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar.
They are accused of murdering Scott Adam, a former TV producer who had worked on ‚ÄúThe Love Boat‚Äù and ‚ÄúThe Dukes of Hazzard,‚Äù and his wife Jean. They had spent seven years sailing the globe, distributing Bibles at many of their stops.
Alerted by an SOS, the American destroyer U.S.S. Sterett tailed the sailboat and tried to persuade the pirates to surrender. But talks broke down and U.S. prosecutors say the pirates then killed the four American hostages. Navy SEALs then killed two men and captured 15 others, who were brought to Norfolk.