The sharp reduction in pirate activity off the Somali coast since 2010 has cut the annual cost (for anti-piracy measures) to shipping companies in half (to about $3 billion). That is a huge relief to the shipping companies, the sailors on those ships and the people of East Africa who saw imports get a bit more expensive to pay for the increased security costs.
This is all a big change from just a few years ago. In 2010 pirate activity had reached levels of activity not seen in over a century. But over the next three years the problem was fixed. By 2013 attacks on ships by Somali pirates had declined 95 percent from the 2010 peak and the activity is going lower in 2014. It‚Äôs been over two years since the Somali pirates captured a large commercial ship, and even smaller fishing ships and dhows (small local cargo ships of traditional construction) are harder for them to grab. There are still at least fifty sailors held captive by the pirates, most for over three years because there is no one willing to pay a ransom.
The rapid collapse of the Somali pirates since 2010 was no accident. It was all a matter of organization, international cooperation and innovation. It all began back in 2009 when 80 seafaring nations formed (with the help of a UN resolution) the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The most visible aspect of the Contact Group was the organization of an anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast. This came to consist of over two dozen warships and several dozen manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as support from space satellites and major intelligence and police agencies.
Back in 2010 the Somali pirates got most of the publicity but they only carried out 44 percent of the attacks. What was newsworthy was that the Somalis accounted for 90 percent of the hijackings, and some 80 percent of the piracy was in and around the Indian Ocean. Some 44 percent of all attacks involved the pirates boarding the ships, while during 18 percent of attacks the pirates just fired on ships, without getting aboard. There are still pirates out there, but there are more into robbery than kidnapping.
Piracy hit a trough from the late nineteenth century into the later twentieth. That was because the Great Powers had pretty much divided up the whole planet, and policed it. The pirates had no place to hide. Piracy began to revive in a modest way beginning in the 1970s, with the collapse of many post-colonial regimes. Note that what constitutes an act of piracy is often not clearly defined. What most people agree on is that piracy is non-state sanctioned use of force at sea or from the sea. This could include intercepting a speedboat to rob the passengers, but that’s usually just thought of as armed robbery. And something like the seizure of the Achille Lauro in 1985 is considered terrorism, rather than piracy. In the past, some marginal states have sanctioned piratical operations, like the Barbary States, but that sort of thing has largely disappeared.
The international effort to suppress Somali piracy halted and reversed the increased piracy off the coast. But while there have been far fewer attacks off Somalia there has been a big jump in attacks in the Straits of Malacca (sevenfold increase since 2009) and off Nigeria (a similar increase). The big difference is that only off Somalia could ships and crews be taken and held for ransom for long periods. Everywhere else the pirates were usually only interested in robbing the crew and stealing anything portable that they could get into their small boats. Off the Nigerian coast pirates sometimes take some ship officers with them to hold for ransom or force the crew to move small tankers to remote locations where most of the cargo (of oil) can be transferred to another ship and sold on the black market.
Pirates usually function on the margins of society, trying to get a cut of the good life in situations where there aren’t many options. This is usually in areas where state control is weakest or absent, in failing and “flailed” states. A flailing state is something like Nigeria, Indonesia, or the Philippines, where the government is managing to keep things together but is faced with serious problems with areas that are sometimes out of control. In a failed state like, where there isn’t a government at all, pirates can do whatever they want.
The solution to piracy is essentially on land; go into uncontrolled areas and institute governance. This has been the best approach since the Romans eliminated piracy in the Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago. Trying to tackle piracy on the maritime end can reduce the incidence of piracy, but can’t eliminate it because the pirates still have a safe base on land. In the modern world the “land” solution often can’t be implemented. Who wants to put enough troops into Somalia to eliminate piracy? And flailing states are likely to be very sensitive about their sovereignty if you offer to help them control marginal areas.