Pirates on a spree

Of all the things one could accuse a Somalia pirate of, cowardice is not one of them. The U.S., the EU, NATO, China, Russia, Japan, India, and South Korea all have vessels patrolling the pirates’ native seas. That didn’t stop the hijackers from taking five vessels in 48 hours, boosting the number of ships currently ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

Of all the things one could accuse a Somalia pirate of, cowardice is not one of them. The U.S., the EU, NATO, China, Russia, Japan, India, and South Korea all have vessels patrolling the pirates' native seas. That didn't stop the hijackers from taking five vessels in 48 hours, boosting the number of ships currently held to 12. And remember, from that point on, the rules of this game are clear: The pirates don't hurt the crews; and they almost always get their booty (even if they have to drown with it).

How are a bunch of former fisherman defeating the world's navies? There are several theories floating around, so I'll let you venture which holds the most water: 

1) The pirates are shifting course -- going further off shore and finding new patches of the sea. In essence, they are evading the naval patrols. 

Of all the things one could accuse a Somalia pirate of, cowardice is not one of them. The U.S., the EU, NATO, China, Russia, Japan, India, and South Korea all have vessels patrolling the pirates’ native seas. That didn’t stop the hijackers from taking five vessels in 48 hours, boosting the number of ships currently held to 12. And remember, from that point on, the rules of this game are clear: The pirates don’t hurt the crews; and they almost always get their booty (even if they have to drown with it).

How are a bunch of former fisherman defeating the world’s navies? There are several theories floating around, so I’ll let you venture which holds the most water: 

1) The pirates are shifting course — going further off shore and finding new patches of the sea. In essence, they are evading the naval patrols. 

2) The international patrol is getting less effective the more bloated it becomes. As Bjoern H. Seibert argues on FP‘s The Argument, EU and NATO patrols are actually getting in the way of one another. Since coordination is vital to surveying the vast waters, not talking is… unhelpful. Or maybe it’s just the priorities don’t align; while France is obsessively pursuing a captured yacht, Canada is apparently saving refugees.

3) Then there is the grievance theory. Somali pirates are pissed. The latest complaint (after the original worries that international boats were preening the Somali waters of fish — and starving the local market) is international dumping. Don’t dump your waste on Somali soil if you don’t want to get wasted at sea, apparently. 

4) Most sobering of all — the pirates might be pirating because there is little else they can do. Somalia’s situation is famously desperate, but new numbers released from a UNHCR press briefing indicate the gravity: 339 boats carrying 17,035 people have caried refugees from Somalia to Yemen across the Gulf of Aden this year alone. These days, pirating looks like a stable living. 

The bottom line? Here, the Chinese Rear Admiral Yao Zhilou summarized it best:

Pirates have recently expanded their zone of operations, coordinated with each other, upgraded their weapons and selected a wider range of targets. They also tend to use force more often…Pirates remain a big threat to merchant vessels on the sea"

Update: As noted in our Morning Brief, the pirates hijaked a U.S.-flagged ship — their sixth in the current spree. Read more on the latest here.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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