The pirates of Somalia have gone silent. There have been no successful Somali pirate hijackings reported in the past two years. Hollywood movies like Paul Greengrass’s Captain Philips, rather than news of actual attacks and ransom negotiations, now make the headlines. But is the threat of Somali piracy truly over? In May, the international Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia held its 16th plenary meeting at the United Nations in New York to discuss the endgame of the fight against piracy. The group, which is the central global governance entity organizing counter-piracy efforts, discussed how to restructure its counter-piracy response mechanisms and what measures will be required in the future. But as the Contact Group deliberations have made clear, the international community should not be so quick to declare victory in the war against Somali piracy. Although incidences of piracy in the region have decreased, sustained local and international efforts are still needed to prevent this trend from reversing.
The recent decline in hijackings in the Somali region suggests that international measures to thwart piracy have shown some significant successes. At least three distinct factors have contributed to this. First, the shipping industry has improved its self-defense measures. Commercial vessels now sail at higher speeds through high-risk areas, post additional watches, are protected with barbed wire, and follow the procedures of the so-called international Best Management Practices. Additionally, the majority of these ships employ armed guards on board. These guards, provided by private security companies, have critically altered the risk assessment associated with piracy operations. Boarding a vessel with armed and trained guards is too dangerous—and nearly impossible—for Somali pirates.
Second, the international naval missions launched by NATO, the European Union, or unilaterally by individual nations have become more effective since the early days of counter-piracy operations. International cooperation between different missions works well, and national navies have become more experienced in conducting joint counter-piracy operations and handling piracy suspects. Until 2010, many piracy suspects were released after being apprehended. Now, however, naval personnel are skilled in arresting, collecting evidence on, and handing over piracy suspects. As a result, an impressive 1,200 pirates have either been imprisoned and sentenced or are awaiting trial. While the pool of potential piracy recruits in Somalia is enormous, the large-scale arrest of pirates has sent a clear message to the nation’s civilian population that many of those who choose to engage in piracy do not come home. This successful prosecution program is one of the outcomes of the highly effective Counter Piracy Program of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, which has restructured and reformed legal sectors in Somalia and other regional countries in which the majority of suspects are prosecuted.
A third factor contributing to this decline has been the rejection of piracy by local Somali communities, who have increasingly begun to view it as an illegitimate activity. The first generations of Somali pirates gained local support by presenting themselves as guardians of the coast and protectors of the Somali seas. Somali coastal communities no longer consider this justification valid. Indeed, many villages, including Eyl, the former pirate stronghold, have seen open protests against piracy. Community support is vital to pirates not only for recruitment but also to support the logistics of piracy operations, which require, for instance, the provision of food and water during lengthy ransom negotiations. Finally, declining support for piracy on the village level is directly related to successful counter-piracy awareness campaigns. With assistance from international donors, radio stations as well as local and international NGOs have clearly and publicly disseminated the message that pirate activity is both illegitimate and dangerous.
Despite these victories, it is too early to declare an end to the fight against Somali piracy. The current decline in pirate activity is impermanent, the success of international efforts fragile. Piracy networks in Somalia are still intact. Indeed, although none have been successful of late, there are still attempts to hijack vessels off the Somali coast. If shippers change their behavior, stop complying with the Best Management Practices, or cease to employ armed guards aboard ship, or if international navies withdraw from the region, piracy may soon be on the rise again. The Contact Group has recognized this challenge and refocused its coordinated efforts on capacity-building in Somalia and the wider region. Without effective maritime security governance in the waters off Somalia and the Western Indian Ocean, maritime insecurity will continue to thrive and provide a fertile breeding ground for the next generation of pirates.
Yet the funding for many counter-piracy projects, such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct process, is gradually running out. Despite the ongoing threat of resurgence, the current downturn in Somali pirate operations will make it difficult to secure public support for the considerable expenses associated with international naval missions. In the meantime, regional state actors in Africa will have to take over the counter-piracy work begun by the international community. Several regional organizations including the Southern African Development Community, the East African Intergovernmental Authority for Development, and the African Union, have already drafted ambitious maritime security strategies. However, capacity-building must remain at the forefront of counter-piracy efforts; at the moment, African states lack critical maritime capabilities, expertise, training, and education. Hence, it is still too early to transfer complete responsibility to regional actors. International counter-piracy efforts must continue. If they do not, the fight against Somali pirates may soon be lost—the only winners the Hollywood filmmakers who will gain new material for telling the tragic tales of seafarers targeted by contemporary piracy.