ABOARD THE USS DONALD COOK
A year after Somali pirates grabbed headlines with a series of high-profile hijackings in East African waters, piracy appears to be waning. In the past three months, there has been just one successful hijacking in the Somali Basin, a swath of ocean stretching from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean that is criss-crossed by tens of thousands of commercial vessels each month. There were 17 hijackings In the comparable period last year.
“It’s a fact,” Royal Navy Commodore Steve Chick said of piracy’s decline. Commodore Chick heads a force of five NATO warships, including the Donald Cook, a Virginia-based U.S. Navy destroyer that deployed to Africa in July for six months.
In an interview Sept. 24, Commodore Chick cited better ship self-protection, effective military patrols and improved security on land in Somalia as the major reasons driving down hijackings.
He said merchant crews are taking better self-protection measures, including sailing faster and stringing barbed wire on their ships’ railings to thwart boarders. Many merchant ships also use fire hoses to blast pirates off their ladders during any attempted hijacking. The U.S. Coast Guard regularly publishes the latest methods for merchant ship self-defense.
Commodore Chick also said military vessels sent by many nations to battle piracy are doing a better job working together. After a year of buildup, about 40 warships from more than a dozen nations are patrolling the Somali Basin. Most of them belong to three large flotillas - one each from NATO, the European Union and the U.S.-led Combined Task Force 151.
The commodores of the three flotillas talk every day, “if not more,” Commodore Chick said. Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, India and other nations operate small numbers of warships independently but coordinate their patrols with the large flotillas during monthly meetings in Bahrain.
In September, the Donald Cook, a 9,000-ton vessel armed with missiles, torpedoes and guns, patrolled a squarish portion of a designated “security lane” for merchant ships. Crews are encouraged to sail inside the lane, rather than spreading out, so the Donald Cook and other warships can better protect them.
The patrols are “mostly visual,” said Ensign Justin Kelly, the officer in charge of the ship’s turbine engines. Donald Cook’s lookouts scan the horizon for pirate boats, while overhead, U.S. and Japanese patrol planes add their own surveillance. In September, the Pentagon announced it would send unarmed Reaper drones to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean to boost the air patrols.
In 18 months, warships have captured about 300 pirates and turned back hundreds more, according to Commodore Chick. While many captured pirates are simply released on the nearest Somali beach, others have been rendered to Kenya, the U.S. and France for prosecution.
Accused pirate Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse awaits trial in New York for his purported role in the hijacking of the U.S.-flag merchant ship Maersk Alabama in April. That hijacking ended in bloodshed when Navy SEALs fatally shot three pirates.
Conditions appear to be changing in Somalia, where the pirates have their bases. “Piracy is becoming less socially acceptable,” Commodore Chick said. This past summer, Somalia’s U.S.-backed transitional government established a rudimentary naval infantry force to patrol Somali beaches for pirates.
Despite encouraging trends, the war on piracy is far from over, Commodore Chick stressed. “Let’s not underestimate pirates.”
“This is these guys’ waters,” said Martin Murphy, a maritime security analyst from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, of pirates. “They know which way the winds blow. The feeling is they’re getting oceanographically smarter.”
Experienced pirates might try to avoid military patrols by sailing south, away from the security lane. Waters south of Mombasa, Kenya, are largely unprotected. Hijackings in the vicinity of Mombasa late last year alarmed members of that city’s large seafaring community. “Pirates are spreading their wings,” said Frederick Wahutu, director of the Kenya Ships Agents Association.