Nearly two centuries after the Barbary pirates stopped terrorizing European shippers, the once forgotten scourge of piracy is again a top concern for the world's navies, shipping companies, and the firms that insure their cargo.
A wave of pirate attacks from raiders along the coast of Somalia over the past few months has forced navies to begin developing a set of tactics against modern-day buccaneers equipped with automatic weapons and satellite telephones. But while Somali pirates have captured most of the headlines, they are far from the only buccaneers on the high seas. The South China Sea, the coast of West Africa, and parts of South America also are troubled waters.
Last month alone, the U.S. Navy tracked hostile incidents on the seas near a dozen countries, including attacks by suicide boats near Sri Lanka, an oil tanker seizure off Bangladesh, and attacks on sailboats in Venezuela and Ecuador. The second-fiercest pirate hot spot in the world is Nigeria, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Pirates worldwide are increasingly heavily armed with rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, and agile speedboats that let them challenge ships farther away from their sanctuaries. And the cost is going up for legitimate ocean-going commerce. In 2007, according to the British insurer Lloyd's of London, the average pirate ransom demand was about $500,000. The figure has jumped to between $1 million and $8 million. Lloyd's estimates that pirates will very likely pull in $50 million this year.
The Somali pirates became celebrities last fall after the seizure of a ship carrying some $30 million in weapons, including dismantled battle tanks. But they seized the world's attention as well and brought renewed focus on a problem that has plagued the seas for years. Within days, Russian and U.S. warships were in pursuit, but the pirates are still holding the ship and its crew hostage.
By the end of 2008, increasingly bold Somali pirates had mounted more than 100 brazen attacks on freighters, cruise ships, and a Saudi-owned oil tanker, the Sirius Star, which held 2 million barrels of crude oil. There were reports of rampant inflation in the pirate economy, as ransom money flowed in and the prices at local Somali tea shops jumped in response.
But the pirates may soon be victims of their own success, as the increasing number of attacks has galvanized international desire for action. Last month, the United Nations gave member states a one-year mandate to attack pirate bases in Somalia, meaning that some kind of strike against the Somali pirates is only a question of time, military experts say.
Critics say that chasing down the pirates may look good on television but that military action alone won't end the problem. "There is money in this, and so people will continue to do it regardless of a few raids on their bases," says James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation defense expert. "The only way to cure the disease is to have a Somali government capable of exerting authority."
A study from the Office of Naval Intelligence points out that there are simple steps that mariners can take to avoid pirates.
Perhaps the most obvious is to avoid the areas where pirates thrive. The U.S. 5th Fleet and warships from several other navies protect the main commercial corridors through the Gulf of Aden. Ships moving through pirate-infested waters outside those corridors are often looking to save time or just as often looking to avoid attention.
The freighter loaded with battle tanks, for instance, traveled under a Ukrainian flag and carried Russian-made weapons ostensibly bound for Kenya. A senior U.S. military official says that the weapons were most likely headed for Sudan, and the shipment was flouting a series of U.N. restrictions on weapons sales to parties in the ongoing conflict there.
Another step ships can take is simply to go faster. Analysts at the Office of Naval Intelligence conducted a review of all pirate attacks and unsuccessful attacks over a period of several months. Vessels with an average speed above 15 knots reported 10 unsuccessful pirate attacks, while vessels traveling below an average of 14 knots reported 11 successful attacks.