Revisiting Piracy in the Gulf of Aden

Yesterday’s sentencing of 9 Somali pirates to 5 years in jail in Kenya went largely unnoticed in American media circles. This is not particularly surprising, given the exceptional decrease in piracy in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden in recent years. Let’s take a look into how this has happened.

East African Piracy became a serious concern for the international community in 2008, when there was a sudden spike in pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden. Driven by instability in their home country and declining fish yields, Somali fishermen began attacking the high-traffic shipping lanes that run off the coast of Somalia. They attacked 111 ships, successfully pirating 42, and earned ransoms of up to $3 million per ship. These attacks increased in frequency and success for the next 3 years and peaked in 2011, a year in which they earned approximately $146 million in ransoms on 25 hijacks (or $4.87 million per ship).

Since 2011, however, attacks have steadily decreased with only a handful of successful hijackings. In 2012, there were only 5 successfully pirated ships resulting from 35 attacks. In 2013, there have been only 3 attacks and each one has been thwarted. Not only are pirates failing to capture their targets, but they are also bringing in less money. Pirates received only $31.75 million in ransoms during 2012. Today, East African pirates are in control of just two hijacked ships (both taken in late 2012) and a total of 54 hostages.

            This decrease is attributable to a number of factors; however, it is clear that the efforts of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) are the main reasons for the decline of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Under the authority of a number of UN Security Council Continuing Resolutions, this group of 29 countries has used a combination of aerial monitoring and naval patrols to successfully deter would-be pirates. Through their efforts, hundreds of pirates have been arrested and prosecuted or are awaiting trial.[i] Others have been killed by US Special Forces.

            The rapid success of CTF-151 at curtailing piracy off the coast of East Africa is certainly impressive. It demonstrates just how effective international security cooperation can be and provides a model for states interested in working together to defend the international order from destabilizing forces.

Despite the successes of CTF-151 in East Africa, the problems of piracy still threaten the global economy. The Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca have become the newest hotbed of piracy. There were over 130 incidents of piracy and sea robbery in this region each year from 2009-2012.

Nearly 20% of global sea trade occurs in the Indian Ocean and 15.2 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Malacca each day. Simply put, the global economy cannot afford to allow piracy to expand in this crucial region. Yet, it is happening.

            Given the exemplary model of CTF-151, one might be inclined to call for a new anti-piracy task force for Southeast Asia. Yet, more task forces may not be the answer.

The UN mandate for CTF-151 strictly defines and limits its area of operation to the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, the Indian Ocean is a dividing line within the American military between CENTCOM and PACOM. Pirates in Southeast Asia are simply taking advantage of these arbitrary divisions. By operating along the “seams” of administrative jurisdiction, pirates are able to attack their targets with very little risk of capture and prosecution.

Given that these pirates seem to be attacking these vulnerable seams in the global security regimes, the appropriate response would seem to be to create more flexible systems for dealing with mobile threats. In my next post, I hope to examine some of the potential strategies that governments are considering employing to overcome these obstacles to freedom of navigation.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by William Goodyear. Bookmark the permalink.

About William Goodyear

Will is the Gulf Research Associate and Special Researcher for the Director at the NESA Center. His research interests include Environmental and Natural Resource Security, International Aid and Development, Islamist Politics, and the Modern History of the Arab World.

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