A new season in Somali piracy has started, after a summer monsoon lull, and like a new season in Paris or Milan, there are new styles to report, new tendencies and trends.
The first trend that catches your correspondent's eye is the sheer distance from the Somali mainland where the latest assaults have occurred. The four pirate hijackings since the end of monsoon season have all occurred north of the Seychelles, more than 600 miles from the Somali coast. A shipping industry group called Idarat Maritime Ltd. writes on its blog that the De Xin Hai, a Chinese cargo ship caught Oct. 19, is the first vessel "taken east of the 60° line of longitude," a major shift in pirate tactics that "shows that the Indian Ocean between the Seychelles and the Maldives is now a danger area."
None of these ships was headed for the Gulf of Aden, the bottleneck for traffic through the Red Sea. The Gulf of Aden was the easiest place on Earth to have your vessel hijacked in 2008 and the first half of 2009, but three international naval groups have patrolled it this year with some success. So the pirates have struck out for the Seychelles.
To Idarat Maritime, as well as Interpol, the cluster of attacks from those islands implies 1) that pirates have camps in the Seychelles, and 2) that they're following ship traffic, perhaps using AIS, the Automated Identification System. Every vessel over a certain weight has been expected since 2004 to send out an AIS signal, which gives the ship's name, speed, destination and other details to nearby ships. The idea is to prevent accidents — but Somali pirate gangs may be exploiting the system to find slow, heavy, vulnerable targets.
"The investment in piracy operations in the last year," Idarat Maritime argues, "is more than sufficient to place a number of [pirate] motherships in a chain, approximately 40 nautical miles apart; any vessel crossing this line would then be identified and followed. ... It appears that pirate tactics may be evolving along the lines of U-Boat tactics in the North Atlantic during the Second World War."
U-boats in World War II learned to hunt in packs when Allied supply ships started moving in warship-escorted convoys; and convoys are a simple defense tactic picked up earlier this year by some groups of merchant vessels passing near Somalia.
The other new development this fall is a fleet of American Reaper drones sent to the Seychelles to help with surveillance. Until now the U.S. has used small, ship-based ScanEagle drones to follow and photograph suspicious boats, but Reapers are the size of a small fighter plane and have to launch from land. They have a range of 3,600 miles and can carry missiles and bombs.
"We're not using them with weapons, and we don't anticipate using them with weapons," said Vince Crawley, a U.S. military spokesman for AFRICOM, the Pentagon's Africa Command. "But we don't rule anything out."
AFRICOM deals with counterterrorism on the Horn of Africa, not — as a rule — counterpiracy. Crawley said AFRICOM was helping out the Navy's counterpiracy mission with these new drones because the Navy wanted to see how the larger aircraft will work "over a marine environment." But more and more there seems to be overlap between the two American missions in that part of the world. Using the Reapers, Crawley said, "is counterpiracy as well as regional security writ large."
A Reaper could easily reach the interior of Somalia from the Seychelles.
The European contribution to counterpiracy off Somalia is far less high-tech. Warships from both NATO and the EU are patrolling the Somali Basin; but the French will train a corps of Somalis as an official "coast guard" to fight piracy on land, where it starts. In late September the German government decided to support the EU-funded plan; but the Germans have worried that EU money, training, and weapons in Somalia might find wind up helping pirate gangs.
The game of cat-and-mouse in the Indian Ocean shows that the world's navies haven't managed to solve Somalia's piracy problem. But the navies hardly seem to mind.
"That's warfare," NATO Commodore Steve Chick, a British officer, told me. "And this is warfare." He said counterpiracy had given the U.S.-European alliance a new reason to exist. "NATO has broadened its remit to defending its shipping routes, rather than the more traditional defense of its homeland.
"In that respect I think it's quite exciting for NATO."