The swarm of pirates buzzing around the so-called Somali Basin has grown since last year even though American and European navies now patrol those waters in force. "This year we've seen more attacks than we did all of last year," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Bahrain, comparing all of 2008 with the first eight months of 2009. "So are they more active? Yeah, but they're less successful. ... There may be more events, but their rate of success is less."
Europe and the United States rushed military ships to the Indian Ocean late last year after 2008's alarming surge in Somali piracy. But after the naval groups gathered to huge fanfare in both Djibouti and Bahrain, the pirates managed a series of spectacular hijackings that seemed to indicate just who was in charge. Somali gangsters held the Hansa Stavanger, a German freighter, from April through July, until ship owners paid a $2.7 million ransom. The captain of the American-flagged Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, spent five days in Somali hands, but a standoff with Navy snipers ended badly for the pirates.
Those two cases might appear to show a trans-Atlantic divide.
Americans, as a rule, don't like to pay ransom; Europeans have been more pragmatic. It's a difference that reflects counter-terrorism policy. Washington's position whenever an American gets kidnapped for political or financial reasons is to make no concessions. Europeans (except the British, officially) tend to sigh and fork out cash.
But piracy isn't terrorism, and the decision to pay or fight on the high seas may now depend more on ship owners, who are pragmatic enough to prefer ransoms to bloodshed, than on the nationality of hijacked ships. Investigators for the shipping industry estimate that some $80 million flowed from ship owners to Somali gangs in 2008, and by the end of 2009, given fewer hijackings but higher pipeline politics in Ukraine and ransoms, that figure may double, according to Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau.
These riches have made the pirates more sophisticated. They started as desperate ex-fishermen hoping to make money on their decimated fishing grounds, but now many pirates are foot soldiers in organized crime syndicates outfitted with satellite phones, deep-sea "mother ships," and rocket-propelled grenades.
This new, ransom-fueled trouble in the Middle East visibly irritates the Pentagon. "Clearly, if they didn't pay the ransoms, we would be in a stronger position," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last spring. But now the Europeans appear to be getting fed up, too. French navy commandos attacked the hijackers of two yachts early in April.
And Germany, eager to show it could break a bad habit of ransom-paying, planned a massive special-forces raid on the Hansa Stavanger in May. The mission aborted in the dead of night because of a bureaucratic disconnect between agencies in Berlin and because Washington failed to give final permission to use a helicopter carrier it had loaned the Germans for the mission. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic were, in this particular case, afraid of a bloody mess.
In actuality, then, Europe and the U.S. have come to agree more than they disagree about counter-piracy. One reason pirates have hijacked fewer ships in 2009 is that the navies in Djibouti and Bahrain have given merchant captains a few low-tech ideas. The captains have been taught certain evasion and delay tactics, and ship owners outfit their vessels with cheap tricks: razor wire, water nozzles and seawater "curtains" to swamp the pirate boats.
The U.S. and Europe still are at odds about one pirate-fighting option: After the Maersk incident, the U.S. passed a law allowing "armed teams" on U.S.-flagged ships with government cargoes. But most merchant lines — and European governments — reject the idea because they don't want to start an arms race with the pirates.
Of course, the pirate skirmishes off Somalia may already be an arms race. One report last spring from the Korea Times claimed a pirate with a heat-seeking Stinger missile fired on a South Korean helicopter. If it was a real American Stinger, that would imply a dangerous friendship between pirates and Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, who may have a few aging CIA-supplied launchers left over from Afghan and Angolan struggles against the Soviets.
Somalia's Islamists, historically, are a better counter-pirate force than any Western navy. The Islamic Courts Union stamped out piracy for half a year when it won control of large portions of Somalia in 2006. And some military experts think an '80s-era American Stinger would never have survived two decades of wandering from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa.
But if a link were proved, routine ransom payments by the shipping industry would run into legal trouble. Ransom wouldn't just be ransom; it would amount to financing terrorists.
The U.S. Navy's Lt. Christensen didn't clear up the matter. "We're certainly always concerned about the safety of our crews," was all he would stay about pirate-operated Stingers. "But there's nothing that we've seen to indicate a connection between those two groups."
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