NAPLES, Italy — Pirate attacks have dropped 27 percent since 2009, when reports of armed bandits off the coast of Somalia drew navies from throughout the world to East Africa to protect trade routes.
Despite that progress, the seas are far from safe.
There were 297 piracy attacks and 28 hijackings worldwide in 2012, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center. Of those, 75 incidents were tied to Somali pirates, who captured 250 hostages last year.
“The numbers of successful pirate attacks are going down, but I am also pretty sure that as soon as we turn away and go somewhere else, they will be back in big numbers,” Dutch Navy Commodore Ben Bekkering, the former commander of the NATO counterpiracy task force, said in a telephone interview.
In recent years, NATO and the United States have led multinational anti-piracy security campaigns off East Africa. Some shipping companies have armed vessels with private guards and barbed wire. An international campaign to make it easier to prosecute pirates also has contributed to the piracy decline, experts said.
Piracy attacks climbed to 406 in 2009, according to the maritime bureau.
Although the number of pirate attacks has markedly declined, the conditions that make piracy a lucrative pursuit in East Africa — poverty, political instability and lawlessness — remain endemic across the region.
“There is an endless supply of young Somali men who have no other economic opportunities,” said Jennifer Cooke, African program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s a problem that is going to be big with us for a long time.”
Until that changes, it’s unlikely a reduction in foreign security will result in anything but an uptick in piracy attacks, because East Africa’s anemic navies and coast guards are not capable of fully guarding the region’s coast and the heavily trafficked international waters beyond, military leaders and analysts said.
“Maritime security is really a very low-tier issue in most African security priorities,” Cooke said. “The economic motives of both the kingpins of piracy who are doing well, as well as for the lower level echelons who go out on the piracy ships themselves — there are very few things that are going to replace that.”
Meanwhile, the spotlight on East Africa has emboldened pirates in less-patrolled regions. Piracy attacks have nearly tripled since 2011 along Africa’s west coast near Nigeria, according to the maritime bureau, while Indonesia saw 81 incidents in 2012, up from a total of 46 the previous year.
Nearly 100 nations, including the United States and members of the European Union, have embraced multiple international efforts in recent years aimed at wiping out piracy. The U.S. Navy has been actively training with various east African navies and coast guards in Tanzania, Kenya and Djibouti with the hope that one day Africa will be able to tackle the problem on its own.
Private shipping companies have been urged by governments to beef up security on their vessels with hired guards and by storing goods in secure containers, which also is attributed to driving down the number of piracy attacks.
Nevertheless, even off the coast of Somalia, where an Islamist insurgency has been largely brought to heel, and there are tentative moves to revive commerce, pirate attacks continue.
U.S. defense leaders have increasingly cited Africa as a strategic region for security and trade. In recent years, the U.S. Navy has gone from spending only a few weeks on the continent for training and various operations, to maintaining a nearly year-round presence.
More than 41 percent of all global trade goes through African routes, including 55 percent of seaborne crude oil trade, according to the Navy. In all, maritime piracy costs $16 billion each year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
NATO and other counterpiracy coalitions have embraced a more proactive approach in recent months that focuses on containing the pirates along the Somali coast, in addition to hunting them down at sea.
“We believe if you show your face right up to the coast, if you talk to the local people there, if you are there where the pirates want to deploy, then you stop them from going out to sea in the first place,” Bekkering, said.
Bekkering said he held eight meetings with various village elders in Somalia in 2012 to discuss how piracy can strangle the local economy by limiting regular trade opportunities.
“They created this sort of Robin Hood tale and I think the people in Somalia are slowly starting to realize that they are not Robin Hood at all, that they are just criminals,” Bekkering said.
Nevertheless, there are regular reports of attempted pirate attacks, though often foiled before the pirates climb aboard merchant ships. That is in part due to the beefed-up security onboard cargo vessels and in part due the proximity of international naval forces patrolling the area and able to respond quickly and take suspected pirates into custody.
The U.S. and other countries also are moving more aggressively to prosecute pirates, experts said.
The International Criminal Police Organization announced last year that it had created a global piracy database to help identify criminal networks and pool intelligence. Any government prosecuting pirates can request information.
The European Union Naval Force has captured 128 suspected pirates since 2008. Of those, 75 have been convicted. The United States has had 28 pirates transferred to its courts, with 19 convicted and sentenced since 2009, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The others are awaiting trial.
The United States last year convicted the highest-level pirate captured in modern times, Mohammad Saaili Shibin, a midlevel negotiator responsible for arranging the ransom of four U.S. citizens held hostage on an American yacht in 2011 and in the hijacking of a German merchant vessel in 2010. Shibin was sentenced to 12 life sentences.
In most cases, the leaders behind the piracy rings have remained anonymous.
“High-level pirates have been caught and released because we don’t know who they are,” said Stig Jarle Hansen, a piracy researcher and head of the International Relations Program at the University of Life Sciences in Norway. “We have been very bad at understanding the dynamics of the cartels, we have been very bad at following the money trails.”
A new government in Somalia has awakened hopes that the country will soon be able to arrest and detain its hometown criminals. Until then, regional partners are filling the gap.
Seychelles, an Indian Ocean archipelago off the southern coast of Somalia, has become a key anti-piracy operating base, with more than 100 suspected pirates in custody, a quarter of the nation’s jail population.
“Most of the warship vessels operating in the Indian Ocean are from countries located far from the region. … It is already very costly to transfer them to their own country for trial,” said Jacques Belle, a piracy expert for the Indian Ocean Commission and a former anti-piracy representative for the ministry of foreign affairs in Seychelles. “The warship vessels that capture the suspects do not see the benefit to embark on all these processes of transferring, incarcerating, etc.”
Neil MacBride, a federal prosecutor in Virginia who has overseen nearly all the U.S. piracy cases since 2009, said Shibin was one of a handful of pirates with the necessary language and technical skills to negotiate ransoms.
He said such high-level prosecutions are rare, and the U.S. and other nations are anxious to capture pirate financiers and other top leaders who control piracy rings.
“Most of the pirates we’ve prosecuted are the guys actually on the ships, the guys who carry the gun, who actually take over the ship and try to hijack them,” MacBride said. “It’s our hope that these tough sentences are getting the attention of pirates that they can run, but they cannot hide.”