When five armed men in a small motorboat approached an oil tanker sailing off the coast of Somalia on Dec. 9, the crew sprang into action. They increased speed and unleashed fire hoses off the side to evade the assailants, according to a report from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). They called for help from the British Royal Navy, which dispatched a helicopter to their location. And they summoned to the deck an armed security team traveling with the tanker, who made sure the assailants saw they were carrying weapons.
The suspected pirates, presumably now deterred from their original intentions of attempting to hijack the ship and kidnap its crew, turned back.
It’s a testament to the success of recent antipiracy measures that hijackings of major shipments off the coast of Somalia plummeted to zero in 2013, according to the final numbers compiled by the U.S. Navy and released last week. The pirates are also trying less often: there were nine suspected attempts in 2013 in the shipping lanes that pass between Yemen and Somalia, down from seven hijackings and 25 attempts a year earlier. In 2009, there were 51 hijackings and 130 attempts, according to the Navy, including the failed attempt to take the Maersk Alabama that formed the basis of the Hollywood film Captain Phillips.
Attacks on shipments off the coast of Somalia, a vital sea-lane that sees nearly 25,000 passages a year, have dropped so significantly that the region is no longer Africa’s hot spot of piracy. In West Africa, where oil tankers sitting just off the coast are lucrative targets for Nigerian rebel militias and regional organized crime, there were nine hijackings and 48 confrontations with pirates in 2013. In some cases, these pirates will go straight for the crew to hold for ransom: two Americans were kidnapped from their oil ship off Nigeria in October and released weeks later. “With fewer attacks off Somalia, attention has moved to the Gulf of Guinea,” the IMB said in a report in October. That’s a sea change for a shipping industry that has paid Somali pirates more than $400 million in ransom money over the past seven years, according to some estimates.
A handful of factors have helped deter Somali pirates since the international community woke up to the threat in 2008. International naval patrols spearheaded by NATO and the E.U. have boosted security by deploying up to 20 warships to the area at one time, according to Michael Frodl, founder of C-LEVEL Maritime Risks, a private intelligence and consulting firm. The ships aim to provide a secure corridor through the region — the “I-95 between Yemen and Somalia,” says Frodl — and go after suspected pirates, with U.S. surveillance drones over the coast of Somalia warning when pirates appear to be setting off.
Meanwhile, the shipping industry’s Best Management Practices, a set of antipiracy recommendations for captains sailing at-risk areas off Somalia’s coast, provides seemingly simple but often crucial advice: for example, to lift the ship’s ladders and travel at higher speeds (the BMP says pirates have never successfully taken a ship traveling faster than 34 km/h). And shipping companies reluctant to depend on warships that might be days away are hiring security teams — usually armed groups of roughly four former U.S. or British marines — to stand guard on the most dangerous legs of the journey.
But maritime-security experts warn that 2013 is, if not a blip, then a tenuous moment of success that could evaporate as quickly as the funding for the naval presence. Already, budget cuts in Washington are expected to hit the U.S.’s antipiracy deployments. “We have to assume this presence is going to be diminished,” Frodl says. In the place of Western navies, countries that depend most on safe shipment in the region — like oil exporter Saudi Arabia and oil recipient China — will have to step up. “Can we replicate 2013? Yeah. But we have to be careful,” he says. “We have to do a smart handoff.”
International monitors also worry that the shipping industry will grow complacent. Ships have always been reluctant to boost speeds and pay for the extra gas, even if that means giving rogue pirates the slip. And while security teams have proved effective, their armed presence on civilian cargo ships stokes fears of an escalation where a hostage-taking scenario turns into a deadly gun battle. It’s also still not quite clear when the security teams are legally — or morally — allowed to fire on an unknown approaching vessel, and who exactly is liable when an injured pirate — or, indeed, a fisherman — files a claim. A video taken in 2012 that showed a security team firing roughly 400 rounds at approaching pirates, likely injuring or killing at least some of the pirates, fueled debate over the unregulated role of private security on the high seas. Shipping companies may soon choose to forgo the liability risks — and the up to $100,000 price tag that includes transporting the team to the region.
Long-term security in the seas may paradoxically have to play out on shore. Somalia is seeing the first semblance of stability — the influence of its perennially weak central government now extends beyond the capital Mogadishu — in more than two decades, and international observers say those who once took to piracy may be dropping the increasingly risky trade for legitimate business. But the trend is easily reversible. Somalia ranked the most corrupt country in the world in the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, and the Somali-based Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab’s recent deadly attacks in the capital city Mogadishu and on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September bode ill for stability, even if al-Shabab itself does not engage in piracy.
And the pirates haven’t disappeared. They are still involved in commandeering smaller international fishing boats — often then used as “motherships” to target larger tankers and container ships — which means the pirates are both active and potentially stocking up for future attacks. They are also still holding more than 70 sailors hostage, mostly from Southeast Asia, according to Andrew Mwangura, a piracy monitor based in Kenya who is wary that the lull in hijackings will last. “The pirates will continue in Somalia,” said Mwangura. “They’re waiting for us to sleep, and then they’ll attack.”
Noah Rayman is a writer based in New York City