Somalia’s pirates have been acting more nervously and co-operating more closely among themselves after Sunday’s killing of three of them by US navy snipers, and a French attack on a seized vessel, say people combating the problem.
The changes suggest that pirates fear further US military intervention. Some observers say this could increase the danger for seafarers in future incidents.
Barack Obama, US president, said on Monday that the US was “resolved to halt the rise of piracy” off Somalia. “To achieve that goal, we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise,” he said.
The three pirates were shot on Sunday as the US navy rescued Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, from a drifting lifeboat. He had been held hostage since Wednesday after he handed himself to pirates in return for the release of his US-flagged container ship, which they had briefly hijacked.
On Saturday, French special forces stormed the Tanit, a French yacht seized by pirates, killing one hostage and two pirates.
Pirates have seized four ships in the past week off Somalia’s east coast. The area, which has seen more than half of this year’s successful ship hijackings off Somalia, is far larger than the Gulf of Aden, off the north coast, which saw most of last year’s attacks.
Stephen Askins, a partner at Ince & Co, London-based solicitors specialising in piracy, said there had been an undoubted increase in nervousness among Somalis negotiating over captured ships. “Key personnel are much more difficult to get hold of,” he said.
There were also signs of pirates moving ships away from their traditional anchorages off the town of Eyl, the main base for raiders from the northerly Darod clan, said one western military analyst. “We saw a lot of ships anchored off Eyl, but not as many now,” the analyst said. The move could signify growing local resentment at the presence of pirates, as well as fear of an onshore attack by US or other international forces on areas seen as pirate bases.
“Local populaces that used to support the pirates may be pushing back a little bit,” the analyst said.
Abdi Garad, a pirate chief based in Eyl, told Agence France-Presse they would now target US interests. “Next time we get American citizens I wish they will expect no mercy from us,” he said.
Groups that normally work in competition appear to be co-operating in the face of the increased threat. Vessels hijacked by both the more southerly Hawiye clan and the Darod converged on the site of the Maersk Alabama stand-off to try to lend support, Mr Askins and the analyst reported. “That demonstration was quite unusual,” Mr Askins said.
However, Mr Askins said pirates coming from desperately poor Somalia still had more to gain by continuing attacks than they might lose from military intervention. “The risk-reward ratio still remains in the pirates’ favour,” he said.
The pirates’ chances of being caught are also lower in the Indian Ocean than in the Gulf of Aden.
Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney, head of US naval forces in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, said that in the gulf it was possible to keep warships close enough to merchant shipping routes to respond quickly to attacks. “On the east coast of Somalia, such a vast area, we simply do not have enough resources,” he said. He gave warning that the weekend’s events “could escalate violence in this part of the world”.
However, the military analyst said the pirates’ specific threats against US interests were probably hollow, adding: “They absolutely don’t want a war with the United States.”
Adm Gortney said the “ultimate solution” for tackling piracy was “on land”. He said US efforts to clamp down on piracy, including sending 130 pirates to the judicial system, had not reduced the number of attacks.
Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said on Monday there was “no purely military solution” to the problem, adding that the three pirates who were killed on Sunday were teenagers.
”As long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there’s really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids,” Mr Gates said.
One defence official told the FT last week that the Pentagon would have to debate whether it needed to take military action inside Somalia, partly because of the difficulty in tackling the pirates at sea.
But a senior defence official said on Monday there were no plans to send commandos ashore to disrupt the pirate networks. He said there were “some pretty serious practical challenges” in dealing with the pirates, including “figuring out which of the thousands of dhows are actually pirate ships [or] vice fishing boats.”
Another military official said the US was “working hard within the interagency and with international partners to stem its steady rise”.