Somali pirates launched fewer successful attacks on commercial shipping in 2011. European Union nations want that trend to continue through 2012 and beyond. Last week, EU nations agreed to let their military forces patrolling the Somali coast conduct strikes on pirate facilities up to two kilometers inland. Attacking pirate bases represents a significant change in military policy but is in line with more aggressive counter-piracy measures being implemented in areas subject to Somali pirate attacks.
Escalation has always been a military option. Resistance has thwarted previous pirate attacks.
In 2005, Somali pirates attacked the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit. Despite damaging the civilian liner with automatic rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the pirate attack failed. Why? The crew resisted. They used the ship's wake to jostle the pirate speedboats then employed a non-lethal but ear-drum rattling sonic weapon. The pirates withdrew -- to attack easier prey at a more opportune moment.
International forces patrolling off the coast have counterattacked at sea. The most spectacular example occurred three years ago, when a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed three pirates who had taken an American merchant ship captain hostage. At least one pirate had a weapon pointed at the hostage when the SEALs fired. The successful rescue was a near thing.
A Danish Navy rescue attempt in February 2012 did not end as well. Somali pirates seized an Iranian vessel and took 18 hostages. A Danish warship followed the ship toward Somalia, then ordered the pirates to surrender -- an order indicative of the anti-piracy patrol's increasingly firm response to attacks. They refused. The Danes boarded the freighter. Two hostages died in the incident.
Firmness, however, has benefits. StrategyPage.com noted in a report last month that "anti-piracy patrol and ship operators have become more efficient at dealing with pirates." Improved detection techniques and evasive maneuvers have made it "harder for pirates to even get into position to make an attack."
Shipping companies know resistance works. Many large commercial ships now have armed security teams on board when they transit pirate-infested waters. Security firms have found that retired British Royal Marines have the perfect skill set for "sea marshal" work. Convoy and surveillance operations by naval vessels and aircraft in the international anti-piracy patrol have also frustrated the pirates. StrategyPage pointed out that the armed security teams "shoot back" as the pirates approach, and the pirates are now very leery of armed naval helicopters, so fewer pirate attacks are succeeding.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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