Behind the Piracy Decline

A year after Somali piracy peaked with more than 100 ships attacked, the world’s navies have assembled dozens of warships to combat the threat. David Axe joins the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook in Djibouti, to observe firsthand this “global war on piracy.”



In three months there’s been just one successful pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden. The same time last year, there were 17. Piracy off the Somali coast is apparently on the decline, big-time.

Commodore Steve Chick, the senior officer for the five-ship NATO counter-piracy task force, has a theory. He says the decline is a combination of three factors. First off, "merchant ships are taking better self-protection measures." Chick recalls flying in his Lynx helicopter along the security lane through which vessels are encouraged to sail. Looking down, he saw ships with fire hoses at the ready and barbed-wire on their rails.

Also, the "military are doing better," Chick adds. In Somali waters there are 20 warships belonging to three international flotillas — NATO’s, the E.U.’s and the American-led Combined Task Force 151 — plus another 20 ships from Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Iran. All the forces, expect Iran, send reps to a monthly meeting in Bahrain to dole out patrol areas. The three flotillas take turns as chair of the assembled fleet, with veto power during any dispute over who sails where. So far, Chick says, there haven’t been any arguments. Officers on USS Donald Cook, part of the NATO force, describe sitting in the destroyer’s Combat Information Center listening to sailors from a dozen nations checking in.

Finally, something is giving in Somalia. Piracy has its roots in lawlessness on land. Where law takes hold, pirates can’t. The governments of three Somali nations — the Republic of Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland — have all stood up new naval forces, with help from the U.S., NATO and the U.N. While these forces have few boats, they don’t necessarily need them, Chick says. Rather, they should focus on beachfront security. As governments crack down, "piracy is becoming less socially acceptable" in Somalia, Chick says.

"Let’s not under-estimate pirates," Chick cautions. They might adapt, and strike back. But with extensive international infrastructure now in place to address the threat, the world is well-positioned to keep up with any new piracy methods. "What we have here is a template," Chick says.

(Photo: David Axe)