How East African piracy ended, and lessons West Africa can learn to end crime on its waters

Royal Marines, part of the NATO led counter-piracy troops, intercept a suspected Somali pirate vessel in January 2012. (Photo UK Ministry of Defence/flickr).



LAST year’s numbers are not yet in, but indications are that Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean is all but ended. A report from maritime security advocacy group  Oceans Beyond Piracy indicates that in 2013, not a single merchant vessel was successfully hijacked by pirates, with 23 unsuccessful attempts recorded.

It’s a precipitous decline from the peak year of 2010, when 47 merchant vessels were hijacked, and more than 200 attempts recorded. Compared with 2012, the overall cost of Somali piracy is down by almost 50% in 2013, from $5.7 – 6.1 billion to $3 – 3.2 billion.

This cost downturn is mainly driven by reduced costs for ship transit patterns across the high risk area, such as reduced speeds and less re-routing by merchant vessels crossing the High Risk Area. Other significantly lower costs include smaller teams of armed guards, lower insurance costs, and reduced costs for prosecutions and imprisonment.

However, reports last year, citing 2013 data, indicated that piracy had decisively migrated from East Africa to West Africa.

In the Gulf of Guinea, pirates attacked ships 51 times in 2013, around 19% of the attacks worldwide, up from only 7% just over five years ago, according to International Maritime Bureau (IMB)’s  annual piracy report.

Nigerian pirates accounted for 31 of the region’s attacks, overtaking Somalia, which had only 15 episodes of piracy that same year.

The East and West African pirates also have different motivations – with deadly consequences.

Somali pirates targeted ship crews for ransom; and so because they could win millions of dollars they were more vested in the survival of their hostages.

West African pirates have their eyes on a much larger, and lucrative target: the ship’s actual cargo. West African pirates target oil tankers, whose valuable cargo they can siphon off and sell to either illegal refineries in Nigeria and elsewhere. And often they robbed the crews of their possessions, which in part makes  West Africa home to the world’s most violent pirates.

Here’s how piracy come to such a screeching halt in East Africa, and some lessons West Africa could pick up:

Military operations

The lack of the authority of a central government in Somalia allowed for the pirates to rise, but also, ironically, made it easier to defeat them. With Somalia unable to police its waters, piracy became a problem that powerful governments saw as theirs to solve  – especially because the narrow Gulf of Aden is crucial in the shipments of crude oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe and America.

It led to perhaps the largest assembly of navies for a single military operation, 24 in all. For the  first time since World War II, all five permanent members of the Security Council – typically split ideologically down the middle – deployed forces against the same foe.

Three main coalitions of naval forces have been fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean. There’s the EU’s NAVFOR Operation Atalanta, comprising navies from Spain, Germany, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Italy and Estonia.

NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield brings together Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine and USA; and the Combined Task Force 151, comprises Australia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, UK and USA.

There are also the “independents”, navies working to deter piracy but are not part of any official coalition – China, India, Iran, Japan, Malaysia and Russia.

One of the more iron-fisted tactics used by military patrols was surveilling suspected pirate vessels using drones, and waiting until they were in international waters (22 km from the Somali coast), says this articlein Somali journal Hiraan Online.

The international navies would then board and search any suspected pirate vessel, and if weapons and boarding equipment was found, the pirates were fingerprinted, taken back to Somalia and left on a beach. Their boat was sunk at sea, along with their weapons and tools; documents found on the boat were passed on to intelligence specialists. This degree of scrutiny was more than the pirates could handle, Hiraan says.

World’s biggest pirate prison

As a statement of serious intent to deal with piracy in East Africa, in April 2014 the president of Puntland, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas, officially opened the biggest pirate prison ever built in the Horn of Africa – and possibly in the world in recent years.

Guards parade outside the Garowe pirate prison. (Photo UNODC)

Guards parade outside the Garowe pirate prison. (Photo UNODC)

Garowe, the region’s capital, was chosen as the location for the 500-persons prison, a project funded by the United Nation’s Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

Armed guards

Estimates from the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa indicate that approximately 80% of vessels transiting the piracy high-risk area used armed guards at the height of the attacks. In 2013, with the lower incidence of piracy, 35-40% of ships still used armed guards in transit.

The cost of a 3-4 man team is between $28,500 and $38,000, but the hefty bill is well worth it – seeing arms on board is a big deterrent,  this story by the Economist says, as pirates are playing it safe by first scouting for guards, whereas previously they indiscriminately opened fire to intimidate crews into submission.

Security installations on ships

If the pirates can’t board the ship, then they can’t hijack it. So piracy spurred a buzz of security innovations, which made it all but impossible for pirates to board the ships.

It started with good old barbed/ razor wire and electric fencing, but the inventions quickly got really interesting.


1. Water cannons/ ‘Anti-Piracy Curtain’

A system of high-powered streams of water that can be aimed at pirates trying to board a ship, or aimed at their boats, flooding and destabilising them.

In one version trademarked the ‘Anti-Piracy Curtain’, water hoses are dangled off the sides of the vessel, and when water is sprayed through the high-pressure nozzle, the hoses jerk wildly back and forth, packing enough force to seriously injure anyone in the way.

Some inventors were even mulling the idea to mix chilli oil into the water hoses for an added punch.

2. Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD)/ ‘Sound Cannon’

Shaped like a big, round loudspeaker, the LRAD can emit painfully loud sound frequencies that are enough to disorientate any approaching pirates. But the real ingenuity is in the fact that the LRAD concentrates the sound waves into a narrow beam, making it easy to direct the sound at a specific target, much like using a spotlight. It means that the ship crew can direct the offensive sound at the pirates, and spare their own ears.

3. Lasers

Another deterrent in use is a  laser beam capable of providing a visual warning to pirates at distance of over 2 km, and at shorter distances the glare is intense enough to temporarily blind attackers so that they are unable to target their weapons effectively.

4. Boat trap

Because most pirates approach a ship on motor-propelled boats, floating a net just under the water surface on the sides of the ship traps and disables the motorboat propeller.


5. Lubricant foam

Slippery foam or anti-traction material is a non-lethal substance which can be used to make the deck or sides of a ship slippery to avoid pirates from climbing it. The highly viscous substance substantially reduces traction of anything that comes in contact with it, making it difficult to walk or stand.

6. ‘Pain Ray’

The ‘Pain Ray’ – it’s official name is Active Denial System (ADS) – is a non-lethal weapon which transmits a narrow beam of electromagnetic energy to heat the skin without causing permanent damage. The wave penetrates beneath the skin which causes unbearable burning sensation, forcing pirates to run away or jump overboard.

7. ‘Guardian Anti-Piracy Barriers’

Perhaps the simplest and most ingenious invention is Guardian Anti-Piracy Barriers, a smooth, P-shaped casing of hard plastic that fits over the rail of any ship and prevents ladders and grappling hooks from getting a hold on the sides of the vessel.

It solves the fundamental problem of barbed/razor wire, which is its inherent danger to the crew itself – clothes get trapped in it and it’s easy to get nicked, and it’s cumbersome because has to be removed when the ship is entering port.

The inventors of barriers– a husband-and-wife duo from Britain –  called in the Royal Marines to test the  design, and after two hours of trying to latch on, the Marines gave up, and the design was declared a success.

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