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5 ways to stop a pirate

It's high tide for pirates off the coast of Somalia. Read what's been done about it, and how much there is left to do.

suspected somali pirates
Puntland Marine Forces escort suspected Somali pirates captured by French forces in the Gulf of Aden, at the northern port town of Bosasso, March 13, 2010. (Abdiqani Hassan/Reuters)

BUNGOMA, Kenya — Spring is the height of piracy season off the coast of Somalia.

Since 2008, when attacks accelerated in the Gulf of Aden, every few months brings news of a big hijacking — from the oil supertanker Sirius Star in 2008 to the U.S.-manned Maersk Alabama in 2009 to a Greek vessel in May 2010.

Plenty of action has been taken to combat piracy: Naval forces from more than 20 countries have been deployed; the United Nations has formed a contact group that meets quarterly; and private security contractors have offered their services to ships traversing the area.

But it remains unclear just how effective any of these measures have been. Taking a look at the anti-piracy toolkit shows a mixed picture. There have been a few modest victories, but much remains to be done before piracy in the Gulf of Aden is curbed.

1) Onboard Deterrents. Some of the most effective measures to fight piracy are happening onboard ships. The U.N.’s piracy contact group crafted and disseminated a list of “best management practices” in 2009. These include putting additional lookouts on the deck, pressurizing fire hoses so that they are ready for use, and using minimal lights at night. Though the number of attacks has increased since 2009, the percentage of successful hijackings has gone down. Many of the ships that have been successfully hijacked were not following the so-called best practices.

2) International Naval Response. There are more than 30 ships patrolling the Gulf of Aden, including NATO’s Operation Allied Protector, the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, the U.S. Naval Forces Combined Task Force 151 and independent ships from China, India, Russia and Iran. These ships talk to each other, but they do not have a unified command structure. Some military analysts say that the naval presence would be more effective operating in unison. However, there is a monthly coordination mechanism known as Shade (Shared Awareness and Deconfliction) that is jointly led by the EU and the U.S.

The international navies have adapted their responses in the past year; whereas they used to wait for an attack before taking action, they now proactively seek out “mother ships,” which pirates use for launching attacks more than 1,000 miles offshore. This technique has increased the number of pirate captures, but it hasn’t stopped the pirates from attacking. From January to April, there were 47 attacks off the east coast of Somalia, 10 more than during the same period last year.

While an increase in pirate captures would seem to be an obvious win, the reality is less clear. Many of the pirates, once caught, are fairly quickly released. According to the Washington Post, the EU force caught 275 pirates in March and April, but they released the vast majority — 235 — of them. Their weapons were confiscated, but no one is under the illusion that they aren’t going to be able to procure more (Somalia is under a U.N. arms embargo but the country is awash in guns). The U.S. Navy caught 39 pirates during the same period and released just under half of them.

3) Prosecution.