The recent series of pirate attacks of the Somali coast have brought the issue to the forefront again. It is not surprising: after months of relative quiet, it is now rare for a day to go by without reports of yet another hijacking attempt, successful or not.
Military patrols of the admittedly pretty large patch of sea the pirates hunt for their victims in had been credited with the lull; unfortunately, this seems to have been misplaced. The weather, it seems, had more to do with it. And this should come as no surprise.
There are some 16 warships patrolling the shipping lanes off Somalia. But note: they come from 10 or more countries, there is only minimal coordination between them, and they are trying to defend against small boats in a vast area. A military solution, clearly, can’t do the trick on its own.
There is another problem here. Piracy is a crime. Dealing with it is police work, not a military operation. This is not a war. And this is not, very definitely, terrorism. Crews may be terrorized, but that’s not the point.
Pirates are after cash. And so far, the way they’ve got it has been through ransom. This has meant that till recently, the modern Somali take on piracy has been a lot more benign than the 17th Century variant.
There have so far been no crew members killed, though some have been injured. Crews being held have reported been treated well – other than finding themselves stuck on a ship a few miles offshore, unable to go anywhere. This makes sense: you do not collect ransom on dead people.
But this seems to be changing; people have now been killed, ironically during rescue operations. The French killed pirates and one hostage when they went in to get the passengers off the yacht Tannit, and the American Navy killed three of the pirates holding the captain of the Maersk Alabama in a lifeboat.
That changes the dynamic, making for a much more dangerous situation. It may be too much to say the pirates have been co-opted into some sort of terrorist conflict, but the risk is now that they will be more violent, more willing to shed blood.