by DAVID AXE
Just four months after the world’s navies all but declared victory in their war on Somali pirates, hijackings have spiked. In the span of just one week in early January, sea bandits seized four large commercial vessels off the Somali coast. Captured vessels can be ransomed for several million dollars apiece.
Piracy’s dramatic resurgence has accelerated a profound change of heart among the shipping companies whose vessels ply East African waters. No longer content to entrust their safety to naval forces, shippers are mulling the wide adoption of seaborne private soldiers — in a word, mercenaries, either sailing aboard targeted ships or riding shotgun in their own armed escort vessels. Mercenaries are a potentially more effective, but politically risky, short-term solution to an escalating crisis.
There was just one hijacking in the Gulf of Aden between July and September last year, compared to 17 during the same period in 2008. That led NATO Commodore Steve Chick to label the piracy decline “a fact” last September. At the time Chick, a British navy officer, led one of several international flotillas assigned to interdict pirates.
But the lull in hijackings was deceptive, as the January attacks proved. There are around 40 warships from more than a dozen nations in the region. But they must patrol some 2 million square miles of ocean teeming with thousands of commercial vessels and perhaps hundreds of bandits, many disguised as fishermen. The window of opportunity for responding to a pirate attack is just a few minutes; the chances are slim that a warship will be close enough to help before pirates gain control of the targeted vessel.
The January hijackings underscored this reality and perhaps represented a tipping point for shipping companies. “Initially ship owners seemed to concur that they would do what they’ve always done and have navies patrol the region,” Claude Berube, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, told World Politics Review. “I think we’re on the cusp of the next threshold, in which privately owned escort vessels are more acceptable.”
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