The first naval flotilla to assemble in response to the rise of Somali piracy was formed by the European Union, in December 2008. (The Suez Canal, of course, is the main trade route between Asia and Europe.)
More than 20 countries now have warships patrolling both the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off Somalia's 3,000-mile long coast. The warships have created a corridor, assembling themselves into convoys so as to herd the merchant ships through the most dangerous stretches of the danger zones. Helicopters carrying marine commandos fly to ships that send distress signals if they're under attack, and they seem to have prevented a handful of hijackings -- although, often enough, the choppers will hang back and do nothing for fear of endangering ships' crews. Soldiers with cameras riding in the choppers will then capture excellent zoomed-in photographs of seafarers with their hands on their heads, kneeling in front of men with AK-47s.
It's hard to know if the navies have had any real effect in reducing piracy. They've arrested countless pirate suspects, both red-handed and not, but the standard operating procedure so far has been what's called, disdainfully by the hawkish shipping industry, "catch-and-release," as if the navies were sport fishermen.
Statistical evidence suggests that the armada has confounded at least a few would-be hijackings: the number of attacks attributed to Somali pirates jumped to 215 in 2009 from 109 in 2008, but the number of hijackings remained about the same: 46 in 2009 vs. 42 in 2008. The pirates' success rate, in other words, has worsened. (But this could simply be an anomaly, unrelated to the warships.) If nothing else, the navies may very well have narrowed the pirates' profit margins.
In response either to the warships -- or, more likely, simply to the fact that merchant ships now make sure to steam as far from the Somali shoreline as possible -- the pirates are hunting much farther out to sea.
Bandits will capture a fishing trawler, say, not to extract a ransom from its owners, but simply to use the boat as a "mothership," from which to launch raids on more lucrative prey hundreds and even thousands of miles from shore. The
-- a bulk carrier owned by
Navios Maritime Partners
(NMM - Get Report)
, was taken not far from the Seychelles, 800 miles from Somalia. In March, with the help of the Indian navy, a Greek-owned dry-bulk carrier called the
reportedly evaded an attack by suspected Somali pirates. The raid occurred near the sparsely populated Lakshadweep Islands, just off the coast of India, 2,500 miles from Somalia on the other side of the Arabian Sea.
-- Written by Scott Eden in New York