Piracy in much of Africa is on the decline, yet on the continent's west coast it seems to be getting worse. Solving this problem will take a concerted international effort in the fields of technology and social development.
Last January, Somali crime lord Mohamed Abdi Hassan announced that he no longer wanted to be a pirate. After eight years of hijacking ships, stealing cargo and ransoming hostages in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, Hassan, or 'Big Mouth' as he's known, said he was giving it all up. Also, that he'd persuaded many of his pirate comrades to do the same.
Hassan didn't explain why, but his decision coincides with a significant drop in reported incidents of piracy off Africa's East Coast.
Since 1991, Somalia has been ravaged by civil war and conflict. The lack of a single effective central authority has allowed pirate gangs, extremist militia and other armed groups to control mini-fiefdoms in northern and southern parts of the country. Piracy around Somalia got so bad, that in October 2008, a UN resolution, backed by what's left of the Somali government, allowed countries with commercial vessels in the area to send warships to patrol the seas. Many commercial ships also employ armed guards to ward off pirate attacks and put barbed wire around the hoardings to make it more difficult for raiders to board.
Somali pirates still attack ships as far east as the Seychelles and the Maldives and as far south as the Mozambique Channel. Whereas in 2009, they managed to seize one in every three ships they targeted, now it's more like one in 20. Between January and September 2011 there were 199 raids. Last year, there were 70 attacks during those same months and only one in July and August compared to 36 the previous year.
On the West Coast of Africa, however, piracy is getting worse. Here, there is no UN resolution and no patrolling foreign warships to deter pirates. Governments insist that commercial ships employ local security firms – a problem when a ship has to travel through more than one nation's seas to get to their destination. Some ships break the protocols and arm their own guards, who then dump weapons overboard before they get to port. However, many companies won't take the risk. The authorities in that part of the world police these rules strictly; a problem that pirates use to their advantage.
Last July, there were 32 reports of hijackings in the Gulf of Guinea, 17 of which were in Nigerian waters. In October, seven foreigners working for French oil transport company Bourbon were kidnapped while boarding a vessel belonging to the company on Nigeria's Pennington River. This February there were five pirate attacks in Nigerian waters. Around the same time, pirates hijacked several oil tankers off the Ivory Coast.
Security needs technology
"Pirates will pay off people in docks and aboard ships to 'lose' cargo," says Augustus Vogel, associate director at the US Department of Defense's Office of Naval Research Global. He explains that they'll also damage pipelines and siphon off the oil, and as they seldom stick to one country's seas, they are hard to find.
While some countries, such as Nigeria, have a maritime security presence, others don't. "Many African countries prioritise investment in land-based forces over maritime units, rendering surveillance beyond coastal observation all but impossible," Vogel says. He explains that maritime policing and management require the sort of cross-national cooperation that is difficult to achieve. "Some countries supposedly have agreements to chase people across borders, but many don't."
In West Africa, security needs technology. The problem is that the pirates are not easy to find. They don't fly the Jolly Roger and wear wooden legs. From a distance, these people look like fishermen. Most often there's a few of them, in small to medium-sized speedboats. Any guns, grappling hooks and boarding ladders will be well out of sight. Even satellites would not necessarily pick out who the pirates are.
Vogel explains that sensor networks such as Automatic Identification System (AIS) towers can help authorities track vessels suspected of carrying illegal weapons or stolen oil within about 20 nautical miles from the coast. "You don't get a complete surveillance picture because not all ships carry transponders and towers are limited by line of sight," he says. "It is much cheaper than relying solely on patrol boats, though, which cost thousands of dollars per day to operate."
John Holden, managing director of maritime security company Quinsec, adds that the intelligence picture in the Gulf of Guinea is a bit ad hoc. He explains that information the International Maritime Bureau and UK Maritime Trade Operation disseminate to ships in the high risk area is only as good as the information the organisations themselves receive. "Our research indicates that suspicious vessel sightings, or even attacks, often go unreported," Holden says. "It's important to report attacks and suspicious activity as quickly and accurately as possible, so that all ships operating in the area have an idea where potential pirates might be. Armed with this information, ships can change speed, re-route if necessary, and security services can dispatch responders to deal with threats."
Holden hopes Quinsec's new maritime security system will provide this type of support. It consists of two portable cameras with infrared night vision, motion detection, snap-shot ability and audio record capability. These can be moved around a ship to monitor potential threats. "The cameras are linked to satellite systems," Holden says. "In the event of a suspicious sighting or attack, audio and images are relayed to our 24-hour operations room and sent on to other ships and the authorities."
One of the first things pirates will do when they board a ship is turn off the vessel's navigational systems and location devices. Quinsec hide their tracking device so not even the crew know where it is. "If the device is found and switched off, it automatically alerts our 24-hour operation HQ, which immediately begins tracking the vessel," Holden says.
The tracking device also uses satellite technology which sends alerts if a vessel enters a prohibited area, goes off course or changes speed unexpectedly. The Quinsec system provides a 360-degree image of the ship's exterior and interior, integrated with ships' plans. Should a ship get hijacked,'this knowledge makes it easier for a Special Forces team to plan a rescue attempt.
Warships and armed guards haven't completely solved the piracy problem in East Africa. Experts warn that Somali pirates, such as Mohamed Abdi Hassan, might not have hung up their grappling hooks for good. More likely that they are biding their time.
"The apparatus of the pirates onshore has not been dismantled," says Stig Jarle Hansen, an African security expert from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. "As soon as there is any sign of a lack of continued interest by the international community, this thing will come back."
Poverty leads to piracy
Piracy in Africa is driven by local social and economic realities. Even if the Somali government eventually takes control of the whole country; the average wage will still be around $300 a year. Ransoms for single pirate hijacks ranged from US$690,000 to US$3m in 2008 but climbed to a record US$9m in 2010. In 2008, the United Nations (UN) estimated that 40 per cent of the proceeds of piracy directly funds local employment. There are also as yet unproven accusations that pirates fund the militant Islamic group al-Shabaab.
Research carried out by UK international affairs analysts, Chatham House, suggests that satellite technology could help take the fight against the Somali pirates inland. The researchers compared high-resolution satellite maps and nightlight emissions from Puntland, a semi-autonomous region within Somalia and the main pirate haven. The researchers looked at maps from 2002, before most of the pirate activity began, and 2009.
It wasn't quite a treasure map, but researchers believe that certain parts of Somalia have undergone rapid development that coincides with the time pirates have been active in the area. The researchers can't be sure that this development was funded by piracy, but in an area that is not exactly booming financially, they think this is the most likely explanation.
The Chatham House report, released in 2010, shows that between February 2002 and July 2009 Garowe, Puntland's capital, almost doubled in size. Significant housing, light industrial and commercial developments went up in the south-east and south of the town. Researchers also noticed a substantial increase in traffic and several new hotels catering for wealthy clients.
In the 2002 image there were few cars parked outside residential buildings whereas in the 2009 image there are lots, mostly outside new houses with security walls. Pirates often boast of buying cars and houses with their proceeds. Night-time satellite images show that since 2007, while the rest of the country was getting darker as people couldn't afford electricity, Garowe and Bosasso, Puntland's largest city, were brighter than ever.
The Chatham House researchers concluded that pirates appeared to be investing money in the main cities, not the coastal communities where the pirate activity takes place. Many pirate gangs recruit gunmen and support teams from inland but employ local fishermen to pilot their attack craft. The report's author, Dr Anja Shortland from Brunel University, thinks it may be possible to turn coastal communities against the pirates. "A negotiated solution to the piracy problem should aim to exploit local disappointment among coastal communities... and offer them an alternative," she says.
Technology is not enough
Vogel isn't convinced that simply throwing technology at either East or West Africa will solve the piracy problem. He believes that helping key people within African states gain a realistic understanding of what the technology can do is the way forward.
"Some people think that you will give them this technology and it will magically show them where all the pirates are," he says. "It's important to understand what kind of benefits technology can bring, not to over estimate what it might do."
Investment in the science half of science and technology, Vogel believes, is essential if the benefits of technology are to be fully realised and sustained.
"Without it, there is no one to manage the installed technology and analyse the data generated," he says, explaining that in many cases where AIS towers have been installed in Africa, international partners must provide even basic repairs. "African governments have rarely linked their towers through the Internet to develop a comprehensive operating picture ' the ultimate aim of this surveillance network," Vogel adds, explaining that African governments tend to spend more on operations directly responsible for ship-based patrolling, and have not established research and development units for repair strategies, technological development, and long-term maintenance.
He believes that international companies could provide more training in the operation and repair of the equipment that they sell, but that the real way forward is for African governments and militaries to engage with African universities who can provide the missing expertise.
Even more important, Vogel believes, is how African governments deal with social situations that fuel piracy as a life choice. Situations where young men turn to piracy, because they have nothing better to do and no other way of getting rich. Also, how to find a solution within cultures, that while they don't openly support or celebrate piracy; neither do they condemn it. "It's like piracy is an accepted part of society," he says. "Rather than criminals, people see pirates as Robin Hood type figures."
Vogel believes that governments working with African universities will help develop a new dialogue within African countries. One that's driven by a generation of locals who are well educated, well-travelled and understand the potential, but also the limitations of the technology they are buying and how best to use it to deal with local issues. "How to monitor the ocean, track ships," he says, "but also how to deal with the societal processes that sustain piracy."
The military mind, however, when dealing with far away places, can be more concerned with immediate impact than long-term solutions. The US navy first deployed MQ-9 Reapers off the East African coast since these drones are apparently unarmed. Last December, UK Defence Minister Philip Dunne said the MOD planned to deploy UAVs at sea by spring 2013. Could flying drones already be monitoring and getting ready to blow suspected Somalian pirate ships out of the water? That's classified, according to Dunne.
And if a few innocent fishermen are blown to bits along the way? Collateral damage. Not a problem. Not until hundreds more Somalians start joining al-Shabaab, that is.