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All of a sudden, Somali pirates are losing the fight for the sea

Major oil companies that held licenses in Somalia before its 1991 civil war are returning to take another look at the country.

Somalia seems to be emerging from the two-decade-long chaos that made it a poster child for everything that could go wrong in a country. The number of ships seized by Somali pirates has recently plummeted, as seen in this chart by the US Office of Naval Intelligence:

At the same time, Kenyan forces have driven out the dreaded al-Shabab militia from some strongholds in Somalia. And new oil drilling is to begin in the country with hopes of broadening the stretch of new petro-states along the coast.

The country’s misery is not over. Al Shabab still operates, and a lot of ships are still held by pirates. (A Greek vessel released Oct. 12 paid $5.7 million in ransom after eight months in captivity, according to the pirates). But a sign of the new confidence is that Somali leaders are calling back major oil companies that held licenses before the outbreak of civil war in 1991. I hear that some are returning to take a look.

The progress on piracy is striking. For three straight years starting in 2009, Somali pirates grabbed more than 100 vessels. So far this year, the number is 24. I asked for an explanation from a friend whose job it is to free captive ships. I can’t identify him, but here was his reply by email:

There are a number of reasons; primarily the use of armed guards on merchant vessels–no ship protected by armed guards has ever been taken. The Naval forces have got better at reacting to events and at interdicting pirate attack groups. Ship owners now route their vessels further east and north, therefore avoiding the main pirate hunting grounds. Owners order their vessels to travel at maximum speed in the HRA (high risk area), which makes them harder to board. And every ship transiting the IOR (Indian Ocean region) has physical protection–barbed wire, electric fences, etc, etc.

Plus, the pirates have been greedy, preferring to spend their take on booze and hookers and Land Cruisers than on equipping attack boats and investing in better equipment.

I can’t see it recovering now. The anti-piracy industry–advisers, security guards, protection equipment, naval forces–is so well established now the pirates can’t cope.

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