Abductions of tourists from Kenyan holiday resorts have drawn renewed attention to the problem posed by Somali pirates. While pirates' attempts at hijacking ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have increased, their success rate is declining, thanks to interventions by naval task forces and self-help measures by the shipping industry. Now, however, the pirates are venturing further afield and turning their attention to different targets.
In September, a British woman was abducted by boat and her husband killed at a coastal resort in Kiwayu, close to Kenya's border with Somalia. In October, a disabled French woman was kidnapped from a northern Kenyan island, and died in captivity in Somalia. It is unclear whether the abductors were pirate gangs or other criminal groups, although reports from the Harardhere area suggest the British woman, Judith Tebbutt, is being held by pirates.
The targeting of Kenyan resorts is not the only new tactic, as Somali-based groups have also increased their ransom demands - from an average $500,000 in 2005 to $5.4 million in 2010 - and used captured merchant vessels as 'mother ships' to broaden their range as far as 1,000 nautical miles (nm) off the East African coast towards the Maldives and as far south as the Mozambique Channel. In 2011, they hijacked a vessel anchored just 3nm off Oman and stayed more active during the summer (June-August) monsoon season by focusing attention north in the Red Sea.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, attempted piracy attacks worldwide reached record levels for the first nine months of 2011. Of the 352 in that period, 199 were carried out in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean by groups based in Somalia, compared with 126 in the same period last year. However, the number of successful hijackings of ships fell to 24 from 35. According to EU Naval Force Somalia, the European Union's counter-piracy mission, only nine vessels are being held in Somalia, with an estimated 246 hostages; the IMB estimates that 13 vessels are held with 249 hostages.
The reduced success rate is partly due to increased awareness by international shipping companies. Shipping lines are increasingly adopting 'best management practices' developed in collaboration with multinational naval forces and non-governmental organisations. These guidelines outline measures to deter and ward off attacks.
Ships transiting the highest-risk area (bounded by Suez and the Strait of Hormuz to the north, 10°S and 78°E) are advised to register with the Maritime Security Centre for the Horn of Africa operated by EUNAVFOR; to report to the Dubai-based UK Maritime Trade Operations office, which remains the primary point of contact for merchant vessels in the Gulf region; and to implement ship-protection measures. EUNAVFOR also suggests transiting vessels group together and travel at night, when attacks are less frequent, allowing EU forces to 'sanitise' the intended route beforehand.
Ship-protection measures suggested by EUNAVFOR include high freeboards (the height of a ship's deck above the water level; greater than 8m is considered adequate to make boarding more difficult) and the placing of barbed wire around the ship. Captains are advised to sail at a minimum speed of 18 knots; to steer a straight course to maximise speed during pirates' approach; and, if boarding is attempted, to make minor alterations to the helm to make it more difficult for the pirates. Electrified fences, water sprays, steam and foam are all suggested ways to repel boarders. More creative procedures include the use of mannequins to give the impression of permanent lookouts and greater crew numbers.