Piracy remains in the headlines. This week, the United Nations held a special meeting to consider the subject, the captain of a chemical tanker was killed when his ship was hijacked, a Spanish fishing vessel was released after a ransom was paid, and the Maersk Alabama evaded capture by fighting the pirates with guns.


The UN Special Representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, told the Security Council this week, “Piracy is a highly profitable business, we therefore have to address it as a criminal activity with many tentacles in the region and around the world. Paying ransom can only exacerbate the situation. Because if someone knows going to the casino that he will win, he’ll keep going to the casino.”

In spite of his caution, a Spanish fishing company proved his point that piracy remains highly profitable. Echebastar Fleet SLU paid about $3.6 million to end the 47-day ordeal for the crew of the fishing vessel Alakrana. With a record number of hijackings this year, Somali pirates will earn about $100 million, which is a significant percentage of national income.

So far, naval presence by North American, European, and Asian navies has had little effect in curbing piracy (see my earlier post on why navies fail).

In a sign that governments may be re-thinking how to combat piracy, the Spanish government changed its regulations to allow private guards to carry weapons to protect Spanish fishing and cargo ships. The decision to allow weapons on-board civilian ships remains controversial. The International Maritime Organization refuses to endorse this and the shipping industry is divided due to increased liabilities.

With this in mind, merchant shipping companies developed Best Management Practices to prevent hijacking.  It details defensive measures such as minimizing external communication (to include disabling AIS locater information), installing razor wire to make boarding difficult, and rehearsing an anti-piracy plan.  If a ship is attacked, then speed should be increased, steering should zigzag the ship, fire hoses could be used to repel boarders. Obviously, the best defense against piracy is to reduce the likelihood being hijacked. After all, piracy is more like car-jacking than car-bombing. And based on the record number of attacks this year, this advice seems to work in about 80 percent of the time. However, once boarded, the recommendation remains cooperate with the pirates.

This advice is being tested by the crews reluctant to spend months as hostages in Somalia. On Monday, the chemical tanker MV Theresa VIII was hijacked. During the attack, the North Korean crew resisted. It’s unclear whether or not the crew was inspired by last April’s successful resistance by the US-flagged Maersk Alabama, but they tried. Unfortunately, the captain paid the ultimate price and the crew is now captive in Somalia. Undoubtedly, those that oppose resistance will point to this incident as evidence that once boarded, the crew should cooperate. Spending months in Somalia is bad, but it’s better than the alternative. Yet, Maersk has shown us a middle way.

In a stroke of bad luck, Maersk Alabama was attacked again while attempting to deliver food aid to ease famine in East Africa. This time, however, the crew did not have to fight off the pirates alone. Instead, a dedicated private security team was embarked and repelled the pirates with a non-lethal device called LRAD (long-range acoustic device) and small arms fire. The LRAD emits a high-pitched noise to slow the attackers, but it seems that confronting violence with violence was more effective. The crew was uninjured and the fate of the pirates is unknown.

The events of the week illustrate that there are still no clear answers when combating piracy. Somalia remains in turmoil and piracy offers a steady source of income. The UN advises not to pay ransoms, but companies have no alternative to free their crews and ships. The IMO tells crews to cooperate when boarded, but crews are fighting back. And well-trained crews and private security teams seem to beat the pirates.  All the while, navies are monitoring. As the year winds down, and leaders reflect on their support for the “Somali government,” the effectiveness of training efforts in East Africa, and international naval patrols, they would be well advised to learn from the crews that have directly confronted the pirates.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own.