“What can be done about the growing threat of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden?” seems to be the question of the week.  Saturday’s seizure of the Saudi ship Sirius Star, an oil tanker carrying about $100 million worth of cargo, set off a wave of pirate activity this week, culminating with news that an Indian frigate sank a pirate vessel late Tuesday.

And the situation appears to be getting worse.  According to the Asia Times, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has recorded more than 90 pirate attacks this year, twice last year’s number.  According to CNN, Kenya’s foreign minister stated that piracy near the Horn of Africa has cost approximately $150 million in ransom over the past year.

Furthermore, it seems the newly created NATO anti-piracy mission has had little effect.  Here’s an excerpt from my earlier update about the nascent force:

NATO completed its first anti-piracy mission [Operation Allied Provider] by escorting a ship carrying supplies for the African Union Mission to Somalia, Deutsche Welle reported.  …  The EU also announced that it will contribute three or four vessels to combat piracy by December.

However, many analysts remained skeptical about the plans, arguing that a dozen or so warships will do little more than escort specific ships through the region.  With NATO military operations already stretched, analysts were doubtful that the number of warships would increase significantly next year.

To NATO’s credit, the latest Sirius Star hijacking happened near Somalia’s border with Kenya, well outside the mission’s operational area.  Yet, in light of the recent wave of attacks, it still seems some skepticism is warranted.  Deutsche Welle wrote:

Efforts by the European Union and NATO to fight pirates off the coast of Somalia have proven futile. With a limited mandate, their ships cannot keep armed bandits from seizing merchant vessels and taking hostages.  …  NATO has four ships on patrol in the waters off Somalia, with two protecting UN food aid convoys to the troubled Horn of Africa country.

Four ships?  That’s it?  Understaffed perhaps?  There may be a silver lining in the fact that the NATO mission is set to expire in December and be replaced by a larger EU mission, Operation Atalanta.   The mission will feature warships from 10 EU countries under UK command, so at first glance, it certainly appears to be more robust than Operation Allied Provider.  Additionally, Russia and India have ships deployed in the region, and South Korea is also considering contributing to this international presence.

In the IHT, Dennis W. Sampson and Nikolas K. Gvosdev wrote that piracy is no longer a nuisance to shipping but a major economic threat.  They suggest that the U.S. and the EU train African coast guard forces as well as provide them with existing vessel-tracking technology.  Sampson and Gvosdev also stress the potential for an African solution to the problem:

We already have a template that is beginning to work to combat piracy and maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea, in the Maritime Organization for West and Central Africa.  Earlier this year, a landmark memorandum of understanding was signed in Dakar, Senegal, providing for the creation of a regional coast guard. Significantly, it contains provisions for ‘hot pursuit’ of pirates and smugglers even across borders and offshore exclusive economic zones.

A first step would be to encourage the creation of a similar organization – bringing together states like Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia, among others.  This new Maritime Organization of East Africa and the Horn of Africa would be able to create an international legal framework to coordinate operations.

Such a regional approach could be promising.  In fact, a WSJ editorial draws an analogy with similar regional efforts to combat piracy in Southeast Asia that have been successful.  These policing methods also benefited from U.S. assistance:

Anti-piracy efforts are working elsewhere in the world.  Pirates thrived in the Strait of Malacca, which is transited annually by 60,000 ships, but last year there were only 73 pirate attacks, down from 276 five years earlier.  The decline is the result of a coordinated policing effort by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, with help from the U.S., which provided training and equipment.  Captured pirates are tried in local courts.  They aren’t treated lightly.

In a piece for the New Atlanticist from September, J. Peter Pham argued that even if naval deterrence efforts are stepped up, Somalia’s piracy threat will remain real until its collapsed statehood is remedied:

Ultimately, however, the problem of Somali lawlessness at sea cannot be addressed without reference to the ongoing crisis of de facto Somali statelessness on land.  Unfortunately, while it may be finally willing to focus on the incidents of piracy, there is still little indication that the international community is either prepared or willing to confront the causes driving the phenomenon.

The problem of Somali state disintegration is clearly and increasingly affecting international trade and maritime safety.  As Pham notes, only after there is a Somali state capable of governing its territory will pirates be stopped at the source.  For now, we must increase the international naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden as well as the intelligence and detection efforts that go into identifying pirate ships.  Regional security initiatives should also be encouraged.  As a recent UPI story put it, “Piracy is back.”

Peter Cassata is an assistant editor with the Atlantic Council.