Pirates are a big danger for international shipping around the Horn of Africa. But in 2012, the number of attacks declined. One reason is heightened military presence - German soldiers are also involved.
The waters off the Horn of Africa are still considered the world's most dangerous. For years, pirates have been attacking ships from the Somali coast, kidnapping the crew and demanding ransom. According to Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), a project of non-governmental organization One Earth Future, last year, a total of 35 people lost their lives during attacks, rescue attempts or during months as hostages. One Earth put the costs caused by the estimated 800 to 1,500 pirates every year at almost $7 billion (5.4 billion euros). But pirate attacks have gone down in number in the Gulf of Aden and in the Indian Ocean, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.
While the organization counted 151 pirate assaults last year, of which 25 were successful, seen from the pirates' perspective, by late August this year, there have been only 28 attacks - of which five were successful.
International army presence shows results
Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which is a branch of the International Chamber of Commerce, said one reason for the decline was that many ships now have private security personnel on board. That keeps the pirates from capturing the ship, and it also has a deterrent effect. In addition, many ship owners now equip their ships better to protect them from attacks.
"But the most important reason that there are fewer pirate attacks are the international navies who chase the pirates' parent ships, before they can even get ready for attack," Mukundan told DW. In many cases, he added, the soldiers succeeded in confiscating weapons and small boats.
The European armed forces at sea played a key role, said Mukundan. Since 2008, the European Atalanta mission has been taking part in the fight against piracy with a fleet of nine war vessels. They're also in charge of coordinating the measures taken by the international naval troops.
"In May, the soldiers attacked the pirates' logistics base on the Somali coast," Mukundan said. "They hit many petrol tanks, weapons arsenal and boats - and that has significantly reduced the pirates' ability to fight."
It was the first and the only time so far that the European Union's anti-piracy mission has fired shots at a piracy base on the mainland –-with the support of Somalia's interim government, as the EU stressed. According to the reports, no one was injured. The German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, which have deployed more than 340 soldiers to the mission, did not take part in the air assault. It was only in March that permission had been granted to the soldiers involved in the Atalanta mission to attack the pirates' equipment on the mainland - provided the attacks come from the air and hit only targets that are not further away than two kilometers from the coast.
The expansion of the Atalanta mission was highly controversial in Germany. The German Parliament approved it without opposition parties' support. The opposition had warned of possible dangers for German soldiers and Somali civilians. France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands are Germany's partners in the mission off the Somali coast.
Navy soldiers and ship crew learn lessons
Hans-Joachim Stricker, president of the German Maritime Institute, said the fight against piracy was also successful because the soldiers had improved their strategy. They no longer only protect the ships routes on the open sea, but they have taken to reporting the pirates' location long before the pirates can actually head out to sea.
"I believe the combination of more experience, a clearer picture of the whereabouts and the new possibility of destroying the equipment on the beach leads to the decline in the number of attacks," Stricker said.
Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director International Maritime Bureau IMB
But Stricker added that the captains of the ships were also following the security advice by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) more closely, and that that was also contributing to the fact that were fewer successful capture attempts. The list of security advice includes having security personnel on board, and avoiding the pirates' routes by changing the ship's course and conducting maneuvers. In addition, many ships now have barbed wire on deck. But the seasons of the year also had a positive effect.
"If you look at the developments in piracy over the years, you can tell that there are fewer pirate attacks during monsoon season when the wind blows heavily because the waves are high," said Stricker.
West African pirates benefit from flaws in legal system
But the situation in West African waters has taken a negative development. The Association of German ship owners (VDR) has even noticed a rise in attacks.
"But those are mostly cases of armed robbery where the pirates steal valuables from crew members or parts of the cargo. But you can't compare the situation in Nigeria to the one around the Horn of Africa when it comes to crimes like kidnapping or hostage-taking for ransom," said Christof Lauer, the VDR's spokesman.
And the IMB's Mukundan added that police and legal authorities of the respective countries had to do more in their fight against piracy off the West African coast.
"I believe that if Nigeria and its neighboring countries had a functional legal system the number of attacks would decline. You could track the ships from the air when the cargo is unloaded. That's when you could arrest the pirates," Mukundan said.