Just when shipping companies thought it was safe to go back in the water off the Horn of Africa in particular Somali pirates last week nabbed two large chemical tankers within 24 hours, despite the presence of a bevy of Western and other navies prowling in search of the buccaneers.
The Greek-owned MV Nipayia was snagged last Wednesday, followed within a day by the capture of the Norwegian-owned MV Bow-Asir. The attacks, which occurred at 380 and 490 nautical miles offshore, showed a willingness by the pirates to operate at great distances from their lairs along the Somali coastline. While international navies have heralded the successes of their antipiracy patrols of recent months, last week's captures and the piracy statistics for the past three months don't offer much cause for comfort to the shipping industry. Last year, according to a U.N. report, there were 111 attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Aden corridor, which marked a 200% increase over the previous year's figures. Now, despite the presence of ships from more than 20 of the world's navies in the Gulf of Aden, the International Maritime Bureau says there have been 51 attacks in the first three months of 2009 alone. And the international shipping association BIMCO says piracy attacks have spread to ships traveling nowhere near the Gulf of Aden. (See pictures of Somalia's pirates at work.)
"Indeed, very recent events would seem to confirm BIMCO's worst fears," the group said of the latest attacks in an advisory to its members. The American Forces Press Service later filed a story quoting an anonymous U.S. official as saying that the wider field of attack on which the pirates are now operating presents a "monumental challenge" to antipiracy efforts.
Still, analysts and antipiracy advocates see some reasons for optimism. While the number of attacks has gone up, their rate of success at actually seizing control of vessels has declined. In December, 1 in every 5 attacks was successful; the data for March suggests that only 1 in every 10 pirate raids succeeded. (See pictures of the lives of Somali pirates.)
The lower success rate, according to Michael Howlett, divisional director for the International Maritime Bureau in London, "is due to the naval presence, and also the ships know this is a high-risk area, and they have certain [countermeasures] in place."
More sobering, though, is the possibility that many of the attacks failed because of the bad weather that is typical in the region during the first three months of the year. Attacks off Somalia typically increase in the second quarter of the year, as sailing conditions improve.
The rising incidence of attacks is a clear indication that the pirates are as powerful as ever onshore in Somalia and are growing bolder and more determined as a result of such high-profile ransom payments as the ones that secured the release of the oil tanker Sirius Star and the freighter MV Faina, which had been carrying battle tanks bound for Kenya.
The U.N. report also highlighted just how difficult fighting Somali piracy will be by confirming suspicions that the pirates are almost certainly in league with what passes for the government in the breakaway Somali region of Puntland. "It is widely acknowledged that some of these groups now rival established Somali authorities in terms of their military capabilities and resource," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in the report. Not that Somalia has much by way of "established authorities" to speak of. That's why some of the navies that have captured pirates trying to seize shipping have handed the suspects over to Kenya, which has agreements with the U.S. and U.K. to try piracy suspects.
As international efforts to protect shipping around the Gulf of Aden have grown, so have the pirates adapted their tactics. Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, notes that the pirates are moving their operations farther south along the East African coast to avoid the international warships. Sailors are also becoming concerned about greater levels of danger to themselves: in the past, the crews of hijacked ships were relatively sure they'd survive the ordeal precisely because the pirates were so invincible all the captives had to do was remain calm and cooperative while the shipping company negotiated the ransom. But now that the pirates are being confronted by foreign navies and sometimes arrested or killed they are using more force and the danger to their hostages has increased, Mwangura says.
"They are coming to be more violent than they were in the past," Mwangura tells TIME. "I think they have changed their modus operandi. Now they realize it's do or die."