When the statistics showed a drop in piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia early this year, shipping companies and the foreign navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden thought they might finally be winning the battle of the Indian Ocean. But the past few days have proved that any talk of "mission accomplished" is premature.
The past week saw at least six attacks, culminating with the seizure of an American-flagged cargo ship with a crew of 20. Though the crew quickly regained control of the ship, the pirates are still holding the captain, Richard Phillips, hostage. (See pictures of the brazen pirates of Somalia.)
There are several reasons for the spike in attacks. For impoverished Somalis, who appear to be behind most of the attacks, massive ransom payouts in recent months have proved that the piracy trade is perhaps their best route out of despair and hopelessness. It now appears that the earlier drop in attacks had more to do with the weather than with the international show of force. "There are new pirates all the time," Abdi Timo-Jile, a pirate himself, told TIME from his home in the central city of Garowe. "We people are not afraid. There is death every day."
Pirates, ex-pirates and pirate recruiters tell TIME that even with all the international attention, the tough talk from leaders around the world and the presence of warships from 20 or so of the most powerful navies, the lure of the piracy trade remains as strong as ever. It only takes a few pirates to hijack a massive vessel, and shipping companies continue to pay out ransoms in some cases more than $3 million to secure the release of those precious cargo carriers. Given Somalia's miserable state, the temptation is irresistible. (See the top 10 audacious acts of piracy.)
It doesn't help that Somalis have a marked aversion to foreign forces. Fiercely conservative and suspicious of outsiders, the country bristled under the failed U.N. peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s and the Ethiopia occupation over the past few years. "The sea and the land are the same," says Abdinaser Biyokulule, a pirate recruiter in the pirate haven of Bossaso. "Foreign troops did not succeed on land, so they will not succeed in the sea either."
Stepped-up patrols around the Gulf of Aden were designed to intimidate the pirates. But the recent attacks, including hijackings and attempted hijackings hundreds of miles farther down the East African coastline, show that the Somalis are just changing tactics and moving away from the heavily patrolled gulf. "It's not that the navies have been unsuccessful," says Tony Mason, secretary-general of the London-based International Chamber of Shipping. "You can almost argue that they've been too successful, so the pirates have decided it's easier to go after targets in the Indian Ocean because the navies are not there and it's a much, much more difficult area to patrol because there's an awful lot more sea." (See pictures of Somalia's modern piracy.)
The international community was hopeful in March when Kenya agreed to try suspected pirates in its courts. That, experts said, would provide a deterrent and at least impose some sense of rule of law off Somalia's coasts. Yet the threat of arrest has done nothing to dissuade the pirates. "Not even 0.2% of the total pirates are arrested, so anybody who is at all intelligent can understand that arrest does not bring fear," says Maryam Jama, a pirate recruiter in Bossaso. "If you get arrested, in prison the others will say, 'Do not worry, you will be out and then hijack another ship with good luck.' "