The pirates who once ruled the seas off Somalia are little more than a memory now, but while they are forgotten they are not gone.
The trial in Paris of seven men accused of killing a French sailor and kidnapping his wife during the height of Somali piracy in 2011 is a reminder of the deadly terror the pirates once spread.
However, experts and former pirates alike warn the scourge may yet return.
“There hasn’t been a proper pirate attack on a commercial vessel in over two years,” said John Steed, Horn of Africa manager for the US-based non-profit Oceans Beyond Piracy. “But the guys haven’t gone away and nothing’s changed on the ground.”
Anti-piracy patrols by international warships and armed guards aboard commercial vessels which continue to chug fast and far past the Somali coast, have suppressed piracy, not stopped it.
The last wave of piracy began in 2005 and reached its peak six years later when Somali pirate gangs attacked 237 vessels and, at year’s end, held 11 vessels and 216 hostages, earning on average more than $2 million for every ship ransomed. Back then the total economic cost of Somali piracy was estimated at $6.9 billion.
Much of that cost was down to counter-piracy actions including the deployment of warships, the extra fuel burned by vessels racing through the pirate ranges and the hiring of private armed security teams aboard ships. These costly measures worked and Somali piracy dropped off dramatically so that by 2013 no commercial vessels were successfully boarded.
Now some Somali pirates have turned to a new activity, fishing, and are finding themselves up against a new enemy: foreign trawlers.
The anti-piracy navies have no mandate to stop illegal fishing and private guards have no interest in it, while Somalia, making an unsteady recovery from decades of war, lacks either a coastguard or a navy.
“There’s now no risk to illegal trawlers who can fish at will,” said Steed.
Pirates turned fishermen
Somali pirates turned fishermen grumble about the foreign trawlers and have threatened to take up arms again.
“Now we are fishermen but where is the fish?” asked Abdulahi Abas, a former pirate in the coastal town of Garacad. “Foreign trawlers are taking all the fish.”
“I joined the pirates in the first place because of those illegal fishing vessels, and now we have left the piracy business, we cannot fish in our own waters,” Abas said.
Some of those illegal vessels have been attacked. Last year the Iranian fishing boat Siraj was hijacked while its partner vessel, Jaber, escaped after a gunfight with pirates.
On any given day there are scores of foreign trawlers illegally pulling fish out of Somalia’s territorial waters. Among the worst offenders are Iranian, Spanish and Taiwanese vessels, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy.
“Illegal fishing is giving pirates the excuse they had in the beginning,” said Steed, “But it is just an excuse. These are criminals whether they are kidnapping at sea or on land.”
Today there are around 46 pirate hostages left in Somalia. Twenty-six are the crew of the Taiwanese trawler the Naham 3 accounts who have been held for over four years, while 15 others were captured aboard the Siraj last year.
The others are Kenyan soldiers and citizens seized on land and held by pirate gangs not drawn to the seaborne element of their kidnapping trade.
These are, said Steed, the forgotten hostages. The crew of the Naham 3 come from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam but a crew’s value to shipowners and insurance companies disappears with the vessel which is now wrecked.
Middle-aged French couple Christian and Evelyne Colombo were attacked in September 2011. Seven Somali men on trial in Paris for Christian’s murder and Evelyne’s abduction deny attacking the couple’s catamaran yacht as it sailed from Yemen to Oman, killing the husband and dumping his body in the sea. Evelyne was rescued 48-hours later by Spanish commandos who killed two of the suspected pirates and arrested the other seven.
Steed points out that piracy remains attractive when there are few other options. Along Somalia’s coast basic government services are absent, jobs scarce and options limited.
“Take the navies away and stop hiring armed guards and the whole thing starts again,” he said.
Instead of fishing equipment, ice-making factories, storage facilities and access to markets, Somalia got warships ghosting along the horizon.
Former pirate Ahmed Yare can sometimes see the warships and the foreign trawlers from the shoreline at his home close to Eyl, a onetime pirate stronghold. “The situation is not helping me here, I don’t have a job and I cannot go to fish freely in my own waters because of those foreign trawlers,” he said.
“They are taking all the fish and I say it will bring back the piracy business, and this time it’ll be even worse.”