There has been a significant drop in ship seizures and hijackings by Somali pirates in the troubled waters off East Africa.

Despite last years spike in piracy with 28 vessels captured in the first half of 2011, there were only three ships seized in the second half of the year according to the Commander of the European Union’s anti-piracy task force. So far this year only four merchant ships have been seized by the latter-day buccaneers.

Has the scourge of Somali piracy passed?

In a briefing at the European Union’s U.N. delegation, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts of Britain’s Royal Navy, stressed that “while the activity level is down, the progress that we made is very definitely reversible. … After a record year for ransom demands last year, where they got almost $150 million in ransom demands, I think it is fair to say at the moment the pirates may be cash rich but they are definitely asset poor; they have very few tradable assets.”

A year ago, Somali pirate gangs held 24 ships and 500 sailors; today they hold seven ships and 200 sailors. He estimated that “only three ships have a reasonable market for ransom”

Some of the setbacks for Somali pirates stem from concerted international action to counter this seaborne threat. In 2008 the European Union set up a joint naval task force Operation Atalanta to deter and prevent piracy, to safeguard regional shipping, and to escort vessels carrying humanitarian aid. Pirates, for example, were targeting vulnerable but lucrative World Food Program humanitarian aid shipments en route to Somalia.

Operation Atalanta currently deploys nine surface ships from six EU countries; France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Most are corvettes and frigates. The operating zone — from the waters off East Africa deep into the Indian Ocean — is many times the size of Europe.

In parallel, NATO maintains an equally needed naval contingent off the Horn of Africa. Operation Ocean Shield provides naval escorts and equally offers deterrence. Under Turkish command, six ships from the U.S. and British navies, joined by Denmark and Turkey, patrol the still dangerous waters. Other countries such as South Korea, India and Japan maintain a separate presence in the region as well.

As naval patrols are successful, the pirates move deeper and deeper into new areas rich with targets of opportunity. Until recently according to Vice Admiral Potts, piracy offered “reward with little risk.” Even today pirates “will seek to go where we are not and there are viable targets.”

Who are the Somali pirates?

According to most observers, the pirate culture stems from Somali’s fate as a failed state where endemic poverty, warlords, Islamic militants and despair have led many fishermen and militiamen to follow what has become a lucrative business. Today coastal clans run small speedboats and larger mother ships that attack with near-impunity merchant vessels and yachts, traditional targets of opportunity.

Ransom payments have fueled an amazing lifestyle for pirate clans in Puntaland along the Somali coast, who can live in pockets of unimaginable luxury in a destitute land.

Yet over 1,000 pirates, out of a suspected community of three to five thousand, have been captured and prosecuted in a score of countries. Last year pirates foolishly hijacked a South Korean merchant vessel seeking ransom. South Korean commandos soon stormed the ship, killed eight buccaneers and freed 21 crew members.

Rear Admiral Potts concedes that the EU operation conducts constabulary operations that “restrain what we can do. … We can have an impact on the ‘business model’ for piracy but have to change conditions onshore.” Yet, he states, there’s “no intention of putting EU boots on the ground” in Somalia.

Tragically the long-running Somali crisis has confronted policymakers for 22 years and hints of stability are sparse. While the international naval operations are protecting vital maritime trade routes, the naval presence treats the symptoms and not the root problem. Transforming Somalia’s socio/economic and failed-state status has eluded the world community.

Any change at best emerges as a very long-term endeavor. Thus in the immediate term, given the clear and present danger that pirates pose to the free passage of maritime traffic and innocent life, changing the rigid rules of engagement to authorize lethal force becomes a serious option.

Putting the pirates in the crosshairs of naval guns would change the balance and ensure the rights of free navigation and commerce.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010). Contact: jjmcolumn@earthlink.net

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