On Feb. 24, the Danish Naval Command received a distress signal from a vessel in the Indian Ocean. Not long thereafter, Danish officials confirmed that the yacht of a Danish family had been hijacked by Somali pirates. The crew of seven, including three teenagers, their parents and the ship’s deckhands are now all captive. “It’s almost unbearable to know that children are involved, and I vigorously condemn the pirates,” said Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen. But her government has so far rejected the idea of negotiating a ransom.
The episode follows swift on the heels of the grim murder of four Americans after the pirates who had seized their yacht were cornered by U.S. naval forces. As TIME contributor Nicholas Wadhams wrote last week, the hijackings come at a moment
when naval forces have launched more and more attacks against pirates — and the hijackers have become more edgy. “In the last eight to ten months, everyone in the industry has noted an increased propensity toward violence against hostages from the pirates themselves,” says one Nairobi-based security expert who is frequently involved in hostage negotiations. The siege mentality among pirates is buttressed by the increasingly aggressive actions of the various navies in the Indian Ocean. In January, South Korean commandos raided a freighter, killing eight pirates and capturing five. Then, in February, Danish commandos secured another ship after crewmen locked themselves in a safe room and radioed for help.
This increased “aggression” of the foreign navies tasked to patrol the Gulf of Aden is in part a strategic response to a shift in the pirates’ own tactics over the past year and a half. As I wrote almost a year ago, in order to evade the dragnet of international patrols, Somali pirates have increasingly aimed their strikes further and further afield, puttering their retrofitted trawlers, or “motherships,” well away from Somali waters and launching their sorties on smaller craft from there.
Pirate captains “have learned the lessons of being hemmed in by these international navies,” says Roger Middleton, an expert on the Horn of Africa at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “They’re probably thinking, The further away we go, the more scattered we are, the harder it is for the foreign navies to catch us.”
Attacks are taking place across a colossal stretch of the Indian Ocean, from the idyllic, tourist-clogged archipelagoes of the Seychelles and the Maldives to waters under the jurisdiction of the Indian coastguard. The Danish family had left the Maldives en route to the Red Sea before being hijacked near the Yemeni island of Socotra. The American yacht in the news last week was captured hundreds of miles away from Somalia, off the coast of Oman. What astounds your humble correspondent is that many foreigners, mostly Europeans and Americans, still insist on adventuring in the shadow of the pirate threat, especially with their own children.
Of course, many other sailors on commercial vessels have less of a choice: an estimated 800 or so crewmen languish in the custody of Somali pirates. Many come from countries that lack the clout or the resources to bail them out. Spare them (and their impoverished families) a thought also while worrying about the nerve-wracking plight of this Danish family.