Top Pirate Quits as Tide Turns Against Somali Raiders

LONDON — A notorious Somali sea raider known as Big Mouth is a pirate with a retirement plan.

He announced this week that he was quitting after an eight-year career in which he and his pirate crews plagued shipping in the Indian Ocean and raised millions of dollars in ransom.

Big Mouth — Mohamed Abdi Hassan — was named in a United Nations report last year as one of the most notorious and influential leaders of a Somali pirate network.

His decision to call it a day may be further evidence that international action, including patrols by European and other navies, is at last succeeding in containing the piracy scourge off the coast of east Africa.

“I have decided to renounce and quit, and from today on I will not be involved in this gang activity,” the pirate leader said in Somalia’s northern region of Adado on Wednesday. (You can watch his valedictory press conference here.)

He said he had also successfully encouraged many of his colleagues to quit.

Mr. Hassan’s decision came in the same week in which Koji Sekimizu of Japan, head of the International Maritime Organization, said 2012 saw a sharp reduction in successful piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia and in the Indian Ocean.

During the course of the year, the sea raiders only succeeded in capturing 13 vessels, as against 49 in 2010 and 28 in 2011, a year that saw a record number of pirate attacks.

The European Union’s naval task force in the region said last April that factors in the decrease included more armed security aboard merchant vessels and the presence of foreign navies.

Timo Lange, the spokesman for the force, said recently that anti-piracy efforts had been enhanced by a European decision to allow navies to destroy pirate supplies on shore, whereas previously that power was limited to the open waters.

In May, the force performed its first shoreline operation, sending an aircraft over the Somali coast to destroy pirate equipment that had been assembled for a mission.

In Big Mouth’s case, an additional factor in his decision to quit might have been the provision of a diplomatic passport by Somalia’s transitional government as an inducement. Last year’s U.N. report said the pirate boss had used it to visit his wife and family abroad.

The biggest anti-piracy victory of the year came last month, when naval police from the breakaway province of Puntland overran a pirate stronghold and liberated the MV Iceberg, a Panama-flagged cargo vessel, and its 22 crew members, who had been held for almost three years.

Mr. Sekimuzu cautioned this week that the scourge was not yet over. Twelve vessels and 159 people were still in the hands of Somali pirates, he said.

There are also concerns that the eventual scaling back of some naval forces might encourage a resurgence.

In Britain, which is facing naval cutbacks, a consortium of business executives has set up the country’s first private navy in 200 years. This year it will start protecting shipping in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere at a daily cost of $10,000 to $12,000 per vessel.

Meanwhile, the maritime authorities are warning seafarers that a decline in piracy off Somalia is being offset by an increase in incidents off West Africa. There were 32 attacks in the Gulf of Guinea in the first half of 2012, as against 25 in the same period the previous year.


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