Abdi Ali, a masked Somali pirate, stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel… (Farah Abdi Warsameh, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Long before a retired Southern California couple and two friends were shot and killed aboard their sailboat off the Horn of Africa in February 2011, the threat from Somali pirates was frighteningly clear.
Since 2005, heavily armed Somalis in jury-rigged speedboats had hijacked scores of oil tankers, cargo ships and private yachts, holding hundreds of crew members hostage for lucrative ransoms. The brigands had crippled shipping in some of the world's busiest sea lanes, costing companies an estimated $5 billion a year.
But as three accused pirates face trial Tuesday in Norfolk, Va., on charges of murder in the deaths of the four Americans, the first U.S. trial of its kind in modern times, Somali piracy is in sharp decline.
An international naval operation, combined with aggressive prosecutions and shipboard security measures, have nearly halted the Indian Ocean crime wave in the last two years. Dozens of nations have deployed warships, U.S. Navy drones have provided aerial surveillance, European jets have struck pirate lairs, and 21 countries have jailed more than 1,100 suspected pirates.
Some governments, including Iran, China and India, also have taken unilateral action, sending warships to escort convoys of tankers and commercial ships through waters once infested with pirates.
"It's really remarkable. I hope some historian is watching this," said Donna Hopkins, a U.S. diplomat who chairs the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, an umbrella group of more than 60 countries and international organizations.
"It's totally voluntary; it's not coercive; no one is in charge," Hopkins said. "The simple fact is that everyone hates pirates."
Somali pirates, many armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, staged 176 attacks in 2011, the year the four Americans were killed. The pirates captured 25 ships and netted an estimated $160 million in ransom for the ships and crews that year, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, an advocacy group based in Colorado.
In contrast, the pirates have launched three attacks so far this year. The last successful hijacking was more than a year ago.
The international naval response costs more than $1 billion a year, but U.S. officials and shipping industry leaders consider that money well spent. Nearly three-quarters of the world's traded oil and half the container traffic passes through the Indian Ocean.
"The sheer weight of the military effort has pretty much removed the pirates' ability to operate with impunity," said Royal Australian Navy Capt. Robert Slaven, director of operations for the Combined Maritime Forces, which has ships from the United States and more than two dozen other countries. It is one of three naval coalitions that has sent armadas to the area.
New security measures aboard merchant ships also have helped. Some crews now unroll razor wire over the sides to prevent pirates from clambering aboard, fire high-powered water cannons or ear-piercing sirens to keep small boats at bay, or take refuge in fortified rooms.
New industry guidelines instruct ships to travel in packs, and at greater speed, when transiting high-risk areas. Experts say half the ships in the region now carry teams of armed guards, many hired from private American security companies, to ride shotgun against pirate attacks.
U.S. officials say Somali pirates have never hijacked a ship that had armed guards.
"This has been a real game-changer in the effort to combat piracy," Andrew Shapiro, an assistant secretary of State, told Congress in April.
Kevin Doherty, president of Nexus Consulting Group, based in Arlington, Va., said his company had put armed guards on about 450 ships in the Indian Ocean since 2009. None have engaged in a gunfight, but they have fired warning shots three times, he said.
"The Barbary pirates went away," said Doherty, referring to the North African privateers who terrorized the Mediterranean from the 16th to 19th centuries. "Same way, Somali piracy is on its way out."
A few cases have drawn attention, however. Last year, a video surfaced of guards employed by Trident Group, based in Virginia Beach, Va., firing dozens of rounds as two skiffs approached a freighter in March 2011.
Trident officials said the guards had spotted rocket-propelled grenades aboard the skiffs and had fired warning shots before opening fire. It's unknown whether the skiffs carried pirates, or if whether anyone was killed or wounded.
U.S. officials say Somalia's growing political stability could end the anarchy that allowed pirates to operate from safe havens along the lawless northern coast. But unclassified U.S. naval intelligence reports still include near-weekly sightings of suspicious fishing boats — some carrying boarding ladders and weapons — in shipping lanes off Somalia.