As the world's largest oil tanker – the Sirius Star – sits in the hands of Somali pirates following its capture in mid-November the world is watching, amazed at the audacity of this latest siege.

The lack of progress from ransom negotiations is now turning to frustration and many fear the lack of international legislation to punish the pirates, coupled with the past-willingness of ship owners to give-in to their demands, will mean the havoc is set to continue.

On 8 December the EU began a year-long naval operation in the area with an eight-nation flotilla. But with no legal back-up to imprison these criminals and a backlash from politicians over the organisation of the patrol, how the situation will play out is still unknown.

“The world’s largest oil tanker, the Sirius Star, sits in the hands of Somali pirates following its capture mid-November.”

The water off Somalia's coast is one of the world's busiest shipping routes with more than 20,000 vessels passing through the area annually, many with oil-rich cargo en-route to the Suez Canal. But an insurgency onshore has meant that the East African nation has no effective government or navy – a situation that has allowed the scale of pirate attacks to escalate unchecked.

Michael Howlett, assistant director, International Maritime Bureau (IMB) which has the world's first 24-hour reporting and response service for crews under threat from pirate attack, says: "These guys are essentially acting with total impunity and the situation that we see today is totally unprecedented. We have never, ever seen such a systematic problem as we have in Somalia."

Armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades pirate attacks in the area are nothing new but the pace of the ferocity in the Gulf of Aden this year is set to make 2008 the most dangerous on record.

Crime and no punishment

Nearly 200 pirate attacks were reported to the IMB in the first nine months of 2008 but it was the hijacking of an arms-laden Ukrainian vessel carrying more than 30 T-72 main battle tanks in September that captured the attention of the media and finally prompted action from world navies.

The US quickly dispatched three warships to surround the fallen MV Faina in a desperate attempt to keep the tanks from passing into the hands of al Qaeda-linked Somali Islamic insurgents. A few months later, the capture of the Sirius Star – a giant of huge proportions when compared to the pirates' vessels – again shocked the industry as to how vulnerable even their greatest vessels were.

World navies are now rushing to Somali waters instead of just politely ignoring the pirates' existence (as has been the case for many years) but the principle difficulty is that without a government these criminals will go unpunished. "This is the major issue – what do you do with the guys when you have caught them?" says Howlett.

“Nearly 200 pirate attacks were reported to the IMB in the first nine months of 2008.”

Foreign bodies have been given official powers to patrol the waters but reprimanding the pirates is virtually pointless as there is no system in place to detain them. As a secondary solution, Howlett promotes that disruption tactics are the way forward. "What we would like to see is more disruption from the navies and pre-emptive instructions which have to come from above. It is a bit of a game really but if navies can board the ships, take them and the weapons out of circulation then they would at least be forced to return to Somalia."

Somalia's pirates stand out

Incidents of piracy do occur elsewhere and have historically blighted trade through the Straits of Malacca but it is the tendency to hijack the whole package of ship, cargo and crew which makes the situation in Somalia quite unique.

"The vessel, crew and cargo are all of equal importance to the hijackers," Howlett says. "And in any other country there would be avenues of diplomacy and ways of communication that you could use to bring the situation under control."

The vessels that the pirates choose to attack seems to be based on opportunity but the organisation behind the activity looks to be more coordinated than was previously thought. In addition, the success that a few of the hijackers have had in receiving the ransom demands they have asked for seems to have fuelled the situation further.

"It probably hasn't helped the situation but what can the ship owners do when they are in contact with the pirates and they have the crew on the phone saying they are being threatened? The ransom payments do encourage piracy, but if you are a ship owner then you really don't have any other option," Howlett says.

The highest ransom to date has been $35m originally demanded when the MV Faina was first taken. This demand has not been paid and the ship remains in the hands of the pirates but other Thai and Korean crews have been released after ransoms were paid, the amounts of which have not been disclosed.

“Reprimanding the pirates is virtually pointless as there is no system in place to detain them.”

Greater numbers

Over recent months Nato patrols have been joined by European, Indian and US forces. But the newly inaugurated EU patrol controlled by the equally fresh European pirate cell has caused uproar from some European politicians who argue that this leads to unnecessary complexity and stretches meager naval assets to the limit.

In Howlett's opinion, however, it is simply a case of the more there the better.

"For the record, we think the navies are doing a fantastic job with the limited resources that they have but they definitely need to dedicate more resources to it. It is really about having a presence, disrupting and disturbing their activities."

As the Russian's send in their Neustrashimy (fearless) frigate and South Korea finalises plans to send in a destroyer, it is becoming clear that naval resources will be heavily tied up in pirate activity in 2009. Just how much impact these will have when there are so few international procedures in place to punish them is debatable and so how the situation will pan out is a game of wait and see.