On March 5, pirates seized the Norwegian-owned chemical tanker UBT Ocean and its crew of 21 off the coast of Madagascar, 1,000 miles south of the zone where the seaborne bandits normally operate.
The news that Somali pirates are now expanding the scope of their activities to prey on vessels plying the waters well south of the Horn of Africa, should be making all of us sit up and pay attention.
Until now, the pirates have mounted a sophisticated operation targeting the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and have been bought off by governments and shipping companies ( and their insurers) who can afford to pay the hefty ransoms.
But since mid-2009, when European nations began to ramp up their assault on the Somalian pirates of Puntland, the pirates have been forced to seek their prey well beyond territorial waters.
While the continuing brazenness of the pirates might be damaging to international trade, we can at least chalk up one very significant achievement to their credit: they have been able to unite nations who would normally have nothing to do with one another in a full blown united assault on their operations.
The United States, Russia, China, Portugal, Spain, India and many of the countries grouped around the Gulf of Aden, have joined in a multilateral force called Combined Task Force 151 which has had some limited success in curbing the number of successful attacks on ships passing through the Gulf of Aden.
Yet the Somali pirates remain undeterred.
The number of recorded hijackings rose from 32 in 2008 to 42 in 2009. The average ransom paid by shippers also rose, from $1m to $2m. If unpublicized pay-offs are included, some by Spain’s government, the pirates probably earned around $100m last year – a record amount.
In all, there were 217 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden in 2009, the highest number on record. Forty-seven ships were commandeered for ransom, about the same number as in 2008.
The vessels of the multilateral force are surprised to find that the Somalians display little fear of the warships patrolling their waters and even goad them into firing upon them. When apprehended, the Somali crews will simply dump their arms and grapple hooks into the ocean. They will be given medicine and food and detained for several days, but the crews of the apprehending ships, deterred by the legal complexities of bringing the pirates to shore, usually let them go. Within days, many of the same pirates are manning new boats and seeking new targets.
The daunting task of patrolling 3,000 km of Somali coastline also needs to be taken into account. The rugged shore provides an easy means to secret both captured vessels and armaments in many hidden coves and bays.
What, then, to do about this problem? Well perhaps we need to understand that it is more than money and the lure of riches that drives Somali piracy.
Somalia is a failed state, with no effective central government and involved in a bitter civil war between Islamist and secular forces since 1992. After 17 years of non-stop conflict and the prevailing anarchy this has wrought, nearly 50% of the population require some kind of food aid. Low life expectancy and limited means of income have driven many Somalis into an appreciation that no one will help them unless they help themselves.
The success of the piracy trade over the past ten years has therefore been a boon to coastal Somalians and brought with it not only unimagined wealth, but enabling self-esteem.
According to this BBC report by Robyn Hunter, one Somali observer explained: “They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day. They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars and new guns.”
Many other residents appreciate the rejuvenating effect that the pirates’ on-shore spending and re-stocking has had on their impoverished towns, a presence which has oftentimes provided jobs and opportunity when there were none. Entire hamlets have in the process been transformed into boomtowns with local shop owners and other residents using their gains to purchase items such as generators allowing full days of electricity, once an unimaginable luxury.
This has had a glavanizing impact on national morale. An independent Somali news-site, WardherNews, found that 70 percent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country’s territorial waters”.
So much so that, outrageously, the funding of piracy operations is now structured in a stock exchange with investors buying and selling shares in upcoming attacks in a bourse in Harardhere.
There can, then, be little doubt that Somalian piracy will not be deterred by naval means alone. To pierce the heart of Somalian piracy, the civil war will need to be brought to an end and an effective government established. Somalian fishing activities, which have been all but suspended due to allocation of resources for more nefarious purposes, will need to be rejeuvenated – and with international assistance. Coastal towns and hamlets, grown rich on the bounty of the ransoms, should be directed towards light industry, once again with international corporate participation.
But perhaps even more important than this, means must be found to stanch the flow of the international funding of the pirates. Financial backing of the pirate trade can be found in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. International crime syndicates in Europe and Asia are reportedly providing vast sums for the purchase of sophisticated weaponry, tracking equipment and vessels in exchange for a cut in the takings. Sever the funding and the operations will begin to wilt.
Piracy on the high seas has existed as long as man has plied the oceans for commerce. But it is a mistake to consider piracy ” a 17th Century problem, demanding a 21st century solution,” as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has called the establishment of Co-ordinated Task Force 151. Sea piracy has never been eradicated. Not only that, but the number of pirate attacks around the world ( particularly in the the Straits of Malacca and the Sea of Japan) has tripled in the past decade-putting piracy at its highest level in modern history. Today’s pirates might not fly the Jolly Roger but they are more often than not trained militia seated aboard speedboats equipped with satellite phones and global positioning systems and are often armed with automatic weapons, antitank missiles and grenades. They have the sophistication to taunt and then escape warships, showing no fear of them.
It doesn’t take much imagination then to conjecture that modern terrorist organizations will begin to see how piracy, particularly of oil tankers, can take a significant toll on Western economies and will increasingly figure in their strategies to destabilize the West.
We must then transform our thinking of modern pirates from the yo-ho-ho stereotypes of Disney films and children’s books, to an understanding of them as dangerous commandos, antagonistic to the West, with the power, funding and motivation to deliver significant damage to international trade and personal welfare. For as in the continuing struggle with terrorism, the characterization of the coordinated international effort to control piracy as a mere policing action, rather than as an all out war conducted on many levels, will only encourage further brazenness and the challenge to global economic interests, international security and the rule of law.