Piracy in Somalia: Why Solutions can’t be found at sea 


By Christian Bedford


Christian Bedford is a Senior Analyst and Acting Program Manager at Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC), Canada’s West Coast Naval formation. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of MARPAC, DND, or the Govt. of Canada.


2008 has been a banner year for pirates in Somalia. By the end of May, there had been over a dozen incidents of piracy in the waters off its vast coastline, and attacks were occurring with startling regularity.


For over two years, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) had been lobbying the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to take action to combat Somali piracy, a phenomenon that had grown steadily to become the single largest industry in that fractured country.  In an unprecedented move, on 2 June, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1816 (2008), authorizing foreign naval vessels to enter Somali territorial waters for an initial period of six months (and likely to be extended) to use “all necessary means” to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea, consistent with relevant and existing provisions of international law. 


Although the UNSC resolution is welcome news for shipping companies, insurers, vacationers, and others who find themselves off the Horn of Africa, it does little to address the root causes of Somali piracy, and as such, is likely to fail to end acts of piracy off the troubled country’s coast.  This month’s In Focus examines the phenomenon of Somali piracy and concludes that the solution is to be found on land, and not at sea.


The World’s Forgotten State


Although there are numerous reasons for the rise in pirate attacks in Somalia over the past few years, Western indifference towards the country must be placed near-or-at the top of the list.  It has been more than 17 years now since the fall of the Siad Barre regime, the last semblance of truly national governance that Somalia has known. 


In the interval, several other international crises, from the Balkans, to India/Pakistan, to Afghanistan and Iraq, have galvanized world attention and relegated “lesser” conflicts and regional disputes to the last page of the newspaper.  This, of course, is in addition to the world’s apparent indifference towards African issues in general, with the exception of extraordinary cases such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the conflict-diamond-fuelled West African civil wars (even Congo’s 1998-2003 civil war, that involved at least eight countries and resulted in over 5 million deaths, making it the deadliest conflict since WWII, was largely unknown in the West).


Since 1991, Somalia has limped along a brutal path of warring clans, separatist movements, and failed Western interventions that have, collectively, bestowed upon the country the dubious honour of being the world’s truest “failed state”.  Today, this lack of central authority and effective Western involvement has caused Somalia’s lawlessness to reach beyond its coastline to infect its territorial waters that lie across one of the world’s busiest maritime intersections, the heavily trafficked approaches to the Red Sea. 


Although the UNSC’s recent resolution aimed at Somali piracy is a positive first step, the scope and sophistication of the pirate’s operations in 2008 means that the world community will have to tackle the issue both at sea and on land; it remains to be seen whether the collective will exists to exercise the latter.


A World Leader


Far from a random group of miscreants high on Qat and looking for a quick buck, Somali pirates are part of large, well-financed and well-organized criminal organizations based in Somalia, the semi-autonomous northern regions of Puntland and Somaliland, and in states such as Kenya, Tanzania, and the United Arab Emirates.


It has even been suggested that Canada, home to the largest Somali diaspora outside Africa, hosts logistical and organizational cells for Somali pirates.  Experts on the topic say there are five main pirate gangs that operate along Somalia’s 3,025 kilometre-long coastline (Africa’s longest), each of which is tied to a powerful local warlord who, in turn, has connections to the largely ineffective Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of President Abdullahi Yusuf. 


Although borne out of opportunity by having no central authority to prevent it, it has been argued that Somali piracy is in fact viewed by many in the country as providing an essential service by policing the country’s territorial waters and preventing illegal fishing and toxic waste-dumping.  Although this self-righteous assessment may be scoffed at by Western shipping firms whose vessels are affected by the attacks, illegal fishing in Somali waters is in fact quite a lucrative business, with the United Nations estimating that the country regularly loses up to USD $100 million per year due to illegal fishing by states as diverse as Spain, South Korea, and Egypt.


The pirates’ sense of national duty notwithstanding, what may have begun as an exercise in maritime protection has now grown into the largest industry in Somalia.  In a country where the average yearly income is at most USD $600, a pirate earns between USD $10,000 and $30,000 per year, an unheard-of amount for most Somalis.  Ransoms this year alone have included a German-registered freighter released for USD $800,000; a Dutch cargo ship exchanged for $700,000; the Danish-owned Spitzer Korsakov icebreaker freed for $1.6 million; and the now-famous French luxury yacht Le Ponant which was released after its owners reportedly paid $2 million. 


While Somali pirates generally hold Western-flagged ships for ransom, vessels with less-well-to-do owners are employed as “mother ships”, allowing the pirates to strike at vessels traveling farther out at sea.  In the case of the hijacking of Le Ponant, it was attacked more than 160 miles off the Somali coast by a large Yemeni-flagged fishing trawler that launched two smaller speedboats, each with six pirates toting AK-47s and RPGs.  The use of these “mother ships” has meant that the danger zone for ships traveling near Somalia has expanded significantly.  Five years ago, captains were advised to stay at least 50 miles off the coast of Somalia. 


However, today, due to increased pirate attacks and their enhanced capabilities, including GPS devices and satellite phones, that advisory has extended to 200 nautical miles, and will likely have to be expanded again after the Spanish-owned Playa de Bakio, a fishing trawler, was seized by Somali pirates in late June, 247 miles off Somalia’s coast.


Cure or a band-aid? 


So what effect will the United Nations Security Council’s resolution have on Somali piracy?  In the near term, it is likely that this resolution will succeed in reducing pirate attacks.  The areas immediately surrounding Somalia’s territorial waters are being patrolled by Combined Task Force 150, a flotilla of naval vessels currently commanded by a Canadian Navy commodore.  Coalition naval forces have had successes recently against Somali pirates, including the French Navy’s well-publicized operation to track down and arrest the perpetrators of the Le Ponant hijacking, and the US Navy’s success in securing the release of the Japanese tanker MV Golden Nori


However, despite these successes, CTF 150 and other allied navies cannot hope to fully patrol and monitor territorial waters that are the size of Somalia’s, particularly given the fact that CTF-150’s area of responsibility extends from the North Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea.  Given other events occurring in the area, including smuggling between Pakistan’s Makran coast and the Arabian peninsula, human trafficking, the ongoing search for weapons of mass destruction, and recent heightened tension between the United States and Iran, Western nations are unlikely to be able to dedicate enough naval forces to Somali waters to tackle Somali piracy adequately. 


In fact, history suggests that an “off shore” approach to this issue will marginalize the Somali pirates at best throughout the duration of the UNSC resolution, and will not succeed in tackling the core issue of a lack of central authority.  Piracy in Somalia began following the dissolution of the Barre government in 1991.  There is little evidence to suggest it occurred before this.  During the rule of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a grouping of Sunni Muslim clans who controlled southern Somalia for six months in 2006, pirate attacks in the vast area they ruled virtually ceased as they brought a measure of law and order that had not been seen in nearly a generation. 


Although considered an unacceptable government by Western powers due to the UIC’s alleged connections to, and harbouring of al-Qaeda militants, the UIC is nonetheless credited with bringing stability to southern Somalia during its brief time in power.  Other recent “off shore” approaches towards Somalia by the United States have included Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from submarines lurking off the coast, and strafing runs by AC-130 Spectre Gunships.  These tactics have rarely accomplished their intended goal, and have killed many civilians in the process, angering locals and driving them into the arms of groups like the UIC. 


When boots have hit the ground in Somalia, the results have all too often been disastrous, both for foreign forces and Somalis.  Canada and the United States sent troops into the country in the early 1990s, with Canada having to withdraw its forces following the infamous “Somalia Affair”, and with the US losing 19 Marines in 1993 in the events that were portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down.  Pakistan, another member of CTF-150, lost 24 soldiers in clashes with a Somali militia in the same year.  Ethiopian troops, the largest contingent in an AU force that overthrew the UIC and remained in the country to provide security, have been regular targets for Somali insurgents, with dozens killed since 2006.


The Way Forward


Given current priorities and commitments, as well as ongoing crises in Darfur and Zimbabwe, it is highly unlikely that Western nations will commit any significant efforts and resources to resolving Somalia’s political crisis.  Nor it is likely, despite their best efforts, that the African Union, through its peacekeepers and negotiators, will be able to bring peace and stability to a country that has been wracked by chaos for so many years.  A new approach is clearly needed both to help this struggling country and end maritime piracy off its shores. 


Perhaps this approach will mean finally recognizing the regions of Puntland and Somaliland, which have operated independently from Mogadishu’s rule for nearly twenty years and have been on the frontlines of Somalia’s struggles with piracy.  Although recognizing new political entities can be a dangerous game to play, the alternatives are continued strife, increased piracy, the use of the country as a safe-haven for terrorists, and the risk that Somalia’s internal disputes could spill over its borders and infect neighbouring states more than they already are. 


Also, recognizing these two quasi-states should empower them to strengthen their institutions, driving pirates south to areas that lack such law and order and thereby making it easier for coalition forces to focus on them through the Security Council’s recent resolution.  Western diplomats based in East African countries should redirect their focus in a way similar to that employed in the recent electoral crises in Zimbabwe and Kenya to Somalia, with the hope that increased pressure can coerce Somalia’s various clans to agree to a power-sharing structure upon which a stable government can emerge.


Although the UN Security Council’s recent resolution will likely do much to reduce piracy in Somalia’s waters in the near term, this effort will be incomplete without a comprehensive strategy to tackle Somalia’s fractured politics and lack of central authority, conditions that allows the scourge of piracy to persist.




* The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of DND, MARPAC, or the Govt. of Canada*



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