|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives | Search|
Somalia : Pirates' Continuing Evolution
Jason R. Zalasky/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Somalian pirates leave the MV Faina, a Ukrainian merchant ship they hijacked, for the Somalian coast
October 16, 2008
While maritime piracy generally has declined over the past five years, piracy in the Gulf of Aden off the Somalian coast has increased. Somalia 's geography and a lack of policing ability in the gulf have allowed pirates to flourish there and have made the gulf a profitable area for piracy.
Maritime piracy has been declining generally over the past five years, especially in the traditionally unsafe waters around Indonesia , Malaysia and the Strait of Malacca . The 2005 tsunami and local policing efforts have greatly stemmed pirate activity in those waters.
But piracy in the Gulf of Aden , off the Somalian coast, is on the rise, with 67 attacks and 26 successful hijackings reported there so far in 2008. Piracy has always been an underlying problem in Somalia . However, the pirates based there have grown more sophisticated recently. A lack of policing capabilities in the Gulf of Aden gives the pirates virtually unrestricted movement on land and sea, and a series of ransom payments made in 2008 will keep piracy in the area well-funded for the foreseeable future.
Somalia as a Pirate Haven
A combination of internal chaos and geography make Somalia an ideal location for piracy. A very weak transitional federal government based in Mogadishu claims to govern the country but in fact controls little apart from a handful of neighborhoods in Mogadishu and a few other towns in central and southern Somalia . The northern part of Somalia is made up of two autonomous regions — Somaliland and Puntland — that have little to do with the rest of the country. Various warlords and Islamist groups control most of the country — including the relatively stable Puntland, where most piracy is based.
Somalia 's geographic position contributes to the problem of piracy. The country's northeastern corner forms the horn of Africa, an outcrop of land that mariners must navigate around when traversing from the Indian Ocean into the Gulf of Aden and on to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal . Somalia 's 2,000 miles of coastline make it especially conducive to piracy; such a long coastline would be difficult to patrol even if Somalia had sufficient security forces.
Most of the attacks along the Somalian coast take place in the Gulf of Aden, the body of water situated between the northern coast of Somalia and Yemen . The Gulf of Aden sees about 20,000 ships pass through it per year (by comparison, 50,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca and 13,000 through the Panama Canal annually). The Gulf also forms a funnel; the mouth is approximately 200 miles wide, and it tapers off to about 13 miles at the Strait of Bab al Mandab , through which more than 3 million barrels of oil are transported per day. This means that ships follow more or less the same route as they steam from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea or vice versa, making them easier targets for pirates.
While the waters off of Somalia 's coast are strategic to global maritime trade, no country in the area has a navy significant enough to police the waters. The result is that foreign navies like the United States , Canada and Malaysia end up policing the area, but their capabilities are limited there either because of other commitments or logistic reasons. Somalian pirates then have no natural predators in the waters along Somalia 's coast.
Pirates' Evolving Tactics
Allowed to flourish in the uncontrolled waters off the coast of Somalia , pirates have improved their tactics and grown more sophisticated. This has resulted in more seized ships and ransom payments, which then funds more piracy. The British Royal Institute of International Affairs estimates that Somalia-based pirates have raked in $18-30 million in ransom payments so far in 2008; some individual payments are as high as $3 million. This surge of cash has allowed pirates to purchase global positioning system equipment, satellite phones and more watercraft, which improves their navigating ability and communications. With more money, it is feasible that pirates could even buy radar equipment, which would increase their range even further.
Pirates have also adopted the use of “mother ships” over the past several years to extend their reach. The speed boats pirates used previously can only venture 20-30 miles off the coast in search of targets; using mother ships allows them to go further offshore for longer periods of time. In fact, attacks have occurred as far as 200 miles offshore, a distance considered safe under any other circumstances. Essentially, a mother ship is a fishing boat (usually stolen) stocked with supplies. Pirates will moor their speed boats to the ship and haul them out to sea. From there, they can launch attacks much further offshore and thus pose a threat even to ships that follow the guidance of keeping their distance from shore.
Pirates tend to target small to medium-sized boats. Although pirates have gone after bigger ships, large tankers and container ships have the technical capabilities to spot pirates more quickly and can then perform evasive maneuvers like increasing speed to avoid an attack. Small to medium-sized boats like the Svitzer Korsakov (a Russian tugboat hijacked Feb. 1) and the Le Ponant (a French private yacht that was hijacked April 4 and eventually freed by French commandos) have fewer crew members and are easier to board. Large ocean liners like the Japanese oil tanker Takayama or the Ukrainian ship MV Faina (which was carrying tanks from Ukraine to Kenya ) are rarely attacked, much less successfully hijacked.
Pirates are always heavily armed with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) which they use to scare captains into capitulation; in fact, the Takayama was struck with an RPG but steamed ahead to avoid capture. The captain of the Svitzer Korsakov went into a 360-degree high-speed spin to prevent the pirates from boarding with ladders and ropes, but when more pirate boats showed up, he allowed the pirates to board. He and his crew were held hostage for 47 days.
Once the pirates are on board a ship, they will steer it toward land where they enjoy widespread support from local villagers. There are reports of villagers taking turns guarding hostages and even of government forces helping pirates. Piracy is one of the few profitable ventures in a very unstable, poor country, so it is easy to understand why such a lucrative business would enjoy such popular support. Somalian pirates have also shown a track record of taking care of their hostages. Despite threats to kill hostages if ransom payments are not delivered, only one hostage has reportedly died in pirate captivity so far in 2008 and that was due to a heart condition, not violence apparently. According to the captain of the Svitzer Korsakov, the pirates carried a manual on how to treat hostages. This is not to say that hostage deaths do not occur; Somalian pirates killed a member of a Taiwanese fishing vessel crew in 2007 after a ransom was not delivered.
The Lack of Policing Efforts in the Gulf of Aden
So far, outside interdiction against piracy in the Gulf of Aden has been limited. Ten to 15 ships are patrolling the area, and NATO has committed to providing escorts for food aid shipments. Furthermore, a U.N. resolution has allowed foreign ships to combat piracy in Somalian territorial waters using “all necessary means.” But even though their operations have increased, pirates off the Somalian coast only attack about 0.3 percent of the total ship traffic passing through the Gulf of Aden , and only 0.1 percent of the ships are hijacked, making the possibility of a pirate attack rather remote. Additionally, the ships that are attacked are frequently owned by companies based out of countries like the Ukraine or the United Arab Emirates — countries without strong navies that are unable to protect their ships. Countries able to recapture a ship from pirates typically will only do so if the ship represents their own national interests. France will not risk the lives of its commandos for a hijacked Ukrainian vessel, and the United States is reluctant to fire on a hijacked UAE vessel out of fear that it could complicate the situation.
Right now, most countries that can defeat the pirates by force are more interested in fighting terrorism. Piracy does not pose enough of a threat to the world to justify reassigning ships to patrol for pirates instead of assisting forces in Iraq or Afghanistan . Nations will move to protect their own (as in the Le Ponant case), but as long as pirates attack ships from countries with no formidable navy, they will rouse attention but little action. The MV Faina is a perfect example. Even though the United States could deploy special forces to retake the boat, it has chosen to merely quarantine the boat to ensure the weapons on board do not fall into the wrong hands. The United States will not engage the pirates, and negotiations are continuing with the Kenyan authorities responsible for purchasing the tanks on board the MV Faina.
For now, countries that could address piracy are more focused on terrorism. And despite claims like those from Yemeni presidential adviser Mohammad al-Ansi that al Qaeda is behind the piracy in the Gulf of Aden , there is simply no evidence to support that theory. The piracy in the Gulf of Aden is a criminal issue, and there is no effective local police force to address the problem. Thus, responsibility falls on foreign powers that tend to act in their own interests rather than addressing the problem in general. Unless pirates change their tactics and start attacking U.S. ships or increasing the level of violence in their attacks (neither of which is likely), the piracy threat will remain a secondary priority and will not attract the full force of a capable navy like the United States '.