Sunday, March 29, 2009

Paying Somalis to stop piracy?

Last week, my colleague EagleSpeak posted word of a British security analyst's view about what might be done to subdue to piracy off Somalia (see also the EU NAVFOR Somalia website quoting from Fairplay). Simon Sole, the CEO of Exclusive Analysis, told the Connecticut Maritime Association-sponsored Shipping 2009 conference that, "[H]e expected Middle Eastern nations – which have been the hardest hit by the pirate scourge – will likely pay the ‘junior’ unit of Somalia’s Islamic Courts to re-subdue the seagoing criminals." The junior unit Sole was referring to is al-Shabaab, the Islamist group that currently controls significant parts of southern Somalia and, according to him, are expected to overrun Mogadishu within months.

I have never met Sole nor come across any of his analyses of piracy in the last three-plus years I've been immersed in investigating the issue, so I was somewhat surprised by his comments. His company website says he "built Exclusive Analysis upon a strong ethos based around accuracy and objectivity", which makes these recent comments all the more odd.

To begin with, Middle Eastern nations have not been the hardest hit by pirates. A glance at the IMB's 2008 piracy report will quickly show that it is European and Asian nations that have been hardest hit. Ships controlled or managed in those regions have been by far the unluckiest victims of pirate attacks, with Germany (41 incidents) leading the pack. They're followed by Singapore (31), Greece (23), Japan, (16) and Great Britain and Norway (tied at 12).

Next, characterizing al-Shabaab as a 'junior' unit of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) is also incorrect, as the former organization has little but scorn for the latter group. As has been made patently clear to me from sources, al-Shabaab has devolved from the ICU, thinking that a new approach must be taken to assure an orthodox form of Islam may come to pass in Somalia. (See also Ryan Mauro's incisive piece on about what he calls the African Axis.)

But more critically, I find it hard to believe that MidEast nations would bother to pay al-Shabaab, or anyone else in Somalia, for a number of reasons.

For one, nation states do not, generally speaking, offer monetary incentives to criminals to cease their activities. Doing so would create greater instability by these actions, and no matter what you might think about Iran or Saudi Arabia, they are players in the international community and realize their obligations. If Sole's proposition is correct, why aren't we paying narco-terrorists in South America to stop making cocaine or the Taliban to stop harvesting poppies? We don't because it goes against our national principles.

Secondly, what advantage comes from some MidEast countries paying 'protection money' to Somali pirates? Well, there's really no reason to do so. It's currently cheaper to have the shipping community - owners and insurers - bear the financial responsibilities of pirate attacks. Why shell out, say, $100 million to al-Shabaab when they're currently only netting about a tenth of that from recent incidents?

Thirdly, if these Middle Eastern states do opt to pay al-Shabaab to stop pirating, what 'coverage' applies? Will only vessels from Gulf States be exempt from future attacks? Does that mean vessels flagged in the Gulf or operated from there? What about German or Singaporean ships? The potential to set up a tiered system is great, in which some vessels are allowed free passage whle others are potential targets. But given the libertarian nature of commerical shipping, this becomes a grey area, as a freighter managed by a Dubai-based firm could be flagged in the Marshall Islands and crewed by Sri Lankans. Is it exempt?

Finally, what guarantees are there - really - that al-Shababbb wouldn't just take the money and run? This is a group seeking an extreme form of Islam for Somalia, and which is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. They may want to stamp out piracy when they take power, but are quite happy to receive funding from its avails now. There are no firm and fast rules in place in Somalia, and Mr. Soles should have known this before making his comments last week.

It's vitally important to be 'objective' about these issues, as much as possible. Telling shippers these sort of things isn't right, not without proper background. Perhaps I am missing something here and Soles has more information to expand on this. I welcome hearing from him, as the situation in Somalia is dire.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Interesting idea - get the ransom without even going to all the trouble of seizing a ship. The ultimate in piracy, really.
Unfortunately, the best way to stop Somali-based piracy is to get a good, strong state founded there and thus, the rule of law. For a huge number of reasons, not all internal to Somalia, that seems unlikely for the time being so military patrols and effective watch-keeping are for now the only defence available.