AFP had an item the other day about Interpol's 78th general assembly, which wrapped up on Thursday in Singapore. In the piece, the organization's executive director of police services - Jean-Michel Louboutin - commented on Somali piracy, calling it "organised crime" that involves people outside Somalia. The AFP report also talks of how pirates are "being controlled by crime syndicates", and are using sophisticated weapons, as well as tracking devices that have allowed them to extend their reach far out to sea.
Mike Palmer, the Australian inspector of transport security, is also quoted in the item, stating that, "Their weaponry continues to get more sophisticated, their attacks are taking place farther and farther out to sea... as far as 1,200 nautical miles offshore. This dovetails well with an excellent analysis that EagleSpeak provided today, entitled "Somali Pirates: Breaking the 600 mile barrier". And the financial costs of all this is laid out by Palmer, who tells AFP that "Apart from any ransom paid, shipping companies also lost an average of seven million dollars for every hostage-taking, which typically lasts about 70 days."
In some respects, this isn't startling news: The operational capabilities of Somali pirates have become increasingly organized over the course of the last five or six years (though there was an interruption in piracy back in 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union briefly held power over much of the southern parts of the country). The ability to send pirate teams hundreds, or thousands, of miles from their home ports to undertake missions shows the capabilities these criminal outfits possess, plus a degree of seamanship that must be recognized. It's what make combating the problem even more difficult, for there's an awful lot of water to safeguard against the threat of piracy when you factor in the western Indian Ocean. Simply put, the international community does not have the resources to effectively patrol the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, and the pirates know this.
But as the AFP report mentions, there is a growing sense that another way to stem the tide of piracy off the Horn of Africa is to go after the money trail, to shut down the abilities of pirate gangs to move their finances around. This may be one of the most important means of suppressing piracy in that region of the world, for it's clear from my contacts that it's not like there are millions of dollars gleaned from ransoms lying about in Somali banks. Those at the top of the pirate leadership structure appear to be moving some of their money out of Somalia, possibly in order to create a nest-egg, of sorts, for their futures. If we can intercept the money-laundering and make naval patrols more effective, then the only other element missing in addressing piracy off the Horn of Africa is to find a way to bring security ashore.
As Jean-Michel Louboutin says, "It is very important to understand that this is not only a military problem. It's a civil problem and we have to help this country enhance its capacity and to provide technical support." Well said, for it should be remembered that piracy begins ashore. Meanwhile, hitting the pirates in their pockets is a definite asset in dealing with the problem.