Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Somali pirate gangs gaining in strength

As the monsoon winds abate off the Horn of Africa, the first signs of the new piracy season are appearing with at least four incidents in the Gulf of Aden in just the last ten days. EagleSpeak has posted the most recent International Maritime Bureau (IMB) notes on global piracy incidents which detail nine events around the world in the past week. Included in these is the incident last weekend in which Turkish naval personnel apprehended seven suspected pirates who had attempted to attack a bulker underway in the Gulf of Aden.

According to a press release from the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet Combined Maritime Forces, these most recent incidents bring this year's total number of pirate attacks in the region to 146. Of that number, 28 were successful attacks. (The most recent IMB report on global piracy shows 240 actual or attempted pirate attacks around the world in the first half of this year, more than double the same period in 2008.)

Within the Fifth Fleet's press release are some surprising stats: "Since August 2008, CTF 151 and other cooperating naval forces have disarmed and released 343 pirates, 212 others have been turned over for prosecution, and 11 were killed."

That's a lot of pirates, and it appears to show a robust stature on the part of naval elements in the area. But...

Though one can assume a number of those pirates who've been dealt with are 'repeat offenders', so to speak, even if you take those apprehended - 212 - the sizes of the gangs operating off the Horn of Africa (HoA) are clearly formidable for three reasons:

For one, removing a couple of hundred pirates from the game has not meant an immeasurable decline in piracy in that part of the part; far from it - the attacks are higher than ever the last twelve months. Secondly, the bulk of these apprehensions have occurred in the northern waters (the Gulf of Aden, etc.), while pirates are also active in the western Indian Ocean, south of where CTF 151 and other forces are focused. Finally, it's a given that we're only nabbing a small portion of the criminals operating in the region.

The growth and size of pirate gangs operating off the HoA should be of obvious concern as the new season of activity begins, because they are bigger than ever, reaping larger bounties than ever and holding more hostages than ever (561 in the first half of 2009, according to the IMB, versus 889 in all of 2008). Bluntly put, there are a hell of lot more pirates than we ever thought we'd see in those seas.

At a piracy conference that just wrapped up in Karachi, Pakistan, the scope of the problem caused many attending to voice an opinion I've heard for years: Piracy can never be completely eradicated. The best we can hope for is to contain or reduce it to levels we consider acceptable.

I feel that the next ninth months will be crucial in containing Somali piracy, for we may be nearing an apex. Do I have the answers, the solutions? Not entirely. But a new perspective on the problem is required. Conventional strategies are not working. Merely dispatching more naval assets to the region is not an effective solution, least of all when those forces have released over 300 suspected pirates back into the system. (And, yes, I am aware of the complex legal issues involved in prosecuting suspected pirates that those same forces encounter, and do believe those warships are helping the situation.)

Asymmetric warfare requires asymmetric thinking. And piracy off the Horn is something entirely diffrent than anyone ever expected.

Addendum: Alexander Martin just wrote a lengthy piece about counterinsurgency leadership issues on his blog, War & Women. This Marine Corps officer's thoughts can be applied to the situation off the HoA, where we have naval forces fighting maritime insurgents in a traditional manner. Also I'd recommend reading Dr. Max Manwaring's monograph on how gangs evolve. He's at the US Army War College and his piece can be seenbe cicking here.

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