Thursday, November 12, 2009

The escalation of piracy off the Horn of Africa

This week has seen a number of notable developments related to piracy in the Horn of Africa (HoA) region, with at least six attacks carried out since Monday. Two of those were attempts to seize vessels sailing about a thousand nautical miles from the African coast - the furthest out any such incidents have yet been reported. But there have also been other events in Somalia itself and in Europe which may reveal we are entering a new phase in the the battle between these maritime criminals and those seeking to stem the rising tide of incidents.

Yesterday saw the assassination of a Somali judge known for having sentenced to jail pirates and members of the al-Shabaab Islamist group. Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Aware was shot dead by two masked men in the northern city of Bossaso, likely having incurred the wrath of any number of enemies he had made sitting as a judge in the semi-autonomous Puntland region. (A second lawmaker was also killed yesterday in the region by a gunman.) The need for stronger judicial powers for Somali authorities is vital in dealing with piracy and his killing is clearly an attempt to silence those within Somalia seeking to restore law and order to the country.

Also on Wednesday, the Spanish defence minister announced she would be asking the European Union to have its naval forces enforce a blockade on Somali ports known to be used as pirate havens. Carme Chacon will present this proposal to EU ministers meeting early next week and, if implemented, would mean bringing some of the naval assets in the region closer to shore. This would reduce the presence of warships available to patrol the seas off the HoA, unless additional assets arrive to fill the gap, something that may not necessarily make mariners sailing in the region happy.

The Spanish proposal pushes the battle closer to the pirates' homeports, a containment theory that might lead some to wonder if land-based operations might follow. "Boots on the ground" does not necessarily follow, though, as there is little international consensus on sending troops into Somalia itself in order to reduce the operational capabilities of pirate gangs and their sponsors. Even a naval blockade of Somali ports would require a cautious political approach, for if there is any interruption in the maritime trade that still goes on in and out of those towns, locals could become more incensed about the international community's actions.

Minister Chacon is also quoted by AFP as calling upon the international community to do more to deal with the money-end of pirate operations. She says that the Somali criminals, "[H]ave ties to sophisticated law firms in London," though whether she wants these firms to be shut down or more closely monitored is not explained.

Pirate gangs in Somali are none to happy with the Spaniards right now, as there are two suspects currently being held in Spain and awaiting trial on criminal charges relating to the hijacking of the Spanish fishing boat Alakrana back in early October. The pirates holding the crew of the Alakrana are demanding the release of their brethren - as well as a reported $3 million ransom - altering the previous system in which gangs seized vessels purely for the money. Asking for the release of suspected pirates seized by foreign nations complicates things (as a recent article makes clear).

J. Peter Pham has a lengthy and incisive article posted today at Family Security Matters that details many of the new developments and the potential that the entire situation is getting more complicated, possibly presaging an escalation in the piracy threat off the HoA. His piece makes for sobering reading, as he points out the inability of international naval forces to more effectively work together to stem the tide of attacks this year, and the possibility that Somali pirate gangs may have been using the quiet summer months to consolidate their various operations. In effect, he is saying that the pirates may have developed new operational capabilities while the international community has not. He wraps up his article by wondering just how long the EU can continue to maintain its counter-piracy mission in the region - Operation Atalanta - which costs about $450 million a year to do. And remember the EU Force is not the only one in the region.

The assassination of government officials, pressure to release indicted pirate suspects, better coordination among pirate gangs and wider operational area - combined with increasingly burdensome financial and logistical costs on the international community's part - do not bode well for the months ahead. The onus is now on concerned governments and their military forces to find more effective means to combat piracy in the region, and to do it quickly, because the way we've been trying to deal with pirates hasn't worked.

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