Piracy has long plagued the Somali coastline, creating an estimated loss of 6.8 billion dollars per year in global trade. However, despite nearly 276 incidents in 2011, there hasn’t been a single successful pirate attack on a commercial shipping vessel this year. So why the sudden drop off?
One reason might be as simple as armed protection. Although maritime peace accords had previously banned the use of weapons on shipping vessels, new rules allowed shipmates to carry weapons and employ private security staff aboard their ships.
Further, a coalition of multi-country naval patrols has assembled to track and protect each ship, guiding them through dangerous waters. Not only are US and EU naval vessels participating in these exercises, but Saudi Arabian, Iranian, Indian, Pakistani, Russian and Thai forces have proven that even without diplomatic ties, countries can work together for a united cause.
This combination of multi-national military oversight and private protection on-board vessels has made piracy simply too dangerous to be profitable. High profile rescues and firefights have also created a remarkable deterrent to hijackings in these once dangerous straights.
However, there’s an important underlying issue here that if not addressed, could take Somali’s rogue privateers in a far more dangerous direction.
Most experts pinpointed illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping as the main causes of regional piracy. The revelation of illegal toxic dumping came before the European Parliament when two companies, linked to the Italian mafia, were accused of dumping 10 million tons of toxic nuclear waste in northern Somalia. Local warlords profited from this arrangement, given $80 million dollars for safe passage on the way to dumping sites. After the 2004 tsunami, the waste was stirred up, causing health issues such as ulcers, tumors and radiation poisoning in the local community.
Meanwhile, the Somali government had collapsed, and without a strong central government, illegal fishers began to poach off of Somalia’s coast. With lush underwater fauna such as lobsters, tuna and shrimp, it was estimated that European and Asian poachers were taking as much as 300 million dollars a year from the local economy.
Somalis, who had fished for generations, were being pushed out of their own waters and attacked by foreign trawling vessels. With no system to turn to, they decided the only option was levy a “tax” on these illegal fisheries, via hijacking and ransom. In a 2008 interview, Somali pirate Asad Abdulahi explained the escalation from “taxing” private fishing boats to hijacking large ocean liners:
“I started to hijack these fishing boats in 1998. I did not have any special training but was not afraid. For our first captured ship we got $300,000. With the money we bought AK-47s and small speedboats. I don’t know exactly how many ships I have captured since then but I think it is about 60…We give priority to ships from Europe because we get bigger ransoms…We count the crew and find out their nationalities. After checking the cargo we ask the captain to phone the owner and say that have seized the ship and will keep it until the ransom is paid.
Our community thinks we are pirates getting illegal money. But we consider ourselves heroes running away from poverty. We don’t see the hijacking as a criminal act but as a road tax because we have no central government to control our sea.”
As such, although shipping lines have been successful this year in thwarting piracy attempts, if the root cause hasn’t been removed, there will always be a risk of resurgence. Currently it costs the US about 3 million a year to patrol the Gulf of Aden, making it unsustainable as a long-term project. Further, for unemployed pirates, dangerous and lucrative new avenues have begun to present themselves. For instance: arms smuggling.
A recent UN report explained that some pirates, in search of new job opportunities, have begun offering protection to poaching vessels in exchange for high powered assault weapons shipped in from Yemen. These often make their way into the hands of terrorist groups, such as Al Shabaab, which only further destabilizes the country and exacerbates the need for a military presence both inland and off the coast.
If this sort of arms smuggling continues, a whole new generation of unpredictable warlords is likely to crop up. This could send shock waves to states further afield such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Kenya, who are already currently dealing with both Somali refugees and terrorist cells and, although piracy is certainly an expensive problem, it has lead to a rather small number of deaths (as hostages are often worth more alive). Arms smuggling, on the other hand, often fuels civil wars and terrorist organizations, and is considered a far more dangerous racket by most security experts.
With a shaky central government and numerous insurgencies, Somalis will starve to death if they’re asked to subsist on morals alone. One way or another, the international community must address the root cause of Somalia’s declining coastline. Without development programs, stabilization and anti-poaching measures, former pirates will simply reincarnate their business model into something that could, one day, make piracy look like child’s play.