Published 20 Nov 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
As Somali Pirates Raise Stakes, Effective Measures Needed
In the two months since I last focused this column on the challenge posed by attacks on shipping off the Somali coast, pleading that "the time has come for responsible powers in the international community to develop an integrated strategy to cope with the worsening piracy, one that begins with declaring open season on the seaborne marauders whom admiralty law has long branded hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind," the situation has gone from bad to worse.
With six weeks still left in the year, the number of attacks in 2008 is already nearly triple that of last year, with the marauders assaulting over ninety ships. On September 25, just two days after my aforementioned column appeared, Somali pirates took control of a Ukrainian-owned, Belizean-registered freighter, the MV Faina, which was carrying thirty-three refurbished Russian-made T-72 tanks and other armaments, officially destined for Kenya, but reportedly ultimately bound for South Sudan. The hijackers originally demanded a $35 million ransom, although they discounted it to $20 million when United States Navy warships operating nearby in the Arabian Sea – subsequently joined by the Russian fleet's most modern frigate, the Neustrashimy – surrounded the vessel to prevent the lethal cargo from being off-loaded while steamed to the region from the Baltic. That stand-off continues, as does the captivity of the kidnapped crew of seventeen Ukrainians, two Russians, and one Latvian (another Russian, Captain Vladimir Kolobkov, died of a heart attack after his ship was seized, although his remains are likewise still being held by the Somali pirates).
Last Sunday, November 16, the pirates made an even bigger catch. The MV Sirius Star, a Liberian-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) owned by a United Arab Emirates-based subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned national oil company of Saudi Arabia, was seized along with its twenty-five-member crew of Britons, Croatians, Filipinos, Poles, and Saudis by Somali raiders some 450 nautical miles southeast of the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Speaking at a press conference at the Pentagon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, even admitted that he was "stunned" by the range capacity demonstrated by the attackers. The 330 meter-long, 318,000 deadweight-ton vessel, which was launched a little more than six months ago, is not only the largest ever captured by the pirates, but also their most valuable prize to date: in the Sirius Star's hold are some two million barrels of oil bound for the United States, a cargo worth more than $100 million; the virtually brand-new ship itself reported carried a price tag of $150 million. At last report, the supertanker was off the port of Xarardheere, south of Eyl, the notorious pirate haven in the northeastern Somali region of Puntland where many pirated vessels have been taken and where the Sirius Star may ultimately be anchored by its captors. Meanwhile, news of the hijacking on Monday caused oil prices worldwide to jump a dollar, rebounding from what had been a nearly 22-month low.
And the capture of the Faina and the Sirius Star just happen to be the pièces de la résistance. Other incidents recorded in just the last week include the following:
- November 11: British commandos on two launches from the Type 22 frigate HMS Cumberland exchanged fire with pirate vessels intercepted while trying to attack the Dutch cargo ship MV Powerful, killing two of the Somalis and driving the rest off.
- November 11: Elite marine commandos of the Indian Navy operating off of the INS Tabar, a Talwar-class frigate patrolling near the Gulf of Aden, repelled attempted pirate attacks on the Saudi-registered merchant vessel MV Timaha and the Indian-owned bulk carrier MV Jag Arnav.
- November 12: A Turkish chemical tanker bound for Mumbai, the MV Karagol, was hijacked off of Yemen and its fourteen crew members, all Turkish nationals, seized.
- November 13: Pirates hijacked the mainland Chinese fishing boat Tanyo No. 8 as it was working Kenyan waters off Lamu Island, taking hostage the crew of twenty-four, including sixteen Chinese, one Japanese, three Filipinos, and four Vietnamese. At last report, the boat was off the southern Somali port of Kismayo, a town which has been in the hands of Islamist insurgents since August.
- November 15: The Japanese-owned, Panamanian-registered chemical tanker MV Chemstar Venus was seized with its crew of five South Koreans and eighteen Filipinos.
- November 15: A helicopter from the Neustrashimy was called upon to repel an attack on the Saudi merchant ship MV Rabih.
- November 18: A Hong Kong-registered cargo ship belonging to state-owned Iran Ship Lines, the MV Delight, was seized as it transited the Gulf of Aden en route to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf with over 36,000 tons of wheat. Taken hostage with the vessel was its twenty-five-member crew of Ghanaian, Indian, Iranian, Pakistani, and Filipino nationals.
- November 18: The British tanker MV Trafalgar came under attack by a pack of eight or nine speedboats carrying heavily armed pirates. Fortunately for the ship, its distress signal was picked up by the F122 Bremen-class frigate Karlsruhe, which launched a Sea Lynx helicopter to intercept and drive off the marauders.
- November 19: The INS Tabar was fired upon while challenging a suspected pirate "mother ship" some 285 nautical miles southwest of the Omani port of Salalah. The Indian frigate sunk the pirates' boat, although some of the outlaws managed to escape on two speedboats.
- November 19: Although the details were still sketchy, sources in the region report that pirates have seized two more vessels, a Greek bulk carrier and a Thai fishing boat.
That pirate attacks are proliferating off the Somali coast should not surprise anyone. The internationally-unrecognized Republic of Somaliland in the northwestern part of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic being a case apart, the Texas-sized territory at the geopolitically strategic tip of the Horn of Africa has been without an effective government since 1991. As I warned three months ago, the "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) which purports to rule the country is on the verge of collapsing in the face a growing insurgency spearheaded by a Somali Islamist group, al-Shabaab ("the Youth"), which was earlier this year was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the U.S. State Department on account of its al-Qaeda links. The TFG barely controls a few heavily fortified blocks in Mogadishu and one provincial town, Baidoa, where its rump parliamentary assembly camps out – and that much only because it is propped up by a large, albeit increasingly war-weary, Ethiopian military force that is already beginning to quietly withdraw. Last week, al-Shabaab forces captured the key port of Merka, just 100 kilometers south of Mogadishu, without even firing a bullet. Insurgent units are reported to be massing just outside Mogadishu for what might well be a battle for what is left of the capital. In any event, even if it were not utterly irrelevant as a political force (except in the minds of the delusional diplomats constantly "engaging" its squabbling "leaders"), the TFG is hardly a partner for any anti-piracy effort: its own deputy minister of ports has acknowledged that senior officials were "involved or benefiting from the piracy," most of which originates in the Puntland fiefdom of "President" Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
The fact is that piracy is the most lucrative economic activity in Somalia these days since ship owners – and, reportedly, some governments – are willing to pay ransoms well in excess of $1 million for the release of their hijacked vessels and seamen. Moreover Somali piracy is not only increasing in frequency, but also aggressiveness as the pirates plow part of their proceeds into upgrades for their arsenals – which now include Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation – in the hopes of landing even larger prizes, prompting a warning from the authoritative shipping paper of record, Lloyd's List, that ransoms paid will exceed $50 million this year, encouraging still more attacks.
Thus from an occasional nuisance just a few years ago when I warned of the growing menace in the very first column of this series, Somali piracy has burgeoned into an international problem directly affecting literally dozens of countries around the globe. Vessels attacked this year include those flying the flags of literally dozens of countries, ranging from the People's Republic of China to the tiny Micronesian state of Kiribati. As of this week, the pirates were holding for ransom approximately three hundred seamen from some fifteen countries, among which hapless lot the Filipinos make up largest single national bloc, their numbers totaling 127 seafarers following the addition of nineteen co-nationals from the ship's company of the Sirius Star.
Moreover, it needs to be underscored that the hijacking of the Sirius Star took place far beyond which was thought to be the range of the Somali pirates. Previously, the marauders operated primarily in the Gulf of Aden, south of Yemen and off the northern Somali coastline. Then improved armaments and tactics permitted them to expand their reach to up to 250 nautical miles from the Somali coast. The attack on the Sirius Star in the Indian Ocean east of Tanzania, however, revealed an entirely new operational capacity, one which may have been adopted in response to stepped-up naval patrols by the United States, several European nations, as well as Asian countries like Malaysia and India, which are asserting themselves militarily so far from home waters for the first time.
Consequently insurance premiums for commercial shipping anywhere near the Horn of Africa, waters through which a tenth of world's seaborne petroleum and some 16,000 vessels transit annually, have soared tenfold this year. Faced with the risks of piracy and the mounting insurance bills, some transport companies have begun avoiding the Gulf of Aden-Suez Canal route in favor of the going all the way around the African continent. In fact, just this week, Bergen, Norway-based Odfjell, a shipping company with a fleet of 92 vessels, announced that all of its owned, managed, and time-chartered ships that normally would sail through the Gulf of Aden will be routed via the Cape of Good Hope. Odfjell's chief executive office, Terje Storeng said that the firm could "no longer expose our crews to the risk of being hijacked and held for ransom by pirates."While the route around the Cape is safer, it also adds weeks to a typical voyage between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, thus running up considerably the costs of both raw materials and manufactured goods at a time when the global economy is already under considerable stress.
In addition to choking one of the major arteries of global commerce, the recent surge in piracy threatens the already precarious humanitarian situation in the East African subregion. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) currently feeds some 2.4 million of the approximately 6 million inhabitants of Somalia proper; by the end of this year, the number of those totally dependent upon food assistance is expected to grow by about 50 percent to more than 3.6 million as the region faces what WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran has warned may be "the worst humanitarian crisis since 1984," when over one million died in the Ethiopian famine. While the pirates have not been known to purposely target aid shipments, 90 percent of which arrives by sea, the idea that that lifeline is entirely dependent on their good will is hardly a comforting prospect.
Perhaps even more worrying is the emerging evidence of ties between the pirates and the Islamist militants fighting the TFG, its Ethiopian backers, and the beleaguered African Union peacekeeping force of Ugandans and Burundians in Somalia (AMISOM). Sources in the region agree that the pirates are sharing at least part of the ransom payments with the militants in exchange for being given a free hand in their maritime predations, the money going to finance deadly attacks which have increasingly included some of the same non-conventional tactics that foreign jihadis and Sunni Arab insurgents pioneered to great effect in Iraq before the American surge last year. In a worst-case scenario, the pirates could conceivably transmogrify into active agents of international terrorism. Recall that those who masterminded the 1997 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, are currently hiding in Somalia and that al-Qaeda's 2002 attack on the French-flagged oil tanker MV Limburg took place in the very waters of the Gulf of Aden where the Somali pirates currently operate and imagine the impact on the global economy if the attackers were to switch from hijacking commercial shipping to trying sink it (see my analysis two years ago of how maritime vulnerabilities might be exploited in a terrorist campaign of economic warfare).
Ultimately, as I noted in the New Atlanticist policy blog of the Atlantic Council of the United States shortly after the taking of the Faina, the problem of Somali lawlessness at sea will only be definitively resolved when the international community summons up the political will to adequately address the underlying pathology of Somali statelessness onshore. Unfortunately, the two months since I made that assertion have seen little evidence of any movement in that direction. So, while the capture of Western hostages might attract a relatively more robust military response (twice this year alone France has had to dispatch naval special forces from the elite Commando Hubert to rescue hijacked French yachters and arrest their pirate captors) as might especially spectacular heists like the seizure of the Faina with its cargo of arms or – although it remains to be seen – that of the Sirius Star with its cargo equivalent of one-quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily oil production, the Somali pirates have too much to gain to give up their hitherto hugely profitable activities.
Quite bluntly, there are too few naval resources in the region and those that are present have had their hands full interdicting terrorist movements and weapons proliferation; systematically rooting out pirates is simply not going to be a first-order priority as long there is a war on terrorism. Quite frankly, no one expects this state of affairs to change much despite the proclamation in August of a "Maritime Security Patrol Area" (MPSA) to be patrolled by coalition vessels, the announcement a month later by the European Union that it would establish a coordination unit as a tentative first step towards what will be the first-ever European naval operation as such, and the unanimous passage last month of yet another UN Security Council Resolution expressing the body's "grave concern" and calling upon "States interested in the security of maritime activities to take part actively in the fight against piracy on the high seas off the coast of Somalia."
While the United States maintains its largest military base in Africa, Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti, just next door to the failed Somali state, the mission of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) is a long-term strategy aimed at combating extremism (albeit occasionally there does arise the need to hunt down specific terrorists), not providing escorts for merchant vessels. As for coalition naval forces in the region, U.S. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of Combined Maritime Forces, has gone on the record to declare: "The Coalition does not have the resources to provide 24-hour protection for the vast number of merchant vessels in the region. The shipping companies must take measures to defend their vessels and their crews." And, speaking in Washington, Admiral Mullen raised concerns about the legal framework for using the Navy to combat the pirates: "We have the authorities that we need; we have the rules of engagement that we need right now. One of the challenges that ... you have in piracy clearly is, if you are intervening and you capture pirates, is there a path to prosecute them? And that's something I think the international community has got to answer for the long run."
Consequently, commercial shipping might want to consider how to better prepared to protect itself. While some owners have invested in alarm systems, close-circuit television, electric fences, and even an occasional guard to counter the threat to their vessels, unfortunately many have done little aside from being prepared to pay ransoms which only perpetuate the cycle of violence. Instead, ship owners' associations and seamen's unions, both of which hitherto have limited their collective action to appeals for someone to "do something," would do well to spend their energies developing, in consultation with security professionals, minimum safety and security protocols for their activities in these dangerous waters. Port security also needs to be beefed up as it is increasingly apparent that the pirates are not mere opportunists, but coordinate their attacks on the basis of intelligence obtained from a worldwide network of informants. And while the question of placing armed personnel aboard commercial shipping is a complex one, members of the relatively clubby international shipping industry might find that it is far more economical to pool their resources and arrange escorts – which need not necessarily be on the same vessels they are protecting – via agreed-upon sea lanes through the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea than to sail individually around the Cape of Good Hope. This last idea has received support from high-ranking military officers, including the Royal Navy's senior commander in the Gulf of Aden, Commodore Keith Winstanley, who told the Telegraph last month that armed security detachments from private companies should be used as a "visual deterrence" to pirates: "It is a measure we are encouraging people to at least consider."
International relief organizations might also consider the merits of not having to rely on ad hoc appeals for security assistance from national militaries. Earlier this year, the WFP was forced to suspend emergency food deliveries to Somalia for two months, just because the Netherlands completed its naval escort mission, but no other country had stepped forward to assume the responsibility. Canada eventually sent a frigate, HMCS Ville de Québec, but that deployment was set to end in September. After a last-minute appeal from the UN, Ottawa extended the assignment by another month – but no later – to give the aid agencies a chance to find a replacement naval escort. After the some wrangling, the Dutch were persuaded to take up the task again, at least through November, with the De Zeven Provinciën-class frigate HNLMS De Ruyter currently shadowing WFP-chartered vessels ferrying food into the port of Mogadishu. It would be better all the way around if the uncertainty surrounding security for critical humanitarian operations could be eliminated and, hence, the gaps in food and other deliveries avoided altogether.
The Republic of Somaliland, too, cut off from direct military-to-military assistance because of its unrecognized status in the international community, might also find in the private sector the technical and logistical assistance it needs to continue to maintain its waters off its 740-kilometer coastline on the Gulf of Aden free of the maritime outlaws from its neighbor to the east. While its resources are limited because of its unjust banishment from community of sovereign nations (see both my call last year, premised on strategic interests, for U.S. recognition of Somaliland as well as my outline earlier this year of a "road map" ahead for the Republic's leaders), one of the most solid arguments that that Somalilanders have in their favor is the relatively tranquility and rule of law in which they have maintained for themselves – the three al-Shabaab-linked suicide bombers who struck the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa late last month were the exception, rather than the rule – while their Somali neighbors have collapsed into violence and chaos. That hard-won reputation is one worth protecting at all costs, not only for its own sake, but because, if recognition comes, the Somaliland city of Berbera with its deep-sea port is well-positioned to recapture its place as a major regional shipping hub and a veritable engine of economic activity (as a historic trade center, Berbera was known to classical Greek mariners and Tang Dynasty merchants alike).
Of course, it needs to be clearly understood that having the private security sector fill the gap between such responses conventional military forces are willing and able to provide and the rather limited capacities of the commercial shipping industry is, at most, an interim solution, not a long-term fix (for some indicators of the latter, see the six broad measures I outlined previously). However, in the midst of the tempest brewing off the Horn of Africa, anything that calms the waters, however slightly, represents significant progress.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
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