American and European warships surrounded a hijacked Ukrainian freighter anchored off the coast of Somalia Monday, after the MV Faina – with its cargo of Russian tanks, antiaircraft guns, and rocket-propelled grenades – was snatched last Thursday by pirates apparently linked to Somalia's Islamist movement.
The prospect of insurgents controlling a ship loaded with weapons seems to have prompted international navies to get serious about fighting piracy in what have become the world's most dangerous waters.
"The sheer volume of weapons on board, and the fact that it could even represent the turning point in the Islamists' war on land, could serve to force the international community to get serious, albeit rather later," says Bruno Schiemsky, a recent chairman of the United Nations' Monitoring Group on Somalia.
But shipping companies oppose a militarization of this crucial cargo artery, and experts say the problems at sea can't be fixed without first addressing the anarchic country's problems on land. "We can't solve the problem by destroying a couple of speedboats. It's not a sea problem it's a land problem," Mr. Schiemsky continues. "It needs a structural response, clearing their headquarters and bases."
"My crew is actively monitoring the situation, keeping constant watch on the vessel and the waters in the immediate vicinity," the ship's commanding officer, Curtis Goodnight, said in a statement.
Rather than take action on land, the international response to piracy has so far centered on using naval power to keep pirates at bay. Combined Task Force 150, set up as part of Operation Enduring Freedom to tackle international terrorism, has been patrolling shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden. It has established a series of way points marking a safe corridor, monitored by warships and coalition aircraft overhead.
Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for Combined Task Force 150, based in Bahrain, insists the naval vessels are stemming attacks. "We have deterred pirate attacks – 12 in the past month – so we are having an impact," says Lieutenant Christensen. "But this is an international problem and needs an international solution. It will take more than the six or seven ships we have in 2.4 square miles of sea."
Getting international cooperation has proved difficult, though. This month's surge in pirate attacks has prompted some countries to send help to protect the waterway: Malaysia has dispatched three naval vessels, and a Russian destroyer is also on its way. But calls by the French and Spanish governments to set up a naval group tasked specifically with tackling piracy have so far come to nought.
Private military contractors provide one possible way of plugging the gaps. Armed security teams standing watch would deter all but the boldest of pirates, but the proposal is unpopular with shipping lines.
Giles Noakes, head of security for Bimco, a shipping association that represents 65 percent of the industry, says, "We are extremely unhappy with the pressure that is being placed on us in this area. We maintain that the risks of collateral damage both to ships and innocent seafarers are significant if we go down that road."
Piracy spread off the coast of Somalia after the collapse of its Siad Barre's regime in 1991. Two years ago it was all but stamped out by the Union of Islamic Courts, which controlled most of southern and central Somalia for six months. But the pirates returned with a vengeance this year.
Though the Islamists shut down the pirates when they were in power, it seems they are happy to use them to help bring weapons, cash, and fighters into the country as they wage war against the government and Ethiopian forces.
The pirates appear to be operating in conjunction with al-Shabaab, the youth wing of Somalia's Islamist movement, which controls the key port city of Kismayo and swaths of the country, says Schiemsky. "They have been sending pickups from their strongholds in Mogadishu to go and collect the weapons."
Much of the problem stems from Puntland, right at the tip of the Horn, which declared itself semiautonomous in 1998 and was once hailed as a model for a stable Somalia, says Rashid Abdi Sheikh, a Horn of Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group.
The breakdown of Puntland's government allowed pirate gangs to evolve into organized criminal networks, he explains. "Unless you fix Puntland, you cannot fix piracy. The chaos there has spread to the sea," he said.