There have been fewer attacks by Somali pirates during the first quarter of this year than during the same time period last year, according to a report issued Wednesday by the London-based International Maritime Bureau.
Thirty-five of the 67 reported piracy incidents worldwide were conducted by Somali pirates, according to the report. The impressive drop from the 102 attacks reported during the first quarter of last year is due in large part to the efforts of the multinational naval force patrolling the Gulf of Aden.
That's the good news.
The bad news?
The pirates' reach is extending far beyond the waters of the Gulf of Aden, as European and American naval patrols force Somali pirates to venture further afield for ships to hijack.
Consider this past week, where Somali pirates have gone on a hijacking spree, capturing three Thai ships far out in the Indian Ocean and a Liberian-owned cargo ship off the coast of Oman. The capture of the Thai ships set a new record, at 1,200 nautical miles from the Somali coast.
This week’s attacks underline a weakness in the increased militarization of the seas, showing that naval patrols alone won’t stop piracy.
“Their territory is growing, and as the naval patrols lock down the Gulf of Aden, [the pirates] are going farther out into the Indian Ocean,” says Roger Middleton, an expert on Somali piracy with Chatham House in London. “The thing is, it’s not as easy to patrol as large an area as the Indian Ocean. The Gulf of Aden concentrates shipping, but there are numerous trading routes across the Indian Ocean. You’re looking at trading routes to Australia and to southern Africa, as well as of course shipping between the Persian Gulf and India. There’s a lot of ships out there to chase.”
The economic impact of Somali piracy – estimated to be $400 million a year in additional insurance costs alone – should be reason enough for Somalia’s ongoing political crisis to become a top priority for the international community, and especially for Europe, which conducts 80 percent of its maritime trade through the Gulf of Aden.
Experts say that the solution to Somali piracy is not in European naval patrols, nor in armed security patrols on commercial ships, but in helping Somalis to create their first stable and credible government in 20 years. Lacking a government that can enforce the rule of law in Somali cities and ports, Somali pirates will continue to operate with impunity.
According to the European Naval Force, EUNAVFOR, the latest pirate attack was against the Liberian-owned, Panamanian-flagged MV VOC Daisy, a cargo ship with a crew of 21 Filipinos. The Daisy was headed west from the United Arab Emirates and was 118 miles from the Omani coast and 174 miles from the EU’s zone of control when it was attacked by four pirates in a skiff, carrying three AK-47s, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, according to reports.
Even without the piracy problem, helping Somalis create a stable government is no easy task.
A Western- and UN-backed Somali government, led by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, controls about four square blocks of Mogadishu, and that only with the protection of African Union peacekeeping troops and an ever-changing collection of local militias.
Offensive on land
Mr. Sharif’s government is reportedly preparing a major “offensive” against the Islamist militia, Al Shabab, which has links to Al Qaeda and has reportedly added thousands of newly trained troops for a total force of some 10,000 fighters. But a feud between Sharif and his parliament currently threatens to bring down the government, even before its Army has a chance to fight.
This week, in a letter to the Somali diaspora, the United Nation’s special representative to the Somali government wrote that recent fighting is an indication that the offensive has in some ways already begun.
“The government has been preparing for quite a while an offensive to address, in particular, security in the capital,” wrote Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN representative. “In this respect, the offensive has already started....”
He called on the Somali government to set aside their differences and work together.
Currently, Sharif loyalists refuse to attend parliament while his rival, parliamentary Speaker Sheikh Adan Nur Madobe, is presiding.
These disputes “are a distraction,” Mr. Abdallah added, saying “I hope that the positive developments that are taking place will diminish the role of those elements that continue to make the Somali people suffer.”
Until Somalia becomes a governed nation, however, pirates will continue to ply the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, says Mr. Middleton.
“Shipping is more sparse farther out at sea, so the pirates have to wait longer to attack a ship," he says. "But the pirates are preparing with that in mind. They take more water and food and fuel, and they have their GPS to get them home.”