Did piracy ever really go away in Somalia?

A NATO anti-piracy mission ended in December. It may have suppressed hijacking of merchant ships. But the ideological root of pirating remains alive and well.

In this image issued by EU NAVFOR shows the EU NAVFOR French warship FS Nivose with Somali pirate skiffs off the Somali coast on Friday March 5, 2010.

Until 2012, the commercial freighters that crawled past the coast of Somalia produced fortunes for pirates who held their crews captive for ransom. Eventually, NATO and other major trading countries, including China and Iran, rolled out warships, captured the pirates, and sent them abroad for prosecution. And shipping companies took extra precautions, including putting armed guards on their vessels, which calmed nerves in the industry and kept pirates off their boats and out of the headlines.

But that all changed Monday with the hijacking of the Aris 13, a Sri Lankan-crewed oil freighter off the northern Somalian coast – the most high-profile incident in years, and one that now highlights the limits of international authorities’ success. It wasn't a surprise to some. In August, the United Nations Security Council warned that even as foreign navies and some local pressure had reduced pirate attacks to just 15 in the previous year from their 2011 peak of 237, criminal networks remained intact.

"Credible reports indicate that Somali pirates possess the intent and capability to resume attacks against large commercial ships, should the opportunity present itself," read the UN report. 

Meanwhile, much of the piracy in the region has gone back to its roots, in a sense: preying on foreign fishing vessels that ply the nation's unregulated waters of a coast guard-less Somaliland. Many Somalians see those trawlers as plundering national resources. And as the latest hijacking draws renewed attention to piracy, some say the international strategy should turn more toward resolving what many Somalians see as a bigger problem than attacks on merchant ships. 

"The original idea behind piracy was that there was no state to protect [Somalia’s] shores," says Abdi Samatar, chair of the University of Minnesota’s department of Geography, Environment and Society, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. Following the collapse of the government in the early 1990s, he says, foreign "fishing fleets came looting this place, and a lot of fishermen and fisherwomen were basically put out of business."

Angered by the sight of foreign trawlers in what are considered among Africa’s richest fisheries, members of the former government’s coast guard and local fishermen began attacking the fishing vessels and stealing their money and cargo, wrote Dr. Samatar in a 2011 paper. In time, criminal networks got in on the act, parroting the “defensive” pirates’ nationalist motives even as they redirected their hijacking onto the thousands of merchant ships passing through nearby waters.

The foreign trawlers continue to fish near Somalia, where they often have a technological advantage, notes Christopher Daniels, a Somalia security expert at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. 

“A local fisherman may be out there with a fishing rod, whereas a fishing vessel can drop a big net and eventually messes up the ecosystem. It makes it more challenging for them to get fish, and they have to go further out, even if they don’t have the boats to do that,” he tells the Monitor. 

According to the anti-piracy group Oceans Beyond Piracy, some trawlers also use aggressive methods to stake out claims to fisheries, stealing and destroying rivals’ equipment and even hiring armed guards to fend off competition. And although the UN has been working with Somali authorities to establish a federal fisheries authority, what Oceans Beyond Piracy calls “the fundamental grievance” behind pirating has gotten short thrift compared to efforts to protect shipping interests. 

Shifting international investment toward professionalizing and cleaning up weak and corrupt Somali security forces, says Samatar, would be both cheaper and more effective than sending out navy fleets to tamp down on attacks of merchant ships. 

“It’s just the wrong kind of strategy that doesn’t serve anybody, including taxpayers here in North America,” he says.

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