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Ten years on, is Somali piracy still a threat?

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Ten years on, is Somali piracy still a threat?

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On 6 November the United Nations (UN) Security Council renewed the authorisation for international naval forces to carry out anti-piracy measures off Somalia’s coast. It is now 10 years since the first resolution was passed in 2008 to respond to piracy and robbery against humanitarian and commercial ships in the region.

At the time, piracy was considered a major threat to both local and global peace and security. Since then, and especially since 2013, the number of attacks and hijackings has dropped. Recent incidents have however raised concerns over the long-term sustainability of counter-piracy measures and whether enough is being done on land to increase the resilience of Somali communities and prevent a resurgence of piracy.

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In the most recent attack on 16 October, four men attempted to board the bulk carrier MV KSL Sydney around 340 nautical miles (630km) off the coast of Mogadishu, opening fire on the ship. The pirates aborted the attack after private security guards on board returned fire. The European Union Naval Force, as part of Operation Atalanta, tracked down and destroyed a whaler ship believed to have been that of the attackers.

This is only the second piracy attack off the coast of Somalia reported this year, which is dramatically down from the 160 piracy incidents reported during the height of the problem in 2011.

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The attack’s failure shows that current counter-piracy tactics on board vessels, prescribed by the latest iteration of Best Management Practices, remain effective at preventing pirates from boarding and capturing vessels. The aim of these best practices is to address the vulnerabilities often exploited by pirates, thereby significantly increasing the risks for pirates.

The recent UN secretary-general’s report on piracy and armed robbery off Somalia’s coast attributes the low number of attacks to successful global collaboration and the ongoing work of regional organisations like the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.

The report also cites the continued enforcement measures of international naval forces, and the extensive military, naval and donor support of the international community. Navies, either in coordination with the European Union Naval Force and the Combined Maritime Forces, or deployed outside of them such as South Africa’s Operation Copper, help disrupt pirate activities.

Despite these short-term successes, the international community’s attempts to address the root causes of piracy in Somalia itself, through capacity building initiatives and donor activities, are not yet effective enough.

The secretary-general’s report lists notable successes in counter-piracy efforts by the Somali government, but says the root causes of piracy still need to be fully addressed. Among them are poverty and a lack of employment opportunities in Somalia’s coastal communities, as well as a lack of legal, governance and maritime infrastructure.

The activities of pirate groups must be understood in the broader context of Somalia’s ongoing crisis. The crisis has allowed the root causes for the emergence and proliferation of these groups to continue for two reasons.

First, competition between political factions in Somalia has left poverty unaddressed. This undermines sustainable development and the creation of economic alternatives. People are drawn to piracy and other illegal activities with the promise of, if not wealth, a stable income.

Somalia is mired in a zero-sum internal political struggle, with federal states and groups competing for power and resources in the areas they are able to govern. Political stability in Somalia would allow for economic alternatives to illegal activities.  

Second, according to the recent report by the Centre for Military Studies from the University of Copenhagen, some of the criminal networks responsible for piracy are still around. While many so-called pirate foot soldiers languish in jail, the ‘kingpins’ remain at large.

The report argues that pirate groups shifted their focus away from piracy towards more profitable illegal activities. For these criminal networks, the defining factor is opportunity and revenue. While navies stationed in the region can increase the risks and costs for pirates, they don’t get involved in the prosecution of human trafficking, arms smuggling and other illegal activities. In the absence of criminal justice, the groups continue to profit by other means.

A more coherent regional effort to address smuggling would help stop the money flow that fuels these groups. However, situations such as Yemen’s ongoing war create ungoverned spaces for criminal networks to function and prosper.

The conditions needed for long-term solutions to piracy remain absent. At the core of the problem is Somalia’s dependency on the presence of foreign navies and international support for stability and security. Somalia doesn’t have the capacity to handle the issue without foreign help. Comprehensive counter-piracy efforts must keep the pressure on pirate groups while addressing the root causes that enable these networks to emerge.

Puntland has been successfully fighting piracy since 2008. Once a centre of pirate activity, the federal state has taken proactive and effective counter-piracy measures – like establishing a maritime police force – to drive away pirate groups and secure the coast. This has driven the network to the nearby autonomous region of Galmudug.

Puntland’s success story may help shape and define a Somali-owned approach to counter-piracy. But long-term achievements depend on a stable and unified Somali state. As long as the root causes of pirate groups are not addressed, the threat of a resurgence in piracy will hover on the horizon.

Written by Denys Reva, Junior Researcher, ISS Pretoria

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