The Evolving Face of Piracy in the Horn of Africa

1st February 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

The largest ransom ever paid to Somali pirates was dropped on 17 January 2010, onto a Greek-flagged oil tanker with two million barrels of oil on board. An aircraft dropped the ransom believed to be between $5.5 million and $7 million for the release of the tanker, which was hijacked near the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles. The concern, however, is that the tanker has yet to be freed as a dispute between rival pirate gangs over the spoils rages on. Pirates aboard the tanker and rivals in speedboats continue to fire at each other in a tussle for control of the vessel and the ransom. The challenge now is that the pirates on the vessel are not able to return to the shore, because of the infighting. The standoff has left the vessel owners and the hijacked crew in jeopardy.

By all standards, piracy off the Horn of Africa is growing in frequency, range, aggression, and severity at an alarming rate. The pirates, operating from well-equipped and well-armed enclaves along the Indian Ocean coast of central Somalia and Puntland, cover more than 2000 miles of the coastline and more than 2 million square miles of the ocean. One of the unique characteristics of Somali piracy has been the increasing sophistication of the weaponry and tactics used.

The report of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1846 (S/2009/146) of 2009 warns that some of the pirate groups now rival established Somali authorities in terms of their military capabilities and resource bases. The typical Somali pirate team is equipped with a variety of small arms and light weapons, including AK-47 rifles and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. A research commissioned by the Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons (RECSA) in 2008 revealed that pirates and other militia groups in the Horn of Africa have an easy access to a wide range of weaponry including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). These weapons find their way from the Middle East into Bakaraaha Arms Market in Mogadishu, the biggest known open market for arms in Africa.

Although pirate attacks involve violence and use of sophisticated weapons, most Somali pirate groups are less willing to wantonly harm their captives. This is because, unlike pirates in other parts of the world who attack ships with the aim of taking the vessel or its contents, pirates off the Somali coast use their hostages as pawns in negotiating for ransom payments.

In retrospect, most navies avoid rescue operations that could endanger the lives of hostages, preferring instead to engage in hostage negotiations or wait for shipping companies to negotiate ransom. For instance, the April 2009 attack on MV Liberty Sun was reported to have been a retaliatory attack by pirates, whose aim was to damage or sink the ship and kill its crew as revenge for the deaths of three Somali pirates killed by the U.S. military in an effort to secure the release of a detained captain of the MV Maersk Alabama days earlier.

Besides the lethality of their weaponry, pirates off the coast of Somalia are reportedly highly skilled in their operations such that most vessels under attack have less than 15 to 30 minutes between the first sighting of the pirates and their boarding of the ship and taking of it hostage. Pirates use fishing skiffs powered with large outboard motors to give chase to larger, but slower moving vessels. In case a naval ship does not arrive on scene within those 15 to 30 minutes, it will likely arrive too late to prevent the capture of the vessel. Another challenge is the vastness of the waters to be patrolled and the relatively small number of naval ships available. This means that the closest naval ship is often far too distant to arrive within that timeframe. The use of force by naval ships against suspected pirate vessels has also been problematic because of the difficulty in distinguishing a pirate mother ship from a legitimate commercial ship. The U.S Congressional Research Service reported that in November 2008, a ship from the Indian navy attacked what it thought was a pirate mother ship, only to discover, after the attack was conducted, that the targeted ship was an innocent Thai commercial trawler.

The challenges to fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia have been worsened by the lack of a central authority in the country. Pirates in other parts of the world are less likely to have such a sanctuary. The situation in Somalia therefore presents maritime security forces with significant problems of engaging the pirates using traditional strategies and tactics.

Several arguments exist as to why piracy continues to flourish in the coastline in the Horn of Africa. There are those who hold the view that piracy in the Horn of Africa has been exacerbated by poverty, lack of employment, environmental hardship, pitifully low incomes, reduction of pastoralist and maritime resources due to drought and illegal fishing as well as the volatile security and political situation in Somalia. This view posits that while the profitability of piracy appears to be the primary motivation for most pirates, conditions prevailing in Somalia make survival difficult for many and prosperity elusive for most, hence lowering the relative risk of engaging in piracy.

Another view is that piracy is symptomatic of the overall situation in Somalia, including the prevalence of illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping off the coast of Somalia, which adversely affects the Somali economy and marine environment. Piracy is therefore viewed, especially by those sympathetic to the plight of Somalis as resulting from the need for Somalis to protect Somalia's sovereignty, territorial integrity and sovereign rights over natural resources.

Whichever of the two views, it is clear that ransom payments are the lifeblood of Somali pirates, and that each ransom paid further emboldens the pirates. This has made the pirates to create a well-established hostage-for-ransom haven in which seized vessels, cargoes and crews are brought from the high seas into pirate bases from where ransom negotiations take place with the vessel owners or agent using the ship's communication equipment.

Under the prevailing conditions, it is arguably clear that the volatile Horn of Africa, that is home to increasing cases of piracy and several ongoing armed conflicts including armed banditry, will continue to be a lucrative market to dealers in small arms and light weapons from around the world, with Somalia being the lynchpin.

While many approaches are being suggested on how to repress piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, it remains important that achieving this objective should recognize the need for the cooperation, coordination and integration of all actors regionally and internationally in terms of military engagement, law enforcement, judicial processes as well as diplomatic negotiations among the actors in and beyond the affected region.

Written by: Nelson Alusala, Senior Researcher, Arms Management Programme, ISS Pretoria