May 20, 2012: On May 14th, for the first time, EU (European Union) anti-piracy forces attacked Somali pirates on land. An armed helicopter came in at night near the Somali port of Harardhere (400 kilometers north of Mogadishu) and destroyed five speed boats that surveillance aircraft had identified as owned by pirates. This is apparently the first of many such attacks.
Two months ago the EU agreed to allow its anti-piracy force off Somalia (EUNAVFOR) to attack coastal targets and coordinate military operations with the Somali TNG (Transitional National Government). This means that EUNAVFOR ships and aircraft can attack pirate targets on land.
The EU plan apparently involves going after pirate logistics and fuel supplies in their coastal havens. This could be tricky, as the pirates are well aware of how the Western media works and could easily shift many of these targets into residential neighborhoods. The EU could respond by blockading the pirate bases and attacking pirate attempts to truck in fuel and other supplies. Pirates could put civilians on trucks or even captured sailors from ships held for ransom. There is no easy solution to the Somali pirates, but the more aggressive EU policies should produce some interesting results.
Most of the pirate bases (coastal towns and villages) are in Puntland, a self-declared state in northern Somalia. While less violent and chaotic than southern Somalia, Puntland officials are usually bribed and intimidated (by the superior firepower of the pirate gangs) into inaction. Technically, Puntland is opposed to the pirates, so the EU is hoping that Puntland won't make a stink when EU forces begin shooting at pirates on the Puntland coast. It's interesting to note that the recent attack was on a port on the central Somali coast. Harardhere is one of the few pirate controlled ports outside Puntland
This new policy is not a radical shift in policy but a continuation of a trend that has been under way for a while. For example, in the last year the EU and other members of the anti-piracy patrol have taken a more aggressive approach to the pirates. Pirate mother ships (usually captured ocean going fishing ships) have been attacked on sight and any speedboat carrying armed men face similar treatment. This has encouraged Puntland to be more aggressive towards the pirates but the Puntland anti-piracy force has not been able to shut down any pirate bases, and pirates openly try to gun down the leaders of the government anti-piracy effort. Nevertheless, the more aggressive attitude towards the pirates is having an impact. Aggressive anti-piracy tactics and more armed guards on merchant ships have reduced pirate attacks by nearly 70 percent in the last six months and the number of captured ships even more.
This is not the first attempt to shut down the pirates in Harardhere. Two years ago Islamic terror group Hizbul Islam sent several hundred gunmen into Harardhere. Hizbul Islam announced that this was the first step in eliminating piracy in Somalia. Al Shabaab had been in Harardhere before but left because the local clan militias made it too difficult to hold the town. What was really going on the second time around was Hizbul Islam seeking to work out a profit sharing deal with the pirates and clans. Hizbul Islam was also known to be looking for a port, after losing control of Kismayo (near the Kenyan border) to rival al Shabaab the previous year. At first, partnership negotiations with the pirates didn't work, so Hizbul Islam simply decided to take control of the port, at least so they could more easily bring goods and weapons in by ship. Harardhere was a minor pirate port, with only three of the 23 ships currently held by pirates. Those three ships were moved 230 kilometers north to the port of Hobyo as Hizbul Islam gunmen approached. The pirates themselves fled in convoys of vehicles (many of them new SUVs bought with ransom money). The main pirate bases are in the far north (Puntland), where the local government provides some protection from foreign interference. The pirates eventually returned to Harardhere, as Hizbul Islam got involved in a civil war with its larger rival, al Shabaab, and the two groups merged.