Somalia: Why The Pirates Are Immune From Attack


April 9, 2009: Somali pirates are now operating as far east as the Seychelles, which are a group of 115 islands 1,500 kilometers from the African coast. The islands have a total population of 85,000 and no military power to speak of. They are defenseless against pirates. So are many of the ships moving north and south off the East Coast of Africa. While ships making the Gulf of Aden run know they must take measures to deal with pirate attacks (posting lookouts 24/7, training the crew to use fire hoses and other measures to repel boarders, hanging barbed wire on the railings and over the side to deter boarders), this is not so common for ships operating a thousand kilometers or more off the east coast of Africa. Ships in this area were warned late last year that they were at risk. Now, the pirates are out in force, demonstrating that the risk is real.

The pirates are media savvy, and are pushing the line that they are simply patriots, getting payback for the foreigners who illegally fish in Somali waters (common) and dump toxic wastes off the coast (rare, but makes for great headlines). There are over a thousand gunmen attached to pirate gangs in the north, although the group operating off the east coast pay "taxes" to al Shabaab for the use of several fishing villages. Most of the ships seized late last  year were taken closer to the Yemeni coast, thus showing that the entire Gulf of Aden (between Yemen and Somalia, with the Indian ocean to the east and the entrance to the Red Sea to the west) was subject to pirate attacks. Despite the scary headlines this has generated, world trade, or even traffic to the Suez Canal (at the north end of the Red Sea) is not threatened. While ten percent of world shipping traffic goes through the Gulf of Aden each year, most of it is in ships too fast for the pirates to catch, and too large for them to easily get aboard. These ships pay higher fuel costs (for the high speed transit), higher insurance premiums, and two days of "danger pay" for their unionized crews, and that's it. This increases the annual operating costs of these ships by a fraction of one percent. But for smaller, and slower, freighters, mostly serving local customers, the pirates remain a problem. These ships tend to be owned by African and Arab companies, and manned by African and Arab crews.

In dealing with a piracy problem like this, you have three main choices. You can do what is currently being done, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden and shooting only when you see speedboats full of gunmen threatening a merchant ship. The rule appears to be that you fire lots of warning shots, and rarely fire at the pirates themselves. This approach has saved a few ships from capture, and the more warships you get into the Gulf, the more pirate attacks you can foil. But it won't stop the pirates from capturing ships. Establishing a similar anti-piracy patrol off the east coast of Africa would cost over half a billion dollars a year, at least.

A second approach is to be more aggressive. That is, your ships and helicopters shoot (pirates) on sight and shoot to kill. Naturally, the pirates will hide their weapons (until they are in the act of taking a ship), but it will still be obvious what a speedboat full of "unarmed" men are up to. You could take a chance (of dead civilians and bad publicity) and shoot up any suspicious speedboat. Some of the pirates would probably resort to taking some women and children with them. Using human shields is an old custom, and usually works against Westerners. More pirate attacks will be thwarted with this approach, but the attacks will continue, and NATO will be painted as murderous bullies in the media.

The third option is to go ashore and kill or capture all the pirates, or at least as many as you can identify. Destroy pirate boats and weapons. This is very dangerous, because innocent civilians will be killed or injured, and the property of non-pirates will be damaged. The anti-piracy forces will be condemned in some quarters for committing atrocities. There might even be indictments for war crimes. There will be bad publicity. NATO will most likely avoid this option too. The bottom line is that the pirate attacks, even if they took two or three times as many ships as last year, would not have a meaningful economic impact on world shipping. For example, the international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden costs $300 million a year, a fraction of a percent of the defense budgets of the nations involved. Politicians and bureaucrats can stand that kind of pain, and will likely do so and refrain from doing anything bold in Somalia.

Somali refugees are a growing problem. Not so much because there are more and more of them, but because so many of them are criminals. Kenya, which has suffered from Somali raiders for centuries, is now turning back Somalis seeking asylum. The UN has condemned this, and demands that Kenya allow a fourth Somali refugee camp be established in northeastern Kenya. The three camps already there hold over 250,000 Somalis. The UN is also trying to get Kenya to stop sending Somali refugees back to Somali. Kenya accepted 60,000 Somali refugees last year, and have had no end of problems with them. Over 20,000 Somali refugees entered Kenya this year. Somali gunmen try, and often succeed, in using the refugee camps as rest areas. Worse, the Somali gunmen sometimes do some looting in Kenya, instead of going back to Somali to steal. So Kenya has told the UN to stuff it, and is turning away most Somalis trying to flee into Kenya. But the UN insists that peace can only be achieved if a deal is negotiated with the Islamic radicals and most powerful warlords. That's difficult, because these groups cannot even agree among themselves who shall rule all of Somalia. Moreover, the Islamic radicals, especially al Shabaab, wants to establish an Islamic state in Somalia, and later the world. The UN believes it is possible to negotiate around these obstacles, but is vague on exactly how that will be done.

Somali Islamic radical groups Al Shabaab has warned Kenya to not interfere with its gunmen operating along the border. This is a seemingly bold, but typically Somali, attitude towards Kenyans. In this case, Kenya has a lot of powerful allies, like the United States, and is not that intimidated. But the Somalis militants are violent and unpredictable, so the Kenyans are braced for anything. For the last two years, Kenya has officially closed the border, but Somalis continue to use it (for fleeing as refugees, or smuggling both ways). With more Islamic terrorists operating openly in Somalia, under the protection of al Shabaab, the security of the Kenyan border becomes more important. Islamic terrorists can use Kenyan airports and ports to get in and out, although there is less scrutiny up north in Puntland and Somaliland (where passage to Yemen, Sudan or Saudi Arabia is easily arranged.) Eritrea and Sudan are particularly hospitable to Islamic radicals.

Other nations are imposing more restrictions on Somalis fleeing the anarchy in Somalia. The Netherlands recently decided to stop automatically granting asylum to Somalis illegally entering the country, because many were criminals or using fraud to claim asylum. Smuggling Somalis into Europe is a big business for the network of criminal gangs from Somalia, Yemen, Africa and Europe. Somalis who can pay, send smuggle family members to safety in Europe and North America. Some of the men return to fight for clan or religious militias. A Somali, who was a naturalized Canadian citizen, was recently reported killed while involved in a raid into Ethiopia, while another is accused of carrying out political assassinations inside Somalia.

Al Shabaab and the Transitional National Government (TNG, now run by more moderate Islamic radicals) are trying to gain more control over foreign aid groups. The foreign aid is the main source of food for several million Somalis, and a major source of income for warlords (including al Shabaab and several groups that support the TNG). The aid groups are forces to pay for security (a "protection racket") in order to assure the safety of their staff. This has not always worked. Last year, 34 aid workers were killed in Somalia, 26 were kidnapped, and 13 of these are still being held (for ransom, or other considerations). Al Shabaab and the TNG have fought each other to a standstill in southern Somalia, and are trying to negotiate some kind of understanding.

April 8, 2009: An American container ship, the Maersk Alabama, headed for Mombasa, Kenya, with relief supplies for Somali refugees, was attacked by pirates, who briefly took control of the ship. The American crew fought back, and drove the pirates off. But during the struggle, the pirates kept the American captain captive, while the crew seized one of the pirates. Negotiations ensued, and a deal was made to exchange prisoners. The Americans released their Somali captive, who went to join his fellow pirates in a small boat sitting next to the 481 foot (155m) long container ship. But then the pirates refused to release their captive, and a standoff ensued. An American destroyed showed up the next day, to add its weight to the negotiations.

April 7, 2009: In the last two days, Somali pirates seized five ships off the east coast, often hundreds of kilometers out to sea. It's believed that several pirate mother ships (seagoing fishing boats towing one or more speedboats) are patrolling the East African shipping lanes, where there are few pirate ships patrolling. The pirates now have 17 ships, and over 250 sailors, being held for ransom.

April 5, 2009: A Yemeni ocean going tugboat, and its seven man crew, were seized by Somali pirates off the east coast.

April 3, 2009: Puntland has established a coast guard, to regulate (and tax) foreign fishing boats operating off its coast. But no country officially recognizes the government of Puntland, and recently, two Greek fishing boats resisted, with gunfire, being seized (for illegal fishing) by the Puntland coast guard. Many consider the Puntland coast guard to be a semi-official pirate organization.


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