By Peter Lehr
The seizure of the Saudi supertanker last week by the pirates of Somalia was their most audacious attack to date, but it was not their first.
The pirates hit the headlines a little over three years ago, on Nov 5, 2005, when they attempted to hijack the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit some 75 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. This brazen but unsuccessful attack triggered the first wave of reports on piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of this beleaguered nation.
Soon, of course, the problem dropped off the media radar. It came back with a vengeance in April this year with the hijacking of the French luxury yacht Le Ponant. Its 30 crew members were kept hostage for eight days, and released apparently after a substantial amount of ransom had been paid.
This time, media attention did not quickly die down: buoyed, no doubt, by the huge ransom paid in the Le Ponant case, Somali pirates embarked on an ambitious campaign, striking ever farther from their own shores. Late in September, Somali pirates succeeded in capturing the MV Faina, which was transporting 33 battle tanks, some 250 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. The Faina's crew of 21 is still held hostage - except for its master, who died of a stroke soon after the hijacking.
It has been quite a year for Somali pirates: 92 attacks have to date been attempted, with 36 successful hijackings and 268 crew members taken hostage. Given that the average ransom per vessel amounts to about $2 million, it is hardly surprising that the port of Eyl, one of the major pirate lairs, has witnessed a veritable boom, with pirates feted by many as local heroes. Some observers estimate that Somali pirates reaped $30 million in ransom during the first nine months of this year.
Another sum is less frequently mentioned: the estimated $300 million of fish poached in Somali waters annually by trawlers hailing from nations as far away as France and Spain, for that matter. Seen from this perspective, it is hardly surprising that some pirate groups see themselves as defenders of Somali fishermen, giving their groups names such as National Volunteer Coast Guard of Somalia, or Somali Marines.
Their modus operandi is telling, too. The pirates have reached a technical and nautical sophistication matching that of many "real" coastguards all over the world: Somali pirates operate from mother ships, probably small freighters or local dhows, which enable them to strike so far out at sea.
They use satellite phones and GPS as navigational aids, and once they spot their prey they attack it in wolfpack-style, swarming the targeted vessel with fast fibreglass boats and halting its passage by firing AK-47 salvoes or even rocket-propelled grenade rounds. Then they board the vessel, and the maritime hostage scenario begins.
So steeply has the situation in the Gulf of Aden and along the 3,600-km coast of Somalia deteriorated that the EU has initiated a "close support protection system" for vessels sailing through these waters.
The limitations of that system, and the scale of the challenge for anyone attempting to chase the pirates from the water, were made plain with the seizure of the Sirius Star outside the EU safe corridor. In any case, deploying Western naval squadrons on a continuous basis might not be the best solution.
Rather, regional navies or coastguards should be encouraged to pool their resources in order to conduct anti-piracy patrols, modeled on the Malacca Strait Patrol - which conducted by the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, resulted in a noticeable decrease of piracy in this former hot spot.
This was not lost on Egypt, which recently called upon the Red Sea states to inaugurate a similar combined effort in the Gulf of Aden. The east African coastal waters of Somalia should ideally be patrolled by the naval forces of Kenya, Tanzania and other interested littoral states.
The role of western navies could be to lend technical assistance and expertise, as well as provide some secondhand patrol vessels if required. This will be costly, but cheaper than keeping up a substantial Western naval presence for the foreseeable future, overstretching military resources further still.
However, it should be pointed out that conducting anti-piracy patrols in these waters can only ever be half of the solution. The other is to protect Somali waters against illegal fishing, thus giving local fishermen a fair chance to earn a living without turning to criminality.
With all the focus on piracy and the "lure of easy money", it is all but forgotten that the majority of Somali fishermen do just that - try to earn a decent living against all odds, and now more and more often in the crossfire of pirates and navies. A deadly catch indeed.
The author is a lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland
(China Daily via The Guardian November 25, 2008)