France obtained permission from Somaliland authorities
to use the abandoned U.S. base at Berbera


Time to Hunt Somali Pirates

J.Peter Pham, PhD

Late last Monday evening, for the second time this year, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched special operations forces into the territory of the defunct Somali Democratic Republic to free French citizens who had been hijacked by pirates off the dangerous waters off the Horn of Africa. The next morning, in a pre-dawn operation lasting just ten minutes, a team from the Commando Hubert of the berets verts, the elite naval commandos, freed a French couple, Jean-Yves and Bernadette Delanne, who had been kidnapped two weeks earlier when their yacht, the Carré d'As IV, was seized by pirates as it was passing through the Gulf of Aden en route to France from Australia. The pirates holding the Delannes had been demanding a $1.4 million ransom.Instead one pirate ended up dead and another half dozen received a free trip to one of holding cells belonging to the France's special counterterrorism court where they will join six other Somalis captured by French commandos in April after they hijacked the luxury sailboat Le Ponant and held its thirty crew members hostage. The berets verts suffered no casualties.

Several hours after the commando raid, in a speech from the Élysée Palace in Paris, President Sarkozy noted that he ordered the rescue when it became clear the pirates planned to take the hostages to Eyl, a pirate base in the semi-autonomous northeastern Somali region of Puntland, where "their captivity could have lasted months." According to the French chief of state, "The world cannot accept this. Today, these are no longer isolated cases but a genuine industry of crime. This industry threatens a fundamental freedom, that of movement and of international commerce."Citing the fact that piracy in the Gulf of Aden had "literally exploded" this year with more than fifty attacks so far this year and Somali pirates still holding an estimated 150 hostages and more than a dozen ships, mainly around Eyl, the president called the international community to action against "this plague."

Yet barely 24 hours later, a Hong Kong-registered ship, the 25,000-ton Stolt Valor, which had been chartered by the Norwegian-Luxembourgish Stolt-Nielsen Transportation Group and bound for Mumbai, India, with a chemical cargo, was seized with its crew of twenty-two, including 18 Indians, two Filipinos, one Bangladeshi, and one Russian. The next day, Somali pirates hijacked the Greek-owned, Maltese registered bulk carrier Centauri, which was carrying 26 Filipino seamen and a load of 17,000 tons of salt to the Kenyan port of Mombasa; the vessel was taken to southern Somalia which, as I reported late last month, had come under the control of Islamist forces with al Qaeda links. In a separate attack that same day, the Hong Kong-registered Great Creation, which was traveling to India from Tunisia, was also seized with its crew of 24 Chinese and one Sri Lankan. On Sunday, another Greek-owned freighter, the Bahamian-registered Captain Stephanos, was hijacked 250 nautical miles off the Somali coast. As of the time this column is being filed, there is no word on the fate of ship's crew of seventeen Filipinos, one Chinese, and one Ukrainian.

That the attacks are increasing should come as little surprise. In an interview with Der Spiegel last week, Germany ship owner Niels Stolberg admitted that his Bremen-based firm, Beluga Shipping GmbH, paid $1.1 million earlier this month to recover its $23 milllion freighter, the Antigua and Barbuda-registered BBC Trinidad, which had been hijacked while carrying pipes and other oil equipment from Houston, Texas, to Muscat, Oman. With ship owners willing to pay ransoms of more than $1 million for the release of their hijacked vessels, Somali piracy in increasing in both frequency and sophistication. Not only are the attacks the most lucrative economic activity in Somalia these days, but the pirates are using at least part of the ransoms they have collecting to upgrade their arsenals in the hopes of landing even larger maritime prizes. The authoritative shipping paper of record, Lloyd's List, warned last week that "ransom paid to pirate raiders off Somalia could spiral to $50 million this year, fueling copy cat attacks."

From being the occasional nuisance whose deadly potential I warned about more than two years ago in the inaugural column of this series when I reported on an incident of some pirates foolishly taking Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Cape St. George and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Gonzalez 25 nautical miles off the Somali coast, Somali piracy has, alas, burgeoned into an international problem affecting literally dozens of countries around the globe. Hijacked vessels currently being held in Somali ports include ships flying the flags of China, Egypt, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Panama, South Korea, and Thailand. Captured seamen presently being held for ransom by the pirates come from fifteen countries, including Croatia, India, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Russia. Insurance premiums for commercial shipping which must pass through the Gulf of Aden have soared tenfold over the course of the past year, adding yet another drag to the sluggish global economy. Yet shippers have few options: the adverse impact on international commerce of having to navigate all around the Cape of Good Hope, which adds at least 4,500 miles to a voyage, could be even more severe than the increased insurance costs.

Late last week the Round Table of International Shipping Associations - an umbrella group that brings together the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), the International Association of Dry Cargo Ship-owners (Intercargo), the International Chamber of Shipping/International Shipping Federation, and the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko) - jointed the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) in a joint appeal calling on the United Nations' International Maritime Organization (IMO) to use its influence with the world body to secure "real and immediate action against brazen acts of piracy, kidnapping and armed robbery, carried out with increasing frequency against ships in the Gulf of Aden, by pirates based in Somalia," a challenge which the statement described as "in danger of spiraling completely and irretrievably out of control." It should be recalled that the shipping industry and union were hardly exaggerating the potential risks: in addition to other commerce, some 11 percent of world's seaborne petroleum - some 3.3 million barrels - must pass through the very waters currently infested with the Somali pirates.

From the international security perspective, even more grave than the danger to global maritime commerce, there is increasing evidence that at least part of the proceeds from the piracy has gone to fund the Islamist insurgency against the internationally-recognized, but otherwise utterly ineffective, "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) of Somalia. The insurgent "Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia" (ARS) is spearheaded by al-Shabaab ("the Youth"), a group with ties to al-Qaeda which was formally designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this year (see my March 27th report). The latest confirmation of what is at the very least tacit cooperation between the Somali pirates and their terrorist counterparts were the reports over the weekend that the Centauri was headed toward the Islamist-controlled southern Somali coast, rather than to one of the usual pirate havens in Puntland. Moreover, should the link between Somali piracy and Somali Islamist terrorism ever mature beyond the current marriage of convenience to achieve operational and strategic synergies, then the real consequences of the maritime economic warfare which I sketched out in concept two years ago will be truly catastrophic.

And while the pirate gangs and, however indirectly, the ARS insurgents have benefited from the attacks on shipping, the already marginal existence of ordinary Somalis has deteriorated. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) currently feeds some 2.4 million of the approximately 6 million inhabitants of Somalia proper; by the end of the year, the number of those totally dependent upon food assistance is expected to grow by about 50 percent to more than 3.6 million as the region faces what WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran characterized Monday as "the worst humanitarian crisis since 1984," when over one million died in the Ethiopian famine. With approximately 90% of that food aid moved by sea, the pirate attacks threaten to cut off that vital lifeline. While the pirates have not targeted WFP food shipments recently because of escort protection provided by the Canadian Halifax-class frigate HMCS Ville de Québec, the vessel is scheduled to end its three-month deployment and sail home this coming weekend. As yet, no country has stepped forward to take over the mission. The dire humanitarian situation is further aggravated by al-Shabaab's warning last week against any aircraft landing at Mogadishu's Aden Adde Airport, a threat backed by intelligence that the terrorist group had taken delivery of a new consignment surface-to-air missiles. As a result of the Islamists' ban on flights, the only plane to come in all week was a Ugandan military flight that slipped in last Friday to deliver supplies to the Ugandan People's Defense Force contingent which makes up the bulk of the woefully undermanned African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force. In response, ARS forces pounded Mogadishu over the weekend, shelling two AMISOM bases, the airport, and the city's Bakara market; at least two dozen civilians were killed on Monday alone.

What then, might be done to deal with the growing challenge of Somali piracy?

First, commercial vessels need to be better prepared to protect themselves. For now, commercial shipping should limit their risk by navigating within the limits of Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) proclaimed late last month by the Commander, United States Naval Central Command, and entrusted to the Combined Task Force 150 multinational effort originally set up to stop suspect shipping in support of the war on terrorism. In the event they come under pirate attack, vessels transiting through the Gulf of Aden via the MSPA corridor stand a greater chance of receiving assistance from coalition ships maintaining a continual presence in the vicinity. Some ship owners have also invested in alarm systems, close-circuit television, electric fences, and even armed guards as measures to counter the threat of being boarded, many have not. Nonetheless, even if all ships deployed countermeasures, the merchant marine cannot be turned into an armed fleet. Furthermore, with some attacks being mounted more than 200 nautical miles from the Somali coast by heavily armed pirates in ocean going vessels equipped with satellite technology, there is a limit to the effectiveness of the standard advice given to commercial shipping to avoid the coastline, keep alert, and maintain speed. (See point six below.)

Second, given the large area within which the pirates now apparently operate as well as their improved armaments and tactics necessitates a strong naval response to sweep the international sea lanes clear of the pirates. Since early this month the Royal Danish Navy has had a combat support ship, HDMS Absalon in the Gulf of Aden as part of the Combined Task Force 150 (the rotating command of the task force handed over to a Danish officer, Commodore Per Bigum Christensen, last Monday). The Absalon, however, has been spending more of its deployment chasing pirates away from commercial shipping in the MSPA than interdicting terrorist movements of men and materiel: this past week, the frigate-type vessel was answering at least one distress call a day. European Union (EU) foreign ministers meeting in Brussels last Monday expressed their "serious concern about the acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast" and decided to establish a coordination unit tasked with supporting surveillance and protection activities undertaken by individual member states. The ministers also approved "a strategic military option for a possible European Union naval operation." On Saturday, a press release from the Spanish Defense Ministry announced that, in support of the EU coordination unit, Madrid had dispatched a P-3 Orion maritime reconnaissance plane and a Hercules helicopter, as well as a Boeing 727 carrying support personnel, on a three-month deployment to Djibouti, from where the aircraft will patrol the Somali coast. Also over the weekend, the French Permanent Mission to the United Nations was circulating a draft Security Council resolution calling on "all states interested in the safety of maritime activities" to "actively take part in the fight against piracy against vessels off the coast of Somalia, in particular by deploying naval vessels and military aircraft."

Third, while an international anti-piracy coalition as advocated by the French is well and fine, it is effective; and it can only be as effective as its components. While the unanimously passed UN Security Council Resolution 1816 authorizes for a period of six months beginning in June the naval forces of other countries to enter Somali waters in pursuit of the pirates, that document predicated the legal authority to do so on cooperation with the TFG. The problem is that not only is the TFG no government, but it is part and parcel of the problem. Last Friday, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, accused the rulers of Puntland of complicity in the piracy, telling a press conference in Djibouti that "the Puntland leadership has made it easy for pirates to establish a base there" and alleging that some of ransom money collected would "be used to fund the 2009 presidential elections in Puntland." What the Mauritanian diplomat discretely omitted was that Puntland is the stronghold of TFG "President" Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad's Darod clan and the Majeerteen subclansmen who are his most loyal supporters enjoy a disproportionately high representation in the ranks of the pirates. One can only guess how many of the consumer purchases which TFG chieftain is wont to make during frequent sojourns abroad are paid for with misappropriated international funds that are supposed to aid Somali civilians and how many are funded by the tribute payments received by the old warlord from his pirate kinsmen (see this photo posted on a Somali website - the very week it was taken in London earlier this year, dozens of Somalis died in attacks in Mogadishu). The TFG is likelier to be a hindrance than a help in taking the type of strong action, both on land as well as in the water, which will be needed if the pirate havens are to be destroyed once and for all - statements like last week's declaration of support by the International Contact Group on Somalia for the TFG's constantly proliferating array of do-nothing committees to dialogue with the toothless rump of the ARS that, having lost the internal power struggle to more extremist elements, signed the so-called Djibouti Agreement last month are little more than wishful thinking.

Fourth, in addition to eschewing entanglements with obstacles like the TFG, it is imperative that ties be forged with effective authorities capable of helping in the fight against piracy. While pirates operate openly along most of the 2,285 kilometers of the coastline in Somalia proper, none ply the 740 kilometers of Gulf of Aden coastline belonging to the as-yet unrecognized Republic of Somaliland. According to information first disclosed last Wednesday by my friend Professor Iqbal Jhazbhay of the University of South Africa in an interview with Nairobi, Kenya-based Voice of America (VOA) correspondent Alisha Ryu, despite having a base in neighboring Djibouti, France obtained permission from Somaliland authorities to use the abandoned U.S. base at Berbera in the northwestern region of the republic as the staging area for last week's successful rescue. According to other sources, the operation also involved the La Fayette-class light stealth frigate Courbet and two ATL-2 maritime patrol aircraft. After the raid, the base was used again to transfer the six captured pirates to an airplane bound for France. The French appear to have decided to avail themselves of Somaliland President Dahir Riyale Kahin's coincidental presence in their capital for consultations to secure the use of a staging ground that was less likely to jeopardize operational secrecy than Djibouti, where the one runway at Ambouli International Airport is shared by commercial traffic, the French military mission, and Camp Lemonier, home of the America's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). As I have previously advocated and must repeat again:

The international community needs to formally acknowledge de jure what is already de facto: the desuetude of "Somalia" as a sovereign subject of international law. Unitary Somalia is not only dead, but the carcass of that state has been putrefied; reanimation is no longer in the realm of possible. To apply Max Weber's thesis, a government like the TFG that does not even enjoy the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in its own capital -much less elsewhere in the territory it claims as its own - is no government at all. Instead of constantly trying to put the best face on a bad situation,...the emphasis should be shifted to local Somali entities which have taken responsibility for governance in their respective regions.

Fifth, while naval operations can be undertaken to clear the sea lanes of the pirate menace and commando raids launched to rescue hostages, the long term security of the waters around the Horn of Africa requires the development of maritime capacity on the part of states neighboring the anarchic regions of Somalia. As I suggested in last week's column, there is a need to for engagement initiatives like the United States Navy-led Africa Partnership Station (APS), which strengthens the capacity of partner countries to deal with a variety of challenges, including piracy, criminal enterprises, and poaching. However, for most African nations, the scope of their maritime ambitions and interests is far more modest than those of the blue-water navies of middle-tier powers, much less those of the U.S. Navy. In America, functions like maritime safety and law enforcement, littoral escort, and port security have traditionally been the primary responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard. Given that, in terms of mission as well as vessel size, this service is a much closer match to almost all of Africa's naval forces than most of the assets of Naval Forces Central Command or the Pacific Fleet which operate nearby, it would behoove military strategists to consider how to incorporate the Coast Guard more into their planning for security in East Africa.

Sixth, even with short-term kinetic operations and long-term capacity enhancement initiatives, one has to acknowledge that in the waters off the Horn, there would still remain a not insignificant gap in maritime security between what assistance the international community can or will provide and such capacities as African states (and Yemen) might possess. Might it not be the case that, as I argued in The National Interest Online last year with respect to lack of deployable peacekeeping, the international community as a whole, interested states, or even those with stakes in maritime transportation ought to at least consider leveraging non-traditional security resources available within the private sector to fill, at least provisionally, the security vacuum?

It is bad enough that, Somaliland aside, the lack of an effective, much less legitimate, government in the territory of the former Somalia since 1991 has occasioned virtually endless conflict among the Somali. It is intolerable that the lawlessness should spill over and threaten the security of neighboring states like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen, as well as global commerce as a whole, much less that it should augment the already considerable terrorist challenge. The time has come for responsible powers in the international community to develop an integrated strategy to cope with the worsening piracy, one that begins with declaring open season on the seaborne marauders whom admiralty law has long branded hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind.