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Somalia’s Dangerous Waters By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, November 25, 2008


In the bad old days they used to hang them on the mast. Today the "international community" is worried about their "human rights." But they remain what they have always been--criminals of the high seas or, simply put, pirates. In recent years they have been active in a number of places--Nigeria, the Malacca Straits and, most blatantly, Somalia. The difference is that in the former two cases pirates are mostly freelancers, while in the latter case piracy is the national industry (together with the cultivation of khat, the Somali narcotic of choice). Piracy flourishes along the Somali coast because it is profitable and it can be done at small risk.

Somalia is not a "state" and even less a "nation." It is a legal fiction inhabited by a completely dysfunctional society. Even Somalis living abroad have unusually serious trouble integrating in the societies that gave them protection, as London (target of a major but failed terrorist attack by Somali immigrants in July 2005) and the states of Maine, Minnesota, and Nebraska have found out.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Somalia itself, especially its lawless Puntland region, serves as a haven for the pirates. As Mary Harper reported for the BBC: “Whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship in the Somali region of Puntland, extraordinary things start to happen. There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs. People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates’ accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator. Special restaurants have even been set up to prepare food for the crews of the hijacked ships.”

Reporter Jonathan Clayton, meanwhile, provided this portrait of life in a pirate city: "Activity in Eyl moves up a gear. Clan elders arrive, eager to broker a deal between their young clansmen, who use speedboats to board vessels, and shipping companies eager to pay a ransom for cargoes and staff. The ransoms are sometimes paid into foreign accounts in places such as the United Arab Emirates and even Western Europe, and may also be paid in cash through middlemen in neighboring Kenya. These have spawned more pirate gangs, armed with better weapons and better attack boats.”

Even Abdullahi Said O’Yusuf, the mayor of Eyl, has admitted that pirates use ransom payments to "buy houses in big cities" in different parts of the country. All of these activities mean local jobs, a share of the loot, delivered through clan elders, and strong popular support. It also involves the shrewd manipulation of Western respect for the law, a concept that does not exist locally.

Puntland claims to be autonomous from Somalia proper. But that is difficult to square with the fact that Abdillahi Yusuf, Puntland’s former “president,” now occupies the same position in the so-called Somali transitional government. It is also undermined by the fact that Puntland’s pirates have free reign to operate throughout the country. For instance, when a captured ship is judged to be politically sensitive, it is often kept at Haradheere in central Somalia, where anarchy is even more acute than in Puntland.

Equally troubling is that the pirates have found allies in international terrorists. As the Economist has pointed out, the risk of pirates working with or on behalf of jihadis and, for instance, blowing up oil tankers in the Indian Ocean, is very real. Already, Somalia’s pirates are said to be cooperating with the Islamist forces advancing toward the capital of Mogadishu.

Since the beginning of 2008, pirates operating off the Somali coast have seized 95 ships, the most spectacular being the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, a supertanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil, more than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily exports and worth about $100 million. Insurance companies have so far paid hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms for ships and crews, with the rate per ship varying from $300,000 to $1.5 million. As a result, insurance premiums have gone up by 10 percent and the increasingly frequent change of ship routes, from the Suez Canal to that around the Cape of Good Hope, is 30 percent longer and 20,000-30,000 Euros a day more expensive.

What could be done to eliminate Somali piracy? To begin with, continuing the present strategy (if that is the word) of occasionally escorting ships or occasionally chasing the pirates is both too costly and ineffective, as well as defensive. Convoys are complicated and time consuming, arming the small crews of large ships too risky and private security expensive and limited in quantity. The most rational long-term solution is the physical destruction of Somali piracy’s infrastructure and the elimination of its practitioners. That, however, is the easier part. The real problem lies in Western legal and cultural inhibitions that prevent the obvious military solution.

In military terms, the fact that Sirius Star was captured some 500 miles off the coast of Kenya demonstrates that effective control of the western Indian Ocean is not feasible, since it would have to cover over 2.5 million square miles. It also demonstrates that the only realistic and militarily sound solution is not defensive but offensive--eliminating pirate bases rather than protecting the 20,000 ships plying the Gulf of Aden and neighboring waters every year.

This can in fact be done. The naval assets are largely in place already, albeit misdeployed for political reasons. There is the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF), under the aegis of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, with command rotating between France, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and Pakistan. In addition, European countries (Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and France, soon to be joined by Norway) have set up Operation Atalanta, commanded from Northwood (UK) by a British rear admiral, with the in-area command rotating every four months among Greece, Spain and Netherlands.

Both of these forces, however, represent military operations by committee, with the inevitable problems associated with different national rules of engagement. A few months ago, for example, the French actually landed in Somalia and captured some pirates, while a British ship sunk a pirate boat and killed three attackers, as did an Indian Navy unit on November 19. That was not the case when a German frigate recently foiled attacks on two ships in the Gulf of Aden, using a helicopter to chase off pirates who fled in their speedboats. The frigate’s rules of engagement evidently prevented it from sinking the boats. As a result, the pirates will live to fight another day.

It should be feasible now to implement a permanent blockade of the Somali coast—i.e. that of Puntland and Somalia proper—since Somaliland seems capable of preventing pirates from operating from the area it controls. That means, first of all, the sinking of all speedboats along the coast, mostly through air attacks. Since speedboats are not and cannot be used for fishing, their existence is inherently related to piracy. Fishing dhows, on the other hand, although serving now as mother ships for the pirate speedboats, could be spared--within a few miles from the coast only.

Second, the known locations of pirate centers, places like Haradheere and Eyl, should be subjected to temporary occupation following amphibious landings, and known pirates there captured or otherwise eliminated. With their villas and boats destroyed and expensive cars confiscated, pirates will cease to serve as role models for other members of the clans involved, increase the risks of supporting them for locals, and at least temporarily limit the magnitude of corruption among Puntland politicians and their acolytes.

Once these two objectives are reached, air patrols along the coast should be sufficient to prevent the reestablishment of pirate lairs and means of activity. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, and Yemen should go beyond complaining about piracy and become serious in cracking down on the financiers and enablers of the pirates living in those countries.

As for the fate of captured pirates, they should be treated as international criminals with no citizenship, since Somalia/Puntland is not a functioning state but a political and legal black hole. The implication is that such individuals should be put on trial by whatever state captures them or, perhaps even better, by the states whose ships or cargo have been taken, or whose economies have been most affected by them. A few pirates tried in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Iran, with the prospect of more to come, would certainly serve as a deterrent to others. The French idea of returning captured pirates to "Somali authorities," with promises of fair treatment, is simply unrealistic, precisely because it is based on the false premise that there is such a thing as "authority" in Somalia.

But where the French may have been unrealistic the British are worse. According to the Sunday Times, "The Royal Navy…..has been told by the Foreign Office not to detain pirates because doing so may breach their human rights. Warships patrolling pirate-infested waters, such as those off Somalia, have been warned that there is also a risk that captured pirates could claim asylum in Britain. The Foreign Office has advised that pirates sent back to Somalia could have their human rights breached because, under Islamic law, they face beheading for murder or having a hand chopped off for theft.”

Leaving aside the fact that Somali politicians benefit from piracy, and are thus unlikely to punish it, the very notion that the alternatives for captured pirates are immunity or life on welfare in Britain is the best demonstration why they feel emboldened.

And the absurdity goes further. Refugees International, a charitable NGO, not only believes that maritime patrols "do little to stem the motivation behind those attacks," but also that "the speed and resolve with which piracy has been addressed by the U.N. Security Council underlines Somalis’ sentiment that economic interests trump humanitarian concerns. The United States swiftly and sternly condemned the pirates, and yet remains silent over egregious war crimes." Furthermore, such organizations claim that criminal or jihadist attacks on its operations in Somalia "illustrate the consequences of unilateral strikes that endanger millions of Somalis who depend on international agencies for medical care and food aid while doing little to reduce terrorism."

Aside from fact that these allegedly "unilateral" strikes involve some 12 different navies, this is an interesting logic--striking at those who cause and caused the chaos in Somalia does not reduce terrorism but endangers the very population that contributed to that chaos and tolerates (when it does not benefit from) it. This reasoning of not provoking criminals because they may commit further crimes is worse than defeatist, it is positively enabling--and it keeps groups like Refugees International in business.

So far, the "international community" has responded to the scourge of Somali pirates as it usually does to major crises, slowly and ineffectively. UN Security Council resolution No. 1816 of June 2008 allows states to pursue pirates in Somali waters, while No. 1838 of October 2008 allows the use of "all necessary means" to stop piracy--except lethal force outside self-defense and land operations. Since repressing piracy is perhaps the only serious international issue on which all permanent members of the Security Council--as well as India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and just about every other country--agree, one could hope that sooner rather than later, a consensus will develop toward confronting the problem at its source--on land.

If not, the countries most affected and capable, such as the United States, should act as France already did and do what it takes, at the risk of howls from Refugees International and its supporters. National and international security and economic well-being are more important than outdated legal provisions and the sovereignty of a phantom state.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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