European Affairs

The scourge of Somali-based pirates preying on cargo ships and oil tankers in the Gulf of Aden has largely faded from media headlines since the initial flurry of high-seas raiding in 2007-8. But, it has hardly slipped off the radar of the world’s main blue-water navies: nearly 50 nations, notably the U.S. and the main European governments have dispatched what amounts to an armada to the region to restore freedom of movement and security on the high seas.

Like other guerrilla wars, the conflict is a cat-and-mouse game where successful escalation by Western navies usually brings a prompt shift in tactics by the pirates in the wide theater afforded by the Indian Ocean approaches to the Gulf of Aden – the main outlet to the West for Persian Gulf oil. As the pirates have moved out to deeper, more dangerous waters, they have managed to continue seizing ships and holding hostage their cargos and crews for ransom.

But the EU and U.S.-backed crackdown is showing results, notably in driving down the pirates’ rate of success. So far this year, the International Maritime Bureau reports an estimate of around 100 attacks (including more than 20 successful hijackings), compared with other figures for last year showing 200 attacks (and 47 hijackings). The trend was highlighted in a spectacular way this month when a specially trained, heavily armed 24-man U.S. Marine unit freed the crew and captured the pirates on a cargo ship without firing a shot.

Their success was the result of a set of actions taken by the naval forces in the region, in cooperation with ship owners whose vessels are confronting rampant piracy in these seas. It marked the first time American military forces had boarded a pirate-held vessel to retake it by force. Does this incident show a change in U.S. (and perhaps European) policy toward greater readiness to use armed force against pirates at sea?  “Not a change in policy, but it does show results from steps being taken on our side,” says a U.S. official familiar with the issue but not authorized to speak without special clearance. The U.S. has sent to sea an undisclosed number of these special Marine teams to board captured vessels, free hostages, regain control and capture the pirates.

The lack of publicity reflects the effort by Western governments to quietly try to assemble the pieces of an overall solution to an unwieldy problem. Piracy in this 2.5 million square mile corner of the world’s seas is costing Western shipping companies and their cargos’ owners an estimated $100 million a year in ransoms and lost profits.

To curb the scourge, the international community has reacted by deploying a set of naval forces to try to interdict the pirates. The multinational mission involves three main task forces.

  1. The biggest is NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, a combined maritime force of ships, aircraft, drones and seaborne Marines that has on station at any one time between 17 and 27 warships. (Officials withhold specific numbers as part of the cat-and-mouse game of intelligence with the pirates.)
  2. The EU has launched a flotilla of its own, the EU’s first-ever naval-warfare operation. Operation Atalanta (the EU’s NAVFOR Somalia) normally has 12 warships on patrol at any given moment, including a half-dozen frigates, with maritime reconnaissance aircraft overhead. The force, which has been joined by ships from a dozen non-EU nations, is commanded out of Northwood in the United Kingdom.
  3. There are also U.S. Combined Task Forces 151 under the command of the Bahrain-based Central Command. Two related operations, Task Force 150 and Task Force 152, are charged with sea-borne counter-terrorism in the Red Sea and also in the Persian-Arabian Gulf from a base in Abu Dhabi. But Task Force 151 is a primary counter-piracy force in the overall allied effort because it has wide geographical authority well beyond the Gulf of Aden.pirate-map

To police the seas, nearly 50 nations (and some international organizations and ship owners’ associations) have contributed forces or involved themselves in other ways. An extraordinary feature of this broad international military and political effort is that it is not under a unified command – a situation that would normally be anathema for a joint effort by many allies, but one that seems to be working pragmatically.

On the political front, the overall effort comes under a Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which involves 24 participating governments. Currently chaired by Greece (a nation with a large maritime fleet), the group bases itself on a UN resolution calling for action on this issue and conducts occasional meetings at UN headquarters in New York, but it shuns too much institutional visibility that might arouse diplomatic antagonisms. (For example, countries taking part call themselves “participants,” not “members.”)

Its lack of any high-profile image has not prevented the Contact Group from effective work, including some very radical ideas about how to find a 21st century solution to this 17th century problem. For example, an effort is under way, with European and American diplomacy in the lead, to foster the emergence of strong and credible courts and jails for pirates in countries around the Indian Ocean. These countries, such as Kenya, have an interest in this goal because their maritime interests are hit hard by the piracy – and because they enjoy considerable Western aid.

But more controversial dimensions are being mooted: the need for effective regional law and order against piracy is pushing quiet international discussions about greater recognition of breakaway areas of Somalia – in Puntland and in Somaliland – as part of a deal to get support from the local authorities there to join in a crack down. Currently, pirates find useful operating bases in these practically autonomous regions, so these regions and their leaders are particularly crucial to an overall change in the pirates’ room for maneuver. But any move in this direction needs to be carefully calibrated. Otherwise, there exists the very real risk of triggering a political backlash in border-conscious African nations. They will be worried by any anti-piracy deal with these separatist entities that involves a quid-pro-quo of greater international recognition for the breakaway zones.

Militarily, actual operations under the Contact Group umbrella are coordinated via the so-called “Shade mechanism” (an acronym for “Shared Awareness and Deconfliction”) which in practice is an “in-theater operations center” in Bahrain. It operates to be “open and inclusive” for military representatives of all the countries with forces in the anti-piracy campaign – and it helps promote ideas for stronger shipping defenses of all kinds to protect shipping.

All these “fronts” in the war on piracy – military and political –are included under the umbrella of the Contact Group, which has set up four working groups, each with a special focus:

  1. Military and Operations Coordination, chaired by Britain.
  2. Judicial Issues, chaired by Denmark.
  3. Strengthening Shipping Self-Awareness and Other Capabilities, chaired by the U.S.
  4. Public Information, chaired by Egypt.

Looking at the issue through these groups’ mandates, the military campaign is managed by Britain, which provides the headquarters for the EU Naval Force. That force, Operation Atalanta, is regularly depicted in European media as the key Western military component in the Gulf of Aden. True enough, it has proved effective, both politically as a step toward implementing European defense and security policy, and militarily in helping secure the main sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden, especially for the cargos of the World Food Program, taking grain to famine-stricken areas in Sudan and elsewhere in east Africa. Significantly, it operates as an independent force that represents EU military action on its own, beyond the “autonomy” foreseen in accords providing for EU action under a NATO umbrella. The Obama administration has been careful to foster the public picture of unity that emerges from the statements of the Contact Group. “The watchword is, ‘no rivalry between the U.S. and the EU’ on this matter,” says one insider, explaining that both players recognize that their unity is the key to wider progress in this campaign.

That tandem is crucial in working group 2, taking the lead on the ground in African capitals in trying to build up a regional infrastructure of courts and jails to neutralize the Somali pirates.

Working group 3, nominally lead by the U.S., has drawn in the expertise gained on the ground at the Shade facility’s pooled experiences and recommendations. Increasingly their recommendations about “best practices,’’ now laid out in a booklet for captains to have on hand, are shared by ship owners investing in the recommended equipment. As a result, no commercial vessel with a fully-equipped  safe room has been taken over by pirates this year. This kind of defense is welcomed by the shipping companies as an alternative to arming crew members (or even carrying armed guards) because these weapons and their use raise legal risks and of course actual dangers on tankers where live fire could trigger explosions.

The issue concerning working group 4 is a public relations struggle to discredit the pirates’ claims that they have resorted to crime at sea in response to hardships inflicted on “their waters” by Western countries and other big nations such as Japan. As Western officials and observers note, today’s pirates are largely unemployed young men from two of the main clans in Somalia, many of them with backgrounds in the militias that grew up during the Somali civil wars of recent decades.

The remaining major arm in the anti-piracy campaign is actions in the finance field to track and disrupt the financial networks that support and profit from the piracy.  Progress here has been slow, but seems bound to gather momentum in step with other moves by the U.S. Treasury and its European counterparts to close financial loopholes against terrorists. In the process, pirates will be caught, too, officials predict.

The biggest challenge of all, of course, lies in the fact that piracy at sea can only be solved on land. The only end to the problem involves ending the safe havens the pirates enjoy in ports where governments are unwilling or unable to bring them to justice.

What to do with captured pirates has been a problem and remains one. (As a result, there are many cases of pirates being seized by Western navies, only to be released because no place could be found to try them as criminals.) Courts and jails are a crucial issue: Western nations (as demonstrated recently by cases in Spain and in the U.S.) have shown that they feel legally uncomfortable with the idea of bringing pirates to trial, perhaps because in these countries, the laws on the books date back to a period when the only punishment for piracy was death.

The international community has, however, made practical advances– led by the close cooperation on this issue between the EU and the U.S. They have developed a comprehensive approach that, while still evolving in practice, does already address key aspects of the problem.

  1. The counter-piracy effort at sea is becoming more effective. This can be seen in increasingly disciplined cooperation between commercial ships and the navies, maritime insurance rates are no longer so prone to spiking in the region and the number of attacks appears to be leveling off.
  2. A set of self-defense “best practices” has been developed and adopted by almost all commercial maritime carriers that use the pirate-infested sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden that stretch toward the Horn of Africa.

Stepping back to get the overall picture, three questions need to be kept in mind.  Is the EU-U.S. effort curtailing the piracy threat?  Can it ever be eliminated entirely?  And, ultimately, is the effort worth the $2 billion annual cost?

Yes seems to be answer to the first amid signs that the gains already made provide hope for more in the near future. On the second, longer-term outlook, most officials say privately that they doubt piracy can be eliminated, but that “success” might be attainable along the lines of what happened in Asia’s Malacca Straits: determined efforts there, notably by export-minded nations angered by threats to their shipping costs, brought the situation under control.

Finally, is the game worth the gamble? Crudely, the question can be phrased this way: Is it worth spending $2 billion a year to prevent ransom payments amounting to $100 million? Of course, an end to protection for shipping would open the way to much more costly attacks. But for most analysts, the answer goes well beyond economic considerations to become a matter of global governance. For the region itself, piracy contributes to the full range of corrupt practices that make stability and progress so rare and elusive.  There is also a broader point: on present trends in the Gulf of Aden and the surrounding theater, it is encouraging that the transatlantic view of global stability is being successfully enacted.

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FULL UPDATE: After an encouraging, but ultimately misleading slowdown in attacks, piracy incidents hit new highs in 2009 and 2010. The number of hijackings on the high seas attributed to Somalis rose from 213 to 221, although their rate of success decreased substantially. This latter phenomenon was almost certainly due to the greater coordination and deployment of Western navies in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. More audacious pirate tactics, however, including the use of mother ships as roaming bases for faster skiffs, have significantly increased the range of attacks over the last year.

According to a May 2011 Geopolicity report, the increase in piracy is likely to continue: the comparative economic benefits have guaranteed a virtually unlimited supply of willing labor. The report concluded that Somali piracy is unlikely to be eliminated solely through an increased foreign naval presence; only a restoration of domestic stability and effective local governance can provide viable alternatives in the long term. Since piracy remains by far the most lucrative option available to many Somalis—offering minimum earnings 67 times higher than the national average, according to the most conservative estimates—it is unlikely to go away any time soon. While the multilateral military presence has reduced the success rate of such hijackings, they do not provide a sufficient disincentive to potential pirates. According to the Geopolicity report, they represent "the very essence of profit maximizing entrepreneurs described in neo-classical economics." Instituting an effective government remains a very unpalatable option; such a scenario would most likely require intervention, which has been all but written off since the unfavorable American experience in Somalia in 1991. In either case, the joint international ventures have worked to decrease the effectiveness of pirate attacks, and will be needed now more than ever.