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More Dangerous Than Terrorism? The Problem of Maritime Piracy (with a special focus on Somalia) by Alia Intably; Photos by United States Navy Press Agency and Niels Huby, N&C editor in chief
Friend of foe? Above: Members of the guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio "visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team" and U.S. Coast Guard maritime safety and security team (MSST) speak to the crewmembers of a fishing vessel off the coast of Somalia. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Matthew Bash.
“Those old enough to have watched the 1982 War of the Falklands between the UK and Argentina may remember the shock of almost live images of large vessels sinking within seconds. Hundreds of sailors and soldiers were aboard. Their large ships were hit with deadly precision by small, light, yet sophisticated weapons launched by enemy aviation”—recalls Oleg Kobtzeff, professor of political geography at the American University of Paris. He recently created a course called “Waters of the Globe”, during which students learn about “hydropolitics”—the political geography of fresh waters and maritime environments. In the second part of the course, students like myself analyzed the evolution of naval geostrategies in the 20th century. It is during one of his lectures that Kobtzeff remembered how strategic naval doctrine began to change with the public’s perception of navies’ role: “the death of these heavy and vulnerable ships was a frightening vision… it was a trauma. Great fleets seemed to be so powerful in both world wars. These were the heavy units that we had come to take for granted after their great maritime victories like the battle of the North Atlantic, the battle of the Coral Sea in the Pacific or D-Day. The terrible vision of their destruction on CNN impressed upon us the idea that naval units were just ‘sitting ducks’, and that they had become obsolete in the days of live satellite observation, increasingly sophisticated aviation and electronically guided missiles. It was easy to believe commentators who announced that viewers were probably witnessing the end of navies”.
Watch the trailer from the blockbuster "Captain Philips" with Tom Hanks, based on the story of the attack of the Maersk Alabama (from Sony Pictures, below, left) and the controversy that followed (report from CNN, below, right) .
A visit, board, search, and seizure (« VBSS ») team member of the guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (left) guards the crew aboard a dhow during a boarding operation in the Indian Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian K)
So for the next decades, navies were neglected. But then, maritime transportation reached a record-high level — approximately 90% — in all worldwide civilian transportation. At the same time, because many governments and analysts viewed maritime armed forces as a feature of the past, much fewer armed vessels patrolled the oceans of the globe to perform their traditional task : protect civilian ships. Sophisticated criminal organizations or bands of destitute and desperate men understood that this was an opportunity to seize.
Maritime geostrategic conditions had indeed changed dramatically. But since production of oil and manufactured goods has continually grown, so have the means of transportation. Probably because technological advances in the air and space industry are more spectacular and camera friendly, we have heard, for decades , more about achievements in those domains rather than about the slow but no less impressive
growth of the shipping industry. Shipyards became more active than at any other time in history; it simply shifted from the old industrial countries to the Southern hemisphere. The introduction of container shipping [i] and supertankers standardized the transportation of goods and drastically minimized transportation costs while generating what is nothing less than a revolution in transportation. The commercial shipping industry entered a boom that, by and large, continues to this day. The public at large barely noticed the 90% increase. But pirates were more alert.
Why Somalia attracts so much attention
The Gulf of Oman: a dangerous shipping lane. The complex and narrow shape of this passage explains both its tactical and strategic value and why this area generated so much maritime warfare, including ancient and modern-day piracy. From a tactical point of view, it allows attackers to use the coastal terrain for preparing ambushes. From a strategic point of view, it controls the key to transportation from Southern Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Persia (Iran) to the Indian Ocean.
Photo by Niels Huby, N&C editor-in-chief.
Above and next two pictures below: ransom is paid by a parachute drop on January 9, 2009 onto the deck of the “Sirius Star” where pirates held its crew. (U.S. Navy photo by Air Crewman 2nd Class David B. Hudson)
Although many pirates still use small skiffs to attack large commercial vessel one hundred times their size, others have become sophisticated and have gained access to large arsenals of weapons and larger boats. All pirates have become sufficiently skilled and bold (or desperate) enough to pursue their prey in international waters further and further away from the coasts, by launching their speedboat attacks from larger “mother ships”. Frequently, Yemeni fishing boats are either forced to cooperate for a short period or are captured by the pirates. Approximately 50,000 vessels, mostly merchant, pass through these waters each year. Of those 50,000 vessels 22,000 to 24,000 sail through the dangerous Gulf of Aden. "More people were taken hostage at sea in 2010 than in any other year since records began", reports the International Maritime Bureau's annual report for 2010. [ii] According to the World Shipping Council, in 2011, "there were 439 pirate attacks and 45 merchant vessels hijacked worldwide. 237 of these attacks and 28 of these hijackings occurred in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, and in the wider Indian ocean. As of spring-2012 there have been more than 51 attacks off Somalia (121 worldwide), 11 hijackings off Somalia (13 worldwide), and over 158 hostages taken off Somalia. Currently, 12 ships and more than 170 seafarers are being held hostage by Somali pirates for ransom." [iii]
With the rise of piracy in recent years, the attention has primarily been focused on the growing number of Somali pirates. In the past few years, the media has brought to our attention that at any given time somewhere between seven to twenty vessels are being held hostage. These vessels can be, cruise liners, personal yachts, or commercial vessels, in order of increasing frequency of hijacking. This media awareness, as well as the increasing number and brazenness of pirate attacks, has forced nations to address the danger that Somalia poses. It has also brought to the forefront the issue of the lack of a governing body in international waters — a territory that is outside of any nation’s jurisdiction — and the lack of law enforcing in Somali territorial waters. The European parliament voted on December 10, 2008, the deployment of Operation Atalante. The taskforce includes today 9 countries: France, Netherland, Spain, Italia, Germany, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Sweden. “Operation Atalante is for us a laboratory for the UE militaries and development actions” says a NATO navy officer that wishes to remain anonymous; “this is a very learnable experience in terms of logistics and cooperation among the different UE countries. EU counties must collaborate to succeed, since now days only the American Navy is able to work alone” The Task Force 150 was in a first time the maritime support of the Afghanistan’s invasion in 2001 and the Anti-terrorist Operation Enduring Freedom. “Most of the G 20
navies are on Somalia coast in order to protect this zone crucial for the world economy”. Adds the French Navy officer. However, they are patrolling a vast area of more than a million square miles of water, a task that would be difficult to do even with a larger number of ships and airplanes committed to it.
Increasing the security of international waters is of utmost importance, due to their increasing significance to society. As oil shortages around the world prompt new ecological means of power and transportation, the past may be the future. Maritime technologies are still evolving, with advances such as the hydrofoil making them more efficient and less reliant on oil for power. With the world becoming more globalised, the volumes of goods shipped are also increasing – indeed, transport is the lifeblood of modern economies. Finally, the costs of piracy are also born by consumers as the shipping and other industries hit by piracy pass on the cost to us.
The Human Geography of Somalia and the geopolitics of Somalian Piracy
Discovering the beauty of the Gulf of Oman (above) ... at one's own risk. N&C phtographer and editor in chief Niels Huby wished to experience it himself before documenting this article. Income from the tourist industry that supports many indigenous economic activities in the Gulf Emirates, such as the diving outfitter in Dubai and those who depend on his business in the harbor, is being seriously threatened by the risk that piracy represents to foreigners. Attacks on leisure vessels in the North-western Indian Ocean have increased dramatically. Tragically, the most impoverished populations of the horn of Africa consider piracy not only as their sole means of survival but a fair readjustmentof the monumental divide between rich and poor seen as an extreme injustice. Photo by Niels Huby
Somalia has been in a state of civil war since 1991. This has divided the country into multiple autonomous regions, with the Transitional National Government (TNG) at the center. Despite the existence of the TNG, some breakaway regions such at Puntland (where most pirate attacks are launched from) have set up their own functional regional government. Simply put, Somalia has virtually no central governing authority, which renders it to be one of the most dangerous and unstable countries in the world, and one with a low. The average income in Somalia is $650 per year, making it easy to understand the lure of the promises of piracy. Upon the completion of a successful mission, each participant can expect to receive at least $10,000 [iv]. Additionally, busy shipping lanes are causing pollution of the coast of Somalia which is damaging one their main resources, namely fishing. In this light, resorting to piracy can be perceived not as a crime but as a means of self-defense. Thus gaining legitimacy. With the rise in piracy even local businesses have adapted as well. For example, restaurants can now be found in Puntland that specialize in providing Western food to the hostages, and thereby increasing their revenue[iv]. Selling fishing boats is a business that has never been as successful as now and some Gulf businessmen are even importing Hummers for new rich Somali clients. In addition satellites images indicated a massive construction spree in the Puntland and close to the harbor of pirates; we can even see luxurious villas along the coast line. Says a American Army officer responsible for the collaboration between European and the US Armies in the region. In effect, piracy has become a part of daily life in some regions of Somalia, and it is not in the least bit shocking to people who have to fight drought, hunger, and war for their very survival.
"Busy shipping lanes cause pollution of the coast of Somalia which is damaging one their main resources, namely fishing. In this light, resorting to piracy can be perceived not as a crime but as a means of self-defense."
Watch the video (left) video from the United Nations Development Program on poverty in the Horn of Africa, which it calls the "epicentre of the world's most critical humanitarian crisis." Drought and hunger have driven millions from their homes. 250,000 peopleare still at risk of starvation.
Aid has been provided to Somalia for many years. It is too often being diverted, now as in the past, by Somalian political faction leaders, local warlords, black market kingpins or corrupt officials who recycle the bags of rice or other products as a merchandise sold for profit on a regular market (which then often allows to buy weapons), or as tactical tools to hurt an opponent through deprivation or to recruit supporters—a clientèle—through bribery. The result is a deeper and deeper sinking of the population into poverty The UN sent peacekeepers into Somalia in December of 1992 under the UNITAF (Unified Task Force). They remained for almost a year, and were then replaced with a more permanent body the UNOSOM II (the United Nations Operation in Somalia II) in 1993. US Army which was a major body of the intervention left Somalia after the fail Battle for Mogadishu (October 4 and 5, 1993) where 19 American soldiers including Special Forces Delta operators died. This is later refers to the Somali Syndrome. [v] What, then, can the international community do to help Somalis?
DRAMA UNFOLDS IN THE GULF OF ADEN (below) on April 10, 2010: A suspected pirate skiff burns after being destroyed by the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48). Ashland while operating approximately 330 nautical miles off the coast of Djibouti, was fired upon from a skiff manned by suspected pirates. Ashland returned fire and disabled the skiff. USS Ashland is part of the Nassau Amphibious Ready Group and 24th Marine. Then the Ashland's visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team pulls suspected pirates from the sea for transport back aboard its vessel. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky/Released)
The answer may lie in Somalia’s colonial past. Before 1960 – the year Somalia gained its independence – its government was run by its colonizers ( Italy and Britain). North West of the country now called Somaliland, previously under British power, is a stable territory under the jurisdiction of the self-declared capital. It is the only country in Africa having a relatively peaceful cohabitation of diverse political forces. The rest of the country had been under Italian domination. The Fascist régime had taken over all the responsibilities of government. During the Cold War, Somalia, due to its strategic position, was disputed by Americans and Soviets. The General Siad Barre took the power in Mogadishu in 1969, and joined the US side of the war in 1979; however he progressively lost control over the territory and was finally overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of Warlords from the different Somali clans. Once in power those warlords began to fight each other to place their clan in power. This is the beginning of the Somali civil war. The war raged for 15 years spreading violence and a massive amount of weapons in Somalia until 2006, when the ICU (Islamic Courts Union) gains control of the majority of Somalia. They impose the Charia (Islamic Law) but also order and made stop all piracy. However the US government afraid of the links between ICU and terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda intervened in 2007 and the chaos came back in Somalia. The civil war bring the two main reasons for piracy; a massive amount of weapons and extreme poverty. In Addition, enjoying the lack of sovereignty in Somali’s water huge Chinese, Indian fishing boats took all the fish letting nothing for the locals’ fishermen who finally find a much more financially efficient way to use their boat .
This may have led to the Somali people lacking a sense of ownership over their own government and land, and instilling a belief that it is the responsibility of other richer countries to provide them with what they are lacking, just as their colonizers had done. If this is the case, the simple provision of aid will not resolve the absence of motivation of the Somali people. We have to address the psychological effects caused by years of living under forced government, in poverty, hunger and fear. Only after this is understood and warlords are removed- thus, empowering the central government, can the proper tools be provided to the people of Somalia. Allowing them to combine the aid with their passions and skills in order to give rise to a more developed and prosperous country. If this is not accomplished, Somalia will face further devastation as food shortages will increase as outside aid is cut off due to the risks involved with delivering it. Violence may also increase as pirates squabble among themselves for the lucrative spoils and affected nations become upset over the lost business and hampered economic growth caused by the disruption of regular shipping lanes. Egypt, for example, stands to lose several hundred thousand dollars per commercial vessel that passes through the Suez Canal; nearly 18 000 vessels pass through the Canal every year [vi].
Another issue to address is the handicap Somalia faces geographically. They are on dry arid land with little natural resources. Potentially, another industry such IT (information technology) can be brought to Somalia, as was done with India. For this to be a solution, education has to become a major focus for the Somali people.
Experiencing Piracy: the Tactical Dimension
Visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team members from the guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf close in on rigid-hulled inflatable boats, the typical vessal used by pirates, to apprehend suspects. Nine suspected pirates were apprehended and brought aboard Vella Gulf. This is the second group of suspected pirates apprehended in a 24-hour period by Vella Gulf; at the time of this action, there were sixteen suspected pirates in custody. Vella Gulf is the flagship for Combined Task Force 151, a multi-national task force conducting counterpiracy operations to detect and deter piracy in and around the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Red Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky)
For the most part, pirates target large commercial vessels which are slow with low deck and very few crew members to defend it. These ships are nowhere near as nimble as pirates’ skiffs (motorboats), have many blind spots, and are easy to outmaneuver. Despite common though those pirates are well organized and use modern technologies such as satellites phones to communicates, radars and GPS (Global Positioning System).
GULF OF ADEN (May 13, 2009) Members of a visit, board, search and seizure team from the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg and U.S. Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Team South Detachment 409 capture suspected pirates after responding to a merchant vessel distress signal while operating in the Combined Maritime Forces in the Gulf of Aden in May 2009.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric L. Beauregard/Released)
We can even consider that pirates in the Mother boat spots the future victim with radar and give to the closest small boat the position of the commercial vessel thanks to satellite phones. Attacks can take place at anytime of the day, but usually occur during the early morning hours, after the pirates have stayed up all night chewing narcotic khat leaves known for their aggressive virtues. They approach vessels on their skiff, with three to four feet of ladder or grappling hooks to help them board. While stalking their prey, the skiffs are often disguised as fishing or cargo boats and all weaponry is hidden. Once the pirates are close to the vessel, they will board it fully armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), firing indiscriminately until they gain control.
“We don’t have no more than ten minutes from the time pirates are spotted approaching, to the time they successfully board” relate a captain formerly highjack. That is, if the pirates are spotted at all. This leaves them little time to take actions to counteract the pirates, such as setting up barricades, increasing speed, or locking themselves inside their vessel, making it more difficult for the pirates to gain control. However, captains have stated that they usually should have enough time to send out a security alert to various Maritime Bureau, who can then alert the proper authorities. If the pirates succeed, it effectively becomes a hostage situation. Most often, the pirates will sail with their hostages back to the port of Eyl, in Puntland Somalia, where it becomes more difficult for foreign authorities to liberate them.
Waters even more dangerous than the Somalian coast (above). A Seahawk helicopter flies over the Union Alliance, a civilian merchant ship navigating the waters of the Strait of Malacca, near Singapore, considered as the most dangerous in the world. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ron Reeves)
Negotiations for the release of the hostages typically takes two to three months, but this can easily escalate into a standoff that lasts six months or more. For commercial vessels, the average ransom demanded is between one million to three million dollars, but final cost to the owner may be triple that amount by the time the vessel is released. A professional negotiator costs $2,500 to $5,000 a day; satellite phone bills will be an average of $40,000 to $60,000; delivering and insuring the ransom money costs between $250,000 and $1 million; an international lawyer roughly $200,000; while all expenses associated with the vessel being out of commission can run $20,000 to $100,000 per day depending on the market. Regardless of the price, most ransoms are paid in the end and boats are released with the crew unharmed[viii]. On occasion pirates have been known to attack and hijack smaller vessels and force the crew off. The pirates then sail these boats to a port and have them repainted and re-registered with the aid of corrupt officials. These smaller boats are later reused as mother ships to launch attacks farther out to sea.
With a better understanding of how piracy functions, it is clear that our current actions are insufficient. Within a ten-minute horizon, at most, the Captain of a ship under attack by pirates has to send out the appropriate distress call. Unless a patrolling warship is nearby, there is no way it can get to these commercial vessels in time to protect them. Routine patrols are being carried out in an attempt to stop the pirates before they attack, but for every pirate caught, there are a hundred more waiting in line to take their place. The idea of refusing to negotiate has been mooted by the UN, reasoning that “exorbitant ransom payments have fuelled the growth of [pirate] groups”[ix]. Instead, the suggestion is to attempt to strategically free the hostages, as American forces have recently done with the captain of the Maersk Alabama (killing three pirates and capturing one who is actually prosecuted in NYC for piracy and hostage taking). However, this has infuriated pirates prompting them to make the statement that they "We will seek out the Americans and if we capture them we will slaughter them,”[x]. Since then, pirates have become noticeably more hostile and have begun to fire haphazardly upon vessels believed to be American simply out of frustration and animosity. Fortunately, the UN Security Council has passed the resolution 1816 the June 2, 2008 allowing countries to pursue Somali pirates outside of international waters and in Somali jurisdiction [xi], judging that Somalia does not have proper policing authorities to deal with the pirates on land. Should this strategy work, it will again leave the international community with another difficult to resolve question of what to do with the pirates after they have been captured. Somalia does not have the legal system to deal with pirates, and nearby-neighbor Kenya is not much better off. This leaves the direct, nonstop (as to avoid possibility for the pirates to claim asylum) extraditing to the country that was engaged at sea.
Watch the following videos on pirates being captured, from France's news agency AFP (left) and Russia's TV channel RT (right)
Other preventive measures have been proposed. Convoys have already begun to be provided, but this is impossible to do for every vessel. The merchant ship may also be armed, but it is unclear whether the crew would want this kind of responsibility, and whether the risks associated with engaging in battle with well armed pirates are worth any benefits gained. Indeed, fighting back may just cause the pirates to become angrier and more aggressive. Whatever the best solution is the American firm Blackwater famous for its easy shooting in Iraq had proposed its services. “As a company founded and run by former Navy SEALs, with a 50,000-person database of former military and law enforcement professionals, Blackwater is uniquely positioned to assist the shipping industry,” the company said in a statement. Erik Prince, Founder and CEO of Blackwater Worldwide, is seen at Blackwater's offices in Moyock, N.C., Monday, July 21, 2008
The record in Iraq of security companies like Blackwater, which is being investigated for its role in the fatal shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, raises concerns about unregulated activity and possible legal wrangles.
"Security companies haven't always had the lightest of touches in Iraq, and I think Somalia is a pretty delicate situation," said Roger Middleton, who wrote a recent report on piracy in Somalia for Chatham House, a think tank in London.
In the end, even if any of these measures were to work they would only be dealing with the situation superficially – addressing the symptoms, but not the underlying causes continuing to fuel piracy. The underlying causes are known. They are the governance problems endemic to Somalia and an insufficiently developed Law of the Sea.
The focus needs to be shifted from just land or just sea and a multi-faceted, multilateral approach to dealing with piracy must be formulated, with special attention paid to Somalia. Ideally, concerns on land should be directed at the corrupt politics and developmental issues (economic and psychological) of Somalia, which are at the root cause of piracy today. In parallel, ways to protect the busy shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa and around the world should be explored. For one, efforts to prepare commercial vessels should be implemented- simple measures such as look outs, or utilizing equipment onboard (i.e. fire hoses), or setting up barbwire along the perimeter of vessels can act as simple deterrents. Secondly, a division of the UN, IMO (International Maritime Organization) in this case, needs to work with other organizations such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to agree on a multilateral treaty along with other nations allowing IMO to receive proper military enforcement regarding infractions committed in international water and jurisdiction. In the end if there is good to come of the current piracy situation, it is the potential engagement of the international community to better assist Somalia as well as nations working as a whole in an effort to protect the high seas. Fighting piracy at sea is only a temporary fix, but so is the provision of open-ended aid to Somalia. As Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary said in 1841: “taking a wasps’ nest… is more effective than catching the wasps one by one”[xii]. Leaders of the international community need to address the root causes, both of piracy and of Somalia’s problems in order for a sustainable solution to be implemented.
One of the first journalists to reveal the issue of modern piracy to a large public through well known media was William Langewiesche. The following article is the outstanding piece of journalism that contributed to put piracy on the map: William Langewiesche, "Anarchy at Sea", Atlantic Monthly, September 2003, Vol. 292, No. 2. William Langewiesche then wrote a book: William Langewiesche, Chaos and Crime on the World's Oceans, Granta Books, 2005. ... which was reviewed in these informative online pieces:
In Issue 2 (Fall 2014): the Ukraine, Russian geography, conflicts over water and many, many more features. To receive notification of its release, go to N&C's Facebook page and sign up (Issue 1 will remain available on a special archives section).
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