Romance and high seas adventure have historically been associated with pirates. Images of handsome, swashbuckling captains of yore swinging on sailcloth and rescuing damsels in distress swarm the imagination. Pirate mythology is as expansive as it is misleading, and contrasts deeply with present-day realities. Until news of recent high-profile acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, most Americans thought piracy was as much a relic of the distant past as X-marks-the-spot buried treasure.
In the last decade, however, acts of piracy have actually tripled. A quick view of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Commercial Crime Services-sponsored International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy maps, spanning 2005 to the present day, shows a shift in acts of piracy from the Straits of Malacca in Indonesia to the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia. Figures as of May 12, 2009 had already surpassed those of 2008, with 29 reported successful hijackings (which included the taking of 815 crew members hostage), out of 114 reported hijack attempts. The surge in attacks was particularly high off the east coast of Somalia, where there have been 43 attacks reported so far this year, with 478 crew members taken hostage, compared to 19 attacks in all of 2008.
Among the biggest headline grabbers was the September 2008 hijacking of a Ukrainian freighter loaded with antiaircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and 33 Russian T-72 tanks reportedly headed for rebels in Southern Sudan. Many feared these weapons would end up in the hands of Islamic jihadists who have turned the capital city of Mogadishu into one of the world’s most dangerous places. Two months later, in November, Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi supertanker off the coast of Kenya carrying $100 million worth of crude oil. The boldest attack—in that an American ship was involved—occurred in April when Somali pirates seized the US-flagged Maersk Alabama. Holding the Maersk Alabama’s crew hostage until its captain surrendered; four days later, he was dramtically rescued when US Navy SEAL snipers killed the pirates.
With no effective government in place since 1991, Somalia is often referred to as the most complete example of a failed state, and the word’s largest humanitarian disaster. Symptomatic of the socio-economic failings occurring within the country, piracy has emerged not only as an economic boon to a small few, but has also drawn the eye of the world to a region otherwise abandoned by both media and humanitarian aid organizations. In an article for GQ earlier this year, NY Times East Africa bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, laid out a scenario where piracy “investors front money for skiffs, guns, binoculars, GPS units, fuel, and cigarettes,” take 20 percent of the ransom for profit, another 20 percent for “future missions, 30 percent to bribe government officials, and the rest split between the pirates and their henchmen, who can number in the hundreds. Strings are pulled by Somali businessmen based in Kenya, Djibouti, Dubai, and even London. They have translators, accountants, money inspectors—an entire white-collar network that manages the operations from afar.” Gettleman estimates “that on any given day, as many as 1,500 gunmen go out in skiffs to hunt down the ships, and thousands more work onshore guarding the captives.”
In an attempt to give readers an overall view of Somali piracy, senior editor Lorna Tychostup speaks with David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and adjunct professor of International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs.
What other countries besides Somalia house pirates?
The Strait of Malacca is by far the most prominent area in recent time, but it’s been pretty much stopped there because the ships take more care. There is no government in the Strait of Malacca that wants to lose the commerce; they are committed to stamping piracy out, which makes it much harder for pirates to operate. Another area is the Gulf of Guinea. It is not really a matter of piracy but rather a group of Nigerians with grievances who kidnap oil-related personnel from offshore facilities.
Somalia’s been called one of the worst cases of a failed state.
Actually, I refer to it not as the worst failed state, but as the most complete failed state. It is important to make a distinction between Somalia and Somaliland. Somaliland is a country that in 1991 declared its independence from Somalia, has a functioning elected government, and is doing fairly well. But the former Italian Somalia, as opposed to the former British Somaliland, is the world’s most complete failed state. There has been no national government that has exercised control over the entire country or even a significant part of the country since 1991 when the previous dictatorship was overthrown.
Part of the problem with US and international reluctance to address issues in Somalia is directly related to fallout from the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.
Yes. But it is important not to take that event in isolation because it will do more to mislead than help explain things. The real problem was that after the state failed in 1991, you had the onset of a serious famine in southern and central Somalia. Pictures of stick children with bloated bellies and flies on their faces captured international attention, resulting in a series of half measures to try to end it. Relief efforts were thwarted by a breakdown of security in Somalia that saw food not getting to the starving women and children, but instead stolen by able-bodied militia groups. After it was determined it was not possible to fly in enough food, the US made the decision to go in militarily, open up communication corridors on the ground by force, and ensure that the NGOs could then deliver the food to the people who were dying in the interior of the country, which is what happened at the end of 1992 and continued into 1993.
It was a very successful operation.
It was. The American-led operation was called UNITAF and it stopped the famine. Then the famine relief effort was transitioned to a UN program that significantly expanded the mandate to include nation-building. There was a lot of concern at the time that the UN was trying to do too much, and perhaps it was. At the same time, it made no sense to stop the famine, pull out, and let conditions in Somalia revert to what they were before the famine was stopped. The UN effort started off okay but very quickly went off track because of a disagreement between the UN forces—still heavily American but operating under UN and not US leadership—which got crossways with one of the warlords, Mohammed Farah Aidid, who saw his power diminishing due to the growing UN presence. His militia carried out a very serious attack against Pakistani peacekeepers, killing 24, disemboweling some of them and gouging their eyes out. It was a horrible episode that so enraged the UN that virtually the next day it decided to stop Aidid. From that moment on, the UN effort in Somalia became a campaign to capture or kill Aidid. Nation-building got lost in the process.
One of the many efforts to capture Aidid led to the Black Hawk Down incident on October 3, 1993 which failed to capture Aidid and led to the unraveling of the whole UN effort. As State Department Coordinator for Somalia leading up to and during that attack, I had access to the information concerning the battle. The US clearly won the fight in a military sense. Close to a thousand Somalis were killed and injured whereas the number of Americans killed was quite small [18 killed, 73 wounded]. It was a debacle because the idea was to either capture or kill Aidid and his close advisors and that didn’t happen. In fact it made him something of a hero. The US decided after Black Hawk Down to remove all US forces from Somalia, which it did in March 1994. All UN forces left in March of 1995, thus ending the international intervention in Somalia.
Is it safe to say that the killings of US soldiers and images of their broken bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu made the US reluctant to reengage in Somalia or get involved in other parts of the world?
Yes, absolutely. An example of where the US didn’t get involved occurred within weeks of the departure of US troops from Somalia, in early 1994, when the genocide began in Rwanda. There is a close link between the US decision not to engage militarily in Rwanda and the bad experience it had in Somalia. Somalia also had a direct impact on US reluctance to engage in Haiti. This reluctance finally was reversed when the US went into the Balkans. The US very reluctantly became involved in Sierra Leone; not with troops, but financially and diplomatically. In early 2000, the Bush administration also sent Marines to Liberia but there was no significant operation on the ground other than evacuating the US embassy in Monrovia. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no real on-the-ground US military involvement in Africa since then, with the major exception of establishing the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa military base in Djibouti in 2002. It addresses counterterrorism and has about 1,700 personnel.
Besides the fact that Somalia is a failed state, what are the root causes of the Somali-based piracy?
The causes are largely economic. Massive unemployment is part of it. There is almost no way to make money. There are no precise statistics, but in the area where pirates are active, unemployment is off the charts. There are some small shop owners and others who do a little importing or raise a few animals. Among young people unemployment probably verges on 100 percent. Some Somalis involved in piracy were formerly fisherman and it’s true that there has been illegal foreign fishing off the Somali coast. This has hampered their ability to earn a livelihood by fishing. But many pirates are not former fisherman. They are herders or ne’er-do-wells, shopkeepers, or just about anyone who concluded this is a way to make an awful lot of money. They like to pass themselves off as “Robin Hoods”—harmed fisherman whose livelihoods has been ruined by all of the international fishing vessels off the Somali coast. There is some truth to that. But then to suggest that illegal foreign fishing justifies piracy, kidnapping, and holding people for ransom is ludicrous. In my view they are “robbing hoods” engaged in criminal activity. But at the same time I am sympathetic to Somali criticism of illegal foreign fishing and the fact that the international community has never tried to do anything about it. It is high time it does. But ending illegal fishing will not end piracy.
Most of the signatories of UN Resolutions 1816 and 1838, authorizing cooperative military efforts to address the piracy, are the same countries responsible for illegally fishing in the area. In his article, “The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other,” Mohamed Abshir Waldo lists the involvement of “Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Russia, Britain, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Yemen, Egypt, and many others” in “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” (IUU) fishing off the coast of Somalia. Waldo states: “The European Union, Russia, Japan, India, Egypt, and Yemen are all on this piracy campaign, mainly to cover up and protect their illegal fishing fleets in the Somali waters.”
That’s a slightly longer list than I would suggest and I am surprised to hear the names of Russia and Britain. He certainly is right about most of those countries on the list.
According to a 2006 report by the High Seas Task Force, the worldwide value of IUU catches is $4 to $9 billion per year, with $1 billion from Sub-Saharan Africa. The report states: “Somalia has the longest coastline in continental Africa—3,300 km…abundant marine resources…no effective authority over territorial waters…for over a decade foreign fishing vessels have been able to plunder…with impunity…some 700 foreign-owned vessels are engaged in unlicensed and unregulated fishing…exploiting high value species such as tuna, shark, lobster, and deep-water shrimp. Many… are equipped with anti-aircraft cannon and machine guns to defend themselves against Somali pirates who patrol the coast, seizing vessels and kidnapping crews, for which they demand ransoms.”
In the 1990s, it is estimated that illegal fishing off the Somali coast brought in about $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster annually. I would be very surprised if there’s much illegal fishing going on today. Who would be dumb enough to engage in illegal fishing when they are likely to get hijacked, kidnapped, or seized by the pirates?
Describing what he calls “The Somali Piracy War,” Waldo claims only after local fisherman were attacked by illegal foreign fishing boats—“documented cases of trawlers pouring boiling water on them, nets cut or destroyed, smaller boats crushed, killing all occupants,”—that they armed themselves, only to be outmatched by the more sophisticated weapons of the illegal foreign fishing boats. Waldo identifies this as “a cycle of warfare” that is ongoing as each side tries to outmatch the other. Some say that fishermen banding together is at the root of the so-called Somali “coast guard”—a citizen militia. Others say this a myth pirates have created to mask their illegal activities.
For a while they probably did try to stop foreign fishing in their own way and obviously they didn’t have the means to compete effectively. But eventually they ended up turning to piracy primarily because it is far more lucrative. They can make many times more money in piracy than they ever could by fishing.
I have no doubt that there was significant foreign illegal fishing in the period after 1991 and probably continuing up until recent times. My point is that within the past year or so illegal fishing has become so dangerous that I suspect there is not much of it occurring. As of mid-June, Somali pirates were holding 17 foreign ships. Only three of the 17 were fishing boats—a Taiwanese tuna boat, an Egyptian fishing boat, and the Shugaa-al-Madhi, which I believe is an Egyptian fishing boat. Were they fishing illegally? Who knows? They might have been. It does suggest that there is still some illegal fishing going on. But the vast majority of the ships that have been seized have been freighters and not fishing boats. It is just too difficult for fishing vessels to operate in the region. The amount they can earn doesn’t justify the risk. Fishing vessels are sitting ducks and their chances of being seized are very high.
Waldo also cites the issue of the illegal dumping of the hazardous materials—industrial, toxic, and nuclear waste—in both off-shore and on-shore areas of Somalia.
Initially, I was a little skeptical about the toxic waste dumping allegations because there was so little proof of it. There is no environmental organization in Somalia to collect data to prove what is going on. There was one report by Italian journalists several years ago that seemed to document at least one case of toxic waste dumping. It was clear that a lot of gunk came up on Somali shores but it wasn’t clear what it was. On the other hand, Al Jazeera ran a story in April quoting a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) representative, Nick Nuttall, based in Nairobi, Kenya, who stated categorically that the coast of Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste beginning in the early 1990s, and continuing through its civil war. Some of the containers washed up on Somali beaches after the 2004 tsunami. He added the waste included radioactive material, lead, heavy metals, cadmium, and mercury. After the containers washed ashore, Nuttall said hundreds of Somalis fell ill with skin infections, abdominal bleeding, and other ailments. Because of the high level of insecurity in the area, UNEP was unable to make an accurate assessment. That was the first time I have heard an authoritative person indicate that there has been recent toxic waste dumping off the coast of Somalia. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN Secretary General’s representative for Somalia, also commented to Al Jazeera last April that certain unnamed companies are involved in waste dumping off Somalia. He added that in some cases these companies paid Somali officials in the area so they could dump their waste. I am inclined to accept that some toxic waste dumping is continuing and it, too, has to be stopped.
On one hand, countries participating in illegal fishing, at great profit, are the same countries that signed onto UN resolutions—specific only to the coast of Somalia—authorizing their participation in joint operations to thwart piracy. On the other hand, Somali fishermen complain that there are no protections within those UN resolutions allowing them to fish legally and that they are getting lumped in with pirates. And Somalia’s warlords and quasi government officials take bribes and look the other way regarding illegal fishing and dumping. Waldo claims Somali fishermen perceive international meddling as a way to legally allow foreign illegal fishing in Somali waters while legitimate Somali fisherman are labeled as pirates, thus making them subject to capture by the international task force and subject to prosecution. “In ignoring the principal IUU factor, the origin and the purpose of the shipping piracy, the international community seems to be either misled or pressured to take this one-sided course by powerful interests who want to cover up and protect the profitable business of illegal fishing.”
There may be some truth to that. I think that any naval vessel—whether American or Chinese or Indian or whatever—that is stopping Somali ships is going to be pretty careful about not picking up legitimate Somali fishermen. They don’t want disputes as to what do you do in terms of prosecuting them. I know the US Navy has very strict guidelines as to what they pick up and the collection of evidence. I’d be very surprised, for example, if any American naval vessel made the mistake of capturing legitimate Somali fisherman for transport to courts in Kenya. They might stop a fishing boat, search it, and then conclude that the occupants are only engaged in fishing. When Somali pirates are captured and turned over to Kenyan courts for prosecution, the evidence against the Somalis must be strong. Otherwise, international naval personnel who go to the trouble of transporting them to Kenya are wasting both the time of Somalis and their own time. I can see Somalis making that case and they certainly have legitimate grievances as far as illegal fishing is concerned. There is a long history of it. But the Somalis will tend to twist this sort of thing. The Somalis like to talk about the existence of a Somali coast guard. I don’t think there has been “a Somali coast guard” since the government failed in 1991.
What restraints, historically, have been seen as working against curbing the activities of pirates? Why wasn’t piracy addressed sooner?
Looking at figures from the International Maritime Organization, in 2006 there were 10 recorded pirate attacks off Somalia. In 2007 there were 31, in 2008 there were 111, and as of mid-June 2009, there have been 114. Ten attacks are not going to attract attention. When you get 111 attacks, people start paying a lot of attention. Capturing a Ukrainian vessel full of tanks, ammunition, and small arms destined for southern Sudan attracts enormous attention. A super tanker loaded with oil for the US results in even more interest. When an American freighter with an American crew and captain on board are kidnapped, you really rock the meter.
The only thing that gets international attention is when international interests become adversely impacted. So long as it’s just a horrible situation on the ground in Somalia, there is little interest.
Legal ambiguities have also stymied attempts to address the piracy issue despite the fact that legally, warships from any nation may take action against piracy. The responsibility for maintaining the rule of sea falls upon the international community. What factors have been hindering the process? And why?
International maritime law is fairly clear, but different states have different guidelines, and different regional conventions, which complicate the matter. There are two other huge restraints that are still a problem today. One is the vastness of the ocean that must be monitored. Annually, 22,000 ships sail through the Gulf of Aden alone, where the majority of the attacks have taken place. Add the entire Indian Ocean area out to the Seychelles and down to a line that intersects the Tanzania-Kenya border, and you have thousands of additional ship transits. A vast ocean with huge numbers of ships passing through in need of protection is clearly a major restraint. Another problem: What do you do with the pirates when you capture them? Until recently, most pirates were released immediately because no one knew what to do with them. No one wanted to take them on board because ships do not have adequate detention facilities. Most captains decided to take them back to shore and dump them off, which, because there were no local authorities to deal with them, was tantamount to allowing them to return to piracy.
In April, Secretary of State Clinton laid out a four-point plan and tasked a diplomatic team to, among other items, consider ways to track and freeze pirate assets. What is your opinion on this?
I don’t think they go nearly far enough but at least it’s a start. You are essentially dealing with a cash operation and it’s not clear to me how you freeze suitcases full of cash that are hand-carried by couriers. The Somalis also operate a Hawala system for their own internal financial movements between the diaspora and Somalia. It is very efficient. Somalis in Minneapolis walk into a Hawala office and plunk down $105. The organization takes a $5 commission and the money stays in the office. Then a phone call goes out to a Hawala office in some town in Somalia saying, “I’ve just received $100 from Abdullahi Abdou and he wants it given to his family in Baidoa in US dollars.” The money gets delivered the same day. The Hawala works on the honor system. When you have this kind of an operation, the idea of intercepting money strikes me as a bit farcical.
A collaborative effort is underway to take a regional approach on the sea to maritime security and numerous partnerships have been created to promote the rule of law at sea. How is this collaboration playing out?
It’s actually playing out reasonably effectively. There are four different naval operations. It started with combined Task Force 150, which is a counterterrorism task force focused on the Persian Gulf. It got dragged into the piracy problem since it was there. The US then created Combined Task Force 151 to deal with piracy. It rotates commanders. Right now a Turkish admiral is the commander. Several months ago it only had four ships assigned to it—two American, one Turkish, and one Danish. You have to wonder how much can four ships really do. Then you have the EU’s operation called ATALANTA. It is involved primarily in trying to assure the safe arrival of food shipments into Somalia. There is NATO’s Operation Allied Protector, which in theory has some 50 ships throughout the entire region. I am not sure to what degree it is involved in countering piracy. There are also independents that collaborate with these groups but are not part of it—the Chinese, Indians, South Koreans, Japanese, etc. All of these different operations communicate and operate pretty effectively. I think it is safe to say they have decreased the number of successful hijackings. They have not reduced the number of attacks. There are different things you can do to prevent boarding. You can unload an ARP or an AK47, turn fire hoses on the attackers, place barbed wire around the side of a ship, place tires around the low parts of the vessel making it harder to get grappling hooks to work. The percentage of successful attacks has gone down but the number of attempts has risen in 2009. A combination of the ships taking better measures onboard, a more effective naval presence, and perhaps some harsher action by some of the naval vessels have helped reduce the percentage of successful attacks.
Perhaps three shots in a moving ocean in the dark of night killing three pirates sends a certain signal?
The Somalis know that no other vessel out there has that kind of capacity. It’s only the US naval vessels that have that level of expertise.
One last question: In a recent article co-written by David Smock, a vice president at the US Institute of Peace, and John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, they state that the two basic challenges regarding Somali piracy are security and governance. Most Somalis are looking for security and services—primarily education. What do you suggest should be done to provide security to the Somalis and to get a true government up and running?
This has been the challenge since 1991. There have been 15 efforts to create a national government and all of them have failed so far. The new Transitional Federal Government is trying to establish itself but has no effective control of the country. There is no likelihood that a national government can be established quickly. What has to be done before you can end piracy is to put in place a national government in Somalia that has control of the country, wide support from the people, an effective coast guard, and is committed to ending piracy. There is no prospect that that is going to happen anytime soon. Once you have security, then you can deal with the other issues such as provision of services. It’s not just education, but health services, rebuilding roads creating a viable economy, and doing all those things that governments do. Security is effectively nonexistent and you won’t have an effective government until you have security.
There are lots of challenges. Everyone agrees there must be a national government. All of us who follow Somalia agree this is where the priority should be. The answer is not sending more ships to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden to stop piracy. The focus should be on trying to help stand up a national government that’s widely accepted by the Somali people. Saying that is very easy. Doing it is very hard.
- Fishing boats float on a harbor in front of Mogadishuâ€™s Hamarweyne district, July 28, 2007.
- Several of the 19 captured Somali pirates, captured by the french navy on January 4, 2009. the French naval vessel Jean de Vienne, patrolling in the seas off Somalia as part of a European Union anti-piracy force, came to the rescue of two cargo ships in the Gulf of Aden.