In a metaphor that the traditionally nomadic Somalis would undoubtedly appreciate, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Last Thursday, Somali pirates seized the Ukrainian-owned, Belizean-registered freighter Faina as it neared the Kenyan port of Mombasa. It was at least the sixtieth such attack for ransom this year in the waters surrounding the Horn of Africa and the pirates currently hold more than 200 hostages and approximately a dozen ships, mainly around Eyl, on the Gulf of Aden. 


However, it was the cargo on board the Faina that finally made the world pay greater attention to the scourge represented by these maritime marauders: 33 refurbished Russian-made T-72 tanks and millions of dollars’ worth of grenade launchers and other armaments. As a result, over the weekend the United States Navy vessels operating in the Arabian Sea were in pursuit of the hijacked cargo vessel, while Russia has dispatched the frigate Neustrashimy to the region. 

That the attacks are increasing should come as little surprise. The unrecognized Republic of Somaliland in the northwestern part of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic being a case apart, Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991. The internationally-recognized “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG), the fourteenth such attempt at an interim authority, faces a growing insurgency that is spearheaded by a Somali Islamist group with al-Qaeda links, al-Shabaab (“the Youth”), which was earlier this year formally designated a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. State Department. Despite being propped up by a large intervention force from neighboring Ethiopia, the TFG’s writ hardly extends beyond a few heavily fortified blocks in Mogadishu and a smattering of provincial towns. 

By far and away, piracy is the most lucrative economic activity in Somalia these days with ship owners willing to pay ransoms of more than $1 million for the release of their hijacked vessels. In an interview with Der Spiegel several weeks ago, for example, Germany ship owner Niels Stolberg not only admitted that his Bremen-based firm, Beluga Shipping GmbH, paid $1.1 million earlier in September to recover its $23 million 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, but described how the negotiations had an almost routine character about them—the pirates had obviously developed a well-honed system. Furthermore, Somali piracy is not only increasing in frequency, but also sophistication as the pirates plow part of their proceeds into upgrades for their arsenals in the hopes of landing even larger maritime prizes, prompting a warning from the authoritative Lloyd’s List that “ransom paid to pirate raiders off Somalia could spiral to $50 million this year, fueling copycat attacks.” 

From an occasional nuisance just a few years ago, Somali piracy has 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, through which waters some 11 percent of world’s seaborne petroleum must transit, have soared tenfold over the course of the past year, adding yet another drag to the sluggish global economy. The Round Table of International Shipping Associations, an umbrella group of ship owners, has issued a joint appeal with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) 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.”  

In addition to choking the main route for trade between Europe and the Middle East and Asia, the surge in piracy threatens the already precarious humanitarian situation in the East African subregion. 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 last week as “the worst humanitarian crisis since 1984,” when over one million died in the Ethiopian famine. While the pirates have not targeted WFP food shipments recently, the 90 percent of that food aid moved by sea is quite vulnerable. 

Moreover, there is increasing evidence of collaboration between the pirates and the Islamist militants fighting the TFG, its Ethiopian backers, and the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. Two weeks ago, a Greek-owned, Maltese-registered bulk carrier, the Centauri, which was carrying a cargo of salt to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, was seized and taken to an area of the southern Somali coast controlled by the Islamists, rather than back to the pirate bases in the northeast of the country. Sources in the region agree that the pirates are sharing at least part of their ransom payments with the militants in exchange for safe haven, the money going to finance the insurgent’s deadly attacks which have increasingly been targeting the AU peacekeepers. 

How, then, does one even begin to grapple with the challenge of Somali piracy? 

First, commercial vessels need to be better prepared to protect themselves. While some ship owners have invested in alarm systems, close-circuit television, electric fences, and even armed guards to counter the threat of their vessels being boarded, many have done little aside from being prepared to pay ransoms which only perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Second, given the large area within which the pirates now apparently operate—attacks have occurred as many as 250 nautical miles from the Somali coast—as well as their improved armaments and tactics necessitates a strong naval response to sweep the international sea lanes clear of the pirates. Since it is an increasingly global problem, an international response would be appropriate. Earlier this month, the European Union established a coordination unit tasked with supporting surveillance and protection activities undertaken by individual member states, tentatively approving a European naval operation. France, which twice this year has sent commandos to rescue hijacked French yachters and arrest their captors, is 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.” The United States, which has long maintained a naval presence in the area and has its largest military installation in Africa in nearby Djibouti, likewise has a stake in combating the threat to maritime security, especially given the links coming to light about its ties to Islamist militancy.

Ultimately, however, the problem of Somali lawlessness at sea cannot be addressed without reference to the ongoing crisis of de facto Somali statelessness on land. Unfortunately, while it may be finally willing to focus on the incidents of piracy, there is still little indication that the international community is either prepared or willing to confront the causes driving the phenomenon.

 J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham