The recent spike in pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia has generated a great deal of international media attention, including news reports sprinkled with ubiquitous references to Long John Silver, Jack Sparrow, and Captain Hook.

Commentators are quick to point out that, unlike these legendary fictional raiders, Somalia’s modern pirates represent not only a very real menace to maritime security, but also a growing threat to international commerce. And yet, for all their swashbuckling swagger, we know little about the pirates themselves. The sensational nature of their crimes, while drawing the ire of the international community, has also ensured that the Somali pirates remain shrouded in mystery.

On January 16, the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB) released a report detailing the upsurge in piracy in 2008. Worldwide, the number of pirate attacks increased by 11%, an “unprecedented rise in maritime hijackings” the IMB attributed almost exclusively to an explosion of attacks in the Gulf of Aden, the stretch of the Arab Sea separating war-torn Somalia from Yemen. Of the 293 piratical incidents the IMB recorded for the year, 111 attacks occurred on the high seas surrounding Somalia’s territorial waters. This represents a staggering annual increase of nearly 200% in the critical trade corridor linking the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.

As the hijackings have increased in number they have also become more sophisticated, enabling the pirates to seize larger targets. On September 25, Somali pirates captured the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship transporting Soviet-era weaponry to Kenya. This was followed one month later by the hijacking of the MV Sirius Star, the largest ship ever captured by pirates. A Saudi-owned supertanker carrying approximately 2 billion barrels (about $100 million worth) of crude oil, the Sirius Star was finally released on January 9 for a $3 million ransom. However, the pirates continue to hold the Faina and its crew near the small port city of Eyl, located in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region. All told, the Puntland-based pirates are believed to be holding at least a dozen seized vessels. Over 300 merchant mariners are being held hostage — though, it should be noted, their treatment has been less-than-barbaric by most accounts.

Context and Impact

The increased threat of maritime piracy has heightened the shipping industry’s financial concerns in the context of the global economic recession. Over 6.8 billion tons of goods are moved by sea annually in a global trade cycle worth $7.4 trillion, with up to 90% of international trade traveling by ship at some point. The wave of pirate attacks off the eastern coast of Africa has already had a major impact on global shipping patterns. Following the hijacking of the Sirius Star, for example, AP Moller-Maersk, Europe’s largest shipping company, diverted its fleet of 50 oil tankers away from the Suez Canal towards the longer and more expensive route around the Cape of Good Hope. In addition to the massive ransoms that the shipping companies pay for the release of their vessels, the financial burdens associated with maritime piracy include, among other things, excess fuel costs, increased payroll costs, and higher insurance premiums.

Furthermore, due to the inherent volatility of commodity prices, particularly oil, high-profile incidents of maritime piracy can have economic impacts far beyond their immediate target. This phenomenon has been on display in Nigeria, for instance, where seaborne attacks by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) against international oil companies led to periodic spikes in the global price of crude. Given the fact that over 10% of the world’s petroleum deliveries are trafficked through the Gulf of Aden, there’s little doubt that the region’s highly strategic location is a prime factor driving the international community’s rapidly deepening response to the “scourge” of Somali-based piracy.

International Response

The Gulf of Aden is currently being patrolled by one of the largest anti-piracy flotillas in modern history. Organized as the Combined Maritime Forces, the United States-led coalition features warships from at least 20 different navies. Due to differing rules of engagement and the various legal complexities related to capturing, holding, and prosecuting pirates, the multilateral contingent has attempted to combat pirate attacks mainly through the sheer strength of its presence in the area. As one would expect, pirates tend to shy away from commercial vessels backed by a military escort, preferring instead to go after unprotected and thus more vulnerable targets.

Despite the robust size of the international community’s anti-piracy fleet, however, the Somali pirates have grown increasingly brazen in recent months. On December 16, the same day the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing air and land strikes against pirates during “hot pursuit,” Somali raiders attacked four more vessels in the Gulf of Aden. To date, the bandits have remained relatively undeterred by the by the immense firepower that has been assembled to thwart their piratical efforts. Even China’s unprecedented decision to send two destroyers to the region (the country’s first far-flung naval deployment since the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949) has failed to fully quell the attacks.

On January 8, the U.S. Navy announced the reorganization of the multilateral forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden. Through the establishment of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), the United States and its partners have sought to strengthen the force’s ability to deter and disrupt the pirates by freeing-up a section of the coalition forces to focus exclusively on pirate groups (leaving Combined Task Force 150 to focus on other destabilizing activities, such as drug smuggling and weapons trafficking). Tellingly, U.S. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, the coalition’s commander, cautioned that even the best efforts of the international navies involved in the task force will be insufficient in solving the problem of piracy in the Horn of Africa. Ultimately, if there is a solution to be found, it rests onshore, in the devastated Somali communities that have given rise to the pirates, and to which they return.

Robbers or Robin Hoods?

In many ways, the Somali pirates exemplify what the British historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to as “social bandits,” outlaws who, drawing on community support, use criminal methods to challenge prevailing hierarchies of power and wealth. One doesn’t have to romanticize the pirates to see that there is a quasi-political element to their actions. As stated by the BBC, not only is piracy “socially acceptable” in Somalia, it’s even become “fashionable… in a country where almost half the population needs food aid after 17 years of non-stop conflict.” Even the Economist has likened the pirates to Robin Hoods — albeit somewhat dismissively.

Piracy in Somalia began because traditional coastal fishing became difficult after foreign fishing trawlers depleted local fish stocks. Desperate fishermen started attacking trawlers until the trawler crews fought back with heavy weapons, leading the local fishermen to turn to other types of commercial vessels. The pirates prefer to call themselves the Somali “coast guard,” noting that, prior to the recent spate of hijackings, they organized themselves to defend their communities from overfishing and, according to several accounts, to protect Somalia’s coastline from toxic dumping by foreign vessels.

In a country that ranks near the very bottom in virtually all socio-economic indicators, maritime piracy is far and away Somalia’s most lucrative business. Ship owners are willing to pay millions for the release of their hijacked vessels. By most estimates, the pirates have taken in around $30 million in the past year, though the actual figure may be many times this amount. Kenya’s foreign minister, for example, maintains that the pirates collected over $150 million in ransoms in 2008 alone, a sum that greatly exceeds the budgets of the country’s balkanized regional governments.

At the local level, Somalis have championed the banditry by tolerating the pirates, providing them safe havens on shore. According to an article in The Spectator by Aidan Hartley, in Puntland, “the modern world’s first genuine pirate state,” the gangs of bandits are made up of “ordinary youths” who are more than willing to pay local merchants inflated prices for consumer goods. Well-organized and highly efficient, Somalia’s pirates are opposed publicly only by the country’s militant Islamic forces, including al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization with reported links to al-Qaeda. A pirate leader known as Boyah has boasted that the raiders can’t be stopped because, with officials so deeply involved in financing piracy, the government has no interest in cracking down on the bandits.

Looking Ahead

As Hartley says, “piracy is just one symptom of several ways — you can add gun-running and terrorism to the list — in which Somalia’s crisis will lash out at the world in 2009.” If the international community is to comprehensively address the crisis, its “first task is to understand the background.”

Indeed, although an expanded and more aggressive naval presence in the Gulf of Aden may temporarily stem the tide of the growing pirate attacks, it hardly guarantees that, over the long-term, the chaos onshore will not again spill over into surrounding international waters. Besides being unsustainable from a logistical standpoint, the heightened military response, including the creation of Combined Task Force 151, will likely prove inadequate in addressing the root causes of the piracy itself. Both the U.S. Navy and the United Nations have acknowledged as much.

Clearly, the problem of Somali lawlessness at sea can’t be addressed without attending to the ongoing crisis of Somali “statelessness” on land. Somalia’s complex civil war dates to 1991 and, despite some positive steps in recent months, it’s unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future. As U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces completed their withdrawal from Somalia on January 26, ending a two-year occupation, their pullout was punctuated by several car bombs, including one in Mogadishu that killed 15 people.

As the violence continues to grab headlines, the international community would do well to remember that, while Somalia’s rampant sociopolitical instability provides its seafarers the opportunity to “flourish” as pirates, this instability is not the sole cause of the piracy boom. The characteristics of Somalia’s “failed state” include dire economic conditions and crushing poverty, the harsh realities of life at the margins of the global economy. In the context of the chaotic political situation onshore, these conditions are as directly responsible for Somalia’s pervasive piracy as the country’s lack of an effective central government.

Rubrick Biegon, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, works as a consultant and freelance journalist in Washington, DC. He holds a Master's degree in international politics from American University.

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