Features | Security | Oceania

The Impact Of Somali Piracy

Graham Cooke explores the link between piracy and Islamic extremism in the Gulf of Aden.

By Graham Cooke for

A recent Internet discussion session on Somali piracy highlighted some of the misconceptions surrounding this growing threat to world trade. Overwhelmingly participants supported what they saw as the simple and obvious answer to the problem.

‘Arm every ship with an old-fashioned cannon and blow the pirates out of the water. What’s so hard about that?’ was one suggestion.

‘The solution is a no-brainer: unleash the power of our [American] military. and the entire issue will just fade away,’ was another.

Other contributors echoed these sentiments, expressing frustration at what they saw as the lack of will on the part of the international community to use overwhelming force to sweep the pirates from the seas. But in doing so they are proposing 18th-century solutions to what is a delicate and intractable 21st-century problem – even as countries, Australia included, are either sending ships to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, or considering doing so.

A couple of hundred years ago it was quite acceptable to send navies to sink pirate ships and to blockade and bombard their bases, slaughtering indiscriminately, in order to keep the seaways safe. Today, though, to use the post-9/11 cliché, the world has changed. Piracy in the Gulf region is bound up with poverty, lawlessness, the failed state of Somalia and, in the background, Islamic extremism.

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There have been many warning signs in recent years of the need to tread carefully: successive wars and countless diplomatic initiatives have failed to find an answer to the Israel-Palestine conflict; there are now just glimmers of hope for Iraq after the expenditure of half a trillion dollars and a death toll that one group estimates at more than 1.3 million; Afghanistan is fast becoming a quagmire.

The last thing the world needs is another flashpoint on the Horn of Africa, another rallying call against Western ‘crusaders’ and a fresh recruiting ground for terrorist groups.

Clive Williams, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, says al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has taken a continuing interest in events in Somalia, including a 2007 general call to the Muslim world to support the Islamic Courts Union in its fight against the Transitional Federal Government and invading Ethiopian forces. ‘The fact the Ethiopians are Christians is an obvious encouragement to get more people to go there,’ Williams says.

Apart from these concerns, military force is a clumsy and often ineffective method of dealing with piracy. Navies are designed to fight other navies, not the small, fast-moving boats that pirates employ.

The record of clashes to date has been far from promising. Royal Marines from HMS Cumberland did attack a stolen dhow after an attempted hijack on a Danish merchant vessel, killing three on board and detaining eight others. However, as the average pirate ‘gang’ is believed to contain between 50 and 60 members, it can only be assumed the majority lived to fight another day.

In another incident, the Indian Navy frigate Tabar attacked and sank a stolen Thai fishing boat being used as a ‘mother ship’ by pirates. Most of the pirates escaped in two accompanying speedboats, while innocent Thai fishermen, who had been tied up and left on board by their captors, went to the bottom.

France‘s active role

Some of the more robust actions have been taken by France, which even landed troops on the Somali mainland last April to capture six fleeing pirates, who are now in custody in Paris. However, Williams says this raises major questions of jurisdiction and international law, including the possibility of the captives claiming refugee status. More recent French captives have been handed over to ‘Somali authorities’, although the status of those authorities and what they might do with the prisoners is open to question.

In December last year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution authorising states involved in fighting piracy to ‘take all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia’ to suppress ‘acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea’. Since then, more naval vessels have been sent, mostly from Britain, the European Union and the United States, but the decision of China to deploy two destroyers and a supply ship adds another dimension, which the West considers disturbing.

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It is the first time China has operated outside its territorial waters for six centuries and adds fuel to the fears, expressed in September 2008 by Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, that Asia is about to engage in an arms race.

The US has officially welcomed the willingness of China to enter the campaign against piracy, and Chinese Ministry of National Defence spokesman Huang Xueping stressed the willingness of China to cooperate with convoy protection ships of other countries ‘including the US’.

However, Denny Roy, of the East-West Centre in Hawaii, voices underlying American fears when he asks: ‘Why the big Chinese build-up when no country threatens China? Or more bluntly, why do the Chinese need a blue-water navy when the US Navy already polices the world’s oceans?’

Whatever the international tensions it provokes, there is no questioning the effects of piracy on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In a briefing paper for the London-based think tank Chatham House, Roger Middleton from the University of Bristol points out that piracy off the coast of Somalia more than doubled during 2008, with around 100 ships attacked. ‘Pirates are regularly demanding and receiving million-dollar ransom payments and are becoming more aggressive and assertive,’ he says.

‘It provides funds that feed the vicious war in Somalia and could potentially become a weapon of international terrorism or a cause of environmental disaster.’

Writing in Forbes magazine, William Pentland echoes these statements. While piracy has been a problem in the region for at least a decade, ‘Somalia’s pirates are now playing in the big leagues – the very big leagues,’ he argues.

Proof of that came with the hijacking of the supertanker Sirius Star, with more than two million barrels of crude oil on board, in the Indian Ocean, far south of the zone patrolled by international warships. It joined the Ukrainian vessel Faina, laden with 33 Russian battle tanks, in anchorage off the Somali coast before being released in January on payment of a ransom reputed to be in the region of US$3 million.

Who exactly are the pirates?

Who are the pirates and how – short of overwhelming and possibly counter-productive military force – can they be stopped?

Williams says the pirates fall into three categories: former fishermen who lost their livelihoods when foreign trawlers, taking advantage of the chaos in Somalia, fished out local waters; militiamen who see piracy as a more lucrative option to fighting a never-ending civil war; and technical experts versed in the increasingly sophisticated navigation and communication equipment employed by the gangs.

One option for shipping companies is to avoid the area, rerouting their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope. However, this would lead to a considerable increase in transportation costs, which would ultimately be passed on to the consumer. Armed guards on ships are another possibility, although this could result in action with weaponry and retribution on passengers if the pirates took casualties but still succeeded in boarding. Barbed wire around the hulls of ships, making boarding difficult, and the use of non-lethal weapons such as high-powered hoses are other possibilities being considered.

In the end, though, most ship owners will probably take the risk of continuing to use the Gulf route up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal. After all, with 20,000 ships transiting the area every year, the risk of being attacked, let alone boarded, is small. Even so, this will eventually lead to steep rises in insurance premiums and increased costs down the chain, affecting the price of the imported goods that Australians buy, and adversely impacting on our competitive position in Europe, which collectively is still our largest trading partner.

However, possibly the most effective answer would be an ending of the internal chaos in Somalia, where there has been no stable government since 1991, when the dictator Mohammed Siyad Barre was deposed. At one point it appeared that the Islamic Courts Union would win control of the country, but the 2006 incursion by Ethiopian forces in support of the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government rolled back some of the ICU’s gains and has resulted in the current stalemate.

Williams believes an ICU victory could have ended the piracy problem, as it considered the practice ‘un-Islamic’. But now there is a very real possibility of al-Shabaab, an ICU splinter group, linking with the pirates in what might develop into a form of maritime terrorism.

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Whether the West has the stomach for another major intervention in the affairs of Somalia after the disastrous US-led United Nations mission in 1992-93 remains highly doubtful. Similarly, the African Union has neither the will nor the resources to mount an effective presence, while Somalis themselves now seem to regard continuing civil conflict as a way of life.

But, as Middleton starkly points out, with the pirates using ever-more powerful weaponry, with incidents of piracy escalating and the prospect of a tanker being sunk or set alight increasingly likely, one option the international community does not have is to ignore the problem.


Since the fall of Siyad Barre in 1991, Somalia has had no functioning national government. In the same year, northern clans declared independence to create Somaliland, which has remained unrecognised by the international community ever since. Other regional authorities have established themselves, essentially self-governing but willing to participate as federated parts of a Somali state should such a meaningful entity emerge.

The southern part of the country is a battleground, with the main combatants being the Islamic Courts Union, which seeks to impose Sharia Law, and the Transitional Federal Government (headed by the moderate former teacher Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, above), recognised by the international community but largely weak and ineffectual, remaining a player only through the backing of the Ethiopian military – which has recently announced its withdrawal.

Consequently, pirates have little fear of reprisal or punishment, and there is even evidence that they have penetrated the highest levels of government in at least one of the semi-autonomous regional authorities, namely Puntland.

In other ways life continues as normal. The Puntland Parliament has granted Australian company Range Resources and its joint venture partner, Africa Oil, licences to drill for oil in the Daharoor and Nugal valleys. Range’s executive director, Peter Landau, insists that the government there is stable and there is nothing to fear from investing in wells that could produce five billion barrels of crude.

In many other parts of the country the situation can be summed up in the despairing words of a former diplomat there: ‘There has always been competition in Somalia for water, pasturage and cattle. It is competition that used to be fought out with arrows and sabres; now it is fought out with AK-47s.’