New strategies needed to eliminate piracy in Gulf of Aden

Dozens of warships, most notably from US, EU, NATO currently patrol waters under UN mandate to deter pirate attacks.

Warships in Gulf of Aden (photo credit: Reuters)
Warships in Gulf of Aden
(photo credit: Reuters)
Somalian pirates have caused mayhem in the waters off the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, where more than 20,000 ships transit the waters annually.
The Gulf of Aden is now considered the world’s most dangerous due to persistent pirates, who have became more sophisticated and broadened their range of attack.
Dozens of warships, most notably from US, EU and NATO are currently patrolling the waters under a UN mandate to deter the pirate attacks. But this has not deterred the pirates from disrupting the free passage of vessels in the shipping lane.
Thus, questions have been raised about the capability of the naval forces to counter a land-based menace. Is international anti-piracy policy effective, or is forming regional maritime force that can fight on land the most cost-effective and lasting solution? The operating cost of anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden is estimated at $2 billion annually, including the cost of naval vessels, aircraft and military personnel.
If 30 percent of this amount could go to fighting on land, it would have piracy in Gulf of Aden by at least 40%.
At least 19 foreign vessels with 257 crew members, including a Panama-flagged Ro/Ro cargo ship with 24 crew members reportedly seized on Friday, February 18 off the Somalian coast, are currently in the hands of pirates.
Operating only at sea has allowed the buccaneers to carry out attacks from the mainland or even nearby islands, “mother ships,” using speedboats.
There are several pirate strongholds off Somali coastlines, including two main towns of Hobyo and Harardhere, where at least 10 vessels are still being held by the pirates. Both towns are well known to be where pirates and their beneficiaries hide themselves to await the multi-billion dollar ransoms.
A RESEARCH document, entitled “Treasure Mapped: Using Satellite Imagery to Track the Developmental Effects of Somali Piracy,” by Dr. Anja Shortland, is claiming that around a third of pirate ransoms (in between US $7b. and US $12b. annually) are converted into Somali shillings, benefiting laborers and pastoralists in Puntland.
If Dr. Anja knows where pirates’ ransoms end up, why can’t international maritime actors coordinate with the locals to detain the ransom receivers based inside Somalia? This is what many Africans are asking themselves, including One Somali elder in Puntland, Sheikh Ahmed Abdullahi.
He argued that if international anti-piracy forces are serious about their fight against piracy, they could come here (Puntland) and at least handle them on land whenever they are in the country.
On the other hand, a leaked draft from the London Conference on Somalia, which took place at Lancaster house on February 23, 2012, said that “On piracy, we agreed that the roots of the issues are on land not at sea, and our work on regional stability would be central to tackling the causes of piracy.”
The draft stated that the Republic of Seychelles has found ways to accept custody of pirates captured by naval forces and try them, and a number of regions of Somalia are now agreeing to imprison those found guilty;“We noted the creation of a regional anti-piracy prosecution and information coordination in the Seychelles which will look at disrupting the money involved in piracy activity and seek to prosecute those who benefit from the proceeds of crime,” the draft said, adding, “We welcome the European Union commitment to supporting better maritime security arrangements from neighbouring states of East Africa.”
However, using naval forces inside Somalia can only disrupt the ransoms, compared to Seychelles or other African countries. Take a look at this example: On January 24, 2012, two Danish Refugee Council workers held hostage by Somali pirates were rescued by US military forces that flew in helicopters under the cover of darkness in a raid on a Somali village. The planes landed at the town’s airport on the night of January 23 before they carried out the overnight raid on a tiny village located in between the regions of Mudug and Galgadud.
Only one raid that was carried out on land this year has succeeded, and this can be equivalent to four to six raids at the sea.
There are reports of naval forces targeting Somali fishermen because it is hard for them to differentiate.
As a example of a success story, Puntland, which declared itself an independent state in 1998, enjoys relative peace compared to south central Somalia which has been ravaged by bloody conflict since 1991, and is home to local armed militia and a notorious base used by local pirates to launch attacks on merchant vessels transiting the Indian Ocean.
The writer is a freelance journalist, covering stories around East Africa, especially Somalia.