Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | January 16, 2012

Somalia Update: Perspective


Somali pirate dhow captured by the Royal Navy on January 13th

I will be the first to admit that my reporting and analysis of the ongoing saga of piracy in Somalia is based on trolling online articles.  I track Google News, check the Guardian page on piracy, and keep up on Jay Bahadur’s blog.  Again I will confess I am no expert.  Yet by watching the news, it is easy to observe that something has changed.  What is unclear is whether the change is actually a shift in events or simply in how the press covers them.  Three themes have taken over lately.  One, the Somalis may have shifted their focus from large commercial vessels to private yachts, and possibly even to tourists ashore.  Two, naval action in the Gulf of Aden appears to be more successful in averting pirate attacks.  Three, the these two factors, among others, may be indeed be indicative of the beginning of the end of Somali piracy.

Kiwayu Safari Village, Kenya

My last post on Somalia, August 22, 2011–nearly five months ago!–was on Bahadur’s book.  We have some catching up to do.  Let’s start on September 7, 2011, when The Guardian reported on the release of Jan Quist Johansen and family, who had been held hostage since their 47-foot yacht had been taken in February.  It has been suggested that a $1 million ransom was paid for their release.  Only four days later, there was a big news splash when a British couple, The Tebbutts, were attacked at Kiwayu Safari Village, a resort in Lamu, Kenya, not far from the border with Somalia to the north.  The husband was shot protecting his wife, and she was bundled off in a speedboat.  Somali gunmen had attacked across the border before, but the use of the speedboat immediately brought “pirate” to the lips of many.  The suspicion that the Somali pirates had a new modus operandi was strengthened on October 1, 2011, when an elderly woman was kidnapped by speedboat from her beach house near Lamu.

These events created an uproar.  Wealthy tourists fled the Kenya-Somali border area, international warnings to travelers were issued, and Kiwayu Safari Village shut down its web page (which is why I haven’t linked to it).  Blame was quick to fall on the Somali pirates.  In an editorial October 4, 2011, for The Guardian, Xan Rice wrote, “Inside Somalia, various groups have taken foreigners, from clan militias to warlords and the al-Shabab Islamist militia. But it is the pirate gangs that are the most likely suspects in this case, most experts believe.”  It is important to note that the British are bit sensitive on the topic, as British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler were held hostage by Somalis for more than a year.  Hardline policy resulted in the Chandlers receiving little more than what they called “tea and sympathy” from the British government.  The British are not alone in being Somali victims, however:  Don’t forget the Quest, or the news on December 15, 2011, that the leader of the pirates who attacked that now-famous yacht has been sentenced to life in prison by the U.S. District Court.  Also keep in mind that multimillion-dollar yachts, participating in the ongoing Volvo Ocean Race, in late December were loaded on an armed transport to be transported through the Indian Ocean to remain safe from pirates.  Level-headed Jay Bahadur at first was skeptical that the violence in Kenya was by Somali pirates.  In his September 17, 2011, blog post, he argued that not only do pirates generally not operate out of southern, Islamist-controlled Somalia, but also coastal kidnappings of civilians do not keep with the pirate’s approach of high profit at low risk.  Yet two days later Bahadur retracted his analysis, citing a September 19, 2011, article at cnn.com that placed Judith Tubbett in the keeping of Somali pirates.  “This incident represents a complete about-face in pirate strategy,” Bahadur wrote in his comment to his blog.  “They continually astound me with their ever-expansionary tactics.”

The USS Kidd and the Al Molai, January 6th

The most oft-cited reason for the change in the pirates’ approach is the increased activity and success of the international naval forces patrolling the area.  If we are to believe the news, there is an awful lot of evidence for this.  To list a few:

  • October 11, 2011:  Having found a message in a bottle tossed overboard from the Italian bulk freighter Montecristo (seriously!), the British Navy responded with commandos and rescued the ship and its 23 crew without firing a shot.
  • October 20, 2011:  The frigate HMS Somerset captured two suspected Somali motherships.
  • December 1, 2011:  After a high-speed chase, Royal Marines captured seven accused pirates who had been attacking a Spanish fishing vessel. 
  • December 21, 2011:  The USS Pinckney stopped an attack on the tanker Nordic Apollo
  • December 26, 2011:  The Iranian Navy, already conductive massive (and controversial) wargames in the Sea of Oman, averted an attempted attack on a Saudi oil tanker.
  • January 6, 2012:  The US Navy destroyer USS Kidd rescued the Iranian vessel Al Molai, which had been captive for more than forty days.
  • January 8, 2012:  The Danish ship Absalon captured a suspected pirate vessel and freed 14 hostages.
  • January 10, 2012:  NATO warships captured two dhows used as motherships.
  • January 12, 2012:  The British Fort Victoria forced pirates to abandon their efforts to make the Liquid Velvet, a Greek-owned tanker, into a mothership.
  • January 12, 2012:  Somalis, possible mistaking it for a freighter, attacked the Spanish warship Patino, and were chased and captured.
  • January 13, 2012:  Royal Marines captured 13 pirates after intercepting a suspicious dhow.  

Marines from the RFA Fort Victoria capture pirates, December 1

The dominance of the British Navy in the list above is due at least in part to the amount of attention these efforts receive in The Guardian…and its ease as a source for me.  It is important to remember that the Brits are part of NATO’s multinational Operation Ocean Shield.  Regardless of who takes credit, it may in fact be that we are starting to win the war.  Citing NATO reports, a January 12, 2012, article at The Guardian stated there were only four successful hijackings off the Somali coast in 2011, compared with 26 in 2010.  NATO believes that only six vessels, and 175 hostages, are currently being held by Somali pirates.  According to a slightly earlier article in USA Today on January 10th, NATO claimed to have disrupted 96 pirate attacks last year.  The Guardian hastened to point out that there is more to these numbers.  For one, naval success has not yet extended to the Somalis’ new favorite hunting ground, the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean, where 19 ships were taken in 2011.  Furthermore, it is not just NATO (or EUNAVFOR) that can take credit:  Merchantmen themselves are better prepared for the pirates, whether by having shipboard defenses or by traveling in convoys.

Does this mean that the days of Somali piracy are numbered?  Robert Young Pelton of SomaliaReport.com thought so in an article posted in full at Bahadur’s blog back on October 17, 2011.  Pelton argues that pirate greed has led to their own downfall.  “The bottom line is that the main pirate groups are hurting. Stalled inventory, maxed out ransoms and heavy investments that have not paid off are putting more pressure on getting higher ransoms for the existing ships.”  The pirates have been forced to not only pick off the weakest of the herd but also head further and further out to find their prey.  Bahadur countered that the need for higher ransoms may not signal the end of piracy but another step in its escalation.  From this perspective, the fights with NATO and even the attacks on civilians could be interpreted as evidence simply of greater violence, driven by the Somalis’ desperation.  “The next evolution of pirate tactics could very well be to come out guns blazing, armed guards be damned,” Bahadur wrote.

The Al Molai again:  Kinda looks like a pirate ship, huh?

The present reality of Somali piracy thus comes down, again, to perspective.  We may be winning, or we might just be fighting more.  The Somalis may or may not be more prone to violence, and they may or may not be more likely to take on civilian craft or even civilians ashore.  What does seem to clear to me is that in the time since my last blog–and Bahadur’s book–the measure of Somali piracy has changed.  It used to be measured by the number of craft held and the worth of the cargoes.  It is now measured by the number of skirmishes at sea and human casualties.  It might be the beginning of the end, it might just be worse, and, logically, it could be both.

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