Until relatively recently, Somali pirates were the scourge of East-West trade, operating in a huge swathe of the Indian Ocean and hijacking vessels with fearsome, and often drug-induced, zeal. Looking back to March 2009 when there were near-daily attacks, the pirate threat was eventually driven back in 2013 by the assembled brawn of heavily armed private security personnel, onshore security forces, and Combined Naval Task Forces 150 and 151.
Last week, a foray by the BBC into Eyl, the now de-throned global piracy capital, highlighted serious challenges for the country, including widespread poverty and joblessness, and a nascent legal system.
Various documentaries, news coverage and the big-budget Captain Phillips have shown the world that these men are not hardened criminals but indeed something far more dangerous - out-of-work teachers and fishermen, faced with a chance at leaving behind a lifetime of abject poverty for riches beyond their wildest dreams.
The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) theorises that there are four mitigating “pillars” currently staving off successful hijackings, explains secretary general Peter Hinchliffe. These include compliance with Best Management Practices 4 (BMP4) for vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden and beyond; the presence of warships in the area; and armed security on board vessels.
But everyone agrees that the most important of the four pillars is capacity-building on shore. This takes time, and Somalia is not there yet. With the current mandate for NATO and EUNAVFOR intervention set to expire in 2016, shipping is getting understandably nervous.
“The military tell us that there are still probing attacks on a fairly regular basis,” says Hinchliffe. “The potential and capacity for pirate attacks is still there. Our belief is that if you take away those pillars without thinking of the consequences, piracy can re-emerge. The ICS advice to its members hasn’t changed.”
ICS, along with a number of other organisations like the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), specialist branch of the International Chamber of Commerce, is lobbying to secure a new and equally tough mandate from 2017 onward. “Only a handful of the pirates have been caught and tried,” assistant director at IMB Cyrus Mody explains. “There appears to be a reduction, but we have to put that down to the naval deterrents, to the BMPs, to the armed guards. There is definitely a possibility that the business model from 2008-2010 can be revived if there is complacency, or if the presence of the navies and armed teams is reduced. This has always been a concern in the industry.”
Indeed interviews with individual Somalis confirm that shipowners are not the only ones with piracy on their minds. “It’s just now coming from the other [Somali] side, which is giving it a bit more momentum,” says Mody.
Morten Glamsø, senior adviser at the Danish Shipowners’ Association (DSA), is measured in his responses. “From the very beginning we have said that a holistic approach needs to be taken,” he explains. “Ships need to be prepared and protected, but we also need to address the root causes. It is important that there are alternatives for the Somalis than fishing, because a lot of fishing resources in these waters have been depleted.
“[The DSA] are monitoring the situation and our members are conducting a full risk assessment every time they are navigating these waters. We are also emphasising the importance of maintaining the naval presence under operation ATALANTA and the NATO-led operation. And of course all the independent nations in the area have been doing good work.”
The fact that not enough naval support is currently available for the still-growing migration crisis in the Mediterranean will not help matters, but Glamsø remains optimistic. “We are aware that defence budgets are stressed, and we have other crises, like in the Mediterranean. Our impression is that the EU-led operation is under pressure but they have a reasonable force – it’s more concerning the development of the NATO led operation.”
Some progress has been made. In 2012, Seatrade reported on a number of proposals put forward by the IMB and ICC to create jobs and bolster Somalia's economy, including the establishment of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to protect the country's fishing from illegal foreign trawlers. Speaking at IMO in May of that year, Jean-Guy Carrier, secretary general of the ICC, along with Potengal Mukundan, director of IMB, said: “Before the civil war there were successful fish processing businesses on this coast producing fish products which were exported. It is a natural, sustainable resource which can be easily exploited for economic growth. If this can be revived, it would give local employment to the youngsters in this area. Local communities and fishing villages would not then need to depend upon the pirates for sustenance and would turn away from them. Without the support of the local community the pirates would not be able to bring hijacked vessels to this area. Without the space and impunity to hold the vessels, the Somali pirate model simply could not work.”
Later that year democratic elections were held in the Somaliland and Puntland regions, from where many of the pirates embark, and some are hailing these as the beginning of the end for a period of civil unrest which has blighted the country since 1991.
“After the elections in 2012, Somalia has literally been reborn,” says Mody. “Now, that governance structure has to be supported so they can develop the judicial system and law enforcement – and bring Somalia together, a very large and complex task. It is going to take a lot of time, and a lot of international investment, and a lot of patience.”
“Capacity building is not just about building prisons,” Hinchliffe continues. “It’s about trying to establish some kind of job-creation infrastructure, whether it’s re-establishing the local fishing industry or turning the local fishing into more of a revenue-earning structure. Those are things that are hopefully going on because a lot of money is being poured into Somalia.
“The pirates do their own risk assessment. They will balance the profit from a successful pirate attack against the stability of regular employment.”
As long as that balance continues to tip in favour of piracy, then neither shipping, nor Somalia itself, can be safe from the scourge. As is almost always the case with international politics, the right thing to do is also going to be the hardest.