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Piracy off the Somali coast resumes after Monsoon intermezzo

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It cannot be held against anyone if he or she developed the impression during past months that the worst was over in the Gulf of Aden and that the reason for this has been an increasing presence of international warships off the coast of Somalia. 

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Particularly so because of continuous success stories and reports of decreasing numbers of attacks published by the nations involved as well as news of this of that task force – U.S., NATO, EU, Russia, China, ... – increasing its effort, may have supported this impression. But it also may have only been for the weather phenomenon called monsoon that the merchant shipping in the vital sea lanes between the Red Sea and the Indian subcontinent was spared from the plethora of pirate attacks, as occurred earlier this year.

It is getting busier around the Horn of Africa. Naval vessels from industrialised countries of four continents are ploughing the seas of the Gulf in all directions, patrolling trade routes, looking for suspected pirate ships and protecting ship convoys. The fact that even these far-ranging waters are becoming crowded is underlined by the recent accidental attack of two Somali pirate boats on the “La Somme”, a French 160-metre command vessel and fuel tanker. As early as May, a French naval ship (this time a frigate) was attacked. In both cases some of the surprised pirates, who tried to flee when they became aware of their mistake, were seized.

The more recent attack occurred on 7 October at 250 nautical miles (460 kilometres) off the Somali coast where the La Somme was on its way to refuel frigates of the European Union's anti-piracy operation “Atalanta”. The French flagship is overseeing French air, sea and land forces fighting Somali pirates and hunting terrorists under the banner of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).

The pirates still have their necessary success

While thousands of ships – particularly vessels with food supplies from the UN World Food Program travelling in the “Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor” – are being safely escorted, Somali pirates only require a small number of successful attacks to prove to the world that their freedom of action has still not been sufficiently constricted by the congregated military might on the Horn of Africa. Western navies have pointed to the hopeful assessment that sea lanes are so well protected that pirates had to resort to attacks in remote areas south of the Gulf. But what does that prove? In fact, is does prove that the pirates are well organised, using larger mother-ships to roam the extensive sea territories, and smaller and faster skiffs for swift attacks on commercial vessels. It proves their flexibility and skill to safely navigate in a sea area far too extensive to be controlled by any naval force.

So it is no wonder that it did not take long for the pirates to achieve their first successful attacks after the end of the Monsoon. On 2 October the Spanish fishing trawler “Alakrana” was seized and on 15 October the pirates managed to capture a Singaporean container ship sailing far out in the Indian Ocean. In those two cases, the leverage effect of the naval forces has proven to be insufficient and the involved parties have to begin the difficult process of negotiations. In the case of the Spanish ship, the pirates have already demanded $4 million in ransom plus the release of the two hijackers captured by the Spanish Navy on 4 October.

As recently as this morning, the European Union NAVFOR Somalia mission announced that around noon local time a bulk carrier from the Peoples Republic of China was hijacked in the Indian Ocean, 550 nautical miles North East of the Seychelles and 700 nautical miles off the East coast of Somalia. A maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) was sent to the area to investigate the incident.

Which side has the greater persistence?

The fact that, for instance, the German Navy proudly declared that it could intercept pirates on 13 October (frigate “Bremen”) and on 16 October (frigate “Augsburg”) does not really help the currently 146 hostages (including the 25 hostages of the Chinese bulk carrier) who are being held at pirate bases on the Somali coast. Actually, the multi-national forces have so far not found any solution to effectively free captured ships and the nations and owners generally have to resort to paying high ransoms and, thereby, affirming the pirates in the success of their actions.

This development is underlined by a statement by Somalia's police chief, Abdi Hassan Aawaleh, saying that he has seen no progress in the fight against piracy, despite increased naval patrols off the coast. It all comes down to a significant show of force in the secured corridors and to the prevention of a certain number of attacks. Put into perspective with the nearly 150 attacks carried out and the hijacking of 34 ships this year, as reported by the International Maritime Bureau, the achievements do not really stand out.

Another indication that the current military efforts are not sufficient is the use of former or even active military personnel on commercial ships, as now being done by French and Spanish ship owners. According to AFP and El Pais, shipping companies now employ former British soldiers armed with machine guns to protect their fishing vessels after the Spanish government refused to allow soldiers to be deployed on civil ships. In a unilateral step, France has already allowed active-duty soldiers to protect commercial ships. Christophe Prazuck, a French military spokesman, said that all costs for stationing armed soldiers on French boats were covered by ship owners and that protection has been available since mid-August to "about ten boats."

It remains a costly action for the international community (more than 30 ships and aircraft from 17 nations including the United States, China, Russia, India, Malaysia, South Korea, the European Union and NATO nations patrol the Gulf) against a phenomenon which all know originates due to the unstable situation in Somalia. As in Afghanistan, the “Allies” have chosen to play a game of cat-and-mouse and to see who has the greater persistence. Also, they place hope in supporting local navies to become capable enough to do the job themselves – an effort that (again, as in Afghanistan) will take decades to generate positive, let alone effective results.

Interpol: organised crime supports pirates

There is no question of the pirates receiving significant help – funding and arms – from militant forces in Somalia. And there further is no question of the latter only being part of a greater network, operating on an international level, probably with links to terrorist organisations. According to Interpol, they are connected with international organised crime. Officials recently aired their concerns at a meeting of Interpol in Singapore. Mick Palmer, Australia's Inspector of Transport Security, said there is "clear evidence" of increasing organisation in the pirates' activities.

He explained this assessment with the fact that pirates are using more sophisticated weapons and can locate large merchant vessels sailing hundreds or even thousands of kilometres off their home bases. Palmer also said that Interpol believes that significant crime syndicates are pulling the strings behind the scenes, as the bulk of the “earned” money does not stay with the pirates. He noted that an ordinary pirate involved in a successful hijacking receives only about $10,000 of the ransom, which often runs into the millions and long negotiation periods. Palmer further said that "chasing the money trail" will be a key part of any investigation into the pirates' activities.

Indian aircraft on the move

So if one cannot tackle the roots of the problem (in this particular case, Somali militants and their connections to organised crime) and if one doesn’t see a general success in present efforts, one is well advised to change the tactical approach. Interesting and unanticipated support may come from India, which has recently sent Jaguar fighter aircraft to Oman for the first bilateral training of the two air forces, dubbed “'Eastern Bridge” (see The Indian aircraft are training to conduct air operations in the area to prepare for a possible surveillance mission in the Gulf of Aden.

"The IAF may be called upon to conduct aerial surveillance of the swathe of the Gulf of Aden region, where pirates are widening their area of operations fast," Vice Chief Air Marshal P K Barbora of the Indian Air Force (IAF) recently told reporters in New Delhi. "With our surveillance capability, we can help the comity of nations fighting the piracy menace there. The Navy may not be able to cover the area in terms of speed and number of men. It is not necessary that we use our fire power," he explained. The training, therefore, includes midair refuelling with Il-78’s to effectively increase the flight times for the aircraft.

Traditionally being closer to India than to Pakistan, Oman has already provided India with an “operational turning around” facility for the transit of military aircraft. Asked by DD India if Oman could support the IAF's anti-piracy operations by opening up its airbase for maintenance and fuel, Barbora replied in the affirmative, saying since the two air forces operated Jaguars, it was possible. However, there reportedly is no proposal to have a permanent base in Oman which could be used as a bridgehead for long-term surveillance operations in the Western Indian Ocean.

Operations and Task Forces

In the following the countries are listed which currently deploy ships or aircraft to the respective operation:

• EU Operation "Atalanta"
Belgium, France, Greece, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain

• NATO Operation "Ocean Shield" (from SNMG2)
Italy, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States

• Combined Task Force 150 (Operation Enduring Freedom, anti-terror)
France, Germany

• Combined Task Force 151 (anti-piracy)
Australia, South Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States

• Combined Task Force 53 (resupply)
Japan, United Kingdom, United States

• Also, national operations by ...
China, Russia, India, Iran, Japan, Saudi-Arabia

By Nicolas von Kospoth
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