Is Somali Piracy Resurging?

Conditions in Somalia have changed little since piracy’s heyday.

Is Somali Piracy Resurging?

Author: Dr Lisa Otto, Research Associate in Maritime Security

Since the hijacking of an oil tanker off the coast of Alula, Puntland on 13 March, and subsequent release sans ransom three days later, the media has been awash with speculation as to whether Somali piracy may be about to ‘resurge’. This recent incident, and those that have followed it, provide a timely opportunity to look back at Somali piracy, what brought it about, what caused it to abate, and to consider where we are now.

A visit to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre’s website indicates that, at the time of writing, three vessels have been hijacked since the beginning of the year, while another has been boarded and one other fired upon. These incidents have all taken place within the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast, per the below image generated from the Bureau’s live piracy map (not shown).

Aside from the attack on 13 March, a dhow was hijacked off the coast of Eyl, Puntland, on 23 March, with 20 crew members being taken hostage. Thirteen were released in a skiff while the remainder of the crew was released on 26 March. It appears no ransom was paid but that the perpetrators made off with food and diesel. On 1 April, the third hijacking took place, off Bosaso, also in Puntland, where 13 crew members were hijacked within Somali territorial waters. Somali forces managed to free the crew and escorted the vessel to its next port of call. Then, on 8 April a tanker was boarded from a skiff in the Gulf of Aden. The crew retreated to the citadel and when local authorities arrived the following day the pirates had made off. On 14 April, a tanker came under fire off the eastern coast of Yemen, while the same happened to another the following day in the Gulf of Aden, south of the central Yemeni coastline. On 22 April, an attempt at attack was made on a tanker in Somali waters, with the tanker giving chase for two hours. A warship came the vessel’s assistance following a distress call, and one crew member was reported as injured.

The news of these attacks has been cast as startling by the media due to the generally accepted notion that there had been no successful pirate attacks in this region for the last four years. Indeed, it is this very notion that has made it difficult for international forces to continue to justify the presence of their naval deployments in the Gulf of Aden. While this will be borne out by official figures (those reported to and collated by the International Maritime Organisation and the International Maritime Bureau), what is often not taken into consideration is incidents perpetrated against local vessels. What this suggests then is not that Somali piracy is resurging, but that it never really went away in the first place.

Why would this be the case? The simple answer is that the conditions that led to rise of piracy in 2008 have not changed significantly enough to remove the need for people to turn to criminal activity such as piracy; indeed, the organised criminal organisations that made piracy their business are still present. Domestic security remains a problem that the Somali government is unable to address unassisted. Poverty and human development remain persistent challenges that the installation of a democratic government in 2012 has not managed to improve upon, and, which has not been helped by drought and famine. Importantly also, the traditional livelihoods of many Somalis remain threatened by continued and devastating illegal fishing in the country’s territorial waters.

Alongside this, vessels have perhaps seen fit to relax the preventive measures previously taken, such as employing higher speeds, and using armed guards to protect vessels. Such measures are, of course, expensive, and are therefore not employed unless deemed absolutely necessary in order to achieve the greatest possible profit margins. Of course, with fewer naval deployments present in the Gulf of Aden, there is less assistance available to shipping traffic when it is needed.

As a recent article in the Economist pointed out: “A lack of international [rather than local] victims had made it easy for the world’s attention to move elsewhere. But until piracy ceases to be an attractive business opportunity it will remain a plague.”

In light hereof, the relevant actors will have been reminded that a drop in incident numbers does not justify them dropping their guard also. Work needs to continue to improve socio-economic conditions in Somalia and bring forth sustainable stability; and it is of vital importance that the issue of IUU fishing be addressed, with capacity built at local levels to prevent, police, and prosecute as appropriate. Vessels must also continue to implement Best Management Practice (BMP4), and press on with those preventive and evasive measures taken during the height of Somali piracy.

To learn more about CTPSR’s research on maritime security, please contact the author

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