Dire Straits: Taking on Somali Pirates

P iracy off the coast of Somalia seized the world’s imagination a couple of years back when it provided dramatic footage of a kind of criminal activity unfamiliar to many Westerners. It may be temporarily off the front pages, but piracy remains a serious and growing problem, as does Somalia itself. The United States has tried to intervene in this benighted country militarily, most notably with tragic results in 1993. After the lacerating experience memorialized in Black Hawk Down , Washington tried to indirectly neutralize the al-Qaeda cell that attacked two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and targeted Israeli tourists in Kenya in 2002, co-opting warlord groups to locate and capture the bombers. But these groups took advantage of their U.S. connection to exaggerate their own power and, as a result, tainted the American effort through their brutal and venal behavior. When the Islamist-dominated Islamic Courts Union rose to power in 2006, it stirred fear of regional instability and the possible expansion of terrorist safe havens, which forced the United States, however reluctantly, to back Ethiopia in its own intervention, which also ultimately failed.

Even as the situation in Somalia grows more dangerous, U.S. policy continues to lack focus. Initial American backing for the weak government in the south appears to have slackened as officials have seen that Somali leaders lack the popular support to confront the area’s strong Islamist insurgency, which—as it helps al-Qaeda and the local Islamist group al-Shabab undermine other weak governments in the region (including those of Yemen and even Kenya)—threatens to destabilize the Horn of Africa. At the same time, Washington appears unwilling to engage meaningfully with Somaliland, which has provided sound government in northwest Somalia ever since the collapse of the Barre regime in 1991, and Puntland, which although relatively stable (compared to the central and southern parts of the country) still serves as the home for most of Somalia’s pirate gangs. The piracy that has become increasingly prominent internationally since 2005 now looms as a dangerous distraction to the greater threat presented by the political chaos in southern Somalia, although it nonetheless represents a worrisome danger to vessels using the major shipping-lanes through the Gulf of Aden and along Somalia’s east coast. If the United States is to defeat the Islamist insurgency, it needs to place greater emphasis on regional, sub-state approaches and pursue a more political path, because both problems are tied to regional and clan rivalries that play out within Somalia. If it is to suppress Somali piracy it must look past the sensational media dramas of seized ships and captive crews and think clearly about what this phenomenon really means.


P iracy is a crime of opportunity. The more organized it is, generally the more successful it is. There are several factors that encourage piracy, although their importance varies from place to place: lack of jurisdictional clarity, favorable geography, local conflict and disorder, inadequate security, cultural acceptance, and the promise of reward. All these factors are present in Somalia today to an extraordinary degree. The first incidents in its waters coincided with the terrible conflict that followed the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. What sustains piracy now, however, is a permissive political environment on land.

In economic terms, the impact of piracy is relatively small. News reports often cite fantastic figures in the billions, but in fact, when compared to the volume of international trade, these losses amount to little more than a rounding error. Less than one percent of vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden have been attacked or even been approached by pirates.

But while the economic toll on international trade by piracy both off Somalia and elsewhere might be bearable, the toll in money and blood extracted from local fishermen, shippers, and other users of the sea is much higher. Fishing fleets off Nigeria have refused to go to sea because of the high levels of predation. Reports of the violence meted out by pirates in the southern Philippines and the Bay of Bengal are horrific. The continuing existence of this lower-level piracy—which also takes place along the Caribbean coast of South America from Guyana past Venezuela to Colombia—needs to be recognized because it arguably constitutes the primary, although not the only, labor pool upon which international piracy organizers can draw when the opportunity occurs to attack international shipping.

Focusing solely on the economic cost of piracy risks ignoring a more significant political cost. Piracy not only exploits but also contributes to state weakness by corrupting local and national officials and politicians. The consequences of Somalia’s failure are effectively being felt more than a thousand nautical miles off its coast. The United States is the ultimate de facto guarantor of navigational freedom around the world and off Somalia that freedom is clearly being compromised. Allowing lawlessness in the global commons has a cumulative cost that may be hard to calculate in dollars, but is still something to be reckoned with in terms of the sense of disorder it produces.

Piracy is a global phenomenon but not a global problem. In most cases it is primarily a local problem that demands a local response. So long as this remains the case, and local governments have the means and the will to address the problem, the United States and other international players should become involved only if invited. On the other hand, piracy does have an unavoidable international dimension. Pirates are mobile. Once established they can commit their crimes in international waters and in the waters of states other than their own. If local states are reluctant to take action and the piracy affects international interests, then an international response will be required. In most cases this will entail political engagement and persuasion, capacity building, and the provision of specific technologies and capabilities. This is what occurred in Southeast Asia starting in 2001. More rarely, it will require direct action, and this is the case with Somalia.


U ntil the recent rise in Somali piracy, the most active pirate area was the Strait of Malacca. Most of these pirates originated in Indonesia, which did not place a high political priority on piracy suppression and greatly resented the international criticism generated by its passivism. Japan made persistent efforts to cajole the region’s littoral states to take firmer action. By 2001, Tokyo had rounded up enough support to establish ReCAAP (the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia), but the agreement lay largely inert until the United States proposed the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) in 2004 and the Joint War Committee of Lloyd’s of London designated parts of the Malacca Strait a war zone for insurance purposes in 2005. It was these two pressures—the suggestion that the United States could deploy military forces to deal with the problem unilaterally, and the imposition at Lloyd’s of an economic cost that the littoral states could not disguise, manipulate, or ignore—that prompted Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia to take action jointly to head off international interference and breathe life into ReCAAP’s cooperative procedures.

There were, however, several other factors that had a greater impact than the multilateral security measures enacted by the littoral states. First, for most of the 1990s China had been the main destination for cargoes pirated in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. The Chinese government’s clampdown starting in 1998 closed that market. Second, the retirement of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed in 2003 opened the way for his successors to cooperate more closely with other states. Third, the anticorruption drive launched by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono soon after he came to power in 2004 curtailed the domestic political cover that allowed the pirates to operate. Fourth, the moves the U.S. government made following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to improve U.S.-Indonesian relations removed obstacles to closer security cooperation.

In other words, the littoral states had functioning governments that were open to international persuasion and assistance and could take steps of varying effectiveness to address piracy. That is not to say the problem in the Malacca Strait has been eliminated; but it has been reduced to a level that barely affects international shipping.

The situation in the Horn of Africa is not comparable. Somalia is a failed state. The other states in the region have varying levels of governmental competence but all lack the economic resources to tackle the problem. Regional consultative mechanisms have been weakened by local rivalries, most particularly between Ethiopia and Eritrea, both of which have interfered in Somalia’s domestic politics in pursuit of their own interests. The larger regional players, the African Union and the Arab League, are interested in the political problem of Somalia but have little interest in piracy. Among international institutions, the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO are engaged with varying degrees of effectiveness and understanding. The insurance industry has raised rates for shipping in the Gulf of Aden, but this has not had the effect it had in Southeast Asia, where governments were sensitive to increases in business costs and to the impression that they were unable to control their own territory.

In that region, the existence of reasonable interlocutors meant maritime states could work with littoral states that responded to political pressure and financial inducement. There is no comparable situation in Somalia. In its absence, the United Nations established a Contact Group to address Somali piracy in late 2008 at the instigation of the U.S. government with British and French support. Following the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama , Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would work though the Contact Group to find solutions to the problem together with international and regional partners. If experience in Southeast Asia is any guide, this approach is likely to take a long time to bear fruit.

So far, the West’s desire for a positive and long-term outcome for Somalia has been manifested through its collective naval power. Yet naval action is the least efficient and cost-effective form of piracy suppression. The Navy cannot operate in a policy vacuum. Nor will throwing more ships and more aircraft against the problem eventually force the pirates back to their lairs, as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently acknowledged when he admitted that this course of action would demand more than one thousand ships.

Proposals to bypass an indeterminate and expensive naval commitment by attacking piracy bases, moreover, have serious potential consequences. Pirates live among, and are largely indistinguishable from, the local population. Somalis are jealous of their sovereignty; foreign interference tends to unify them and temporarily dissipate their notorious fractiousness. The violent Islamist militia al-Shabab is obviously eager to take advantage of the resentment any precipitous external action might trigger. Moreover, U.S. standing among the mass of Somalis has been compromised by the long history of its activities in the region. A violent assault on a pirate base, which might leave many innocent casualties, could have negative political consequences—even if successful in the short term—just at the moment when the United States needs to focus its political and diplomatic influence most strongly.


S omali piracy is an economic activity: well-organized criminals exploiting the horrible deterioration of present-day Somalia. These criminals have made a rational assessment of risk. The political dimension is important not because this piracy is politically motivated but because internal political protection—and the lack of external political response—lessens the risks that pirates face. That is how politics has generally aided piracy throughout history. If the situation is to change, pirates must perceive that their jeopardy has increased.

Piracy is a land-based problem that will only be solved with the return of stable government to Somalia. Achieving this is arguably a sequencing problem. Southern Somalia, a region plagued for the last fifteen years by a lack of improvement, has until now snarled progress for the state as a whole. Furthermore, there is little purpose in continuing to support the integrity of the Somali state if areas such as Somaliland and Puntland are fundamentally opposed to a unitary solution. Puntland, in the northeast, stands at the center of the piracy problem; according to the United Nations, officials there at all levels are involved in piracy. Placing political and financial pressure on the Puntland regime, and on the business interests overseas who finance and profit from piracy, might be the most straightforward course of action. This is complicated, however, by the presence of an Islamist threat that is better armed than its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, which held power briefly in 2006.

The militant Islamism now seeking to take over Somalia is regarded by the people as an alien creed largely imposed from outside. What local support it has gained has been pragmatic, not ideological, coming from its ability to deliver peace to the streets. The unitary state interests in Somalia have declared their willingness to negotiate and in some cases work with Islamist groups, the most visible being al-Shabab. The federal state interests, represented primarily by Somaliland and Puntland but including several clans and sub-clans that live outside these regional entities, oppose Islamism. The Islamist faction would not have made the gains that it has unless it had been richly supported over many years by Islamic charities and individuals throughout the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Those opposed—some of whom bear a substantial responsibility for the violence that has afflicted Somalia—have had to depend on the limited resources made available by Ethiopia and levies raised on remittance payments and businesses. Piracy can be counted among those businesses. There are few international observers who study the problem in detail who now doubt that political figures in Puntland, despite all the denials that have been issued and the obfuscation that has gone on, have, at the very least, a substantial influence over pirate activity. The problem is that piracy may now be one of Puntland’s largest sources of revenue—and if it were to leave, the turmoil that afflicts the south may well move north.


T he United States and its allies currently face two unpalatable options: Somalia could come under the sway of a weak Islamist government that may be unable to curb the activities of militant groups on its territory, or it could fall under a stronger Islamist government that might well be prepared to pursue a hostile agenda. If al-Shabab were to gain access to the northern coast of Puntland, then its terrorists would certainly be better positioned to attack international shipping using pirate tactics. The situation would become even worse if Yemen, already politically fragile, also fell under Islamist sway. This would mean both sides of the Gulf of Aden would be in hostile hands. Djibouti, which has a substantial Somali minority, may no longer be tenable as a U.S. base. Ceding control of the Horn of Africa and exposing shipping and naval vessels to greater risk would be a nightmare in waiting for Washington and many of its allies.

To avoid the mistakes of the past, America and its prospective partners need to move away from the preoccupation with maintaining Somalia as a unitary state. The United States—and those other countries willing to follow its lead—need first to recognize Somaliland, or at least establish a diplomatic presence there as a channel for political and economic support. They then need to work with other Somali sub-state entities, Puntland in particular, to achieve political stability. Puntland’s clan elders and political leaders, like their counterparts in Somaliland, have always rejected the rise of Islamism locally and the prospect of domination by an Islamist regime in Mogadishu. The United States and its partners could provide Puntland with the political and financial support, and above all the prospect of legitimacy, that would give its leaders the incentive to address the various inter-clan issues that currently inhibit political progress. In return, America and its partners could demand currency stabilization, political reform, and, of course, the suppression of piracy and its supportive network of corruption. And it would be easy to measure whether or not Puntland was fulfilling its side of the bargain: for a start, piracy would stop, expatriates would begin to return, the economy would begin to stabilize, and reforms along the lines of those achieved in Somaliland would start to emerge.

If Washington undertook this course of action, American naval forces could be employed more purposefully, cutting off all the political players in Somalia from their external sources of weapons, supplies, and recruits. If the United States and its coalition partners could bring the various stakeholders into successful negotiations, Somali pirates would be squeezed between more effective land-based policing in Puntland, their home ground, and maritime policing by coalition member navies—eliminating the political vacuum within which navies operate currently. Somali pirates would find no place to hide and Somalia itself would slowly begin to emerge from the state failure that has defined it so tragically for so long.

Martin N. Murphy is a visiting fellow at the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. His upcoming book is Somalia, the New Barbary?: Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa.

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