Piracy in the Indian Ocean
Following the hijacking of the Aris 13 in March, the first merchant vessel to be taken by pirates operating from Somalia since May 2012, at least half a dozen further instances of attacks have been reported in its coastal waters.
The question remains as to what lies behind the sudden spike in attacks on shipping passing through the Gulf of Aden and if this portends a return to large scale Somali piracy and robbery at sea in the Indian Ocean.
Although Somali piracy dropped out of the international headlines after 2012, many so-called pirate action groups (PAGs) simply shifted business models as the profits of targeting international commercial traffic decreased and the dangers multiplied.
By 2012, PAGs had become so effective and such a threat that they essentially put themselves out of business by eliciting a concerted international response to the threat of piracy in the Indian Ocean.
In response to international operations like NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield some PAGs diversified into drug and arms smuggling and people trafficking. Others continued to prey on shipping but simply stuck to extorting smaller vessels from the local Somali fishing fleet.
According to Theodore Karasik of geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics (GSA), who worked with the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs on counterpiracy, parts of Somalia where central authorities exercise no control local clans still impose ‘fines’ on foreigners caught fishing illegally in Somalia waters.
‘Such fines are essentially ransom payments, highlighting how domestic corruption and rule-of-law concerns in the African country are further fuelling this return to piracy,’ he added.
Adam Lakhani, Nairobi-based head of information at corporate security company Salama Fikira, argued that some of the blame is due to the complacency which has crept back in to the shipping industry regarding the threat of Indian Ocean piracy.
He said: ‘[Currently] fewer and fewer vessels embark armed teams, the [Indian Ocean High Risk Area] has reduced and there is a perception that piracy has gone away. The pirates may have stopped being pirates, however they have certainly not gone anywhere and nor has Somalia.
‘Many of these pirates may have tried to find work elsewhere, [but] when the opportunity arises to return to piracy due to a re-balance of the risk/return scales they will take it.’
The re-emergence of Somali piracy is related to just such an opportunity; the fact that naval operations against them have been diverted or wound down. PAGs are no longer a priority for many local and regional navies, who are now busy policing Yemen’s coastal areas on the lookout for terrorist activities, Iranian transit of arms or other illicit smuggling.
Meanwhile international operations are coming to a close, with NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield ended operations in December 2016 and EU NAVFOR’s operations to end in 2018. Given how weak Somalia remains as a state the authorities in Mogadishu remain incapable of intercepting illegal fishing vessels, let alone enforcing the rule of law against well-armed pirate nests.