(Originally published in the Journal of International Peace Operations, Volume 5, Number4, January – February 2010)
SINCE the spike in piracy off the coast of Somalia in 2008, the United States and other international stakeholders have achieved moderate success employing a range of counter-piracy methods at sea. A series of U.N. Security Council resolutions passed in 2008 authorized states or regional organizations to conduct counter-piracy operations on the high seas and in Somali territorial waters, eventually authorizing “all necessary measures” appropriate in Somalia, provided they are undertaken with the cooperation of Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
The multinational naval presence in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean presently consists of approximately 30 warships contributed by Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), the EU’s Operation Atalanta, NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, and navies from countries such as Russia, India, China, Iran and Japan. Advances in the application of non-lethal ship defenses by the shipping industry have resulted in 80 percent of attempted pirate attacks being foiled without assistance from warships on patrol. Between January and September 2009, attempted pirate attacks had a one in five chance of success, largely due to naval patrols and increased merchant vessel protection.
Still, pirates continue to stalk ships off the coast of Somalia. Their operations have escalated in frequency and range, all at cost to global maritime commerce. Compared with 111 attacks during the entire year of 2008, there were 168 attacks in the first nine months of 2009. Pirates operating in these waters have expanded their operations as far north as Oman and as far south as the Seychelles and Madagascar — with attacks occurring up to 1,100 miles from Somalia’s coast. At a time when the shipping industry struggles to recover from the global financial crisis, piracy imposes costs exceeding hundreds of millions of dollars per year — costs that have been passed on to consumers worldwide who depend on goods traversing these waters.
Meanwhile, Somalia remains in a persistent anarchic state. The social services and security sector institutions that would have ideally protected the country, its resources and its citizens against internal and external threats disappeared with the collapse of the state nearly two decades ago. Without a local maritime security force to counter illicit activities at sea, foreign fishing trawlers have been able to poach an estimated $300 million worth of fish each year, destroying the livelihoods of Somali fishermen.
The security and governance vacuum resulting from the state’s collapse created a permissive environment for the symptoms of land-based malaise to be projected out to sea. Somali pirate attacks have taken place proximate to a key sea line of communication, Bab el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Approximately 8 percent of the global seaborne oil trade traverses this maritime chokepoint annually. In a war torn country where the average Somali earns $650 per year, pirates can earn up to $10,000 per raid. Without a functional Somali coast guard or navy to prevent pirates from preying on ships, piracy remains a lucrative enterprise with high, reliable profits and insufficient risk or punishment to deter continued attacks. And even with an increased foreign naval presence, there are simply not enough ships to indefinitely patrol the 2.5 million square miles of water that border Somalia’s 1,800 mile coastline.
Despite evolving counter-piracy methods adopted by the United States and others, sea-based methods to combat piracy have been inherently limited in their ability to remedy the security and governance vacuum on land. Although these methods do target some of the immediate symptoms of instability in Somalia, they do not target the land-based catalysts for pirate activity, such as lawlessness, pervasive insecurity and lack of economic opportunity. In pursuit of a lasting solution to Somali piracy, the international community should increase efforts to build local security sector capacity over the long term, so as to mitigate the extent to which lawlessness ashore can continue to create lawlessness at sea. Such engagement could allow for the emergence of an environment conducive to political, social and economic development.
That said, addressing the weakness of the Somali security sector is not a silver bullet. The current TFG exists in a constant state of peril, exercising little control over the area it purports to govern. Lacking domestic acceptance as a legitimate governing body, it is perpetually preoccupied with staving off defeat by various insurgent groups. In order to simultaneously remain in power and bolster what little credentials it has, the TFG has had to maintain a very delicate balance between accepting external assistance without looking like a tool of Western interests, and generating broad domestic support.
After two decades of civil war and anarchy, Somalia will require a sustained interagency and international commitment to facilitate the creation of functional governing institutions that can support a security sector. Given the threat posed by insurgents on land, the TFG is likely to prioritize land-based security assistance over maritime security sector capacity-building in the immediate future. At any rate, the development of an indigenous police force and military, supported by robust security sector institutions, is a step in the right direction that could enable the country to address the security and governance vacuum that allows pirates and insurgents to thrive.
Until Somalia is able to provide its own security, the gap will gradually have to be filled by regional and international partners. On land, the international community should focus its efforts on providing concrete financial, logistical and political support to strengthen the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and any subsequent multinational peacekeeping force, so that they might achieve their strategic, operational and tactical objectives. Flaws notwithstanding, it is crucial that the international community provide a strong, sustained commitment to AMISOM, since its mere existence is at the very least a positive development for African regional security. Stronger international support may also lead African countries that have pledged troops, but not yet sent them, to do so. Ideally, a sufficiently trained and equipped peacekeeping force could make positive contributions towards creating an environment amenable to political, social and economic development in Somalia.
At sea, more emphasis should be placed on building maritime security sector capacity in neighboring littoral countries, such as Kenya, Djibouti, Yemen, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius. Regrettably, these countries are currently ill-equipped to provide sufficient maritime security for themselves or Somalia. Many have security forces that have traditionally been land-focused, leaving the maritime security sector resource-deficient. Additionally, regional maritime security cooperation has not progressed to the point where it can counteract individual countries’ shortfalls in requisite training and equipment. Capacity-building and the facilitation of regional cooperation should increase the extent to which states’ maritime security forces could complement the efforts of multinational naval patrols, creating a secure maritime environment in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Additionally, increased regional maritime security sector capacity could help confront other emerging maritime security threats, such as arms trafficking, human trafficking, drug trafficking and illegal fishing — which many argue is the original grievance that drove Somali fishermen to pursue piracy on a much smaller scale in the 1990s.
In spite of the moderate success achieved at sea, many challenges remain in the pursuit of a definitive end to piracy off the coast of Somalia. The predominant counter-piracy methods currently in use are limited because they address the symptoms of the problem alone. But as piracy has both sea and shore components, the international community needs to do a much better job of complementing counter-piracy methods employed at sea with comprehensive and sustained local and regional capacity-building to address the governance and security vacuum on land. While current sea-based methods are necessary to counter piracy, they are altogether insufficient at eliminating the land-based malaise that allows such activity to occur at sea.