A Gordian Knot which cannot be cut by the sword.

Halkaan ka akhri

Ships of the Combined Task Force 150 patrol the Gulf of Aden.

Can the origins of piracy at the Horn of Africa be solved with battleships?

05:59 GMT, May 12, 2009 It is more than the traditional picture of a clash of civilizations and it cannot easily be compared to earlier scenarios, be it of the 17th century or the more recent incidents in the Strait of Malacca. The effects of globalisation and the ruptured history of an African state make is a unique situation: Even though piracy still is only a symptom of greater evils, in this case it has a different character and can therefore not be fought as it has been in the past.

The multinational Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) has been underway in the Horn of Africa since 2002 to ensure stability in the region and support Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA), the latter part of activities referred to as Maritime Security Operations (MSO).

Yet, since early 2006 its focus has almost entirely shifted to the prevention and elimination of piracy. By now the mission unites vessels of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States in this common cause. Also, Combined Task Force 151 as well as an international command are exclusively involved in fighting piracy (see list below). But what have been the results so far?

Where to begin?

The shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia have become the most dangerous waters in the world. The chaotic situation of the African state, resulting from the collapse of its government and the following era of crime, radicalism and terrorism, fostered and maintained by warlords and clan militias, cries for spin-off effects such as piracy. In a country in which poverty reigns, and mischief and lawlessness to the point that everyone is at one’s own, who would wonder about such implications?

18 years have passed since the downfall of the former head of state, Siad Barre. Since then, a culture of survival-of-the-fittest has taken power within this population. An illicit arms trade, fostered by clan militias and radical groups such as “Al Shabaab” or “Hisb Al Islam”, made it possible that even the simplest fisherman can be armed to the teeth. Never-ending, violent interior conflicts between parties obsessed with power have made Somalia a bonanza, yet only for the few ruthless players who pulls the strings.

How are a small number of warships going to tackle such a wasp’s nest? The few swimming satellites orbiting the Horn of Africa in order to protect merchant ships are overstrained by the vastness of their operational area and the swiftness of the pirate actions. More than fifty captured pirates have been transferred to prison in Mombasa, Kenya, while a dozen are being held in pre-trial custody in the US, France and Spain. But the support of fresh, young men is inexhaustible and the attacks on merchant ships – more or less successful – won’t stop.

The so-called pirates’ nests in the Somali harbours of Harardere, Hobyo, Eyl or Bosasso are flourishing: Impressive mansions are being built with expensive off-road vehicles parked at the front porch. A downright service industry has established itself around the down-and-dirty core business. Some of the young men armed with Kalashnikovs even consider banditry as a sort of poetic justice.

As published in an exclusive interview in defpro.com with a Somali pirate in February (see: http://www.defpro.com/daily/details/244/), the pirates see themselves as Somalia’s coast guard or navy fighting for the right of undisturbed fishing in Somali waters. And beyond that, they do not even seem to be frightened of the flexing of modern Navies’ muscles. “This has absolutely not scared us. We know they have well armed forces on the ships and they stay in the waters off Somalia protecting ships from what they call pirates,” stated the interview’s pirate, “as I told you, I am not a pirate, we are the special guards of the Somali coast. Until there is an effective government, I will perform my duty for my people and my country.” Some may see it as less elevated and have simply found a more lucrative job than fishing.

Scratching the surface

Roughly more than two dozen ships from NATO, the EU operation “Atalanta”, frigates and destroyers from Russia, China, India and South Korea try to oversee a maritime area larger than the Mediterranean, reaching from the Gulf of Aden to the Seychelles in the West and down South to the coast of Tanzania.

While the Navies report of the successful defence of individual attacks and of the capture of pirates, the International Maritime Bureau presents a much different perspective: Compared to last year, the number of pirate attacks has increased tenfold. Generally, the attackers use one or two swift speed boats, supported by a larger mother ship and attack ships with automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Often, the battleships’ only possibility to catch up is to send a helicopter, in order to stop the speed boats and then to approach at their much slower speed. In a few cases, suspect boats can be identified by maritime surveillance aircraft such as the P-3C Orion. Yet, it usually takes a lot of time, until a warship can intercept the suspected boat. By the time they arrive, either the boat is gone or the arms and other suspicious objects have been thrown overboard.

The international community’s struggle only scratches the surface. Keeping a few speed boats from attacking merchant vessels won’t solve the problem. But what is the next step? Sinking mother ships? Bombing pirate nests? Or do you have to go as far as bringing peace and stability to Somalia?

The Kenyan, Andrew Mwangura, programme coordinator for the Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, is convinced that influential clan militias support and organise the attacks. “The men pulling the strings are big fish. They operate from Europe, America or from the Arabian Peninsula. They have networks with international contacts and are very wealthy people.”

Ransom negotiations are being carried out by telephone and sometimes the proverbial suitcases full of money change hands in the lobbies of hotels in European capitals. According to experts, approximately $ 100 million have been pressed by syndicates during past years. Piracy has become a regional economic factor.

The suspicion that this may be used or perhaps even initiated by larger terrorist organisations is manifest. Intelligence services have identified this threat over many years. The CIA’s evaluation on this matter is very clear: terror groups have launched a crucial seafront against western nations. The terrorists want to cut off vital trade connections. But even this knowledge and distant operations in Iraq and Afghanistan against terror networks will not eliminate the breeding ground of piracy.

Now, one of the bearers of hope is the moderate Islamist, Sheik Scharif Achmed, Somalia’s President since the beginning of the year. Ironically, he had been considered to be part of the Al-quaida network by the US and was temporarily arrested by US troops. In April 2009 the UN agreed to support the country’s new government with $ 200 million, seeing the problem’s roots in the anarchy and insecurity on shore, rather than at sea.

List of operations and participating nations:

* “Atalanta“ (EU):
Spain, Germany, France, Greece, Italy
(6 frigates, 2 support vessels, Orion P-3A and P-3C, Breguet-Atlantique)

* “Allied Protector” (NATO, from SNMG1):
Portugal, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, US (associated under national command)
(5 frigates)

* “Combined Task Force 150” (Operation Enduring Freedom, anti-terror):
France, US, United Kingdom, Pakistan
(1 command ship, 3 frigates, 2 support vessels)

* “Combined Task Force 151” (anti-piracy):
US, Turkey, Singapore, South Korea (associated)
(1 destroyer, 1 frigate, 1 cruiser, 3 support vessels)

* Operation under international command (incl. support of the Coast Guard of the Seychelles):
India, China, Malaysia, Japan, Russia, France
(3 destroyers, 3 frigates, 1 patrol boat, 5 support vessels; France’s contribution unknown)

Sourse Defence Professionals


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