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German navy ship en route to Somalia
Germany is beefing up the fight against piracyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Piracy problems

August 13, 2011

Germany on Saturday took control of the EU's anti-piracy Operation "Atalanta." But despite European efforts to combat piracy along the Horn of Africa, attacks on ships are on the rise.


Somalia's 3,000-mile-long (4,800-kilometer) coastline is pirate territory. This area is considered to be the most dangerous stretch of the Indian Ocean.

With Somalia's interim government seen as too weak, European naval vessels have been patrolling the waters since 2008. The European Union's Atalanta mission is engaged in an area roughly the size of the Mediterranean and has cost EU taxpayers eight million euros ($11.4 million) this year alone.

Four EU frigates and three naval reconnaissance planes are currently escorting ships to Somali ports. Starting on August 13, Germany for the first time takes over command of the mission from neighboring Djibouti until December. In the coming month, five to six escort operations are expected for ships used by the United Nations food program.

According to official figures, since the launch of Atalanta in 2008, more than 500,000 tons of food has been escorted safely to Somalia. Due to security concerns, the UN is reluctant to provide more details about its deliveries, says a spokesperson.

Increased attacks

The mandate of Operation Atalanta includes not just the escorting of ships, but also fighting off pirates if necessary. So far, however, the operation's track record looks bleak.

According to the Atlanta headquarters in Northwood in the UK, the number of attacks this year has risen to 126 from 78 for all of 2010. And things are expected to get even worse with changes in regional weather patterns.

"When the monsoon winds die down, we expect more pirate attacks," says Uwe Rossmeisl, a spokesman for Atalanta in the tiny eastern African nation of Djibouti.

And what’s more, pirates have recently switched from targeting goods to targeting people. So far, they have hijacked some 28 vessels and taken 400 hostages. Some NGOs cite even higher figures.

"The pirate trade is simply too lucrative," says Somalia expert Mathias Weber. "Pirates can get extremely rich with just one hijacking."

Back in Somalia, they show off their new wealth by buying expensive cars and building huge villas so everyone can see that piracy is profitable, adds Weber.

Lucrative business

According to a recent report by the US-based One Earth Future Foundation, Somali pirates extorted $177 million in 2009.

Suspected Somali pirates on the deck of an Indian Coast Guard vessel in Mumbai
Pirate attacks are on the riseImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

Some 30,000 ships, most of them carrying oil or other valuable goods, travel through the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia each year.

"The navy is very successful in the area where Atalanta is active, but this is just a very small stretch of the sea," says Max Johns, a spokesperson for the German Association of Ship Operators. "The area in which we are being attacked is a lot larger and the ministries in charge argue that they don't have more capabilities to protect commercial vessels."

According to a survey from the organization, only 17 out of 100 ship operators believe that Atalanta is doing a good job in combating piracy. An estimate by the One Earth Future Foundation holds that Somali pirates cause $7-12 billion (5-8.4 billion euros) in economic damages each year.

For the German navy, however, success of the Atalanta mission is only measured by the number of successfully escorted aid transports.

"Pirate attacks have certainly not declined, but more important for this operation is the protection of aid deliveries instead of protecting other ships that are threatened by pirates," says Rossmeisl. To support the operation Berlin plans to deploy a second navy vessel, the "Köln," to the Horn of Africa.

No legal threat

But the pirates are also beefing up their arsenal of weapons. "They have so-called mother ships with broad reach, and portable rocket launchers have also become common," says Weber. The pirates invest the extortion money in modernizing their arsenal, adds the Somalia expert.

African union peacekeepers in Somalia on patrol
Somalia is a failed stateImage: AP

What's more, says Weber, the pirates don't have to worry about being punished for their attacks. "Eighty percent of pirates are apprehended and then released again because many countries are not prepared to convict them," he says.

The problem is so acute that many ship operators have resorted to their own methods of self defense. They try to fend off pirates by enveloping their ships with barbed wire or by hiring professional protection.

"We have armed guards on our ships, essentially small teams of two to six experienced armed professionals," says Johns. "We want to show the pirates that they will encounter armed resistance."

According to Johns, every fourth ship operator already relies on private guards on board. None of those vessels has so far been attacked.

Governance problem

But experts note that simply increasing armed cover is not a viable long-term solution. Somalia has not had a functioning central government for the last 20 years. In the country's South, the Islamist al-Shabab militia is gaining ground and terrorizing the starving populace.

Piracy, argue experts, is part of the larger Somali problem and must be combated as such and on the ground in Somalia.

"There is no alternative to stabilizing, bringing peace and rebuilding Somalia," says Weber. "This can be done by way of supporting local civil actors which operate schools, hospitals, health centers and wells."

Author: Julia Hahn / mik
Editor: Darren Mara

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