1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Somali pirates

December 27, 2009

It's impossible to consider Somalia's pirates in a vacuum. The evolution of piracy in Somalia is inextricably linked to the collapse of Somalia as a nation state, ravaged by conflict between rebels and government troops.

A ship with a target drawn on it
Somali pirates have been a bane to Western shipping companiesImage: dpa/Montage DW

The key pirate enclave is in northeastern Somalia, in a region known as Puntland where the pirates live as an autonomous presence. Among the five dominant seagoing criminal organizations based in Somalia who generate revenues of between $100 to 150 million (69 million to 104 million euros) a year, largely in ransom payments, many of the pirates were former clan fighters who discovered a far more lucrative form of armed capitalism.

Others were mere humble fishermen who claim their livelihood has been lost to the industrial methods of international fishing fleets that indeed poach an estimated $300 million worth of fish a year from Somali waters.

Poverty, lack of development and hunger as ever are key factors for conflict, violence and brigandage in Africa. Then there are the linkages to the outside world, the patrons, allies and benefactors, of what is a transnational business, so pirate arms come from Yemen, much of the money is laundered in Lebanon and there are other suspected but more opaque linkages in Dubai.

However, the international community has not pierced the internal network linked to the pirate trail deeply and is lacking crucial access in terms of its intelligence gathering capacities within the secret structures that partner piracy.

Limited military success against pirates

Two soldiers guarding a captive
International forces managed to disrupt the pirates' activities but their successes were few and far betweenImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Where Somalia's pirates once confined themselves to the Gulf of Aden, they now launch raids and ship boarding as far away as the Indian Ocean on the Kenyan coast. There is UN resolution 1838 in place authorizing lethal military force to curb or counter Somalia's pirates in international waters. There is a multinational naval flotilla patrolling off the Horn, Combined Task Force 151, that deploys warships, aircraft and naval Special Forces ship boarding parties, from European, US, and Indian, Russian and Chinese contributors.

There have some successes scored by US and French special operations groups intercepting or eliminating pirates and freeing hostages and hijacked vessels, but with some 2000 miles (3,218 km) of coast to secure, it amounts to a bathtub navy, although the squadron is a powerful one, that seldom can take a proactive approach or deter much.

But when the waterway under threat plays such a crucial strategic and mercantile role, and it isn't merely yachts that are captured or threatened but oil tankers, chemical ships, weapons bearing cargo ships and all manner of large civil vessels that are under threat, why haven't naval efforts been massively increased?

Moreover, when there are only an estimated 1,000 pirates concentrated mostly in a single coastal harbor town, why hasn't the international community, as India has suggested, simply mounted a sharp amphibious assault? To be sure there are some hawks and one former European military and intelligence officer who spoke to Deusche Welle anonymously said bluntly "what we need now is one short, sharp stroke and just take them out."

Members of the UN Security Council
The UN was often found lacking in its attempts to find a solution to the piracy issueImage: AP

The experience of the UN peacekeeping mission and the ferocity of the fighting then and now, when Somali violence reaches a crescendo, are cautiously remembered by many otherwise perhaps contemplating some sort of lethal strike, direct action in military terms against the pirates.

A combined sea, air and amphibious assault by marines and naval special forces comes to mind, but it would be a delicate and complex affair to orchestrate, plan and execute on a battleground that could draw in international forces into an unwanted quagmire or at least a costly battle. The potential for large scale civilian casualties would further exacerbate the chance for a disaster.

Political will lacking to back use of force

And not least political will may be lacking among some of the potential partners for a concerted use of force, where consensus would be necessary. In short, if a deeper military solution would be attempted to shut down Somalia's pirate problem, it must be on a unified front, on a greater scale than piecemeal efforts and with sufficient, overwhelming force and resources. But again when so much key intelligence gathering is lacking, any potential decisive campaign against the pirates is hampered by a lack of actionable knowledge.

Poor intelligence analysis led to earlier international fiascos in Somalia and the question of piracy poses as vexing a question to resolve as all else that ails Somalia and its larger, chronic state as a failed nation without the effective rule of law or much hope for far too long. For the present some of the most dangerous waters in the world off the Horn of Africa, will remain as treacherous as ever in 2010 precisely because Somalia is still a hungry, desperate and violent place.

Author: Chris Kline
Editor: Rob Mudge

Skip next section Explore more