Learning From, About Somali Piracy

Piracy off the coast of Somalia shows no signs of going away any time soon – in part because nobody can apparently be bothered to take any effective measures against them. I was discussing the recent news reports about the pirates last week with a friend, and we came to the conclusion that “Somali piracy” is an ideal subject for fledgling analysts to study – both because it’s a fairly small, fairly well-defined microcosm, and so can be examined in something of a vacuum, as it were, but also because it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there’s a very real intelligence shortage surrounding the matter… at least where open sources are concerned.

Indeed, if you start looking at the whole situation, you’re left with nothing but unanswered – and possibly unanswerable – questions – questions the media, and officials, seem reluctant to pursue. If nothing else, it highlights just how little public information there really is about the whole subject. As an example, here are more than two-dozen questions that spring to mind:

For convenience, more than anything else, I’ve tried to divide these up into four fairly traditional groups: Who, what, where, why, and how. (“When” was omitted, in part to keep this from being even more painfully long.)

Who: Who are the pirates? They operate out of, and around, Somalia, but are they actually Somalis, or are they just taking advantage of the lawless, failed state as a convenient base of operations? Are they one big group, or several smaller ones? If they’re one big group, who is or are the leader or leaders? If they’re several smaller groups, are they operating independently, or is there someone calling all the shots? (There don’t seem to be any reports of infighting between “rival” pirate groups, at least that I can find, but that doesn’t really mean anything.) How skilled are the pirates; what’s their background? Also, assuming that the stories about pirate “mother ships” are true – and keep in mind, international anti-piracy operations have, as far as I’m aware, only inferred their existence, yet never identified one or its crew, let alone captured one – who operates those ships? Experienced “leaders”? Or “noob” greenhorns?

What: What’s the point of the piracy? Traditionally, piracy happened for two basic reasons: greed (private enterprise) or politics (state-endorsed “privateers”). It’s generally difficult to imagine the pirates working as privateers – but what if the capture of the M/V Faina, laden with weapons headed to Sudan, wasn’t a fluke? Could that be the real raison d’etre of the group(s) – to be “contract pirates” as and when requested? Could everything else just be “cover”? Unlikely, I know, but… If the “mothership” stories are true, what do their crews do, exactly? What do they contribute, in lieu of the actual boarding-and-seizing bits? Do the pirate fleets engage in other money-making ventures? If so, what? Smuggling? Something more sinister?

Where: Where does the money go? Sure, some of it doubtless goes to daily operating expenses – food, fuel, maintenance, bribes – and a sizable chunk probably goes to the pirates themselves. Some small amount goes to the local warring factions… but where’s the rest of it go? Are the ransoms paid for ships, crews, and cargo being “diverted” to other enterprises elsewhere? (If so, what is it? Of late, the pirates seem quite willing to negotiate regarding the amount of ransoms paid, suggesting – if the funds are destined to a third party – that the eventual recipient(s) of the cash aren’t in particularly desperate need of it.)

Why: Why resort to piracy? Presumably they’re in it to get “easy money”, but the tactics involved don’t make much sense. (Traditionally, pirates seized ships for one of four reasons: to acquire weapons, for their own use or resale; to acquire liquid wealth – currency or easily-negotiable valuables like bullion; to acquire cargo – liquor, cigarettes, et cetera – easily sold on the black market; or to acquire the ship itself. While the pirates off Somalia have reportedly kept some vessels for their own use, I’ve found little evidence that they’re in any meaningful way exploiting – or trying to exploit – the cargo of seized ships. Yes, it’s hard to “liquidate” several thousand tons of metal ore, industrial chemicals, fertilizer, and whatever else the seized freighters and bulk carriers are carrying, but it doesn’t appear that the pirates are even trying.) So, if they’re not doing it purely to get-rich-quick, why do it in the first place?

How: How are targets chosen? Geography seems to play a part, but is there more to it than that? Violence is reportedly threatened, but seems rarely to be employed. How willing are the pirates to actually work for their money? (Actual shooting incidents seem to have grown very rare in the past few years, even as the number of pirates, and piracy incidents, have skyrocketed. Does this represent a change in tactics on the pirates’ part?) How is it that, while the rough location of the “motherships” has been inferred, the ships have yet to be actually identified?

My point, really, is this: Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a problem for over a decade, and it’s gotten significantly worse in the last few years. It’s becoming increasingly visible, and increasingly a matter of international attention. Yet, unbelievably, the actual public knowledge about the situation, its participants, and their actions is virtually non-existent. While it’s nice and comforting to think that the intelligence community is “on top of things”, there’s almost no evidence whatsoever that this is true. International military anti-piracy efforts in the region have had pretty literally no lasting positive effect. It could be attributable to politics; but what if it isn’t?

To put things in perspective, considerably more is known about the “freedom fighters” in Chechnya and Dagestan than the pirates off Somalia; more is known about the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Why? Because those groups threaten the stability and sovereignty of political states? Because they’re branded (by some) as “terrorists”? Or does it have less to do with those groups, than the pirates? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the international community – and the public – has an enormous intelligence gap where the Somali pirates are concerned. (The alternatives all read like really bad conspiracy theories.)

This should be very, very worrying, to the professionally paranoid types whose jobs, frankly, are to worry about this sort of thing. And, let’s face it, it’s not as if this is a new development, either: knowledge of and about the pirates seems to have remained fairly minimal since day one. It seems unlikely that the pirates are a “front” for al Qaeda, or Hezbollah, or any other recognized “terrorist” group. Not impossible, but really unlikely. That doesn’t mean they’re not of concern; both terrorist groups – and many others – are well-funded, and while the pirates so far seem to be staying out of politics, if they’re purely profit-driven, it’s hard to say what they might acquiesce to for a large enough amount of money. I mean – and this is purely hypothetical – the international community wouldn’t hesitate for a second to scream the dangers if al Qaeda had a stolen superfreighter or two at their disposal, right? Why, the terror possibilities are endless: floating WMD factory, or chem/bio dispersal vector; floating suicide-boat (“the USS Cole, only a thousand times more so!”), or simply a way to screw up the world’s economy by blocking a navigable port or waterway. (Sink a fully-laden bulk-ore carrier in the Suez Canal, anyone?) So, hyperbole and anti-Islamic obsessions aside, why isn’t the international community nearly as worried about a bunch of, let’s face it, pirates, who have the same basic capabilities and appear, as far as anyone can tell, to be motivated purely by greed? If the pirates asked for $5 million ransom for a petro-tanker, and al Qaeda offered them, say, $25 million… what would happen? I don’t know. Neither do you. And, quite frankly, I’m a little bit worried that nobody else does, either, because – ineffective naval patrols aside – nobody really seems to care enough about the growing piracy problem off Somalia to learn about it, let alone do something about it.

That’s a problem I hope we don’t all live to regret.

Published in: General, Security | on October 6th, 2008| No Comments »

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