Somali piracy: Redrawing the boundaries

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From 1 December 2015, the shipping industry’s ‘high risk area’ off Somalia was reduced in size. The redrawing of the boundaries, announced in October 2015, followed a significant drop in armed attacks and hijacks in the north-western Indian Ocean. Somali piracy in 2015 reached around 1% of the levels seen at its height in 2011.

Yet a month after the announcement was made, the pirates reminded the industry of their continued potency, reportedly seizing a fishing vessel in the Indian Ocean more than 200 nautical miles from the coast. While the reduction of the high risk area was designed to symbolise the success of counter-piracy measures, those opposed argue that reducing security measures could encourage groups to launch more such attacks.

After all, the situation onshore in Somalia, which enabled the groups to operate their unique ‘hijack-for-ransom’ model, has not dramatically changed. The reduction of the high risk area followed pressure from regional states, which pointed to the drop in activity and lack of high-profile hijacks since 2012, rather than the dismantling of pirate capability and economic advances within Somalia.

Now the shipping industry and navies face difficult choices.

Since mid-2011, a combination of co-ordinated naval patrols and improved ship security measures, including the use of armed guards, has effectively contained Somali pirate groups offshore. Yet maintaining these measures is expensive, particularly at a time of global economic pressures and emerging naval commitments elsewhere.

So what does this mean for the future of Somali piracy?

The problem with pirates

From a pirate’s perspective, the drop in activity can be explained simply. Piracy is a criminal, and thus financial, enterprise. The organised criminal networks behind it are not ideologically attached to repeatedly attacking ships, particularly if there are easier ways to make money. Security measures on ships to reduce the number of successful hijacks, and attempts by navies to confiscate expensive equipment make the crime less financially viable for the pirate leadership.

Nonetheless, coastal communities continue to cite their frustration with the lack of jobs and the presence of foreign trawlers close to the coast. The lack of replacement income streams onshore means that criminal groups could always switch their focus back, particularly if security measures are perceived to have been reduced, and the business again appears viable to the senior pirate leadership, most of whom remain at large.

Finding a balance

Both the shipping industry and naval forces now need to identify how to balance their response.

For naval forces, this will entail using fewer assets more efficiently, while focusing more of their time on other issues, such as monitoring terrorist activity and tackling drug smuggling on routes into East Africa.

For the shipping industry, this will involve efficiently maintaining security levels with the limited resources available. This will mean ensuring that ships do not suddenly become a viable target by prioritising the most effective measures on the highest risk routes, while at the same time being able to respond to an increase or change in threat with appropriate security measures.

Although the likelihood of an incident may appear increasingly remote, the impact of a Somali pirate hijack will remain extremely high, both for crew members, their families and the companies behind them.

So with a reduced risk area, what does the future of Somali piracy look like?

A full resurgence of Somali pirate activity to the levels seen between 2008 and 2011 is unlikely. Both the shipping industry and international governments have learnt too many difficult and important lessons from that time to allow Somali piracy to flourish again, even briefly.

Yet opportunistic groups will still be able to launch the occasional attack offshore. In the Indian Ocean, as seen recently, this could extend hundreds of miles from the east Somali coast before a response is possible.

So maintaining the balance of resources will be important to keep piracy contained. Allowing a group to launch a series of attacks could lead to a cycle of response and reduction, prolonging the problem without resolving it.

There is unanimous recognition that piracy in the Indian Ocean will never be effectively resolved until Somalia becomes more stable. Yet for now, both the shipping industry and navies will need to play a continued role in responding to the threat posed by Somali pirates. While combating the threat posed by piracy offshore will remain the industry’s most immediate concern, pressure for a long-term solution onshore will continue to grow.

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