The Resurgence of Somali Piracy: A Need for Collective Stance

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The resurgence of Somali piracy has once again emerged as a significant threat to global maritime security, disrupting vital trade routes and endangering the lives of seafarers. This resurgence serves as a stark reminder of the persistent challenges faced by the international community in combating this illicit and dangerous activity. Recent incidents, such as the attack on the Bangladeshi bulk carrier MV Abdullah and the ongoing hostage situation involving its crew, have sounded the alarm bells, prompting renewed efforts to address this pressing issue.

The attack on the MV Abdullah in the western Indian Ocean was a brazen act of piracy, carried out by a group of approximately twelve Somali pirates armed with speedboats and firearms. In a chilling display of violence, the pirates opened fire as they boarded the vessel, seizing the captain and second officer as hostages. For a week, the Abdullah remained anchored off the coast of Somalia, serving as a grim reminder of the resurgent threat posed by these maritime marauders.

However, this incident is not an isolated occurrence; industry representatives have reported over 20 attempted hijackings since November 2023, signaling a concerning trend that has far-reaching implications for global trade and maritime operations. The shipping industry has been forced to bear the brunt of these attacks, incurring significant additional costs for armed security guards, increased insurance premiums, and the looming possibility of having to negotiate and pay substantial ransom demands.

The issue at hand has attracted global attention, given its wide-ranging negative effects that reach beyond the local area, causing disruptions in international trade and economic activities. To effectively tackle this resurgence, one must possess a deep understanding of the current situation, historical context, and the various factors that are fueling the revival of this illegal activity. In addition, it is crucial for regional and international stakeholders to come together and take a united stance in order to effectively address this issue.

Resurgence of Somali Piracy and Regional Maritime Security Challenges

While the current threat may not have reached the same levels as the peak period between 2008 and 2014, when Somali piracy posed an unprecedented challenge to the international community, regional authorities and industry insiders are justifiably apprehensive about the potential escalation of this issue. In 2011, the International Maritime Bureau reported a total of 237 assaults by Somali pirates, resulting in the capture of numerous captives. At that time, the world economy incurred predicted costs of around US$7 billion, which encompassed ransoms. The strategic location of the Somali coast, bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, two of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes, exacerbates the impact of piracy on global commerce. However, there have been only a few instances of piracy in Somalia since 2012. These include an assault on the Lila Norfolk on 4 January this year, a drone attack on a ship west of India on 23 December, and the ongoing incident involving the abducted Navibulgar-owned bulker Ruen, which occurred on 14 December.

By the way, approximately 20,000 vessels navigate these waters annually, transporting a vast array of goods, including furniture, apparel, grains, and fuel. This vital maritime corridor, connecting the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, serves as the most efficient pathway for trade between Europe and Asia, underscoring the far-reaching economic consequences of disruptions caused by piracy.

The recent interception and liberation of the Maltese-flagged vessel Ruen by the Indian Navy provides a glimmer of hope amidst the resurgent crisis. The Ruen, suspected of being used as a pirate base to launch the attack on the Abdullah, was successfully interdicted, with all 35 pirates on board surrendering and the 17 captive crew members being rescued unharmed. This operation demonstrates the capabilities of regional naval forces to respond to piracy incidents, but it also highlights the complexity of the challenge at hand.

The European Union’s anti-piracy mission, EUNAVFOR Atalanta, has stated that the Ruen may have served as a staging ground for the attack on the Abdullah, underscoring the evolving tactics and sophistication of the pirate groups operating in the region. This development raises concerns about the potential involvement of external actors seeking to exploit the security vacuum for their own interests, further compounding the challenges faced by maritime security forces.

Historical Context and Drivers of Somali Piracy

The resurgence of Somali piracy can be ascribed to a confluence of factors, including the ongoing instability in Somalia itself, the diversion of international attention and resources towards other regional conflicts, and the potential involvement of external actors seeking to capitalize on the security vacuum. Furthermore, the removal of the High-Risk Area status from the Indian Ocean in January 2023 may have inadvertently provided an opportunity for pirate groups to regroup and reorganize their operations without the same level of scrutiny and deterrence.

The historical context of Somali piracy is equally crucial in understanding the present situation. The origins of contemporary Somali piracy can be traced back to the early 1990s when impoverished fishermen began engaging in small-scale operations, primarily targeting foreign fishing vessels that were illegally exploiting Somali waters. These initial efforts aimed to protect their livelihoods and marine resources from overfishing and environmental degradation.

However, as the Somali civil war escalated and the government crumbled, piracy evolved into a more organized and lucrative criminal enterprise. The period between 2005 and 2011 witnessed a significant surge in pirate activity, with numerous successful hijackings and high-profile ransom payments. Notable incidents during this period include the capture of the MV Feisty Gas in 2005, resulting in a ransom payment of $315,000, and the seizure of the Ukrainian vessel carrying tanks and ammunition in 2008, where pirates initially demanded $14 million but settled for $3.2 million.

From 2006 to 2009, Somalia was embroiled in a devastating conflict. Ethiopia took action in the ongoing civil war against the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had made progress in combating piracy. In 2007, the Danish vessel, MV Danica White made an additional $723,000 due to the increasing number and prominence of attacks, with a total of 11 successful captures throughout the year. In early 2008, yet another Danish-flag-containing vessel had been captured and subsequently released for an additional sum of 700,000 dollars. During that time, there was a significant rise in piracy, resulting in a total of 22 successful hijackings. In addition, during this period, a significant piracy incident occurred when Somali pirates seized a Ukrainian vessel that was transporting 33 tanks, along with ammunition and arms. The pirates initially demanded a staggering USD 14 million for ransom but ultimately agreed to a settlement of 3.2 million dollars for the release.

Also, from 2009 to 2011, Somali piracy reached its peak, posing an immense challenge to the international community. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and World Bank data, there were 95 successful hijackings during this three-year period, generating estimated revenues ranging from $278 million to $330 million through ransoms. In response, foreign countries were granted permission by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and the UN Security Council to combat piracy in Somali waters. These efforts, combined with increased naval patrols and the implementation of Best Management Practices by the shipping industry, led to a significant decline in piracy incidents by the end of 2011 and the subsequent years.

The Need for a Collective Stance

Despite previous efforts to suppress them through the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) agreement in 2009, there are concerning indications of renewed activity from Somali pirates. However, the recent developments and incidents have once again brought the issue of Somali piracy to the forefront of international concern. The invasion of Gaza by Israel late in 2023 and the subsequent shift in regional dynamics, with Houthi rebels in Yemen engaging in acts of piracy in the Red Sea, have created a security vacuum that Somali pirates are exploiting. The attack on the Liberian-flagged ship owned by an Israeli billionaire in November 2023 served as a harbinger of the resurgent threat, foreshadowing the incident involving MV Abdullah and the potential for further escalation.

As the international community grapples with the resurgence of Somali piracy, it is clear that a collective and coordinated response is needed to address this multifaceted challenge effectively. No single country or entity can tackle this issue alone, as the root causes and implications extend far beyond the immediate region. A comprehensive approach that encompasses diplomatic, economic, and military dimensions is essential to disrupt the piracy networks, address the underlying factors that enable their operations, and ensure the safety and security of global maritime trade.

On the diplomatic front, fostering regional cooperation and strengthening governance structures in Somalia are crucial. Supporting the Federal Government of Somalia in establishing effective law enforcement mechanisms and promoting economic development in coastal communities can help address the underlying socioeconomic factors that drive individuals toward piracy. Economically, the international community must prioritize sustainable development initiatives that provide alternative livelihoods and economic opportunities for Somali coastal communities. This includes supporting local fishing industries, promoting coastal infrastructure development, and providing access to education and vocational training programs.

From a military and security perspective, a coordinated international maritime security effort is necessary to enhance surveillance, intelligence sharing, and rapid response capabilities. Increased naval patrols, the deployment of specialized anti-piracy task forces, and the adoption of advanced technologies for monitoring and tracking pirate activities can serve as effective deterrents. Additionally, a robust legal framework and judicial cooperation mechanisms must be established to ensure the effective prosecution and punishment of captured pirates. This not only serves as a deterrent but also upholds the rule of law and sends a strong message that such criminal activities will not be tolerated.

In conclusion, only through a collective stance and concerted efforts can the global community mitigate the risks posed by Somali piracy, ensuring the safety of commercial vessels, protecting maritime trade routes, and promoting the long-term stability and prosperity of the region.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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