By Diana Lee
September 11, 2008
With the latest seizure of a South Korean ship with its 21-crew members in a surge of hijackings in the last few weeks, International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has voiced serious concerns over the number of attacks on vessels more than tripled last year to at least 32 incidents off the Somali coast. It has recently advised all vessels to stay at least 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the Somali coast.
Somalia's 3,300-kilometer (2,060-mile) coastline is now considered the world's most dangerous stretches of water in the world, surpassing the Malacca Strait. The busy maritime waterway between Somalia and Yemen is a major transport route used by nearly 20,000 vessels a year traversing to and from the Suez Canal. According to records, an estimated 700 million tons of goods passed through the canal in 2007.
Sea piracy has become big lucrative business in Somalia. Apparently, the pirates pick and choose their targets -- largely ignoring African ships while going after international cargo ships, tankers or luxury yachts. To date, Somali pirates have kidnapped more than 100 crew members of different nationalities, often seizing them in international waters and holding them on dry land for a hefty ransom -- as in the following cases: German-registered freighter released for USD $800,000; a Dutch cargo ship exchanged for $700,000; the Danish-owned Spitzer Korsakov icebreaker freed for $1.6 million; and the French luxury yacht Le Ponant released for $2 million. To make matters worse, pirate attacks often go unreported as shipping companies fear that filing reports could increase insurance premiums. The estimated cost of piracy worldwide is between $13 and $16 billion every year.
Although CTF 150, established under Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, includes naval forces from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other allied nations to combat piracy and interdicting weapons smuggling, human trafficking and drug-running, they have obviously failed their essential task to provide maritime security for the Djibouti coast and the Gulf of Aden. Somalia epitomizes the consequence of their inept, ineffective patrolling: increasingly uncontrollable arms smuggling, drowning of victims in human trafficking and defiant pirates running amok.
It’s only when the pirates hampered the World Food Programme (WFP) vessels from delivering humanitarian aid to the needy in Somalia that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) decided to take action. On June 2, 2008, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1816 with the approval of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), authorizing foreign navies to enter Somali territorial waters in pursuit of pirates. Evidently, despite the resolution, the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the permanent presence of an international task force, piracy has continued to spiral out of control – more hijackings, more hostages, and higher ransom demands.
It is believed that Somalia hosts distinct groups of pirates based on their tribal or clan backgrounds and are under the supervisions of warlords, corrupt businessmen and local authorities. The number of pirates has dramatically risen in the past three years, from 100 to over 1,200 operating in 160 groups. Pirate groups are extremely well organized with established headquarters ashore and “motherships” equipped with satellite phones and Global Positioning System technology for launching interceptor speedboats at a moment’s notice to pursue targeted vessels.
These days, the pirates are armed to the teeth with sophisticated deadly weapons. Five to six years ago, they used machetes, knives and pistols in attacks. Today, they come equipped with AK-47s, M-16s, rifle grenades and rocket-propelled grenades. With handsome payoffs, the pirates could easily afford to purchase cheap and powerful weapons made available by the lax global arms trade. The fact that they have been so well equipped with a variety of weaponry attests to the failure of coalition navies in preventing weapons smuggling in the troubled region.
The high rate of success for pirates evading capture emboldens criminal organizations to set up piracy-based businesses, including professional spokesmen and ransom brokers. Worse still, some Somali warlords have joined in to make a killing for themselves by granting licenses to foreign companies to fish illegally in Somali waters.
Indeed, piracy in Somalia was born out of a state of lawlessness. Piracy was rare before the fall of the Barre regime in 1991 because there was a measure of law and order. During the brief reign of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in 2006, acts of piracy dropped substantially. The UIC doled out justice according to sharia law - effective enough to reduce acts of piracy to almost nonexistence. Merchant ships confidently returned to the Somali waters for business without any further incidents. However, piracy resurfaced after December 2006 when the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Ethiopian military backed by the U.S. ousted the Islamic Courts.
As a “failed” nation, Somalia has descended into utter chaos, plagued by factional fighting that has devastated its social, economic and military structures. Besides piracy, human trafficking is pandemic in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia. So far, more than 35,000 people have perished since 1991 trying to cross the perilous strait between Boosaaso and Yemen.
Moreover, violence is endemic and corruption is rampant involving high-ranking government officials and factional leaders. In recent news, pirates who were arrested for hijacking a French luxury yacht are related to TFG President Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed, according to French weekly Le Point. Originally from Puntland, Mr. Yusuf, who was elected as President of the TFG in 2004, has been accused of war crimes committed against innocent civilians in Somalia under his reign from 2004 to 2008, according to reports from UN Monitoring Group and some other non-government organizations.
As to the extent of the U.S. involvement in Somalia, Washington set up a military base in Djibouti in December 2002. In the so-called “war on terror” mission, American Special Forces troops used Camp Lemonnier to watch Somalia, train soldiers in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, and hire militia groups in Somalia to round up people suspected of ties to “al-Qaeda.” In February 2006, the CIA offered massive support to the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorismm -- funding faction leaders, informers and gangs to enact their counter-terrorism policies.
It is a well-known fact that the United States provided Ethiopia’s military with training and funding, as well as supported its invasion of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. After creating the conditions for the crisis, the United States is now turning to the United Nations and allies to manage and finance the African force that is supposed to stabilize Somalia.
Like in Iraq and Afghanistan, the chaotic situation in Somalia is deja vu?
Related article: Pirates Strike at Will in the Straits of Malacca
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