Pirates have long been threatening the security of Africa’s coastline, but with the outbreak of the migrant crisis and the emergence of terrorism, piracy has evolved.

By Zsófia Baumann

Piracy is on the surge again after the end of NATO’s mission off the coasts of Somalia. With no economic opportunities and an ongoing conflict in the country, for many piracy is the only source of income. Now, with the rise of terrorism and the current migrant crisis, pirates have managed to expand their business forcing Africa to face a security challenge more complex than before.

Pirates are not an unusual sight around the coasts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Some of the world’s busiest shipping routes are concentrated in this area, making it an attractive target for pirates and a dangerous choice for shipping companies. As a result, the coastline along Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya have been designated as the so-called High Risk Area (HRA).

Map of the High Risk Area (HRA) for Piracy
The High Risk Area (HRA) as of January, 2016 (Source: North of England P&I Association Ltd.)

2010 was the peak year for piracy in the HRA. NATO recorded 45 hijackings along with 132 unsuccessful attempts, while international military interventions forced pirates to abandon their actions on 147 occasions. By 2010, piracy had grown into a successful hijack-for-ransom industry, costing the shipping industry many lives and $7 billion annually. Overall, more than 1,000 sailors were held hostage often for months or even years. With the growth of piracy, the ransom demand also increased: while in 2005, $150,000 was the average price demanded by pirates for the safe release of a ship and its crew, in 2010, this amount was as high as $5.4 million.

There are multiple reasons as to why this specific area is one of the main hotspots for piracy. One of the main drivers behind pirate recruitment is lack of economic opportunities in Somalia. In the absence of jobs, young men who have no opportunities to flee the country are ready to join such a profitable business. Another reason was the increase of illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste into the water by international criminal groups. As a result, local fishermen organized into militias to protect their environment and livelihoods, which evolved from simple self-defense forces into an entire for-profit industry.

Without resolving these underlying issues, it is unlikely that piracy will lose its appeal and the criminal networks operating them will disintegrate. On the contrary, the past year has seen a surge in pirate attacks off the shores of Somalia and, according to security firm PGI Intelligence, the situation is likely to deteriorate in the upcoming months. This is due to both on- and offshore factors. In Somalia, the gradual withdrawal of international military forces is creating a security vacuum that local security forces are not prepared to fill. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) began pulling out its forces in November 2017 and is scheduled to be fully withdrawn by the end of 2020.

The end of international cooperation?

Offshore, the reason behind the increased piracy is the conclusion of Operation Ocean Shield, a NATO-mission that ran through the region since 2009. The operation was very successful while it lasted, as the coordinated international response prevented or disrupted hundreds of pirate attacks off the coasts of Somalia. By the end of the operation, the number of attacks had dropped to zero and many pirates had been captured and prosecuted by national authorities. However, within three months after the conclusion of Operation Ocean Shield in December 2016, two ships were hijacked, including a major merchant ship, the Aris 13 oil tanker, raising the question of whether the security of the region can be maintained without international assistance.

In the absence of NATO, the European Union maintains its own mission EU NAVFOR – Operation Atalanta together with a US-led coalition to counter piracy in the HRA. However, it seems like the withdrawal of NATO has taken its toll on the security of the Indian Ocean. According to a report by PGI Intelligence, between 2016 and 2017, piracy has increased five-fold in the region, totaling 65 incidents. Most attacks happened in the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el Mandeb strait (between Djibouti and Yemen), but some have been reported as far as in the Gulf of Oman, hundreds of nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, where large commercial vessels are more vulnerable.

Not only the geographical range of the attacks, but also the weapons used show a shift in the pirates’ modus operandi. According to the PGI Intelligence report, in three out of four attacks in the Gulf of Oman, shots were fired, although it seems probable that these are linked to weapons smuggling groups in the region than to Somali pirates. It has also been reported that, in November, pirates used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to attack a container ship in an apparent attempt to hijack it. Although there have been multiple instances of RPG attacks around the Bab el Mandeb strait in recent years, those have been linked to Houthi militants fighting in Yemen. This November attack is thus the first carried out by pirates since 2013.

Piracy and terrorism

As piracy is primarily a business operating in pursuit of profit, it should come as no surprise that pirates will seek lucrative business partners, even in terrorists operating in the region. According to CNN, the United Nations and the United States have been investigating the link between two pirate kingpins and Somali terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab and a splinter group of the Islamic State. According to Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert at the Heritage Foundation, pirates and terrorists are using each other to acquire money, people, and weapons, either to hold territory or to hijack ships. To put it simply, Meservey explains, terrorist groups get weapons and more fighters brought to them by pirate groups, who in exchange get money and the guarantee of terrorists not interfering with their operations. This is particularly important, as a significant part of southern Somalia is under Al Shabaab’s control, while the Islamic State is present in the very northern corner of the semi-autonomous territory of Puntland.

Piracy and Terrorism - Political situation in Somalia, 2017
Political situation in Somalia, July, 2017 (Source: Ingoman (James Dahl) / Wikimedia Commons)

According to Jason Warner, an African military expert at West Point, with the current trends of increasing pirate activity, it is likely that this relationship between pirates and terrorists will become more important in the future. Adding this to the fact that the Islamic State is rapidly losing ground in Iraq and Syria, splinter groups in Africa could become more important and fighters might migrate to IS outposts such as the one in northern Somalia.

Piracy and migration

Terrorism is not the only area that could bring profits for pirates. The migrant crisis of Europe has proven to be a fruitful opportunity to earn profits, resulting in smugglers and pirates becoming intertwined in the past couple of years. The World Bank reported smugglers turning to piracy as early as 2013, when a smuggling boat, which moved people from Puntland to Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, engaged in piracy on its way back, hijacked a Singapuri chemical tanker and its crew and kept them hostage for ransom for two months.

Now, the direction of this phenomenon has turned around and pirates are increasingly resorting to smuggling thanks to to the migrant crisis. Migrant routes have also changed. Previously, Somali migrants would escape poverty by taking boats across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and stay there, or move north to Saudi Arabia. But with stricter immigration laws in Saudi Arabia and the civil war in Yemen, the direction of migration flows shifted around and Yemenis are now going to Somalia. In the meantime, Somalis have been forced to take the longer and more dangerous route northwards, via Libya and the Mediterranean to Italy. These routes have always existed, but lit up as the Arab Spring escalated and Syria began to sink into civil war.

The EU is also active in the Mediterranean with its mission EU NAVFOR MED – Operation Sophia. Their mission here is slightly different, it aims to “prevent the further loss of life at sea” by “disrupt[ing] the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks.” Smuggling via this route has become so profitable in recent years that both smugglers and affiliated criminal networks (including pirates) benefit from it, all along the route from Yemen and Somalia to Italy. However, partly thanks to the EU’s operation, pirates are now not only indirectly involved, but are also integral part of the business of smuggling Africans to Europe. Growing evidence suggests that some of the pirates EU NAVFOR has put out of business on the coasts of Somalia have relocated and now work as foot soldiers or even financiers deep in Libya part of the smuggling network “helping” migrants move towards the coast.

The future: multilateral cooperation and private maritime security companies?

Due to the intertwined nature of security challenges in the region, a comprehensive solution is needed. It seems like a coordinated international response is the key to maintaining peace off the coasts of the Middle East and Africa. In the absence of a NATO-mission, some concerned countries have started to forge alliances and establish joint patrols along their coasts. A most recent example is the cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, who this month agreed to “step up cooperation in combating drug, weapons and people trafficking in the east Mediterranean and to share information on countering the threat of terrorism.” Their focus is the Suez canal, through which much of the oil and trade goes to the West from the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden.

South from the Suez canal, member states of the African Union are cooperating under the framework of the Djibouti Code of Conduct dating back to 2009. According to the agreement, signatories combine maritime security operations and exchange law enforcement officials to embark on patrol ships to repress piracy and armed robbery of ships in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. However, the agreement has as many as 20 signatories, making cooperation slow and cumbersome. Some African leaders and bureaucrats claim that piracy is a problem of the international community, and not Africa. They point to the hypocrisy of non-African countries for expecting Africa to solve the problem, while they themselves turn a blind eye towards the reasons behind it: illegal fishing and dumping.

The signing of the Jeddah Amendment to the Djibouti Code of Conduct earlier last year would have provided a solution to the problem, as it incorporates measures that would address the underlying issues of piracy. By covering cooperation in the field of ‘blue economy’ and supporting sustainable economic growth, food security and employment, it could bring resolutions to issues, such as the prevalence of illegal fishing and the lack of economic opportunities. However, in the light of the aforementioned reluctance from African leaders to cooperate with each other on the Djibouti Code of Conduct itself, it is questionable whether the amendment will translate into action in the foreseeable future.

Apart from the need for increased multilateral cooperation, another legacy of the NATO-mission is the evolution of relationships between militaries and the commercial sector, according to former Royal Navy Captain Gerry Northwood who was head of plans at the inception of Operation Atalanta. These relationships led to the development of a highly effective risk management framework for protecting commercial vessels, including the establishment of Best Management Practices for Protection (BMP4), an Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) and the adoption of group transits.

In the peak years of piracy, shipping companies took extra security measures to protect their vessels. They sailed further away from the coastline or avoided the area entirely, drove faster and hired security personnel on broad. This led to an increased demand for private maritime security companies (PMSCs). However, despite the proliferation of such PMSCs, their rules for engagement remain a grey area until today. According to a report compiled by Oceans Beyond Piracy, there are multiple legal and ethical issues concerning the use of these companies:

  • documents that regulate the usage of PMSCs have no legal status, and there is no standardized training or certification to ensure compliance with the guidelines;
  • regulation is weak and there is no required reporting of incidents;
  • national policies on the use of PMSC vary greatly; some flag states do not even have policies;
  • international organisation and navies have no policies towards PMSCs.

Therefore, it seems there is still a lot to be done in terms of regulation if shipping companies want to turn to PMSCs to legally ensure their security when taking these dangerous water routes. The fact that more protection for vessels is necessary is certain. In any case, whether this can be achieved by enhanced cooperation between countries, militaries and commercial shipping companies, or private security firms is not the most important factor. Fighting piracy is crucial for the security of not only Somalia, but also the broader region. However, taking piracy out of its regional context and disregarding the underlying security and economic challenges will not bring a solution to the problem. Now, with its links to terrorism and criminal networks involved in the exploitation of the migration crisis, piracy has grown into something bigger than itself, and tackling these challenges separately will not be enough.

Cover Picture: the UK Royal Navy Conducting Counter Piracy Operations in the Arabian Gulf, 2013, © L(Phot) Will Haigh, Defence Images / flickr