There have been major developments in the waters off Somalia since Christmas 2010. One of these is the steady decrease of fishermen turned pirates engaging in pirate acts replaced instead by the steady increase in trained militia men and fighters. Terrorist behavior continues to creep into the modus operandi of the hijackers and there is a good reason for this. Piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the one point four million miles of water they hold sway over, is now firmly and unambiguously terrorist in nature.
The correct definition and name for the activity by Somalis offshore should have been questioned at the outset. The fact that the hijackers espoused political reasons for their initial petty extortion activity should have been an indicator. Instead opportunistic thuggery was rewarded and we now have a situation where the perpetrators have morphed from pirates into terrorists using even more refined terrorist methodology and swelling their numbers with terrorist trained fighters and possibly members of Al shabab who are in all likelihood, heeding the calls from Alqaeda in the Arab peninsula to conduct naval jihad.
There is now a far greater level of intensity to the operations of the pirates . According to Maj Gen Buster Howes the report that 11 pirated ships put to sea over a six day period in January to act as mother ships demonstrated a ‘more deliberate and coherent deployment’. Instead of ad hoc occasional usage of pirated ships to assist attacks we now have the equivalent of a pirate flotilla at sea and working together.
The increased co-ordination in the use of pirated mother ships en masse is now matched by a change in tactics. This takes Somalian piracy into a new realm which demands that a change in policy accompanies it- if not to keep pace then to disrupt it.
The reality however is that we are actually setting the pace here…not keeping up. The hijackers are countering all offshore attempts at containment. They adapt as western combined naval might mitigates. This is entirely to be expected. It should not come as a shock that as western forces escalate response the pirates escalate and go one step further.
There are now 700 sailors and 31 ships being held hostage. While twenty-one hijackings have been rebuffed recently by crews retreating to citadels; this methodology has run its course of effectiveness. Hijackers have upped the ante and have this week begun to respond with a change of tactics. They have now begun firing rocket propelled grenades into citadel doors at close range and using plastic explosives to gain entry to the safe rooms.
Violence and torture have been introduced. The recent case of the BELUGA NOMINATION in the last week of January marks a new era in pirate /hijacker and hostage interaction. The situation has evolved to a kill or be killed game. It is no longer just about the cash.
On Jan 22 2011 Pirates boarded the German vessel BELUGA NOMINATION three hundred and ninety miles north of the Seychelles and the crew retreated to the safe room. For two days they remained safely locked in until hijackers cut a hole in the deck with a blowtorch and gained access to the crew members. As the ship neared Seychelles territorial water, rescue warships fired upon the vessel and a pirate was killed. At this point the pirates selected a member of the crew and executed him in retaliation for the death of their comrade.
There is an added dimension to this case. The hijackers were using the MV YORK a pirated Liquified petroleum gas tanker as the mother ship for this incident. It had recently been travelling in the company of the GOLDEN WAVE another pirated mother ship. It took two days to respond to the crews distress call because, among other reasons which include proximity, navies would not engage with the gas tanker nearby. Warships will not fire upon a gas carrier and they know this.This escalation in tactics, strategic planning and forward thinking dramatically changes the game. This is not an isolated case.
The crew of the MARIDA MARGUERITE suffered the same fate with its crew also reporting being tortured repeatedly. As of Feb 4th there are now confirmed reports from hostage debriefs and shipping companies that hostages are being “ tied upside down and dragged in the sea, locked in freezers, beaten and having plastic ties placed around their genitals.”
South Korean hostages from the Samho Jewelry confirmed that they had been beaten even losing teeth in the violent attacks while being held. On 29th Jan a statement issued by the pirates indicated their intention to kill the crew of the next south Korean vessel hijacked as a consequence of the 8 killed during the Samho Jewelry rescue by South Korea. “We shall never take a ransom from Korean ships, we shall burn them and kill their crew. We shall redouble our efforts. Korea has put itself in trouble by killing my colleagues”. The same promise was made after Maersk Alabama regarding any American crew members taken at any time in the future.
The torture and general increase in violence can be attributed to two strands of thought.
Both strands are valid and both are concerning. In the first instance the pirates are becoming more ruthless because they are now being regularly killed when in contact with naval warships and so they are now eliciting further training and tactics from terrorists and militias ashore. In the second instance trained fighters and reportedly Al shabab members are now taking to the sea and upping the game in a bid to finance onshore activities. All Shabab are Jihadists with Jihadi aims…martyrdom and an Islamic caliphate in a free Somalia.
Despite the presence of the combined Naval might of the West the end result of their operations are greater violence, the introduction of torture, retaliation executions, more hijackings and a wider area of influence for the hijackers.
The operational footprint of the pirates now extends to over one thousand five hundred nautical miles offshore of Somalia. The threat is no longer just off the Somali coast. As a result of the targeted area of operation hardening they have moved to a softer target area. They have effectively moved operations out of the reach of Atalanta and NATO forces.
Instead of making the situation safer and better it is now worse. Perhaps its time to go back to the drawing board as the present path is doing the opposite of what it was intended to accomplish.
Let us be perfectly clear. These hijackers are breaking the law. They are breaking the law when they amass weapons, receive funding which has been extorted and buy provisions and equipment for the purpose of conducting prate and terrorist activity. It is within this point that the answer to this problem lies. These activities occur onshore. There is no jurisdictional issue in dealing with these crimes on shore.
The cost of building two prisons and jurisdictional capacity and placing it in key Somali states has been estimated at twenty five million US dollars. When we contrast this to the reported two hundred and thirty eight million dollars paid to pirates in 2010 and the UN estimated five billion dollar cost of piracy, the solution seems infinitely reasonable.
Pirates should be captured onshore and tried in Somalia by Somalis and our funding should be spent developing this capability and not that of the pirates. Nine out of every ten pirates captured at sea is released because few states are willing to prosecute them. The reason is simple. Those that are prosecuted will serve a term of incarceration and then apply for asylum in the countries they were tried in as there is no chance of being repatriated to lawless Somalia.
There are allegedly five families of pirates living in the UK and receiving ransom funds. Allegedly one of these is one of the attackers who held the Chandlers and acted as their guard. It is already well documented that phone records and satellite communications have indicated the high volume of calls to London made by hijackers.
The main issues here are that we are wrongly defining this activity; we are applying the wrong mitigation methods and we are funding terrorist activity and inadvertently indirectly funding jihadist groups.
In short, these wrong tactics delivered in a clumsy heavy handed manner will, at the tipping point, serve only to incite those young Somalis who never considered terrorist and pirate activity to take to sea in even greater numbers than we are seeing now.
When the sons of the fathers killed at sea have to feed their families we are providing no other opportunities for them except to join militias, get trained and take to sea. Can we really afford to continue funding and encouraging skilled, armed sea faring terrorists to roam International waters.
The developments signaled by the case of the BELUGA NOMINATION signal that we have reached that tipping point. Piracy has morphed into clearly defined terrorism. From here on, everything changes unless we change our response.
By building Somali institutions and building Somali capacity, one state at a time if necessary we are contributing to our International safety and the welfare of those who serve at sea on our behalf. This is not simplistic thinking. Its long term thinking designed for a win win solution. Of course the other option remains…we could keep escalating our response and continue killing, recruiting and funding those who want to harm us.