Somali Pirates no Longer Fishermen but Fighters


During 2010, Somali pirates hijacked 53 ships and kidnapped 1,181 people, according to the International Maritime Bureau. This is an astounding figure and one which dictates that we change the paradigm in which we operate before it gets changed for us.

The recent hijacking of the IRENE SL on Feb 9th will impact on the US in a direct manner- the cost of shipping crude will rise even further and that cost will be passed on and felt directly in US homes.

Even as the US sits up again taking notice of the fact that a vessel of American interest was hijacked with $US 200 million worth of crude on board, yet another tactic change is evident.

This tactic change is even more noteworthy from a Western perspective. Suddenly we have pirates speaking the language of Islamic extremism. The spectre of hostages being beheaded has now been presented to the world. Somali hijackers have already begun killing hostages in retaliation for the deaths of pirates. Previously this involved the shooting of hostages.

The crew of the Golden Wave, released on Feb 9th made a stark admission that hostages were no longer simply tied up, or beaten but were now actively forced to swell the ranks of the hijackers as, in addition to using the hijacked vessels as mother ships, hijackers were also using their hostage crews to hijack other vessels. Kenyan Joseph Amere a crew member of the Golden Wave confirmed this detail.

Crews were allegedly given three options according to the seaman. They could assist in hijacking other vessels and if they did not they would be culpable in the beheading of the captain of the vessel or they could ensure a ransom, estimated at six million dollars, was paid promptly.

A total of seventeen attacks on other vessels then allegedly followed with the kidnapped crew being given weapons and ordered to climb the sides of vessels the hijackers attacked. According to EUNAVFOR there are a total of eleven hijacked ships currently being used as pirate mother ships. Potentially this means that there are eleven ship crews being coerced into the same activity.

This change in tactics by the hijackers raises several interesting questions. In the first instance the suggestion of beheading leads us squarely to other attacks on shore where hostages held by Islamist extremist groups have been beheaded to camera and raises the question of whether these hijackers continue to be fishermen who are now seasoned in the art of hijack or indeed are something other.

Clearly the evidence is beginning to demonstrate the fact that Islamic extremism has crept into the business model when we were not paying attention. The pattern of hijackings over the last six- seven years has been absolutely consistent. There has been no appreciable change whatsoever apart from better equipment and better technology employed in the business of hijacking during this period. Previously hostages were kept until a ransom was paid. They were not mistreated beyond the initial violence of their capture. Their welfare was largely paramount as they were the main asset being negotiated for.

In the past year, however, the way that the business of piracy has been conducted has suddenly begun to change beyond recognition. Is it a coincidence that this is occurring simultaneously with an onshore surge in activity of Al Shabaab. December 2010 marked a major shift in the affairs of the onshore terrorist group with the merger and of Al Shabaab and Hizb al Islam. Three thousand militia members surged into Al Shabaab’s ranks. Suddenly, the business model of offshore piracy has begun to change dramatically and violently.

This increase in tempo and the abrupt change in tactics and violence bring the situation off Somalia into new territory from a policy perspective.

Changes in the last 10 months include ships operating in tandem as flotillas with attendant mother ships in tow (including the use of hijacked mother ships); increased levels of violence and torture of hostages; citadel storming; citadel attacks with close range RPG attacks, hostage executions and hostage coercion to attack other merchant shipping.

On shore changes include militia training for hijackers and a continuation of the payment of a percentage of revenue generated by ransoms to Al shabaab. There is also credence to be paid by the claims, by hijackers themselves, that they are concerned that Al Shabaab is taking to sea independent of the pirates.

The Somali piracy problem is simply not one which can be solved at sea. It also certainly cannot be solved by continuing to fund the hijackers.

To some extent the change in tactics by the hijackers can be attributed to a hardening of the approach of some navies, signalled by the US attack and retaking of the Maersk Alabama .The deaths of several hijackers as a result of these commando raids has prompted a rewriting of the hostage takers handbook. This hardening however does not account for the dramatic changes the Beluga Nomination and Golden Wave crews have allegedly described.

In addition to the Maersk Alabama, the Bunga Laurel and Samho Jewelry were both freed by military intervention by Malaysian and South Korean military respectively, just one day apart on Jan 22.2010 . The Dutch navy also successfully freed a vessel in 2010.

It is imperative that ransoms stop being paid. The new paradigm shift however signals that this will almost certainly result in harm to existing hostages.

It would appear that the hijackers are no longer those with whom we have been negotiating previously. The simple logistics of the expanded Somali operations and the level of manpower involved in holding 34 vessels and their 600 plus crew while awaiting ransom payment, clearly supports the view that a new approach and new human resources are involved. Those resources are very likely those of Al Shabaab.

Candyce Kelshall

About Candyce Kelshall

Doctoral candidate and BUCSIS Research Fellow. Independent advisor to British Transport police and Metropolitan Police. Candyce is the author of two books on Civil /military relations. "Armed Forces and Government" and "Mutiny and Revolution: Military pressure Groups"
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