The international community is at something of a loss as to how to respond to the increasingly audacious nature of piracy off the Horn of Africa, exemplified by the hijacking of the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star and three other ships last week. The latest response -- a naval blockade along the Somali coast -- has questionable utility.
What's needed is a less dramatic and more nuanced approach, one with a greater focus on the land-based violence in Somalia, home of the pirates.
The hijackings underscore the growing seriousness of the problem. During the third quarter the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden accounted for 31 percent of the 191 global acts of piracy reported to the International Maritime Bureau.
Eighty-three were recorded in Somali waters alone, making it the most pirate-prone "hot spot" in the world. Most attacks are the work of Somali-based militias who have virtual free run of the area. Gangs typically operate from "go-fasts" -- powerful, light vessels capable of going 70 mph -- carrying AK-47s, anti-personnel mines, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
It is apparently profitable work. Ransoms, typically cast as "fines" imposed for the theft of sovereign fishing resources, have run upward of $2 million -- and reportedly $25 million in the case of the Sirius Star. According to Somali officials, pirates' profits are set to reach a record $50 million in 2008 (apart from whatever they might wring from the Sirius Star).
In response, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has established a Standing Naval Maritime Group to coordinate with the U.S. Navy to help patrol shipping lanes in the vicinity of the Gulf of Aden. Three vessels already have been dispatched and are authorized to use force to safeguard humanitarian supplies bound for Somalia. The European Union has announced it will take over the NATO mission in December, and nine member states have so far pledged their support. Russia, India, Canada and Pakistan have all also sent vessels to undertake anti-piracy patrols.
Although this joint naval response has met with some success -- ensuring the delivery of relief supplies to African Union peacekeepers in Somalia, thwarting several attempted hijackings, sinking at least one pirate vessel following a five-hour gun battle with an Indian warship -- its overall utility is not altogether clear.
A big problem is the sheer size of the area: With more than 1 million square miles to be covered, there is no possibility for comprehensive monitoring. Issues of national interest are also bound to rise. It is not apparent, for instance, how the proposed EU flotilla will be funded or if the potentially thorny issue of cost-sharing has even been broached. Human-rights concerns have also arisen. Both the Danish and British navies are reluctant to hand over captured pirates to authorities in Somalia, where they may face torture or execution.
A more broad-based approach might start with a boost to the coastal monitoring and interdiction capabilities of states in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Enhanced surveillance assets, training and technical support for local navies, coast guards or other agencies would be particularly helpful.
Second, public-private partnerships could expand the use of communication and defensive technologies like the satellite tracking devices recommended by the International Maritime Bureau and non-lethal electrical perimeter fences designed to discourage unauthorized boarding.
Third, financial incentives such as lower insurance premiums should be made to encourage the international maritime industry to adhere to basic security protocols -- avoiding dangerous routes, maintaining constant anti-piracy watches, keeping in close contact with nearby vessels.
Finally, and admittedly most vexing, greater effort should be devoted to Somalia itself. Piracy off the Horn of Africa is essentially an extension of the land-based violence, corruption and lawlessness that have plagued this war-torn country since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991.
Until this void in regional governance is filled, armed maritime crime will continue to proliferate around the Horn of Africa, threatening shipping and commerce in a key maritime corridor connecting Europe and Asia.
Peter Chalk is a senior analyst at the RAND Corp., a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
© 2008 United Press International
This commentary originally appeared on United Press International on November 25, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.