The surge of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa has focused greater international attention on the perennial problem of maritime piracy. According to International Maritime Bureau (IMB) figures, 293 incidents were recorded around the world in 2008, roughly 38 per cent of which were attributed to Somali gangs operating in the wider vicinity of the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean. Perpetrating groups have exhibited the ability to both hijack extremely large ocean-going vessels (the Sirius Star, which was seized in November 2008, was three times the size of an aircraft carrier), as well as mount assaults far from shore.
The scale of the problem has prompted unprecedented action on the part of the international community, the vast bulk of which has been explicitly militaristic in nature. While the ensuing responses have provided a certain deterrent effect, they will never be able to comprehensively confront the problem, given the expanse of the area to be covered (over 2 million square miles) and because they only address piracy at its end point (on the sea), rather than at its root (on land).
As such, this military approach ignores the complex interplay between governance, society and economics, and their impact on maritime disorder (including drug smuggling, terrorism, illegal fishing and arms trafficking, as well as piracy). Although piracy should certainly not be viewed as commensurate with Somalia (or vice versa), what is currently occurring in the waters off this east African state provides an excellent, if unfortunate, example of these dynamics at work....
Peter Chalk and Laurence Smallman are security analysts at RAND.
Copyright © IHS (Global) Limited 2009, Jane's Intelligence Review. The remainder of this op-ed can be found at www.janes.com.
This commentary originally appeared on Jane's Intelligence Review online on July 3, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.