Somali pirates just had a banner year. Not only have three international naval groups failed to seriously reduce the number of ship hijackings in the Indian Ocean since 2008, the ransoms demanded by Somali negotiators have skyrocketed, and “more people were taken hostage at sea in 2010 than in any year since records began" in 1991, according to an annual report by the International Maritime Bureau.
The reason hijackings haven’t slowed is not that naval groups are lazy — in fact they’ve been busy intercepting pirates in dhows and skiffs. But the pirate gangs have responded with a sort of shotgun strategy. They’ve jacked up the number of attempts and expanded their range, from Madagascar almost to India.
So are the naval missions a waste of money?
A study released late last year by the German Institute for Economic Research makes an interesting claim. “Counter-piracy operations are a qualified success,” conclude Anja Shortland and Marc Vothknecht, authors of a paper called “Combating ‘Maritime Terrorism’ off the Coast of Somalia,” which notes that the warships have held the number of attacks to a high but stable rate. “However, the counter-piracy measures appear to deter pirates from forming alliances with Islamist movements and may therefore make a major contribution to international security.”
That’s important, if it’s true. Pirates and Islamists traditionally don’t mix. Pirates are thieves who chew khat, the popular stimulant leaf on the Horn of Africa; Islamists project a morally upright lifestyle that eschews both crime and drugs. But the astonishing multimillion-dollar ransoms flowing into Somali pirate gangs must be tempting for Islamist groups like Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab, particularly since they’re fighting a civil war against the weak federal government in Mogadishu.
“Naval intelligence telephone intercepts show that Islamists are keen to form operational and financial links with pirates,” report Shortland and Vothknecht. But pirate groups know that any alliance with Islamists would change the stalemate with the navies off Somalia. “Pirates fiercely resist contacts with Islamist organizations,” the report continues. “The threat of violence and the link of the naval measures to the ‘war on terror’ may therefore have prevented (or at least postponed) the formation of a very undesirable alliance.”
It’s a delicate question for everyone involved. If an obvious alliance forms between Islamists and pirates, the navies will have to do something. The shipping companies will also have to find another way around piracy besides the troublesome but predictable payment of ransoms (because a ransom could then be defined, legally, as terrorist funding). And the pirate gangs will have to worry about their income.
Shortland says her sources in the report are naval. But her conclusion was “backed up by a ransom negotiator,” she says, “who stressed that piracy is … conducted by shrewd businessmen who will not be seen to be involved in anything that could compromise ransom payments being made.”
Last May, Hizbul Islam did win control of a well-known pirate town called Haradheere. It’s likely that the group draws a small share of pirate money as a tax for using the shore, says Roger Middleton, an expert on Somali piracy at Chatham House in London.
But a deeper collusion seems unlikely. Pirates would be careful of alliances with terrorists “even if the navies weren’t patrolling,” Middleton says. Somalis, after all, know about foreign intervention. “They know that if they became a source of millions of dollars for al-Shabaab or other [radical] groups, the Americans particularly would take a much more active interest in what they’re doing, and target them with drones or something.”