Maritime Security off Somalia and in the Indian Ocean.

(2nd. Edition)

By Richard Little, former Royal Navy serviceman

Two recent conferences in Paris and Cyprus tried to outline how to eradicate Somali Piracy. But 2012′s better statistics and one air raid on one pirate base do not spell its end.  Analysis of current events in Somalia and the two conferences build the case that more force is needed to achieve this objective before Somali Piracy meshes more with terrorism and before it is too late.


While the UK no longer owns the almost total dominance of trade by sea that it had a century or more ago, it still depends for its survival on sea-borne trade for some 95% of its essential food, fuel and raw materials. This cargo is now carried mainly in ships of foreign flag but it is the safe delivery of that cargo that matters to our public. While some of this trade is coastal: from and to the EU, the majority still comes from far away.  With the increasing prosperity of Commonwealth and other developing nations, fixing a final end to piracy will become evermore important.

This paper argues that stronger medicine is needed to capitalise on containment, suppression and reduced piracy incidents. For containment or suppression are not enough to eradicate this business. The historic role of the Royal Navy in protecting merchant shipping, a role still respected by many nations and shipping companies, is relevant and should not be overlooked.

The context of the argument lies in two big developments arising from the London Conference Somalia (LCS) in February 2012. Firstly, the EU passed a more robust Mandate on 23 March 2012 escalating Rules of Engagement (RoE) for naval forces to attack Somali targets on land from the sea or the air. Such action upon ‘coastal territory and internal waters’ of Somalia would deny pirate attack groups (PAGs) the impunity hitherto enjoyed, by disrupting their efforts to get to sea to attack world shipping. Secondly, international Law Enforcement (LE) agencies are now harnessed to pursue the money, money-laundering and the overlords and financiers behind piracy.  INTERPOL and EUROPOL are devoting considerable efforts and resources to track financial flows and communications to identify forensically the controlling minds and networks. They recommend LE personnel be embedded in warships to improve evidence-gathering for prosecutions.  After the crackdown flowing from LCS, British-financed initiative now stages trials of pirates in Seychelles courts. Some 1,000 pirates are imprisoned in 20 nations as the heat is turned up on the criminals.


Lawlessness at sea occurs due to lawlessness ashore. Piracy needs to be based ashore, where its labour force live, plan, prepare and supply operations. But Somalia’s piracy is like no other. With the initial thin excuse of retribution for illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping at sea (despite no Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) yet declared through the United Nations Convention of the Law on the Sea (UNCLOS)), it has rapidly developed into a transnational and highly organised criminal operation. Backers will not surrender business easily and will lie doggo in quiet periods.

Somalia’s piracy is launched from a failed state with no effective law enforcement for over twenty years. Its reputation as the world’s most corrupt state is but one of manifold challenges facing a new President, Parliament and Prime Minister. Its 3,300 kms coastline is the longest in Africa, which factor alone magnifies maritime operations. The coast also allows flexibility to move bases up and down to evade counter-piracy. And at what a crossroads Somali piracy stands: the nearby nexus of sea trade routes running in every direction at its doorstep. All these factors combine to give this piracy the special sanctuary status that sets it apart from others in different regions. Not

only can all operations be supported from numerous bases with impunity, but hi-jacked prizes lie close offshore in convenient capture. The dirty business of exacting ransoms for seized ships, cargoes and crews, carries on without let or hindrance.  The international community was at first embarrassed, even dumbfounded and remains still unable to rescue their seafarers from appalling conditions of ever longer captivity just off the coast. A pirates haven from heaven indeed!

The longer Somali piracy continues, the harder it becomes to eradicate. In parallel runs the Sisyphean task of building an economy and industry able to turn minds from crime to honest work.  Only a glance at history gives us lessons.  Pompey ‘the Great’ was the first of many later leaders to learn that, to eradicate piracy effectively in the Mediterranean, it was crucial to destroy pirate ports and ships within. In 67 BC Rome gave him unprecedented authority to expel pirates from the inland sea, which he successfully accomplished in three months. Admirals Blake and Lord Exmouth followed suit in 1655 and 1816 respectively, to destroy Barbary pirates in their North African lairs of Porto Farina, Tunis and the port of Algiers. We should also heed Cicero’s wisdom in his dictum on war: ‘Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam’ meaning ‘ the sinews of war are unlimited money.’  This applies to all forms of ‘war’: total, terrorist, guerrilla or piracy and to all antagonists.

Threats and Factors demanding stronger measures.

In summary these are: – A new administration facing old problems; lack of delivery by and for Somalia; convergence of piracy and Al Qaeda (AQ) -backed Al Shabaab in a ‘spillover’ from South to Puntland; AQ ‘s East Africa network regrouping and rearming in North Somalia.  And, finally, withdrawal or weakening of naval assets from counter-piracy for whatever reason.

As ever in the Horn of Africa’s cockpit of conflict and chaos, events are moving fast and no single threat or factor can be examined in isolation. Leading news agencies support these arguments in reports from November/December 2012: – Reuters; the FT; the BBC; the Daily Telegraph and the EU Naval Force’s (NAVFOR’s) Media office. Across the board of authorities involved in counter-piracy, there is concern not only about the need to tackle pirates land source, but also to heed local warnings that piracy may change direction in sinister ways… soon.

The Federal Government of Somalia – FGS

Political tension is high as the new system, in place on 10 September, 2012, tries to stamp its claim on territories resistant to its weak authority. Al Shabab is not a spent force and still controls swathes of southern and central Somalia.  Further, it will seek to profit from spaces in any power struggle between disgruntled clans, various groups, militias and money lords. Control of Kismayo port and its large southern hinterland is a political flashpoint, as is control of the charcoal trade, which funded the Islamists @ $15m  p.a. Contestants are Kenya, Ethiopia, the FGS, local militias and trader kings linked to Al Shabab. All this saps the new FGS ‘s time, energy and resources, which also need to focus on old issues: acrimonious clan politics, rampant corruption, maritime piracy, a stubborn Islamist insurgency and 2.5 million people still in crisis from the 2011 famine.

Lack of Delivery

Somalis and returnees need to see results if they are to back the new FGS. As the biggest donor, the EU has said it will give $200m over the next three years to improve education, the judiciary and policing. An international officer working on Somalia states“ the greatest danger  in Somalia is lack of delivery.” We may take this to mean chiefly delivery by the FGS itself to drive the still failed state in a new direction. Equally it applies to others delivering for and to the state.

Convergence of Pirates and Al Shabab

Leaders in Puntland now refer to the ‘spillover’ of Al Shabab insurgents flowing north into hitherto ungoverned space from south and central areas in recent months. The Islamist movement has dispersed not disappeared. On 4 December, they confirmed their attacks on two military bases in the south and the north of Somalia: near Jowhar and also an ambush of a ministerial convoy near Merca port – both near Mogadishu. Near Bossaso they destroyed an army truck, killing 30 soldiers and assaulted an army base. This was repelled and insurgents fled to their mountain hideouts of Galagalo. These events make two points: they claimed responsibility and they will be back. A number of weapons consignments seized by Puntland forces show their arrival by sea from Yemeni sources. This connection could reveal connivance with pirates on the coast. Eradication of piracy will become ever harder if it merges further with Al Shabab, forcing a complex unpicking scenario. Time is of the essence. Since both groups survive on money and the Islamists are short of it after loss of the charcoal export and other rackets at Kismayo, it might be a marriage of necessity. 

AQ’s East African network regrouping and rearming in Northern Somalia

Two reports in late November, one quoting the President of Puntland, tell that key figures of Al Shabab have moved north. Among eleven insurgents arrested were two commanders: the alleged leader of the assassination squad and an alleged logistics expert. None were locals but came from across Somalia. Their aim was to connect with others already in the region. They were found with a full gamut of new weapons, ammunition and terrorist equipment. It is believed that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are arming and financing Al Shabab. In the past two months alone, authorities have intercepted two boats heading from Yemen to Puntland laden with weapons. The double attacks of 4 December claimed by Al Shabab clearly want the world to know they are still active. Meanwhile the blow to Puntland is that, in addition to fighting piracy, the ‘spillover’ from south Somalia’s problems is draining their resources and is detrimental to regional security.

Withdrawal or Weakening of naval assets from counter-piracy – (CP)

This could occur for many reasons: more defence budget cuts by EU/US – (UK’s coalition has just chopped another £1.3 billion from defence); a new world strategic shock elsewhere or just complacency that reduced pirate attacks warrant fewer ships on patrol. The numbers, type and size of available naval vessels for CP are crucial. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in his annual address to RUSI in December 2012, pointed to the ‘ the £1 billion warship doing CP stuff ‘, adding that the RN must rethink the case for ships with limited role in general war. ‘Corvettes are not new and Britain will look to acquire more ships designed for a range of non war-fighting duties’ he said.

Let us examine the current situation through the Commander EU NAVFOR, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, Royal Navy, who gave a Media Counter-Piracy Update at Northwood HQ on 29 November 2012.

  • over the first six months of 2012 a 60% reduction in pirate activity v. first half of 2011.
  • no ships hijacked since May 2012, despite almost 200 seamen still captive.
  • October and November 2012 ‘surprisingly quiet’ when usually very busy months.
  • 2011 – 151 attacks on ships and 25 ships hijacked.
  • 2012 – 31 attacks on ships and 5 hijacked to date.

*    Drop in piracy assessed as due to four factors: 100% success rate of the Private Military Security Contractors’ (PMSCs) armed guards onboard vessels; ship hardening and evasive action by adherence to the Best Management Practice version 4 (BMP 4); pre- emptive action by navies in close patrol and disruption preventing pirates leaving shore; lower tolerance at local/national levels in Somalia towards pirates: they cause higher food prices and their good-time girls, booze and fast cars are despised. Rougher seasonal monsoon weather also helped, but PAGs have returned to attack thrice since the Christmas period.

On 15 May 2012, after the revised mandate passed by the EU on 23 March 2012, (see Introduction – Context), the first and only attack on one pirate base was made by a helicopter launched from a EU NAVFOR warship by night. Small arms fire from the air destroyed at least 5 skiffs, fuel stores and other equipment. This attack was heralded as the first of many along the vast Somali coast. No further attack has occurred. Despite EU NAVFOR’s boast of pro-active prevention of pirates leaving shore for the open sea, Norwegian Professor Stig Jarle Hansen points to armed PMSCs as the bigger disincentive. He should know as he has walked the coast meeting pirates and their bosses over recent years, yielding in-depth knowledge of their habits. His contacts confirmed they are most afraid of PMSCs.

Let Admiral Potts have the last word. He repeated his August warning on 29 November.      “ International cartels investing in piracy will bide their time and then come back if warships left or if PMSCs were cancelled. Word would soon get round. Piracy is still one of the best ways to earn a living in Somalia. All this tactical and operational progress is easily lost if we do not irreversibly change the strategic context on the ground that allows piracy to exist in the first place.”


Admiral Potts knows the situation today is fragile and reversible. There were signs of renewed (pirate) activity as the BBC ‘s Frank Gardner completed his report of 29 November after Admiral Potts’s update thus: “As ever, the source of the problem is on land and until Somalia can reach a certain level of stability and prosperity, the spectre of piracy is likely to hover over its coast for years to come.” This will come as good news, even as little surprise to the counter-piracy business, seeking to protect shipping either by embarked armed parties or with the convoy concept.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to repeat attacks from the air or from the sea on pirate bases?  Somewhere, somehow, politics took fright and vetoed this after the EU issued its March mandate to do just that.  Such ambiguity and absence of firmness will have been seen as weakness by pirates, whose reserves of patience and cunning far exceed those of the international community. There is no doubt that pirates’ land bases have to be more effectively taken out if the objective to eradicate piracy is to be met. With the best-trained and best-equipped Special Forces available, fast operations in and out could destroy the means as well as seizing key players for interrogation and charging. The boots would hardly touch the ground. But all this needs political will and unambiguous strength such as the likes of Pompey, Blake and Exmouth possessed in spades.

In the predicted absence of either, the counter-piracy industry can look forward to many years of business, while the weakness of politicians leads to hand-wringing and to much of our taxes being spent trying to end a very messy business. The author recalls the last EUNAVFOR Commander:  Major General Buster Howes, OBE, (Commandant General Royal Marines), in his electric presentation to the RUSI’s Future Maritime Operations Conference on 6 July 2011, predicting that Somali Piracy could well last a further ten years.


Richard Little                                    Crailing                                  Roxburghshire


10  January 2013                               e-mail:

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