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Maritime banditry: Defeating the pirates.

Somalia: The New Barbary?

Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa

By Martin N Murphy

[pounds sterling]16.99 C Hurst & Co

ISBN: 9781849040433

Despite the ongoing threat to shipping posed by Somali pirate activity, the West's mainstream press has, of late, ignored the problem. But as recent activity proves, Somali piracy is alive, well and prospering. Furthermore it is becoming ever more audacious, widespread and violent.

The book's very title alludes to the long history of piracy--in particular how, in the late 17th century, the Mediterranean was terrorised by North Africa's Barbary corsairs. Their fast ships raided coastal villages in France, Italy and Spain and plundered European shipping, capturing bounty and taking captives in chains to be sold in the slave markets of North Africa.

This almost forgotten period in history is now being loosely replicated around the Horn of Africa (and beyond) by Somali pirates who are raiding ships plying the busy shipping lanes that lead to and from the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and Suez Canal as well as mounting increasingly frequent attacks further afield.

Murphy tells us that modern-day ship hijackings began in these waters half a century ago, but since 1989 the pace and scale of what he terms "maritime predation" has gradually increased. And there seems to be a distinguishing character to Somali piracy--in the practice of kidnapping for ransom; the use of 'mother ships'; the targeting of foreign fishing boats and aid ships; and the involvement of corrupt political figures.


By 1998, two thirds of the world's maritime abductions were taking place in the Gulf of Aden. In 2000, there were 23 piracy incidents recorded in the Red Sea-Aden-Somalia region. But the book's author points out that following the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, the US deployed patrols in the northern gulf waters, from the Pakistani coast across to Somalia with the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa based in Djibouti. This, it seems, made the pirates more cautious and attacks began to decline--but in Murphy's own words "the respite was brief". By 2005, they had begun to inexorably rise again.

Murphy suggests that Somali piracy can be separated into two overlapping types, 'defensive' (i.e. the protection of fishing grounds by local fishermen) and 'predatory', the more mercenary and opportunistic variant. What makes the picture confusing is that both types use the same justification (at least on one occasion publicly supported by Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi) but, in practice, the true motivation can be difficult to discern.

The semi-autonomous region of Puntland appears to be the centre of piracy activities, while the breakaway region of Somaliland has issued fishing licences and impounded boats that attempted to fish without them in its waters. Similarly, warlord groups in the south of Somalia began to copy this measure and even established a London-based office to issue 'licences' to foreign fishing vessels. Later, in 2004, the Transitional Federal Government benefited from a similar scheme.

Murphy mentions that foreign vessels were known to dynamite coral reefs, use fine-mesh nets, and to bottom trawl--doing significant damage to the marine ecosystem and impacting the livelihood of as many as 90,000 full- and part-time Somali fishermen. The dumping of toxic waste by foreign ships that despoiled Somali's territorial waters and fish stocks inflicted further environmental harm.


A clan-based society

"Reaching any understanding of Somali piracy," Murphy tells us, "demands recognition that Somalia is a lineage-based society where almost everyone is identified by their membership of a clan." This is a crucial point, and the author goes on to quote Moshe Terdman, who says that in Somali, "one does not have a permanent enemy or a permanent friend--only a permanent context".

Murphy clarifies that while Somalia is ethnically homogenous, the concept of a single state has never been easy in the face of deep-seated loyalties to the clan. There are six major Somali clan families, four that are pastoralist (the Hawiye, Darood, Isaaq and Dir) and two agro-pastoralists (the Rahanweyn and the Digil, known collectively as the 'Sab').

The role of Islam in Somalia is far from clear cut in the author's opinion. The majority of Somalis only support political groupings on the basis of what they can deliver and their compatibility with clan interests, not on the basis of ideology. Consequently, what Murphy terms "activist Islamism" has only grown shallow roots in Somalia itself--even if, as the author also points out, it has taken a stronger hold in the Somali diaspora.


This also explains why Al Qaeda, which identified Somalia as a failed state and open to exploitation both as an operational base and a source for recruiting new members, would ultimately be frustrated by its experience in the country, not least because it lacked targets (certainly after the US withdrew its presence). "What Al Qaeda came to recognise," Murphy writes, "was that its greatest obstacle was the Somali clan system ... the reality is that no jihadist group has gained any heartfelt domestic following; with the exception of family and clan ties, almost all loyalties are provisional."

This is somewhat at odds with the arguments that accompanied Ethiopia's military invasion of Somalia in 2006 to protect the clan-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and repel the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), perceived as a hard-line Islamist movement but, in reality, also heavily clan-based. After the TFG collapsed and the ICU took power, the incidences of piracy declined. The US Office of Naval Intelligence commented "the threat of strict punishment under sharia law was likely a deterrent".

But Murphy counters the argument that only an Islamist-based Somali administration could limit the pirates' operations, citing that the rise of businessmen's militias had already begun to make inroads into criminal activities before the ICU took power. But once the ICU collapsed, piracy returned.

Murphy points out that the pirates became a far more adaptable and determined opponent. They were also better equipped, with GPS devices and satellite phones--and better armed too. There were three incidences that, in particular, hit the headlines: the capture of the Ukrainian-owned Faina with a cargo of 30 Soviet-era T-72 tanks (thought to be for the Sudan People's Liberation Army) recovered for a payment of $3.2m; the taking of the Sirius Star oil carrier, the largest vessel ever captured by Somali pirates, recovered for an unconfirmed $3m; and the unsuccessful attack on the Maersk Alabama, a container ship whose US captain, Richard Phillips, was kidnapped in a 96-hour standoff which only ended when US navy special forces shot dead all but one of the pirates, subsequently jailed in the US for 33 years.

More recently, the South Korean Samho Jewelry and its 21 crew members were rescued in January this year by South Korean special forces (part of a multinational anti-piracy patrol in the area) after the ship was hijacked by Somali pirates in Omani waters.

In February, two oil tankers were hijacked and, disturbingly, pirates shot dead a hostage aboard the Beluga Navigation, a German-owned cargo ship captured in January. It is thought to be the first execution of its kind by Somali pirates.

A UN report, published some time after this book was completed, suggests that UN Security Council members should spend $25m to establish special courts and fund prisons in Somalia's self-governing regions to deal with pirates.

Calling for an international conference on Somali piracy, Jack Lang, the former French culture minister and now the UN's special advisor on legal issues related to Somali piracy, says that the autonomous areas of Somaliland and Puntland should each house a UN-backed courthouse and prison for pirates. A third court, Somali-run, might also be established in Arusha, Tanzania.

"If the international community does not act with extreme urgency, Somalia's piracy economy will continue, to grow, past the point of no return," the 55-page UN report warns, adding: "A very limited window of opportunity remains for the international community to act with determination and attempt to win the race against time."

Hijackings off the coast of Somalia accounted for 92% of all ship seizures in 2010--with 49 vessels captured and 1,016 crewmembers taken hostage--the International Maritime Bureau reported in January 2011. Pirate attacks on ships globally have risen every year for the past four years, with 445 incidents reported in 2010, up 10% from 2009.

An international armada now guards shipping lanes off Somalia's coast and into the Gulf of Aden, assisting the 25,000 vessels that pass through the Red Sea and Suez Canal each year, as well as tankers carrying 3.3m barrels of oil each day through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. But the pirates have proved adept at switching their activities--on many occasions using the advice of various maritime authorities as to the distance offshore that it was 'safe' to travel specifically to search for their prey.

Somalia: The new Barbary? is an important book that places piracy within the context of Somalia itself. It explains just how the pirates originated and now operate, as well as giving insight into the way they have continued to respond and outwit international forces setting out to counter them.
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Title Annotation:Somalia: The New Barbary? Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa
Comment:Maritime banditry: Defeating the pirates.(Somalia: The New Barbary?
Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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