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Friday, February 25, 2011

New approaches to Somali piracy

The clatter of bullets aboard a yacht off of the Gulf of Aden last week served as a sombre reminder of piracy's sustained threat to those sailing the region's seas.

Details remain murky as to why four Americans on the yacht were killed immediately before the rescue attempt by the US navy. Indeed, the violent end - instead of the typical exchange for ransom - runs counter to business as usual for Somalia's hostage takers, who have brought in millions of dollars to villages along the country's coast in recent years.

What remains clear, however, is the need for new approaches in one of the world's most tactically difficult conflict theatres. While the size of the international fleet patrolling waters - 34 warships from 15 nations - has improved safety, the entirety of the Indian Ocean remains impossible to secure.

As US Fifth Fleet commanders said last week, pirates have expanded their reach using captured mother ships to push east to India and south to Madagascar. Factor in the needle-in-the-haystack dilemma of finding small, fast vessels that evade radar, and it is easy to see why frustrated commanders are pessimistic about stamping out the threat.

The Maritime Security Centre - Horn of Africa, made up of European fleets, has tried to minimise risk by advising leisure sailors to avoid the area and take precautions when sailing alone. Travelling at night, in convoys and keeping within the protected Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor are some precautions vessels have taken.

But these measures alone have not been enough to stop attacks on large tankers and, as we saw last week, smaller vessels, even though the payoff from pleasure craft and small traders such as dhows can hardly be worth the risk unless ransoms are paid.

While the international coalition force is providing some respite, discouraging piracy in the region relies upon strengthening the GCC's maritime security architecture. A lack of vessels and training, not to mention the political will to coordinate efforts, have held back an effective force which could police the Gulf of Aden at least.

And the commanders' note of pessimism needs to be listened to. Endemic poverty, lucrative payoffs and continued chaos make piracy a career option despite the risks. Somalia's offshore threat ultimately has to be met with solutions on land.


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