Somali piracy, a comprehensive approach

The Somalian pirates are obviously not under control (no surprise!). We waste attention, thought and time at the pirates annoyance even though we're in a really severe (and interesting) economic crisis and wars are going on.

I stick to my approach from June and November; we need to raid coastal targets and deter against piracy, if necessary we need to follow through our threats and kill (a lot).

Time has gone by, and additional information became available, and the piracy affair's complexity is now much more visible.

1) Kenya:
Some bosses and informants are apparently in Kenya and Tanzania, not in Somalia.
This includes bribed informants in the harbours and harbour bureaucracies who tell the pirates which ship is good prey and which isn't. Masterminds' villas are apparently also in Kenya, and the Kenyan judiciary (if not politicians) is probably exposed to bribes. This is a rather troubling aspect because some of the pawns that were captured on the sea were given to Kenyan authorities for prosecution.
The corruption issue could also explain why the Kenyan navy is mostly inactive (claiming its ships are obsolete, but honestly; a 30mm autocannon on a OPV is still an overmatch to machine guns and RPGs on a motor boat).
Kenya is apparently infected with metastases of Somalian piracy and apparently no effective enemy of Somalian piracy.

2) Illegal foreign fishing activities in Somalian economic zone.
It's well-known that much of the Somalian piracy is based on Somalian fishery; mostly the same boats and same people.
Somalian fishery has suffered due to the lack of government power; no coast guard is protecting the Somalian waters against foreign fishery vessels (East Asians have a reputation there).

The effect is that Somalian fishermen are partially deprived of income.
The fishermen's response was apparently (well, of some) to extort foreign fishery vessels. The step to full-blown piracy was a rather small one at that point.
Many countries are not able to fully police their exclusive economic zones; the Somalian piracy experience should be considered as relevant for many countries in this sense.

Today's piracy is driven by hostage trades (foreigners paying for captured crews and ships), of course.

3) The international political utility of the conflict
Countries are co-operating against the pirates that usually "don't like" each other very much. It's a somewhat unifying affair, with still unknown long-term influence.
The prospect of mainland Chinese warships helping Taiwanese nationals off the East African coast has also its political relevance.

A comprehensive, effective solution to the annoyance would be cheap, but my approach is certainly too unorthodox for today's politicians.

My comprehensive approach:

1) Raid some fishing villages with the most concentration of piracy-related activity and blow up boats (especially the motors!), leave threatening leaflets behind.
Fly an impressive bombing mission nearby to demonstrate what will happen with their village if they continue with piracy. If necessary we follow through our threat and raid again, with greater use of ammunition and explosives.
A single multi-role combat aircraft based at Djibouti, a single LPD with a battalion of marines and a hospital ship are enough for this.

2) The United Nations outlaw illegal fishing in foreign waters in strong terms. Fishing vessels that get captured in foreign waters become the property of those who boarded the vessel. Close legal gaps to prevent mere re-flagging.
Fishing in foreign waters would instantly become too risky, armed fishermen of failed states could easily police their own waters.

The result would be that the fishermen have to go back to fishery instead of piracy, or else.
We wouldn't embarrass ourselves with the ineffectiveness of a multinational fleet worth dozens of billions of dollars vs. a few ragtag fishermen with small arms.

Let's focus our attention on domestic problems, please. The pirates are a distraction, and a long engagement there is too distracting. We need to get rid of them quickly.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Since I am new in this blog I`d like to thank you first for the daily inspiring reading! I can only agree to your call for a quick solution. Despite the fact that your approach is indeed quite comprehensive I therefore very much doubt that it will ever be accomplished. Too violent. Especially for Germans. As long as the "menace" of those raiders is as insignificant to our security as it is today the establishment of a traditional convoy and escort system would be fairly disproportionate. If the shipowners insist on using this shortcut why not embark some security forces when advancing dangerous waters perhaps even by using non-lethal acoustic devices to hush the German remorse?

  2. Step one is actually a great opportunity for less-inhibited powers to excel.

    Russian admirals have long complained that patrolling is pointless and raids necessary.
    There was already something done in the UN , raids might already be legal (I attempt not to waste too much time on this topic - that limits my research).

    Russia, China, India and many other countries could earn a lot of respect for resolute and decisive action if they can pull it off without publicized blunders.

    Germany has next to no interest in the region.
    Our involvement stems from the pointless anti-AQ-infiltration patrol that we did with one frigate at a time for years. That OEF mission has collected a huge amount of intelligence on piracy for lack of a real purpose.

    We don't have real marines anyway; just harbour-guarding infantrymen and a couple dozen SEAL-like special forces frogmen. Our KSK special forces aren't at good personnel strength either, and our paratroopers are busy with different training and Afghanistan deployments.

    I emphasize the need to get rid of the annoyance quickly because attention is a very scarce and valuable thing when you've got troubles. We have more than enough domestic troubles.

  3. "Germany has next to no interest in the region."

    Perhaps if you EU Germans and EU French and EU Italians and other sophisticated Europeans would stop dumping toxic waste off the coast of Somalia, maybe there would be some more fish to catch. Some nonpoisoned ones, that is.

    Look in the mirror, that is who is responsible. And who can end it.

  4. Prove your claim.

    Why should illegal waste dumpers move through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and through the Red Sea to dump waste off Somalia?

    Even if such dumping happens; the Atlantic Ocean would be a much better choice.

  5. You're not wrong on any particular point, but I would suggest strongarming the masterminds would be better received politically than shooting up the villages. Most of those pirates don't see very much of the money in any case. They could be pretty easily bought with modern fishing gear, especially if the enablers were brought to justice.

    In fairness to the Kenyan Navy, the guns on the OPV probably work fine. It's the engines they have to worry about. I was in East Africa some years ago and I pointed out a fairly sharp-looking Russian-built patrol boat in Tanzanian waters to a local. "They never leave the harbor," she explained. "The engines don't work very well and they're afraid to get out of sight of land." Like a lot of navies, maintenance gets short-shrifted when money is tight.

    I have no doubt the Kenyan courts are quite corrupt, but the US and the EU brought themselves that grief when they made up their minds that they weren't going to claim jurisdiction over the pirates. If the actual "pirates," the guys boarding the vessels, are not to be tried in Western courts, how can they justify demanding extradition of the magnates that are reaping the profits from it? This was cowardice on the part of the West, and it will cost them dearly.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the navies have chosen the most expensive and least effective way to deal with the situation. Hell, just putting a squad of well-armed Marines on some of the ships passing through the threatened zone would make boardings very chancy for the pirates. Beyond that, using inshore vessels to patrol the pirate ports more closely, bribing/threatening local tribal leaders for information or to control their young men, and infrastructure aid projects to put people to work in Somalia would all do more than sailing around in billion-dollar warships with missile systems intended to shoot down stealth aircraft.

  6. Good post Sven.

    Here's an idea. How about enlisting the Somali pirates in a naval milita, giving them proper training, decent wages, legal status and authority etc, then tasking them to patrol Somali waters in anti-fisheries patrols?

  7. A larger issue in the current US hostage crisis involving Somali "ocean outlaws" is freedom of seas. I explain more in my blog post.

  8. "Piracy is more than a crime; it is terrorism on the high seas."

    Not really. Terrorism is not clearly defined, but we have a consensus that it requires more motivation than greed. A political one, for example.
    The pirates are quite unpolitical, and the word "terrorism" is already subject to more than enough inflation.

  9. Bombing villages is absolutely no option, and I actually wonder how you can even consider this - normally you aren't that trigger happy in this (nice) blog. :-)

    A bomb cannot distinguish between "bad pirate" and the famous "innocent civilian", and you'd make international friends quicker than the Israeli with their approach in Gaza and the "we tear down your house" caterpillar strategy. This needs police/para-military and courts, not soldiers. Compare this to how the Italian military has no means to eliminate domestic organized crime.

    I think James got it right with his list of short-term measures, although I fear that a close blockade will be of limited help as long as there is a big permanent pool of hostages around: reduce that first, then start the blockade. On the long run the Somali authorities must return, there's simply no alternative.

  10. "Johann Hari: You are being lied to about pirates."


    How is it that you you know everything else, but don't know this?

  11. @anonymous:
    You're wrong on both accounts.
    I saw that article when it was published months ago because it was linked to by another page.
    I don't see anything that might have led you to believe that I didn't know about the article.

    The author mentioned the alleged waste dumping, but this is a story about Africa. Lots of rumours strive in developing countries (and elsewhere). Somalia hasn't even remotely the capabilities to monitor its seas well enough to claim that as more than a rumour.
    Dumping oil (an activity that leaves a very visible trace for hours) can be monitored, but the smaller coastal regions of Germany require a dedicated aircraft with special sensors to document such activity. Dumping "toxic" waste without traces on the surface is much easier hidden than that, especially at night.
    It's a rumour that didn't pass the plausibility test, and thus you proved nothing.

    To bomb a village is a mistake, and my choice of words embodied the bluff that would be necessary towards the pirates to make itself work.
    A more serious crackdown than the first raids (major raids or even limited occupation of the relatively few pirate nests) would be a promising choice if they call the bluff.

    By the way; I saw some Google Earth imagery of several pirates nets; relatively small villages (could be cleared by a reinforced company, encircled by another one) with most boats located at beaches separate from the village itself.

  12. Could it be that the Gulf States export their waste to East African shores?

    Overfishing means that there are currently too few fish for the native fishermen. Even if they are enabled to guard their littorals and don't use their coastguard on more lucrative raids, the Somalis have the same remaining problem, catching enough fish to sustain their families. Such a person will go pirate, it's a question of immidiate and urgent survival versus potential threats. In Somalia you can also feel quite safe because the Western military already pulled out once. The best approach is probably to recognize and help the two northern secessionist republics and thus violate AU legislation against territorial re-adjustments. For the remainder Ethiopia has a vested interest in a stable and divided country so it's Ogaden region stays calm. You might even try to open the Somali and Kenyans for some new borders, reducing the troublespot. At least Kenya could with a little help and money also guard Somali waters.
    The big problem is the organized crime that developed after some crazy idea of boarding big modern merchantmen with speedboats was proven successful. You need intelligence to penetrate the finacial network profiting from this business and make useful threats, like abductions of patrons and threatened blackmailing of the white-collar criminals. It would be a waste of ammunition trying to kill the foot-soldiers. But it might be a good idea to reduce the quality of live obtainable in Somalia by piracy if you target their parked shiny new cars and nice houses with drones, but avoid killing people by using a very loud acoustic device in advance.
    The best approach is defense of passing ships and I still consider a small towed behind USV under remote control with a machine-cannon the most cost effective approach.