Almost a year after the ouster of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from Mogadishu, sea pirates have continued to haunt ships along the 2,050-mile Somali coastline. In recent months—with the escalation of fighting in Mogadishu—piracy has actually increased along the sea coast. Sources say some warlords and businesses are believed to be using piracy to generate money to expand their enterprises and recruit more fighters into their private armies. Some believe that proceeds from the illegal activities are also used to buy ammunition.
Though dangerous, piracy along the Somali coast has proven extremely lucrative in some cases. On December 17 an Italian merchant ship, reported to be carrying cargo for “an important diplomatic mission” in Nairobi, became the latest victim of attack by Somali pirates (Garowe Online, December 17). Just prior to that, pirates released the MT Golden Nori, a Panamanian-flagged Japanese chemical tanker, for which the pirates had been demanding a $1 million ransom (Horn of Africa News, December 13). It is not clear whether any ransom was paid (Maritime Global Net, December 13). In August, $1.5 million was paid through a security firm intermediary for the release of the MV Danica White, a Danish ship which had been hijacked in June (SomaliNet, August 25).
U.S. ships have become increasingly active in rescuing seized merchant ships, together with naval detachments from Germany, Italy, Britain and the Netherlands. At times smaller local forces, like the Puntland Coast Guard, have joined in security operations (Shabelle Media Networks, November 7). On November 5, intervention by the U.S. Navy helped in the release of a Taiwanese vessel, the Ching Fong Hwa 168, which had been hijacked for six months (SomaliNet, November 6; May 20). Days earlier, a helicopter from the USS James E. Williams helped the North Korean crew of the Dai Dong Han overpower Somali pirates that had seized their ship (AP, October 30). Analysts say the piracy is centered on drugs, weapons and human smuggling, primarily across the Gulf of Aden and back into the war-ravaged nation. Warlords have also used piracy to fund their militias (see Terrorism Focus, August 22, 2006).
Andrew Mwangura, Programs Coordinator of the Mombasa-based Seafarers’ Assistance Program, says there have been 29 incidents in Somalia in the past 10 months compared to only eight in the same period last year. Of these attacks, 15 involved worldwide vessels, where 172 crew members were taken hostage, 63 kidnapped and 21 assaulted (author’s interview). Mwangura says the dominant pirate groups include the National Volunteer Coast Guard (NVCG) based in Kismayu, a group in Puntland, another in the town of Markeh and the Somali Marines (a.k.a. Somali Coast Guard), the most sophisticated of the pirate groups. The latter are believed to have carried out more than 80 percent of the attacks, since they have the capacity to operate in deep sea areas. The Somali Marines operate in the central Somalia coastal region, including their base area in Harardheere, and at Eyl, about 60 miles north of Harardheere. Mwangura says some high-ranking figures in the semi-autonomous Puntland Administration and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) are also involved in piracy, a view corroborated by certain reports (Qaranimo Online, July 16).
According to Mwangura, piracy is believed to finance illegal fishing, logging and mining ventures. Some of the ransom is thought to be invested in expanding the trade in the mild narcotic khat, which is exported from Kenya to Somalia. Another share goes into widening the lucrative charcoal export business from Somalia to the United Arab Emirates. Ransoms also finance the thriving but illegal human trafficking trade along the Red Sea Coast and the western Indian Ocean region.
A Somali source who requested anonymity says pirates do not do business themselves, but share out part of the ransom with warlords and businessmen. The warlords offer protection to the pirates from their own clans, who would expose them, while the businessmen are the ones who negotiate and receive the ransom on behalf of the pirates. The source adds that the pirates use their share to buy drugs, cars and generally indulge themselves, activities which end in about six months when the money runs out. At that point they go back to the sea to hijack a ship for ransom.
The Somali coast is a major trade route for key commodities such as oil, grain and iron ore. Oil tankers, for instance, travel from the Middle East down the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and then on to the southern regions of Africa. These ships have become targets for Somali pirates and a potential source of funds for the various factions fighting in Mogadishu.