Months after gaining control of Mogadishu, the main seaports and most of the southern parts of the country, Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union (ICU) has begun to rein in sea piracy. Somalia’s 3,300 kilometer coastline has been classified by the International Maritime Bureau as one of the world’s worst affected areas for piracy. Media reports, however, say that incidents of piracy have declined since the ICU began to consolidate power throughout the country. While advancing within Somalia’s mainland, the ICU has also advanced along the coastline, taking control of cities that had traditionally been used as pirate bases.
On August 15, hundreds of ICU fighters traveled in pickups mounted with guns (known locally as technicals) to Hobyo, a port city near the autonomous region of Puntland. In the town, the ICU failed to meet any resistance and took over the port. On August 12, the ICU captured the coastal town of Harardheere, a pirate base 400 kilometers north of Mogadishu, before taking over Eldher a day later (Hirran Online, August 13). An unidentified Islamist militia commander was quoted in the media as saying that the ICU had to secure Harardheere and its surroundings since the area was rife with pirates and that piracy was a crime that needed to be stopped (Hirran Online, August 13).
Piracy in Somalia is a lucrative business, centered in drugs, weapons and human smuggling, primarily across the Gulf of Aden and back. Warlords had used piracy to fund their militias. The coast has been a major trade route for key commodities such as oil, grain and iron ore. Oil, for instance, travels from the Middle East down the Red Sea, to the Gulf of Aden, and then to the southern regions of Africa. Along this route, these ships had become targets for Somali pirates. The UN Security Council Monitoring Group for Somalia, in a briefing letter dated May 5, said that there have been an estimated 45 attempted hijackings and 19 successful ones on the Somali coast between early 2005 and April 2006.
Four main pirate groups have been identified as operating along the Somali coastline. The National Volunteer Coast Guard (NVCG) has been said to specialize in intercepting small boats and fishing vessels around Kismayu on the southern coast. It is commanded by Garaad Mohamed, who was formerly part of the warlord faction but who is believed to have recently defected to the Islamists (Somaliland Times, December 22, 2005).
There is also the Marka group, which is made up of several, but scattered and less organized smaller groups operating around the town of Marka. They have fishing boats and fleets with larger operating ranges. They were engaged in robbing and smuggling under the command of Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad (also known as Yusuf Indha’adde), who is now a member of the ICU. It is not clear, however, whether his support of the ICU will continue. For instance, according to the Somaliland independent daily Haatuf on August 11, Indha’adde has refused to hand over his weapons to the ICU saying that although his administration in Lower Shabelle supports the Islamic courts, it was a separate entity and the courts should stay out of his affairs. It is possible that a clash between Indha’adde and the ICU will occur in the future.
The most powerful pirate group is the Somali Marines, which reports say is the most sophisticated of the pirate groups and one that has a military structure. It has a fleet admiral, admiral, vice admiral and a head of financial operations (UN Security Council Monitoring Group, May 5). It is said to have a capability to operate further off-shore than the other groups and participate in piracy activities involving vessel seizures, kidnappings and ransom demands. Their activities are around the areas of the central Somali coast of Haradheere. The Somali Marines, or the Defenders of Somali Territorial Waters as they like to be called, are loyal to regional warlord Abdi Mohamed Afweyne. They were responsible for the recent hostage saga where they held 25 hostages for four months until a sizeable ransom was paid, upwards of $2 million; on August 6, the hostages were released (Kenya Television Network, August 6). The fourth significant pirate group is that of traditional Somali fishermen who operate around Puntland and are largely referred to as the Puntland Group.
Although the ICU leadership had, after taking control of Mogadishu and most of the southern region, issued a warning against piracy, armed men in speedboats continue to open fire on passing ships, hoping to seize them and earn ransom money. Nevertheless, the hardline ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was quoted in the media as saying that piracy was illegal and that his forces would crack down on pirate activities (Channel NewsAsia, July 30). While pirates continue to operate off Somalia’s coastline, it appears that the ICU is attempting to consolidate control over pirate bases with the attempt of reining in the pirates. In some cases, pirates have joined the ICU fighters, while in others they have fled and remain in hiding. As the Islamists expand their control over Somalia, international observers continue to watch whether the Islamists are truly interested in or capable of securing one of the world’s most pirate-plagued coastlines.