Hefty ransoms feeding Somali piracy
Nairobi/Mogadishu -- Piracy off the coast of Somalia reached new heights last week when four ships -- German, Japanese, Iranian and Malaysian -- were seized within 48 hours.
Yet this may not represent the peak of pirate activity as gunmen with possible links to Islamic insurgents cram into the Gulf of Aden to get their share of the hefty ransoms shipping firms pay out for their ships and crews.
"For many years, piracy was simply robbery but now it has changed," Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme said. "We told people not to pay ransoms but they started paying. Other gunmen realized that they can earn money and started taking ships hostage instead of robbing them."
Authorities in Somalia have also called on shipping companies and governments to refrain from paying ransoms but the sums of money changing hands have gone up and up.
Mwangura said that the pirates were now largely ignoring African ships and going for the big money jobs — cargo ships and tankers owned by international shipping lines or tourists in their luxury yachts.
Big money on offer
The going rate now appears to be around $1million — the figure paid this month to secure the release of two German tourists who were seized from their yacht in June.
With such big money on offer, the number of pirates operating off the Somali coast has soared in the past three years.
According to Mwangura’s numbers, there were fewer than 100 gunmen operating in 15 groups in 2005. Now there 160 groups with a total of up to 1,200 pirates operating in Somalia’s coastal waters.
The pirates, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, launch speedboats from "motherships" to pursue their targets.
Crew members are rarely killed — they are far more valuable alive — and the pirates generally put their fire across the bow of the ship to force it to stop but incidents do happen.
Malaysian shipping line MISC on Monday confirmed that a Filipino crew member died in an "accident" as pirates seized control of the Bunga Melati Dua last week.
Funneling money to extremists
But, perhaps most worryingly for Somalia’s weak government and its Ethiopian allies, Mwangura believes that at least some of the ransom money is finding its way into the hands of Islamist insurgents currently wreaking havoc in the Horn of African nation.
"The big question is where does the money go?" Mwangura said. "We think they are collecting money to fund other projects onshore … we can say they are doing this on behalf of organized crime and for terrorist activities."
The peak in piracy has coincided with a gathering of strength among insurgent groups.
Somalia has been in a state of anarchy since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
But the situation had steadily deteriorated since the end of 2006, when Somalia’s transitional government and its Ethiopian allies ousted the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) from Mogadishu.
Al-Shabaab, the armed wing of the UIC, has been fighting an increasingly bloody battle since then, and last Friday captured the strategic port town of Kismayo, one of Somalia’s biggest settlements.
Ironically, piracy fell during the six months the UIC controlled Mogadishu as the strict religious body brought relative order.
Yet with the government in charge, piracy is now a potentially useful tool for the insurgents.
The seven ships currently being held by pirates represent a potential $7 million that could partly finance the insurgency.
Yet the government is powerless to stop the piracy. It is too busy with daily battles in Mogadishu and has no navy to speak of.
The United Nations Security Council in June approved incursions into Somali waters to combat the pirates. But despite the resolution, and recent interventions by a coalition of warships, piracy has continued to climb.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) believes the situation is on the verge of spiraling out of control and wants nations with warships in the area to take the UN resolution to heart.
Few nations have responded to the resolution so far, even though there have been warships in the general area: This looks set to change.
The US Naval Central Command on Friday said it had ordered the set up of Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) — basically a coalition of warships backed by aircraft — to patrol the Gulf of Aden.
"The idea is to deter destabilizing activities in the area," said Lt Stephanie Murdoch, a spokesperson for the central command. "This includes drug smuggling, human trafficking and, of course, piracy."
Murdoch refused to reveal the size of the force for security reasons.
Considering the IMB on Tuesday warned that three pirate "motherships" were believed to be lurking in the Gulf of Aden looking for more commercial ships to attack, the new force should have ample opportunity to prove its worth.
— Michael Logan/Expatica