Somali Piracy Deja Vu

Watching recent news stories unfold about the Indian Ocean, and Somali piracy in particular, I am struck by the passage of time. It is over four years since the French yacht “Tribal Kat” was attacked and the pirates arrested. It is only this week that sentences have been passed by a French judge.
On a personal note, it is nine years since I was caught up in the eviction of the Union of Islamic Courts from Somalia. I was Chief of Staff to CTF 150, a counter-terror Task Force, at the time and our ships patrolled the coast of Somalia to prevent Islamists escaping by sea. Even then there was an emerging Somali piracy threat, which erupted as a serious problem for shipping in 2008. Consequently EUNAVFOR was formed to provide escorts for World Food Programme vessels and to protect commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
I was involved with EUNAVFOR from inception and it was around this time seven years ago that I found myself being interviewed by John Humphreys on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. On EUNAVFOR’s behalf I tried to explain what we were doing to counter Somali pirate successes in the Somali Basin and the Gulf of Aden. It was a tricky interview in which John Humphreys’ opening gambit was “Clearly whatever you are doing is not working!” In those dark days of the Somali piracy problem, it was difficult to do justice to the amazing successes that EUNAVFOR had already achieved since being set up less than 6 months earlier. These were successes that became more apparent as time went on, and when, four years ago I commanded the Royal Navy Task Group dedicated to disrupting Somali piracy, we were well placed to capitalise on the hard work put in by the many EU, NATO and US led Coalition sailors over the previous three years. During a busy six months we were able to rescue over 40 merchant sailors from pirate captivity, we disrupted eight Pirate Action Groups and handed over 30 Somali pirates to the authorities in Italy and the Seychelles for trial. As I said, we were well placed to capitalise on the “hard yards” put in by so many others, and although we did not know it at the time, a tipping point had been reached. The risk to reward ratio, for so long and frustratingly in favour of the pirate had shifted. The combination of maritime patrols, BMP 4 measures and armed guards on merchant vessels had finally tipped the scales and since early 2012 the pirates have largely been confined to shore.
Of course, as Francis Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” inadvertently attests, the end of history is an illusion! Despite the downturn in actual pirate attacks, Somalia continues to grab our attention. The sentencing in France of Somali pirates for killing Christian Colombo, the skipper of the yacht “Tribal Kat”, and for holding his wife Evelyne captive, is just one more chapter in what has turned out to be the long running story of Somali piracy. Somalia, and the Somalis as a people, are an interesting example of how our perceptions in the West can be so incredibly at variance with the reality on the ground. In 2008 the West regarded Somalia as a famine riven failed state and given the events of Black Hawk down, largely beyond redemption. Yet this underestimated the Somalis ability to be surprisingly well organised at a local level. The West failed to appreciate that a country with some of the worst infant mortality rates in Africa contrasted with one of the most advanced mobile phone networks, functions in unpredictable and surprising ways. Contrasts across Africa are not uncommon, but the consequence of failing to properly understand Somalia, was to be blind to the potential for a small number of Somalis to turn geography to their advantage in a way that would allow them to burst onto the international stage and present the biggest threat to international shipping since the German U-Boats 60 years earlier.
Of course you might think I would comment along these lines, after all I run a maritime security company! There are however, other very well informed commentators who have first hand experience in Somalia, and have an eye and an ear for the nuance of the region. People like John Steed of Oceans Beyond Piracy has a view which should not be so readily dismissed. Should you still disagree, we can meet here again in seven years  and see where we have got to.
Author: Gerry Northwood. COO to MAST.

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