Force Alone Won’t Defeat Somali Piracy

April 24, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

On the morning of April 8, a United States-flagged cargo ship – the Maersk Alabama – carrying US government food aid destined for Africa was hijacked by Somali pirates 300 miles off Somalia’s coast. Eventually, the crew and the ship escaped to safety, while Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by the pirates who fled in a smaller boat. After a significant US naval deployment, the pirates were killed and the captain was rescued.

Story over? Not really. This wasn’t the first piracy case off the coast of Somalia and it won’t be the last. This past December, a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million worth of oil was hijacked, with the pirates eventually getting paid $3 million in ransom. Piracy has risen dramatically in recent years, with over 100 incidents reported off the coast of Somalia in 2008. This year is set to be even more dangerous with the International Maritime Bureau citing about 70 attacks in the first few months of 2009, and with Somali pirates currently holding about 200 international crew members hostage – Asians, Arabs and Eastern Europeans.

Somali pirates actually seek to “justify” these attacks in their local society. They justify their attacks against international vessels on the grounds that the latter represent foreign incursions into Somali waters to engage in unlicensed fishing and to dump toxic waste.

The costs to the global economy from thus piracy, particularly the economies of the Gulf States, the United States, and Europe, are mounting. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has amplified the price of vessel insurance and, thus, it has increased the price of goods transmitted through this prime trade route. Typically, at least 20,000 ships a year pass through these waters transporting goods as well as 7 percent of the world’s oil. Furthermore, many ships have rerouted traveling all the way around Africa to avoid the pirates and the higher insurance rates. Egypt’s economy, in particular, is suffering from route diversions.

The United Nations Security Council forcefully responded to the piracy off Somalia by passing Resolution 1851 last December. The resolution permits member states to pursue and capture pirates with the permission of the transitional federal government of Somalia (as the United States Navy did to rescue Captain Phillips). In addition, NATO and other counter-piracy forces have been dispatched to Somali waters, an area spanning 6.6 million square kilometers – an area about 10 times the size of the state of Texas.

Also of major significance is that the leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, issued an audio tape last month calling on fringe terror groups operating in the dark margins of Somali society to rise up against the new government. Notably, no strong organic linkage has been established between Somali pirates and global terror groups like Al-Qaeda; nevertheless, potential collusion between pirates and terrorist networks in that volatile region of East Africa constitutes a valid security concern.

Piracy in the high seas is always a symptom of chronic issues on land. Thus, in addition to bolstering maritime security, the international response to piracy off the coast of Somalia must focus on the core problems of the country, such as the lack of good governance and economic growth. Even in the context of Africa, Somalia has been among the poorest and most unruly countries of the past two decades, with a per capita GNP of a few hundred dollars per year (so low, that it is hard to calculate) and a state of near-anarchy that has only just ended.

Earlier this month we had the opportunity to privately meet with Somalia’s foreign minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar, after the Arab League summit in Doha. What we learned was that the international community – particularly the United States, the Arab world, and Europe – now have an opportunity to remedy this plague of piracy by helping end the nearly two-decade-long state of conflict in Somalia.

The key ingredients are, first, political and financial support for the new government of Somalia and the inclusive peace process launched in Djibouti in January, including support for Somalia’s security apparatus. Second, dramatically increased aid to help raise living standards in Somalia and give young people a pathway out of poverty and piracy to prosperity. And third, the undercutting of any vestiges of pirate legitimacy in civil society, by ensuring an end to unlawful fishing and the dumping of toxic waste off Somalia’s coastline. This must be pursued alongside multinational naval deployments already under way.

Thus far, the military option has not borne tangible success. A more comprehensive strategic framework is needed. The United States, the Arab world, and Europe have a unique opportunity to cooperate on these common objectives, and implement a far-reaching strategy that empowers Somalia’s new government and effectively ends the blight of piracy – and in doing so creates new models of international cooperation.