The spread of Somalian pirates

indian ocean piratesShould we be concerned by suggestions that terrorists are taking clues from the Somali pirates and considering hijacking ships across the Indian Ocean for reasons other than ransom?

Absolutely.

There is increasing evidence of links in Somalia between the mafia-like organizations that run most of the pirating and the Somali-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which controls most of southern and central Somalia and both the U.S. and U.N. accuse of having links to al- Qaeda.

The obvious concern is that the rag-tag pirates are grabbing small private yachts and cargo boats loaded with lawn tractors may be providing a working model for the terrorists more interested in hijacking tankers loaded with chemicals and cargo boats carrying weapons.

The fact that the pirates seem to be getting more brazen, and successful, is not helping to deter others hoping to follow in their footsteps.

In 2010 pirates hijacked a record 53 ships and took 1,181 crewmembers from 30 countries hostage. Ninety two percent of the attacks took place off the coast of Somalia. According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau losses topped $7 billion in shipping revenue, higher insurance premiums and the expense of deploying naval warships to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Last year alone NATO spent $2 billion on efforts to safeguard the international sea-lanes off the Horn of Africa.As attacks move further eastwards, toward Oman and India, concern mounts. A few days ago an unusually large group of 30 to 50 Somali pirates seized an Indonesian cargo ship on its way to Suez, Egypt, with 20 sailors onboard. The next day they used the captured ship to attack a Liberian-flagged chemical tanker but were repelled after “an exchange of fire” with security crew on board.

The two Danish families grabbed off their yacht three weeks ago, including three teenagers, are still being held – despite that the Danish Navy has a warship parked just off shore and its government is negotiating hard for their release.

A handful of governments say the reason they pirates are flourishing is because penalties, even if caught, are insufficient. According to Jack Lang, advisor to the U.N. Security Council on piracy issues, nine out of 10 captured pirates are released because there isn’t sufficient capacity to prosecute or incarcerate them.

Some think imposing firm, tough sentences is the answer. Russia, for example, has asked the U.N. Security Council to demand that all nations enact laws to criminalize piracy. It has “urgently” encouraged creation of three distinct courts for piracy cases and construction of two prisons for convinced pirates. The idea is to build these specialized courts in the semi- autonomous regions of Somalia — Somaliland and Puntland — and a third with Somali jurisdiction in Tanzania.

In March, China agreed, leading a Security Council meeting that called for a more comprehensive international strategy for dealing with political instability in Somalia, piracy and the threat posed by the al- Shabaab militia. It suggested the U.N. needs “a comprehensive approach to tackle piracy and its underlying causes.”

In a statement, China “strongly urged” Somalia’s transitional government to operate in a more “constructive, open and transparent manner that promotes broader political dialogue and participation.” It also asked U.N. member governments for greater support for the 8,000 African Union troops trying to defeat the insurgents.

[flickr image via Gui Seiz]