Clay Maitland

On a quest for quality in shipping

Somali piracy stakes are raised again

Posted on | May 6, 2010 | No Comments

News that Islamist insurgents captured the Somali city of Xarardheere over the week-end of May 1-2 raises a number of questions for shipowners and seafarers, though it provides few answers yet.

The first and most pressing concerns the fate of the hijacked ships and captive seafarers in the vicinity. It remains to be seen if the pirate clans can retain control of the four prizes they have moved away from the city before it fell.

The pirates appear to have left three ships behind and statements by the Hizbul Islam group on Tuesday pledged to free hostages, return hijacked ships and ‘free Somalia of piracy’.

When in power four years ago, the Islamic Courts Union suppressed piracy in the country. It was their ousting by US-backed Ethiopian troops in 2006 that led directly to the upsurge in piracy of the past few years.

Rolling back pirate activity would be consistent with the Islamists’ previous posture but it is unlikely to happen while power in the country remains fragmented.

What is more problematic about the fall of Xarardheere is that it could sharpen the focus on the role of the insurgency in Somalian piracy. It is already being widely suggested that the Islamists will find the rewards of piracy too great to ignore.

Were Hizbul Islam or Al-Shabaab to gain complete control of the country, it might be necessary to once again suppress piracy for political reasons but on a local basis, they might well reach an unofficial accommodation with the pirates in return for tribute.

Anyone expecting a quick end to Somali piracy is likely to be disappointed. If anything the reverse is likely.

Indeed, if the US moves to prop up the Transitional Federal Government (which has  been the beneficiary of aid shipments and regional capacity building) against the Islamists, it risks maintaining the climate that has allowed piracy to thrive.

The net effect would be that a country which has recently moved to make the payment of ransoms illegal would actually be taking steps to perpetuate hostage-taking.

And shipping continues to be caught in the crossfire.

It has so far been possible to state with some confidence that Somali piracy was profit-driven and non-political. Should the insurgency take to piracy, the risk is that these new pirates are viewed as combatants, potentially changing the rules of engagement.

And it will be the naval task force, military detachments, private armed guards and shipowners themselves who will be forced to make that judgement when they next see a skiff bearing down on them.

Just for an idea of how often they might need to make that call, Combined Maritime Forces Command, reports 25 ‘incidents’ off Somalia alone between April 1 and 24 this year.

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