Piracy off Somali coast surges despite defensive measures

By John J. Metzler, Special to The China Post

UNITED NATIONS — Armed attacks on merchant vessels and piracy off the Somali coast increased by 10 percent last year with some 445 attacks and 49 ship hijackings. And despite international defensive efforts taken by a score of navies off East Africa, “piracy is gradually becoming an organized industry,” costing shippers billions of U.S. dollars in lost revenues, according to U.N. officials. Occasionally the latter-day buccaneers miscalculate and seize the wrong target as was the case with the hijack of a South Korean ship “Samho Jewelry.” Before long, South Korean navy commandos had carried out a daring mission to free the vessel, killing eight pirates, freeing 21 hostages, and capturing five pirates.

But this is the exception. Piracy has thrived in the lawlessness of Somali where poor fishermen ply the offshore waters to prey upon unarmed merchant ships with increasingly boldness, sophistication and powerful weaponry. Addressing a Security Council meeting, Jack Lang the U.N. Special Adviser on Somali Piracy stated, “There is this race between the pirates and the international community, and progressively that race is being won by the pirates.” According to Lang, the U.N.’s point man, “Piracy has created an economy with a level of sophistication. At first it was artisan, now it has taken on an industrial scope.” The rapid sophistication of its methods, organizational structures and resources have allowed pirates to demand high ransoms, they negotiate with lawyers and ship owners, and show extreme talent in money-laundering, similar to that of a mafia. “The problem in Somalia is there is no state; this has been the case for twenty years,” Lang stressed adding, that political instability and poverty are rife. The country is also informally divided; war-ravished Somalia itself, the relatively prosperous and stable Somaliland, and the lawless Puntaland, where many pirates operate from. As to the question of whether local pirates were working with Somali terrorists, Lang stressed that there “are different philosophies” between the groups. Somalia’s notorious Al Shabad Islamic militants present “a fight for power, ideology and religion.” The pirates are primarily focused on money; there is no underlying political goal, although in the future there could be overlap. Jack Lang, a French jurist and controversial long-time Socialist politician, calls for a multi-dimensional approach to the issue; economic, security, and judicial/penitentiary. He stressed the need for effective specialized courts to prosecute captured pirates and equally the facilities to imprison them.