International efforts to limit Somali piracy are having some effect, with the story dropping out of the headlines over the past year. In the first three months of this year, there were only five attempts and only one successful hijacking (a fishing vessel), according to the latest quarterly report from the International Maritime Bureau. This is a far cry from 2008, when piracy off the Somali coast resulted in 28 hijackings amid 237 attempts. The economic impact of piracy is considerable. The World Bank in April calculated that between $315 million and $385 million has been paid in ransoms to Somali pirates since 2005, though that pales in comparison with the estimated $18 billion that piracy costs the world economy each year.
The apparent success in limiting piracy in the Gulf of Aden raises the question of whether the tactics used there will work in other hot spots, such as the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy directed at oil tankers and other vessels is booming. The short answer is no; in fact, the tactics being used off the coast of Somalia are unlikely to have a permanent impact by themselves. The drop in reported attacks is largely due to three factors: multinational naval and aerial initiatives, private armed security guards, and improved preventive measures used by the crews of merchant vessels. For example, all five unsuccessful attempts were deterred by private armed security guards who fired warning shots, while a naval vessel quickly came to the aid of the one successfully hijacked ship.
There has been little effort to attack the root causes of piracy, however. That realization implies that should any of the current efforts to combat piracy be eliminated or constrained -- such as a reduction in the international naval presence and aerial surveillance -- the number of attacks could quickly rise to earlier levels. A European naval mission, Atalanta, is slated to end in December 2014, having already been extended once. Rising interest in the region from Asian and Middle Eastern powers could help replace any reduction in European assistance. The failure to address on-the-ground issues in Somalia is understandable as the country has not had a coherent government for much of the past two decades. However, the lack of domestic capacity to address the issue -- a key ingredient in the successful reduction of piracy in the Strait of Malacca by Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia -- has yet to be addressed and leaves continued success reliant on international initiatives.
One attempt to resolve this weakness has been the controversial formation of the Puntland Maritime Police Force to combat piracy from the land, but it is not necessarily the best approach in isolation. Other potential tactics such as systematically disrupting financing for pirates, addressing the lack of a global standard on the payment of ransoms, and following money trails could be useful. Such efforts also need to be joined with attempts to address the underlying causes of piracy. The lack of employment opportunities, for example, provides pirate kingpins with a consistent and ample supply of recruits. Neither can the impact of poor governance and corruption be ignored. But there is some hope in the slowly improving capacity of the Somali government. In recent weeks, Somali officials have implemented new tactics, including an anti-piracy outreach campaign and the provision of employment opportunities for youths even as the government slowly extends its reach. The real test will come at the end of next year though, when international forces are scheduled to start reducing their patrols off the coast of Somalia.
Clare Allenson is an associate in Eurasia Group's Africa practice.
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