James Wilkes from Gray Page looks at the recent spate of attacks for any type of pattern.
On March 13, a small products tanker named Aris 13 was hijacked by a group of Somalians made up of young fishermen and former pirates according to Salad Nur, an elder from the coastal town Alula, in Puntland.
It was the first hijacking of a merchant ship – as opposed to a commercial dhow or fishing vessel – since May 2012 by Somalia-based pirates.
Since then, Somalians have hijacked three dhows and most recently a bulk carrier over the weekend.
A fishing dhow, Casayr II – No. 30, was captured on March 24. An Indian merchant dhow named Al Kausar was taken on April 3. And the day after that, a Pakistani merchant dhow called Salama 1 was taken. Meanwhile, a 35,000 dwt handysize bulker was attacked over the weekend and freed by the Chinese navy.
In the case of the Al Kausar, it is believed that a ransom has been demanded for the release of the vessel and its crew.
Those are the basic facts. But how should we interpret them? What inferences are we right to be drawing and what conclusions should we be arriving at right now that will benefit the maritime community?
The significance of the attacks on the Aris 13 and the dhows does not lie especially in the nature of the vessels themselves and where they were taken. Small vessels trading around the Horn of Africa are quite often caught up in local disputes. They just go unnoticed in the mainstream of things.
What is notable is the tempo of the attacks; five in the space of four weeks is unusual.
There are also the warnings from Somali spokesmen such as Salad Nur and Abdillahi Ahmed Ali, the mayor of Hobyo, as well as Abdi Hassan Hussein, the former director of intelligence in the Puntland region. They are saying that the attacks are the work of pirates and more will follow.
In the words of Abdillahi Ahmed Ali, “Piracy is back”. And Abdi Hassan Hussein has told journalists about organised groups who are at various stages of preparedness for engaging in piracy or already actively back at sea.
Moreover, Somalia is in the grip of a severe drought and famine, and the security and economic situation countrywide are no better materially than they were 10 years ago. So the conditions that incubated the first era of Somalia-based piracy are still present.
We should also ask, if we are not witnessing the start of a new wave of Somalia-based piracy attacks, what are we seeing?
One explanation could be that the attacks on the five vessels are a very public venting of the frustrations felt by local fishing communities in the northeast of Somalia to foreign vessels fishing heavily in Somali coastal waters. Illegal fishing was regularly given as a root-cause of the first era of Somalia-based piracy and is being referred to again by community leaders.
Another could be that Somalians realise that since the hijackings ended in 2012 the world’s attention has drifted away from Somalia to other strife-ridden regions of the globe. And the purpose of these recent attacks is to send out a message that Somalia is still in desperate need of international assistance and deserving of its focus.
Beyond that, however, the well of likely alternative explanations starts to run dry.
One of the functions of intelligence is to be predictive, but there is an understandable reticence to be the boy that cried wolf.
The trouble is that if it takes the hijacking of large merchant ships to be certain that Somalia-based piracy is back, we’re not being predictive. We’re just stating the obvious and who benefits from that?