Where others fear to tread

The maritime industry has been blindsided once with regard to Somalia. It needs to put its best foot forward now as troubles brew once again, writes Harry Pearce from Ambrey Risk.

The impending famine in Somalia has been named by some, Odi Kawayn. It roughly translates as ‘something bigger than the elders’.

This is a departure from the norm.

It is only right then to ask what it means for remote coastal stretches of the country, removed from both federal authority and sizeable international investments.

What has not changed in the years since the height of piracy is the proliferation of foreign poaching in Somali waters. It is this that has decimated littoral communities by strip-mining the coastline of its income. And it is this that serves to undermine traditional systems of authority. The famine will only lend credence to the narrative used by criminal syndicates seeking short term gains. It will also invite opportunism, which in semi-autonomous Puntland, undoubtedly stems from a nascent threat posed by Islamic State.

So it is understandable that EUNAVFOR have stated a principal concern for the shipping community off the Horn of Africa is an evolution in traditional types of maritime crime. Indeed, there is good reason to be positive in light of a recent spate of piracy off Somalia given the decisive conclusion achieved by both international and domestic naval units.

International shipping and industry partners should consider the margins of risk and ask themselves what it is that they do not know. In recent months, developments in regional conflicts have twice seen automated explosive-laden fast-attack craft target military assets off Yemen. Whilst these strategic deployments are entirely deliberate, ergo not a direct threat to merchant shipping, they do point to Yemen typically being the genesis for some of the most serious evolutions in capability. And yet, only last month Islamic State operating on the Euphrates deployed, for the first time, an airborne improvised explosive device against a maritime target whilst it was underway. It would not be unreasonable to assume, therefore, that EUNAVFOR’s concern for Somalia not only considers what is known of al-Shabaab and clan affiliations to organised criminal syndicates, but also Islamic State in Puntland. Where Al-Shabaab is a discrete presence, whose raison d’etre has always been Somalia, Islamic State is not. Readers in maritime security only have to look at the beheading of seafarers by Islamic State-aligned Abu Sayyaf in the Sulu and Celebes Seas to witness ideologies (and tactics) readily transcend continents.

Focusing only on what is known, at the expense of what is not, is short-sighted. The maritime industry has been blindsided once with regard to Somalia. The response to recent events has demonstrated this question has now been answered. Elements within the maritime industry should therefore turn some attention, and not inconsiderable weight, to guarding against evolutions in maritime crime. Only this will build on the success all have enjoyed off Somalia in recent years.

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