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Problems in Fighting Piracy in the Indian Ocean

The rescue of the oil tanker "Moscow University" brings a satisfying close to this particular incident of piracy on the high seas: the ship and crew freed, pirates killed or in custody--and with the possibility that the captured suspects will not be "caught and released" but transported to Moscow to face trial. The good news, however, is counterbalanced by the fact that the South Korean tanker Samho Dream still remains in the hands of pirates off the coast of Somalia. Indeed, despite the impressive coalition of naval vessels that has been sent to patrol the western Indian ocean, pirate attacks have increased and some 20 vessels are currently being held for ransom.

And more robust enforcement measures run the risk of backfiring. Yemeni fisherman claim that the Udaloy-class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov and its helicopter crews, credited with the rescue of the Moscow University, has been responsible for detaining and harassing fishing vessels; the Indian Navy, whose robust approach to combating piracy has been praised, has also been criticized for its treatment of fisherman.

Yet who is truly a fisherman, and when is this just a convenient disguise? David Axe reported first-hand this week about some of the barriers to effective identification of "friendly fisherman" from "enemy pirates."

Nor is an on-the-ground solution in the works. Local governments in Somalia who promise to crack down on piracy run up against the cold hard cash that pirate gangs can offer for support and political protection.

Increased naval patrols have helped to thwart some attacks and to prevent others, but there are not enough vessels to patrol the entire range susceptible to pirate attack. So we are likely to have continued individual successes, such as the rescue of the "Moscow University", but this is not the harbinger of a real solution to the piracy problem.

In the past, I've suggested a "sons of Somalia" approach, working with local clans and governments to create the basis of a rundimentary coast guard, giving local fishermen-turned-pirates the option of being paid to work against piracy, following the model utilized in Iraq to "flip" insurgents from fighting U.S. forces to serving as local security. It too is a short-term fix--but it might be the first step in crafting a lasting solution to maritime security in the area.

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