Last week the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released figures on the number of migrants crossing the Gulf of Aden (and risking their life) by sea and arriving at their destination in an “irregular” manner. The quantity of African migrants seeking a better life to the north was actually significantly down from last year, with approximately 62,000 arrivals in Yemen during 2013 so far (compared to approximately 89,000 in the first ten months of last year). In all of 2012, 107,500 people had made the same journey, a slight increase from 103,000 in 2011. 2011 and 2012 were by far the highest annual figures since UNHCR began collecting records in 2006.
The journey across the Gulf of Aden is the one of the most used of the many dangerous maritime routes currently employed by desperate migrants trying to get to more economically developed nations. Dangerous conditions and unscrupulous vessel owners are unfortunately common, with the October sinking near the Italian island of Lampedusa of a migrant boat whose voyage originated in Libya gaining worldwide attention after killing at least 300.
The European Union’s EUROSUR effort is supposed to “to reduce the number of deaths of irregular migrants by saving more lives at sea,” but even if it proves effective in making the Mediterranean crossing less deadly, it is unclear whether such an initiative could be replicated in the seas between Yemen and Somalia.
On a related note, in recent days there have been riots and battles between the authorities and undocumented immigrants (many Ethiopian) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The government claims that it has detained 30,000 illegal workers. Unfortunately, a government crackdown on undocumented labor in Saudi Arabia may currently be one of the best demand-side deterrents that could discourage potential migrants from risking their lives by attempting such a risky voyage.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.
Among the aspects of the “thwarted” terrorist Al-Qaeda attacks that authorities in Yemen claim they disrupted on Wednesday were attacks on port facilities and petroleum infrastructure:
“The plot described Wednesday by Rajeh Badi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa, involved seizing control of Mukalla, a vital sea port and capital of the Hadramaut governorate, and Bawzeer, another key port roughly 27 miles from Mukalla. Both ports employ a large number of workers from Western countries. At the same time, separate groups of militants were to target the Belhaf gas pipeline in Yemen’s southern Shebwa province, as well other gas facilities there, Badi said.”
While Yemen-based attacks at sea such as those against USS COLE (DDG-67) in 2000 and the French tanker LIMBURG in 2002 are better known, Al-Qaeda has has a history of purported planning for attacks against maritime infrastructure on the Arabian peninsula itself. While there is no evidence that Al-Qaeda has conducted actual maritime attacks from the sea (or attacks on coastal installations) in Saudi Arabia to date, its Saudi branch has attacked coastal oil infrastructure on land, and the Saudi security services claim that they have prevented AQ attacks in the past.
In 2003 Saudi authorities stated that Al-Qaeda cells were planning attacks against the oil facility in Ras Tanurah. In 2004 they conducted attacks against westerners at oil facilities in Yanbu and Khobar. In May 2007, Saudi television aired confessions of a captured terrorist who claimed that the February 2006 suicide attack on the Abqaiq oil refinery near Ras Tanurah was ordered by Usama bin Laden. In November 2007 the Saudi government claimed that they had detained “more than 200 suspected militants, including a cell that had been planning an imminent attack on a support installation in an oil-rich eastern province and others who were attempting to smuggle missiles into the country.”
The validity of Yemeni claims regarding these alleged attack plans remains unclear, but it does seem that land-based attacks against maritime infrastructure could still be a potential course-of-action that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula wishes to pursue in the future.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS Essex (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. You can follow him on Twitter @markbmunson.
While Somali piracy may have been significantly down in 2012, another type of illicit activity in the Gulf of Aden has continued to increase. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 107,500 people fled Africa for Yemen via the sea in 2012. This was an increase from 103,000 in 2011 and the most since these statistics were first collected in 2006. The majority of the refugees in 2012 were Ethiopian, and they braved dangerous conditions which are estimated to have left at least 100 dead or lost at sea.
The growth in human smuggling over the last year was actually less than between 2010 and 2011, when the number of refugees crossing the Gulf increased from 53,000 to 103,000. That growth has generally been attributed to the increasing number of Ethiopian migrants, which greatly outnumber all other nationalities. Until 2009, most people smuggled across the Gulf were Somalis.
By LCDR Claude Berube, USNR; LT Chad Hutchins, USN; and N.R. Jenzen-Jones
The following is a guest post inspired by the questions in our Maritime Futures Project. For more information on the contributors, click here. Note: The opinions and views expressed in these posts are those of the authors alone and are presented in their personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of their parent institution U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, any other agency, or any other foreign government.
1. What manner of broad trends are emerging in pirate activities, and how will these develop in the future? Where will we see continued, increased, or emerging piracy over the next 5-10 years?
From a macro perspective, piracy will increase worldwide as western navies continue to contract in size and non-state actors become super-empowered. Piracy will remain and even flourish in regions of diminished state maritime security caused by land-based conditions. Half of the National Intelligence Council’s recent Global Trends 2030 top-ten countries of high-risk destabilized governments have significant coastlines – Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, and Yemen. Destabilized nations will offer opportunities to pirate criminal networks as state navies – particularly Western navies – do not have sufficient assets or comparative interests to exert necessary influence. West Africa will pose a continuing challenge if steps are not taken to curb piracy in the region; significant national interests exist there for many nations, including the US, China, and many European nations. Energy security will be a key factor in the decision to support counter-piracy strategies in West Africa.
Since its origins, four things have had to be present for piracy to exist: (1) Non-existent or weak government on land, (2) Ungoverned territorial seas, (3) Access to shipping lanes, and (4) Access to boats, manpower, and arms. It’s important to continually watch any coastal nation which meets these criteria, no matter the size, for developing signs of pirate activity.
2. Which response strategies will best limit or curtail pirate activity over the next 5-10 years?
Specific to Somali piracy, current efforts – including coalition forces, independently operating platforms, industry employment of Best Management Practices, and the increased use of armed guards, have been sufficiently effective as evidenced by the decrease in attacks on commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden. Continued success will however hinge on the sustained availability of coalition forces, which is in turn based on the comparative threats faced by participating states and the impact of their economies and debts to future military operations, acquisitions, and maintenance. Because of the uncertainty of state naval presence, industry will either return to a pre-2008 level of ‘acceptance of risk’ in the region, turn increasingly to armed guards and other private sector capabilities, or rely more on alternative powers such as India and, especially, China. Broader, cooperative international engagement will be necessary. Land-based engagement strategies will also be increasingly important, but will be largely dependent on access, funding, and political will. The U.S. Department of State is beginning to move in this direction now.
3. Which vessels in Western navies should we be looking to for their utility in conducting counter-piracy operations?
Policymakers may ask if the best use of a billion dollar warship is as a platform against modern pirates. While surface warships are a flexible asset, with helicopter detachments providing extended range and tactical small boats for boarding, they come at a price. Depending on future budgets, Western navies could turn to smaller ships with UAVs or inexpensively modified commercial platforms. The U.S. Navy, in concert with European navies, could explore building a piracy squadron of ships such as the Sea Fighter (FSF-1) to work in concert with a dedicated mothership. Modular design of mission-specific ‘packages’ may provide another opportunity to decrease operating costs and use next-generation vessels more effectively.
4. What advice would you give to a smaller nation on the counter-piracy specific maritime investments it should pursue, and why?
Smaller nations in destabilized regions rarely have the economic capacity to support a viable counter-piracy force, leaving them with two options. The first option is to work with larger nations interested in capacity building. Larger nations and their industries have a need for stability on the high seas for global commerce. There are a number of capability development programs offered by nations including the U.S. and China. In Africa, in particular, programs such as African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership (AMLEP) and Africa Partnership Station (APS) have had some success, but need to be expanded and better integrated into the broader counter-piracy strategy.
The second option is to employ vetted, credible maritime security companies which may provide a less-expensive alternative in the long-term. Maritime security companies have had some success in Africa, providing specific training and personnel where capability gaps exist. Employing private companies allows countries to focus on nascent piracy, or threats such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing or oil bunkering, which may be considered less serious by major powers. The use of private security companies is generally compatible with working with larger nations, and opportunities for third-party funding may arise in the future.