Who Defeated the Somali Pirates?

Ships from CTF-150, one of the mult-national naval force conducting maritime security operations off the Horn of Africa

The New York Times published a piece last week describing the “sharp” decline in piracy off the coast of Somalia  It cited data provided by the US Navy demonstrating that attacks had significantly fallen off in 2012 compared to 2011 and 2010.  The decline was attributed to industry having implemented better security measures, the large-scale participation by forces from many world navies in counter-piracy operations in the region, and raids conducted to rescue hostages.

Conspicuously absent, however, is any mention of how events ashore may have impacted piracy.  The only mention in the piece as to how actions on land are related to piracy was that “renewed political turmoil” or “further economic collapse” could cause more Somalis to pursue piracy as a livelihood.

In June Matt Hipple made his case in this blog that international naval operations had little or nothing to do with the current decline in piracy.  He argued that the Kenyan invasion of Somalia and continued operations by the multi-national forces of AMISOM, as well as armed private security forces onboard commercial vessels were the decisive factors behind the recent drop in pirate attacks.  Another June piece by the website Somalia Report attributed the decline to internal Somali factors, primarily declining financial support by Somali investors in the pirate gangs, and increased operations of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF).

A basic principle within the social sciences and statistics is that “correlation is not causation.”  Just because the U.S. and other world navies applied military force at sea to combat Somali pirates does not mean that maritime operations caused the piracy decline, particularly when there are so many other independent variables have contributed to piracy, especially those ashore driven by Somalis themselves.  Until this year the only group with real success at stopping piracy over the last decade was the Islamic Courts Union (forerunner to al-Shabab), who stopped it when they controlled southern Somalia for most of 2006.  Piracy came back when the Ethiopians invaded and forced the Islamic Courts Union out of Mogadishu and the pirate strongholds at the end of that year.

It is possible that a debate over who defeated the Somali pirates could mirror the similar debate over the effectiveness of “the Surge” in Iraq.  U.S. Army Colonel Gian Gentile has been one of the most outspoken advocates of questioning the conventional wisdom assuming that the 2007 U.S. troop increase in Iraq and the adoption of the Counter-Insurgency doctrine were what caused violence to fall.  He instead argues that Iraqi-driven variables such as Sunni insurgent groups accepting U.S. money to switch sides and Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to stop attacks were what made the difference.

Both the deployment of ships and other assets by the world’s navies, as well as changed behavior by the maritime industry, have played some role in the drop in pirate attacks.  To assume that those were the decisive factor, however, with no consideration given to what has actually happened in Somalia over the past few years, is shortsighted and ignores the larger reasons for why the phenomenon of Somali piracy started in the first place.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves 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.

9 thoughts on “Who Defeated the Somali Pirates?”

  1. Good points. It should be noted, however, that when the Islamic Courts Union broke up at the end of 2006 a lot of their fighters formed/joined other groups such as al-Shabab that had a more complimentary relationship at times with the pirate groups. It would be interesting to trace parallels between such Islamist groups and their turn towards alternate “criminal” revenue streams (or at least their turning a blind eye for co-existence with pirate gangs in their territories) with the process of Marxist guerilla groups doing the same elsewhere (such as the FARC in Columbia turning to kidnapping and drug-running).

    1. Scott, I attempted to trace the attitudes towards piracy by the various Somali Islamist groups in this piece in Proceedings last year (http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2011-07/somalia-there-way-forward ). In general, those attitudes became much less straightforward after the Ethiopian invasion. To the Islamic Courts, piracy suppression was a way of demonstrating good governance, to the later groups piracy could be that or a source of revenue as well. It has never really been proven, however, that groups like Al Shabab have been directly involved in piracy.

      Journalism has generally failed to break down Somali piracy into its component pieces and address the various factors affecting gangs in Puntland vs southern/central Somalia. My unproven thesis would be that the drop has been caused by Puntland efforts, in the sense that PMPF operations reflect that piracy isn’t tolerated or facilitated by the Puntland government as a whole or individual government officials anymore. That’s hard to prove as well however, as there are lots of articles alleging complicity by Puntland or individual Puntlandersin piracy, without actually proving anything.

  2. “Correlation is not causation” and yet, “the only group with real success at stopping piracy over the last decade was the Islamic Courts Union.”

    I see, said the blind man.

    1. Counter-piracy operations afloat by the various world navies have been one of many factors potentially impacting piracy (changed maritime industry practices, the conflict on land between the various Somali militias and Kenya/AMISOM, etc). It is premature to designate that variable as the causal one. The events of 2006 were different, however, since the Islamic Courts directly used military force to take control of Harardhere and shut down the pirate gangs based there (they had no impact on the Puntland-based gangs). This is not justification of the Islamic Courts, just pointing out that viewing Somalia only through the lens of counter-piracy or counter-terror only shows part of the story…particularly when efforts to combat pirates or terrorists there may be at odds with each other.

  3. A couple years ago there were thought to be only 1500-3000 active Somali pirates. There are now about 1200 awaiting trial or convicted in various jurisdiction, India being an active one. It is only after the detentions had started to climb to over 1,000 that piracy started to decline. I suspect that has had more to do with it then the navy, contract guards, and AMISOM want to admit.

  4. In addition to all the factors above, there is General Monsoon who is active till September. As they credit the stalling of the German advances in to Russia to General Winter, here we have General Monsoon doing the same!!! May be we need to watch for any signs of resurgence after September as people who are used to easy money are unlikely to give up soon.

    We still need sustained continued action both at sea and ashore to root out the menace. Lot more needs to be done ashore in a lawless country .

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