Until April, the Al Kausar was just one of thousands of anonymous dhows plying the ancient maritime route between the bazaars of the Persian Gulf and the merchants of the East African coast.
Laden with wheat and sugar destined for the Puntland city of Bosaso, the boat was in the vicinity of the Yemeni archipelago of Socotra when crew members spotted a vessel bearing towards them across the waves. Soon after, all contact was lost.
Over a week later, Somali forces launched a decisive assault hundreds of miles to the south in Galmudug state, freeing the crew members as the gang tried to spirit them into Al Shabaab territory. Prior to the hijacking of the Al Kausar, many had assumed that the scourge of Somali piracy had been contained.
The cost of Somali piracy declined every year from $7bn in 2010 to $1.3bn in 2015, according to campaign group Oceans Beyond Piracy, as the number of successful hijackings plummeted to zero last year in the wake of dramatic improvements in on-board security. Yet a spate of hijackings this year has prompted renewed alarm.
While most are isolated attacks on low-value targets, experts fear that complacent security and worsening conditions on land could presage a return of the anarchy that previously plagued this vital shipping lane. “I think what we’re really seeing in these instances are a pattern of the pirates wanting to reorganise and reengage in piracy,” says Ben Lawellin, project manager at Oceans Beyond Piracy.
“It does somewhat mirror the activity that took place in the early days of piracy in 2008 of pirates going out and attacking ships and the activity slowly ramping up.”
Drought and famine
Against the worsening backdrop, analysts are again looking landward for clues to the origins of the outbreak. After two years without rainfall, life for hundreds of thousands in the agricultural communities of Somalia has again reached breaking point.
Once-productive pastoral grounds have been reduced to arid, flyblown wastes strewn with the parched bones of livestock, while emaciated adults and children crowd into regional aid centres. In February, three UN agencies warned that more than 6m people face the threat of famine, raising the spectre of a reprise of the 2010–12 famine, which may have killed 260,000.
The effects of this catastrophic drought are again fuelling piracy, according to General Thomas Waldhauser, head of US Africa Command, who said in an April press conference that food and oil ships have been targeted.
As the stricken agricultural sector – which contributes around 60% of Somalia’s GDP and employs 70% of the workforce – continues to decline, the unfolding disaster could force thousands into the arms of gangs engaged in racketeering, gun-running, illegal fishing and piracy, says Robert Pelton, a US-based expert.
“Economic conditions inside Somalia are worsening. I was there for the last drought and you have the same problem now – local people make a lot of their money from camels and crops. When that disappears, people are inclined to do desperate things,” he says.
While famine and drought are providing fertile conditions for a return of coastal criminality, most analysts believe that piracy can only truly thrive amid lax industry security. Following the spike in hijackings from 2009, the industry discovered that placing armed guards on the decks of ships left them virtually invulnerable to attack, as few pirates could hope to overcome cascades of fire while scaling the sides of a vessel.
Yet figures suggest that firms are becoming increasingly complacent. By the fourth quarter of 2016, almost 70% of privately contracted security teams contained just three members. Meanwhile, analysts say that crews, some without the requisite anti-pirate training, are being urged to reduce spiralling fuel costs by slowing down near dangerous waters.
All of that has been accompanied by a drawdown in the international coalition forces that patrol the region and give comfort to navigators. In November, NATO reassigned ships to assist with the Mediterranean refugee crisis, and while Chinese, Indian and Japanese ships play their part, they are more likely to engage in convoy protection rather than actively pursue gangs.
Much of this has not gone unnoticed by organised criminal enterprises, many of whom argue they are defending Somalia’s shores from rampant illegal fishing while adopting a speculative approach to piracy – sending patrols out to size up targets before ramping up resources when a potential hijack opportunity presents itself.
“When you drill down to those four or five attempts off the coast of Somalia, you find that they were probes, and when there was an unarmed response, they hijacked the ships. You’ve got people saying the ships are unarmed because of a lowering of the guard and so people are investing to send guys out. If they make money, they’ll send more,” says Pelton.
Yet despite the worrying uptick in recent incidents, experts caution that a return to the high-seas anarchy of five years ago remains a distant prospect. Some optimistically hope that the inauguration of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed as president of Somalia could lead to a revitalised central government again trying to extend its writ to poorly policed coastal areas, where illegal fishing and gang activity provide a petri dish for the growth of piracy.
Yet unless pirates score major successes soon, the resources, expertise and experience required may not be replicated by a rash of new recruits, says Kai Xue, a lawyer at DeHeng Law Offices who has previously worked on the defence of Somali pirates in Kenya.
“It doesn’t seem clear enough among experts that not everyone can be a successful pirate and it’s not everywhere along the coast that piracy can flourish. There’s a real aptitude curve – some people are born with an innate genius for piracy and organising it. Mostly people think its just disorganised men in a skiff.”
This aptitude gap has become apparent in vessels targeted this year. Like the Al Kausar, most remain low-value, poorly protected targets far less significant than the giant tankers ransomed for millions of dollars in previous years.
Indeed the central business model of the piracy boom – ransoming high-value ships in expectation of huge payouts – has yet to re-emerge. The Al Kausar hijackers tried to trade their hostages in return for pirates jailed in India, while the luckless hijackers of a Comoros-flagged ship released their cargo without ransom in March after discovering that it had been leased by powerful Somali business interests.
“None of these have had a success in the way that happened in the early days of being able to obtain a ransom. If a pirate group got charge of a large vessel and bought it back to shore that would change the conversation quite a bit,” says Lawellin.