Despite international efforts, pirates continue to steal the show — and more
By Philippe de Pontet and Siobhan Devine Senseless violence has a way of focusing political attention, particularly when it targets U.S. citizens. So when the news broke on Tuesday that four Americans had been shot and killed by pirates between Oman and Somalia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the act and urged international actors ...
By Philippe de Pontet and Siobhan Devine
By Philippe de Pontet and Siobhan Devine
Senseless violence has a way of focusing political attention, particularly when it targets U.S. citizens. So when the news broke on Tuesday that four Americans had been shot and killed by pirates between Oman and Somalia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the act and urged international actors to cooperate on maritime security. The events raised a couple of questions. What had provoked the pirates to sacrifice their hostages in the middle of negotiations? And would the tragedy be enough to finally halt the pirates’ momentum? It’s too soon to do more than speculate on the first question, but the answer to the second is: very unlikely.
The mostly unemployed men who roam Somalia’s waters have if anything become emboldened since 2008, when the United Nations authorized the use of force against them. Their capabilities and reach have expanded, the latter now stretching from the Somali coast and northern Red Sea eastward to the Arabian Sea and southward to the Indian Ocean. Patrolling the entirety of that expanse is impossible, despite the growing presence of naval ships from the United States, Europe, and major Asian trading powers. Increased patrols, possibly including additional vessels from India, Russia, and China, will fortify the existing security corridors in the heavily frequented oil sea lanes of the Gulf of Aden. But while this will protect the supertankers that haul 6 million or so barrels of oil through the gulf every day, it won’t curb piracy. Instead, the trade will drift farther afield, to flourish in the Indian Ocean and along the coast of Africa.
And flourish it will. The piracy problem is inextricably linked to the ongoing instability in Somalia, which shows no sign of abating. The internationally recognized transitional federal government barely controls the capital of Mogadishu, much less the rest of the country, despite nearly 10,000 African Union (AU) peacekeepers. Profitable pirate networks operate with impunity in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, where they control the ports, largely in cahoots with local authorities. The United States and other powers will continue to outsource security support through a bolstered AU peacekeeping mission, but this has zero impact on the pirate networks.
Stemming the tide of piracy will require many more resources and the decisive, coordinated effort that Clinton touted. And considering the array of challenges already crowding the international stage, it’s hard to see that happening anytime soon — despite the tragedy. Earlier this month, pirates hijacked a Greek-owned supertanker carrying upward of 200,000 barrels of oil. That’s a lot of oil, and the incident sparked some jitters in the marketplace. But it didn’t have nearly the effect on oil prices that this week’s unrest in Libya has. Naval patrols have so far kept piracy from posing an acute threat to oil supply, and in the absence of many more supertanker hijackings or other mitigating factors, Washington and other governments will likely continue to see the armed men on skiffs as a nuisance rather than a real commercial or security hazard.
Of course, that raises a couple more questions. How much will the pirates’ capabilities grow in the meantime? And will we be able to prevent the threat from becoming urgent?
Philippe de Pontet is director of Eurasia Group’s Africa practice. Siobhan Devine is an editor at the firm.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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