The Gulf of Aden and Somali Pirates! My Time on the Indian Ocean

Indian OceannThe Gulf of Aden and Somali Pirates!
A.K. Enamul Haque PhD

With Philip Shaw M.Sc.

Somalia has been on the radar of many nations in 2010 due to increased attacks on the ships traveling through the Suez Canal.  This is one of the few African countries, which is less understood by us.  According to my reading, there has been three Somalias in the past; British Somalia, Italian Somalia and French Somalia (Djibouti).  The British and Italian Somalia got its independence in 1960 and formed what is known as Somalia today.  This country is without a central government since 1991.

Under the veil of UNOSOM, the US attempted to restore a government in 1992 but it failed miserably.  In 1994 and after this the country has been literally without any active government. Ethiopia, with covert support from United States entered in Somalia in 2006 and formed a unified government.  But the government also collapsed in 2008 and Ethiopia finally retreated and left Somalia.  In 2009, with support from the African Union a new coalition government has been formed in Somalia.

This lesson on the history of Somalia is not an interesting issue to us.  What is interesting is the increased operations of the Somali pirates in the Gulf of Eden, which have brought Somalia in our radar in 2010.
The situation is difficult because big nations are now putting their own naval fleets near Somalia in an attempt to prevent piracy.  The US, UK, France, Russia, Japan, Korea, China and even India have not joined hands to placed their naval commands in international waters near Somalia.  But the attacks are continuing.  According to one report maritime piracy cost the global economy 7-12 billion US$ in 2010 and 95% of it is due to Somalia.  Recently, the Somali pirates have captured a Bangladesh ship with 26 sailors on board.  This is a bad news for the families of the sailors as Bangladesh can neither pay for nor can rescue these sailors.  Families of the sailors have recently requested the government to intervene but with no government in power, this is going to be a difficult job.

On the other hand, the coalition government in Somalia was trying to pass a law to make piracy illegal and to put them under trial in Somalia but it could not be passed in the parliament because many argued that these [pirates] are their national heroes guarding the Somali water in absence of any formal naval forces.  According to the Somali parliamentarians, these people are protecting Somali water against foreigners who are plundering fish from their territory.

Recently, I was in a private discussion with a few friends and one of them asked me a question, which made me wander about these events.  According to his theory, the pirates are simply the pawns of mafia groups harbored in Europe who actually receive the ransom money and only a small amount is transferred to Somalis.  He concluded this based on his observation [on videos] on the health of the Somali pirates, their clothing, etc.   He did not see any improvement in their health over the past 4-5 years of piracy despite the fact that they have reportedly received billions of dollars from ship owners.  He thinks that the real culprits are not Somalian and perhaps are using the brave Somali fishermen with a meager amount of the pie.  According to him, most of the money is also transferred in Europe! His observations left me without any argument.  I still wonder if it is true!

Somalia, Pirates and My Time on the Indian Ocean

When I first received East-West from Dr. Haque this month I immediately got on Twitter and ask a friend of mine about Somali pirates acting on behalf of European syndicates.  He got back to me and said he didn’t know much about that, but he considered that Al Qaeda was the beneficiary of much of this ransom money.  Regardless of who is behind it, there is a lot of money being exchanged and it obviously goes to criminals.

The economic impact of pirate activity around the world is estimated to be about $10 billion annually.  It is a huge problem and when you’re dealing with a rogue state like Somalia it is costing the world’s seafaring nations quite a bit of money.  I was aware that there was a ship from Bangladesh, which had been captured.  It did not surprise me that Bangladesh could not do anything about it.  I’m sure from the pirate’s perspective, if they could pick and choose which ship was captured, it would be from a rich Western country.

Interestingly enough when I posted my comments on Twitter they were picked up by a niece of mine who is doing her PhD in mathematics.  She is a wonderful young woman, bright as a dollar and I’m sure she could dazzle me with her mathematics acumen. She actually suggested that I should read this http://boingboing.net/2011/01/31/math-versus-pirates.html.   In the article, applied mathematician James Hansen talks about putting together a computer model of pirate behavior with the US Naval research laboratory.  According to the article the project combines data on wind, waves and currents with intelligence gathered by informants, surveillance and other means on pirate habits: how far their small skiffs can travel; their assault tactics; and the timing of their forays.

When I read the article I started to think about my background as an agricultural economist.  One thing that we are trained in is to either maximize profit or minimize cost using very applied high-end statistical mathematical analysis.  Now it is laughable to think that I could even do that anymore.  However basically, you try to use all your resources efficiently and this is calculated through a mathematical model.  I did it back in the day; my niece doing her PhD obviously still does it.

It certainly can’t hurt to use math to fight pirates.  However when those small boats bear down on a cargo ship, a quadratic equation probably doesn’t do much to defend you.   I’m sure it is a very frightening experience.

Unbeknownst to most of you I’m sure, your loyal scribe has sailed the Indian Ocean.  Of course I did it with my esteemed colleague Dr. Haque.  In fact I have done it more than once off the shores of SW Bangladesh near Katka and a couple more times traveling from Teknaf in southeast Bangladesh to St. Martins Island, the most southernmost point in Bangladesh.

My first journey to St. Martins Island was on a ship that resembled a pirate’s boat.  It was made of wood and when the waves started coming over the top of the ship, it was very alarming.  In fact I wondered what I was doing facedown on a pirate ship in the Indian Ocean.  Of course the other thought I had was of all the pirates on the Indian Ocean looking for somebody like me!  I never expressed that to Enamul, but I always thought a passenger ship in the Indian Ocean was vulnerable.

So does this piracy ever come to an end?  Certainly in the short term with Somalia being a broken state, it doesn’t look like it.  The forbidden fruit of money floating by their shores certainly is enticing to the pirates.  Surely, there is a relationship with Al Qaeda or maybe even the syndicates in Europe.

It is a big ocean out there.  I have stood on the shores of the Indian Ocean many times and I must attest it is one of my favorite things to do.  However, it is entirely obvious at least off the coast of Somalia, our world has a big problem.  The $10 billion annual cost of piracy eventually is born by those who can least afford it.  Maybe eventually Somalia will be able to police it themselves.   Needless to say, in 2011 that seems so far away. In the meantime hijacking on the high seas will surely continue.

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