On Saturday 28 November, an Iranian fishing vessel escaped from Somali pirates after a gun battle that claimed the lives of several pirates and injured some of the crew. The pirates had captured the fishing vessel, Muhammidi, a week previously on 22 November, over 200 nautical miles from the Somali coast in a hijack that bore similarities to previous seizures in 2015 that were subsequently justified as Somali reaction to Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing. Following the escape, the Danish warship, HDMS Absalon, responded to calls for assistance from the Iranian vessel and took two injured crew members to Djibouti for . Given the details of the initial hijacking and the escape of the Iranian vessel, the question arises as to whether this incident signals a return to Somali piracy or is simply another case of an escalation of fishing disputes and if so what can be done about it?
The fact that some of the first hijackings off Somalia were of foreign flagged fishing vessels under the guise of the Somalis policing their territorial waters makes today’s concerns more than understandable. However, there are other factors that need to be considered before this incident can be seen as a return to industrial scale piracy. Like many other forms of international criminal activity, the rise in Somali piracy was supported by a complex infrastructure of criminal organisations ashore. The recent Secure Fisheries report, , noted that intelligence reports show that the financial infrastructure ashore, required for any meaningful return, is simply no longer in place. The combination of international monitoring, coupled with a drop in support from local Somali clans who control the shores, greatly outweigh the relatively small number of disgruntled Somali fishermen looking to exact vigilante justice. However, this could change; the levying of ‘fines’ on foreign owned fishing vessels could start the ball rolling again and allow those who invest in piracy to see that they could get a good return, even if it is just from capturing small vessels. It could provide an initial impetus for a return to ‘industrial’ piracy from ‘’ piracy.
The position of the hijacking remains a cause for concern. At 230 nautical miles from the coast, this incident is beyond any Somali claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and well outside its territorial waters and therefore removes any legal pretence of it being a ‘legal’ attempt to protect Somalia’s maritime resources. This shows that although the Somalis could generally use IUU as a justification of their actions, when it occurs this far from shore it is a smoke screen and the wider maritime community will not accept it. If the Somalis do wish to patrol their waters then it needs to done properly, with respect for international and domestic law. This incident was nothing more than piracy on the high seas and, as we saw before, early successes in piracy without repercussions for the perpetrators will likely encourage further attacks.
The incident also demonstrates that the capability, and even intent, for Somalis to attack vessels at range from the coast remains intact, although this incident occurred well within the revised BMP4 defined High Risk Area. The continuation of military patrols off the Somali coast, as evidence by HDMS Absalon’s location close to the pirated vessel, will continue to hinder these attempts but the naval forces cannot be everywhere all of the time. A mass sailing from the Somali coast, the longest in Africa, would overwhelm the limited naval resources as they did in 2008 to 2011. The Somalis still see these patrols as the enemy and even consider that they are protecting those that steal resources from Somalia’s waters. Again, this may not be entirely the truth, but it could be a sufficiently persuasive argument for those ashore wanting to send young men back to sea to ‘fish’ for merchant men.
So, this latest incident, along with the earlier hijacks in March and May, could be used to reinvigorate Somali piracy by both providing an initial ‘start up’ income stream as well as justifying their actions, at least in Somalia. As a result, Dryad Maritime believes there is a need to tackle IUU fishing head on, to remove this pretext and limit the potential for even modest revenues from piracy that could reinvigorate the moribund organised crime infrastructure ashore. Previously, the EUNAVFOR have stated that they do not have the authority to intervene in the fishing disputes but maybe they should as part of the ongoing support to the country. As has been said many times in the past, the ultimate solution to Somali . Should this comprehensive approach to dealing with piracy also look to work at sea to help remove the justifications, however transparent to us outside Somali? These actions would simultaneously support the development of the country’s nascent maritime economy and could provide guidance and education to the Somali Coastguard on how to regulate fishing at sea. As long as the infringement upon Somali fisheries continues and the country remains unable to effectively monitor, manage and protect its maritime resources and fishermen, while the international community looks on in apparent apathy, then the series of sporadic hijackings in the region could be expected to continue and could, in the worst case if left unchecked, ultimately lead to a return to Somali industrial scale piracy.
Mike Edey, Head of Operations