Piracy acts reappear off the coast of Somalia

A boarded ship, taken with its crew to Somalia

Piracy acts reappear off the coast of Somalia

A boarded ship, taken with its crew to Somalia. And since then, no news. The attack on the bulk carrier MV Ruen on December 14 raised the specter of piracy that sowed terror off the Horn of Africa between 2005 and 2012. The attack, carried out 380 nautical miles (700 km) east of the Yemeni island of Socotra is the first successful hijacking by Somali pirates since that of the tanker Aris 13 in 2017, itself unheard of since 2012. It is the most extreme case of a threat that has increased in this area of ​​the Indian Ocean, on a major trade route, underline experts interviewed by AFP, who however consider a large-scale resurgence unlikely.

Since mid-December, the British maritime security agency UKMTO has recorded six incidents off the Somali coast, ranging from the approach by armed men (AK-47, rocket launchers) to the hijacking of a ship. The trend started last year. In 2023, the French maritime security center of expertise MICA Center noted nine incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia, a “new thing” for several years. The most significant acts "concentrated at the end of the year, almost concomitantly with what happened in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Bab el-Mandeb", details to AFP Commander Eric Jaslin, Commander of the MICA Center.

Since mid-November, Yemeni Houthi rebels have been carrying out attacks in this area on ships linked to Israel, in retaliation for its war against Hamas in Gaza after the October 7 attack. “Almost at the same time, we began to observe phenomena of piracy against dhows off the coast of Puntland,” emphasizes Eric Jaslin. This Somali region at the tip of the Horn of Africa, washed to the north by the Gulf of Aden and to the east by the Indian Ocean, is a historic den of piracy.

“Several hijackings of dhows [dhows typical of the Indian Ocean] last year alerted some observers to the fact that groups of Somali pirates could be re-equipping themselves with means allowing attacks far at sea,” underlines Timothy Walker, researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). According to the traditional modus operandi of pirates, the seizure of fishing boats (motorized dhows, trawlers) that can travel great distances makes it possible to obtain a “mother ship”, from which operations with more maneuverable boats are then launched.

With Houthi attacks, “many ships are slowing down [as they approach the Horn of Africa], waiting for instructions on whether or not to pass through the Red Sea. It creates a hunting ground,” emphasizes Timothy Walker. This “hunting ground” opened up with the movement of some naval forces from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea.

The “Robin Hood” argument

Sensitive elections in Puntland in December and January also diverted the attention of local security forces from the coast to the interior, said Omar Mahmood, a researcher at the International Crisis Group (ICG). “Both of those reasons, on land and at sea, have provided an opportunity for these criminal groups that have always been there,” he adds. The Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) did not respond to requests from AFP.

In Eyl, a pirate stronghold in Puntland, it is believed that these attacks are exaggerated. Residents recognize incidents linked to illegal fishing, a recurring problem in the Indian Ocean. Many boats from South-East Asia, Iran and even Europe come to fish without authorization in these waters, depleting one of the few sources of income for residents. “The reason pirates are reappearing is widespread illegal fishing on the coast,” says Ahmed Abdi Nuh, a traditional leader.

Even if they do not target commercial vessels, attacks on fishing boats can constitute piracy, according to the UN definition. This “Robin Hood-type argument that they are fighting illegal fishing” has often been used in the past by captured pirates, Timothy Walker points out. Between January 29 and February 2, four fishing boats were freed by the Indian and Seychellois navies after being diverted, sometimes more than 800 nautical miles (1,500 km) from the coast. “The further you go from Somalia, the less likely it is that there is a connection with a fishing scenario,” says Hans Tino Hansen, CEO of Danish maritime intelligence and security company Risk Intelligence.

These attacks do not, however, augur a comeback of Somali pirates, believe the experts interviewed, emphasizing the importance of the response of international forces to deter any amplification of the phenomenon. After a peak in 2011, acts of piracy declined sharply with the deployment of international warships (European Union operation “Atalanta”, international force CTF-151, Indian navy, etc.), the creation of the PMPF or the installation of armed guards on board commercial ships. These military operations are still in place and, unlike in the 2000s, merchant ships are aware of the risks and familiar with security procedures.

For Omar Mahmood of the ICG, “this is more likely an outbreak than a large-scale resurgence.” In Eyl, we do not believe in a return to the “golden age” of piracy. “There are warships patrolling the sea,” says Ahmed Siyad, a fisherman. I don't think any sane hacker would take that risk. »