The Maldives territorial waters are regarded worldwide as a beautiful and popular setting for desert island holidays, but though the country is about 1,800 miles from the volatile coastlines of Somalia, the island nation is increasingly concerned about becoming the target of potential pirate attacks.
Maritime protection experts and European diplomats linked to coastal security around Somalia have told Minivan News that the Maldives has the potential to become a target for pirate vessels, forced away from African waters as a result of political upheaval and maritime security crackdowns.
Although there is no evidence from Maldivian security officials that national interests have been threatened so far, fears have grown over maritime security and possible acts of piracy in Maldivian waters.
In light of these security concerns, the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) has said it is working alongside the Indian Navy as part of an ongoing collaboration to patrol the country’s territorial waters in attempts to prevent “terrorist acts” such as piracy that it has claimed are a “central concern” to the nation’s maritime security.
MNDF Major Abdul Raheem said he was concerned by the threat of possible attacks on “cargo ships within Maldivian waters by Somali terrorists”.
Several incidents of Somali nationals arriving in the Maldives in dinghies becoming lost at sea were reported during the 2010.
Two days (November 28) after the taking of the Malaysian vessel Albedo, a dinghy containing seven Somali nationals was brought ashore after it was discovered in Gnaviyani Atoll. The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) discovered a bullet shell during a search of the vessel.
On November 30, a second dinghy containing three Somali nationals was discovered by a Maldivian fishing near Thinadhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll.
The captain of the fishing boat, Mohamed Hussain, told Minivan News that one of the men had a stab wound in his neck and was seriously injured.
Such incidents have led to allegations that piracy originating in Africa may have reached the Indian Ocean – suspicions that are yet to be proven beyond circumstantial evidence.
Raheem confirmed that the MNDF has yet to uncover any terrorist acts having been conducted by Somali nationals or any other groups linked to piracy in its territorial waters, but added that the authorities remained “on alert”.
As part of joint operations with the coastguard and Indian Navy, Raheem told Minivan News that special patrols are being conducted in the Maldives territorial waters frequently in an attempt to try and preempt acts of piracy or terrorism in a country that is 99 percent sea. “We have not set a date when we will stop these operations, they are still continuing,” he said.
A European diplomat familiar with the EU’s anti-piracy policy around Somalia said that some attacks by Somali pirates had occurred within 300 miles of the Indian coast and that there was a trend for some of these groups to move further away from Africa and deeper into the Indian Ocean.
“We believe that this trend is due to the fact that the pirates are following the vessels – as merchant ships increase their distance from Somalia in order to feel ‘safer’, the pirates follow them resulting in attacks much farther east than ever before,” she said.
As merchant ships have increased their distance from Somalia in search of “safer” transport routes, European defence experts believe that pirates operating from the country have followed in pursuit.
“The pirates will follow the prey,” she explained. “If they can find vessels in or around the Maldives, they will probably attempt to pirate them.”
On a strategic level, the diplomat added that there was “no reason why attacks would not take place in the vicinity of the Maldives”.
Taking the Seychelles as an example – the country is closer to Somalia than the Maldives – she suggested that any pirates contemplating attacking the Maldives would follow a similar pattern.
However, the Seychelles coastguard in collaboration with the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR), which under the Operation Atalanta military programme has aimed to try and limit the growth and scale of Somali piracy, has recorded some successes.
“Coordinated action can disrupt attacks but there is simply too much money and reward involved to deter attacks significantly,” she said.
From an EU perspective, restricting pirates’ “freedom of manoeuvre” is a major preventative measure, helping to ensure persecution and imprisonment for any individuals caught performing acts of piracy. The adoption of so-called Best Management Practices (BMP) by individual ships could also be adopted by Maldivian vessels wherever possible to further reduce possible attacks through security measures and evasive manoeuvres, according to European officials.
More information on BMP practices can be found here.
Instability on land
The European diplomat said that the current piracy problems emanating from Somalia were the result of instability on land, an area she said EU mandated training missions were being focused to try and better train Somali forces for protection.
Tim Hart, a security analyst specialising in piracy originating from the Horn of Africa for the Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants (MUSC), agreed that despite the implications piracy has on the oceans, its origins and solutions remained a landlocked issue.
“Piracy stems from problems on land and will not be stopped until this is tackled,” he said. “Traditional reasons [for piracy] usually extend from strong maritime communities and lack of law and order on land.”
Hart said that from his experience, Somalia was a nation with a “perfect storm of factors” such as a strong proximity to shipping lanes and proliferation of weapons that had contributed to an “extremely high level” of piracy stemming from the country.
With popular shipping routes moving increasingly eastwards from Somalia due to concerns over the dangers of sailing around the Horn of Africa, Hart claimed historical evidence has shown pirates follow these routes, which may in turn have led to the current concerns being expressed in the Maldives.
“Somali pirates have shown over the last few years that they are prepared to move thousands of miles from the coast to target rich environments,” he said. “The Maldives has a popular route for vessels transiting from the Gulf of Aden to the Far East and also for vessels transiting to the Far East from the Middle East.”
As a business, Hart said piracy has originally stemmed from local Somali groups taxing foreign fisherman illegally working within Somali waters and then hijacking their vessels for ransom.
Early successes led the pirates to become more ambitious in terms of the size of vessels they were targeting, Hart added, with the result that by 2008, the numbers of Somali people turning to piracy for survival or profit “exploded”.
This growth in numbers also saw a correspondingly large area being affected by the country’s piracy.
“In 2008 [piracy] was mostly limited within the Gulf of Aden area,” he said. “It moved further into the Indian Ocean in 2009 and in 2010 it has expanded even further east so that in the last 7-14 days, the majority of the attacks have been around 69-70 E – only a few hundred miles from the Maldives.”
As any expanding global business, Hart explained that piracy has become “a huge industry” for Somalia due to being “extremely lucrative.”
“The increase in the number of Somalis involved – represented by an increased amount of groups that operate as well as vessels held at any one time – shows that [piracy] still holds a great attraction for the Somalis,” he explained. “And there is still not a sufficient deterrent to prevent pirate groups from operating.”
Responding to ongoing patrols and the special operations being conducted by Maldives defence forces and the Indian Navy, Hart said that by taking the example of similar military commitments in the Gulf of Aden, such preventative measures had been found to effective in deterring the likelihood of piracy.
Nonetheless, with an apparent expansion into the Indian Ocean and other maritime areas, anti-piracy resources were being stretched to their limits.
“A comparison that is often made [to preventing piracy] is that it is like trying to ‘police the US/Canada border with a scooter’. The area [involved] is larger than the size of mainland Europe. However, when combined with effective onboard measures, pirate effectiveness has decreased in the last 12 months.”
Rob from the rich
While the extraordinary profitability of piracy has led to a surge in the practice – largely driven by the willingness of shipping companies (and their insurers) to pay the ransoms and get on with business, the root cause of the problem is perhaps more socioeconomic than mercenary.
Somali pirates, when captured and questioned, claim that the stealing of fish by giant trawlers and the illegal dumping of toxic waste in their territorial waters has left them little choice but to turn to piracy.
Their claims are not without some merit: in 2003-2004, the UK’s Department for International Development estimates that Somalia – one of the poorest countries in the world – lost US$100 million dollars in revenue to the illegal fishing of tuna and shrimp by foreign-owned trawlers.
As for the pirates’ claims that toxic waste was being dumped in the country’s EEZ following the collapse of the government in 1991, evidence emerged in 2004 following the tsunami when the rusting containers washed up on the coast of northern Somalia.
This side of the piracy debate – that the rise in Somali piracy was fermented by a decade of abuse by the developed world – was reported by Project Censored as the third most under-reported story of 2010.
“There is uranium radioactive (nuclear) waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes—you name it,” United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) spokesman Nick Nuttall told Al Jazeera.
As a result, “hundreds of [Somalis] have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal bleeding, skin infections and other ailments.”
“What is most alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive uranium waste that is potentially killing Somalis and completely destroying the ocean,” he said.
The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, revealed that private companies were paying corrupt government ministers and even militia leaders to dump the waste, but that even this token reciprication had disappeared with the demise of the country’s government.
Following these revelations, the European Green Party released copies of contracts signed by two European companies, Achair Partners, and an Italian waste broker, Progresso, with Somali warlords detailing the exchange of 10 million tonnes of toxic waste for US$80 million.
Nuttall notes that disposal of such waste in Europe costs US$1000 a tonne. Somali warlords, in contrast, were willing to accept as little as US$2.50 a tonne.
As a result – and perhaps unsurprisingly – piracy enjoys the widespread support of the Somali population – even across fractious tribal and ethic boundries. Project Censored points to a survey conducted by independent Somalia news site WardherNews, which fond that 70 percent of the population “strongly support the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”
In an article for the UK’s Independent newspaper, journalist Johann Hari claims “You are being lied to about pirates”.
“Do we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn’t act on those crimes – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world’s oil supply, we begin to shriek about ‘evil.’
“If we really want to deal with piracy, we need to stop its root cause – our crimes – before we send in the gun-boats to root out Somalia’s criminals.”
It could be that Maldivians – contending with rising sea levels potentially exacerbated by the industrialisation of the developed world – have more in common with the Somalis washing up on their islands than they may think.
It could be that Somali fishermen are battling their own set of man-made environmental problems – successfully and profitably – with the only means left to them.
“It is said that acts of piracy are actually acts of desperation, and, as in the case of Somalia, what is one man’s pirate is another man’s Coast Guard,” writes Mohamed Abshir Waldo, of Somalia Wardheer News.