NAIROBI, Sept 22 – Somali pirates are preparing for a new raiding season, taking advantage of the calmer seas after the monsoon period, as their ties with Islamist rebels come under closer scrutiny.
Pirate gangs already hold a grim trophy haul of at least 49 vessels and over 500 hostages, according to the monitoring group Ecoterra, captured mainly through the use of small skiffs, grappling hooks and rocket-propelled grenades.
“The pirates are gearing up and preparing to send out their attack teams,” said Hans Tino Hansen, managing director of Denmark-based Risk Intelligence.
Pirates try to settle ransoms and release boats towards the end of the monsoon, so as to increase resources for future attacks when a calmer ocean allows small pirate boats to travel far out to sea, Hansen added.
Piracy has flourished in war-torn Somalia, outwitting international efforts — including constant patrols by warships and tough sentencing of the pirates they capture.
In a worrying development, British holidaymaker Judith Tebbut was seized from a luxury northern Kenyan beach resort by gunmen who killed her husband earlier this month.
Tebbutt is believed to have been sold on at least twice, crossing through the Shebab-held and famine-struck south, before falling into the hands of an infamous pirate group in the Haradhere region of north-central Somalia.
She is reportedly held in the same area where Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple seized from their yacht in 2009, were held for most of their 13 months in captivity.
Al-Qaeda inspired Shebab, who still control much south and central Somalia, have previously condemned piracy, saying sea-bandits have a free-hand only because they attack Western interests.
But the exact nature of the shifting relationship between pirates and extremist rebels is “one of the most hotly debated issues” among analysts, said J. Peter Pham from the Washington-based Atlantic Council thinktank.
While some argue strong links exist and others say there are none, the truth likely lies “somewhere in between, with clear evidence of consistent, albeit opportunistic, cooperation between the two,” according to Pham.
Shebab fighters pulled out of positions in the war-torn capital Mogadishu last month, losing them a key source of income.
“The loss of revenue will clearly motivate the Shebab to strengthen its links with piracy as a means of recovering assets,” Pham said.
It would be “natural” for the Shebab to exploit “the fear associated with it being an Al-Qaeda linked group to extract the maximum ransom,” he added.
The Shebab’s draconian aid restrictions are blamed for turning harsh drought across the Horn of African into famine in areas they control, with the UN warning some 750,000 people are at risk of death.
Shebab fighters have been “cooperating with pirates for some time and, earlier this year, pocketed well over $1 million from their share of ransoms” for five hijacked vessels in Haradhere, Pham said.
But Ken Menkhaus, professor at North Carolina’s Davidson College, argues reports of close connections are “overblown, at least for now.”
“There is no question that some ransom money finds its way to Shebab…but that is not the same as direct involvement,” Menkhaus said.
“Most of the major beneficiaries from piracy continue to be political and business figures nominally, and ironically, allied to the West,” he added.
But while Shebab links add a threatening leverage in hostage negotiations, pirate gangs alone are themselves a potent threat, with the potential to attack as far east as the Maldives, and southwards to the Mozambique Channel.
The European Naval force is stretched over a vast area one and half times the size of Europe, including much of the Indian Ocean, southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Anti-piracy efforts have yielded some results, with the use of both physical deterrence including armed guards, as well as the increased use of intelligence reports to avoid high risk areas.
The rate of successful attacks has seen a “very significant reduction”, down to 15 percent in 2011 compared to a 30 percent rate for the same period of 2010, according to MaRisk figures compiled by Risk Intelligence.
But the number of actual attempts in the period has increased by almost a third, it adds. In addition, the size of ransoms paid have steadily risen to some $5million for an average merchant vessel, according to Hansen.
“Somali piracy is as serious as ever, just that the growth rates have flattened out,” Hansen said.
Without change and development in Somalia, efforts to stem piracy act only as a heavy handed response to the consequence and not a long term solution, analysts argue.
“Solutions to piracy have to tackle the root causes: abhorrent poverty, environmental degradation, injustice, outside interference,” Ecoterra warns.
The weak Western-backed government, which controls only Mogadishu with the help of a 9,000-strong African Union force, is in no position to enforce its authority over pirate fiefdoms.
“Ultimately, piracy will only be solved once a sustainable government is established on shore — something I do not see as imminent,” Pham added.