Somali pirates are back in action. A strong global response is needed

by Christian Bueger

With the military escalation in the Red Sea caused by the Houthi attacks on merchant vessels and ongoing coercion by Iran, the Western Indian Ocean seems further away than ever from its self-declared goal to be a region of peace and prosperity.

Growing maritime insecurity is also fed by the persistence of other blue crimes: smuggling activities, sanction evasion and fish crimes. Another troubling problem resurfaced in the last weeks of 2023: Somali pirates, long believed to be successful suppressed, are back in action.

A surge of piracy activity

On January 5th 2024, the MV Lila Norfolk, flagged in Liberia, was captured by pirates. The crew sought refuge in a secure room, known as citadel, and the naval forces of India could recapture the vessel. Three weeks earlier, on December 14th, a Malta flagged vessel, the MV Ruen, was boarded by pirates. The ship and its crew are held hostage on Somalia’s shore since, with ransom negotiations ongoing.

In November pirates hijacked the Liberian-flagged Central Park off the Yemeni coast, which was recaptured by the United States navy. Earlier in the month, pirates also hijacked fishing vessels for ransom, which might be used as ‘motherships’ in further attacks. Reports suggest that the Somali extremist group Al Shabab supports and benefits from these operations.

Is piracy still under control?

These developments have led to mixed interpretations of whether there is a substantial risk for further attacks and a new wave of piracy across the Western Indian Ocean. Optimistic voices published in The Conversation and TradeWinds see these incidents as isolated and evaluate such risks as low. They base their argument on the claim that the counter-piracy measures that halted piracy in 2012 are still in place and will be able to prevent a surge. Indeed, the rapid reactions from the Indian and U.S. navy and their success in recapturing the Lila Norfolk and Central Park point into that direction.

Yet, upon closer inspection few of the counter-piracy structures are still in place. Outside of the public gaze, the structures have partially collapsed due to lack of maintenance and attention. This means that the risk for a new spiral of piracy incidents is highly likely.

The collapse of the counter-piracy structures in the region

On an institutional and legal level, the UN Security Council was vital to authorize and monitor the situation. The UN Security Council mandate expired in March 2022. The Council failed to negotiate a follow up resolution, has not addressed the issue since, nor has the UN Secretary General been tasked to monitor the situation. 

Since 2009, an international coordinating body – the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia – was the vital multi-stakeholder body steering counter-piracy operation. Participation in the group’s activity has seen a steadily decline and in 2022 the group was reformed as the Contact Group on Illicit Maritime Activity. While the group has met once in 2023, it lacks a clear mandate, and by January 2023 has not addressed the return of piracy.

Regional institutional frameworks, such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct steered by the International Maritime Organization, or the regional maritime security system operated by the Indian Ocean Commission (known as Mase) have been strengthened in the past decade. Their focus is however mainly on capacity building, they lack a strong link to the international community, and they do not have the diplomatic or operational capacities to coordinate a response to any resurgence of piracy.

Part of the success of containing piracy was the installment of a burden sharing system in which international navies would arrest suspects, while regional states, such as Kenya and Seychelles would prosecute and incarcerate them. While these agreements are still in place, the United Nations trust fund that provided the funding for prisons and prosecution of piracy suspects was closed in 2022. This implies that if a situation arises in which piracy suspects are arrested, no financial arrangements are in place for activating transfer and regional prosecution and the arresting state would have to take over that burden.

The limits of prevention at sea

While the European Union counter-piracy operation EUNAVFOR Atalanta is still active in the region, it currently runs on a single ship by the Spanish Navy. Overall, with the exception of the Indian navy, naval forces that actively contribute to counter-piracy have been substantially reduced and the operational demands of the U.S. led Red Sea operation Prosperity Guardian further diminishes such resources.

Self-Protective measures by the industry were a crucial component of the suppression of piracy. The shipping industry still maintains its core guidance document (the Best Management Practice, known as BMP), yet, has narrowed done the high-risk area in which those apply in its latest version. Assessments of compliance with the BMP are not in the public domain. However, since many of these are costly, it is at least likely that industry risk evaluations do not see the necessity to follow them closely.

This indicates that counter-piracy structures have significantly eroded. But at least one key element is maintained and fully functional, that is, the piracy monitoring and information sharing system Mercury operated by the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Organization and the European Union’s Maritime Security Centre-Horn of Africa. Allowing rapid communication between industry and navies and the coordination of incident responses, the recent piracy incidents have proven that these are still fully operational and are part of the explanation of India’s rapid and strong operational response.

What needs to be done

In summary, few of the counter-piracy structures are still operational, and the optimistic voices might be based on over-confidence. The criminal organizations running pirate operations will continue to use the current window of opportunity. With the current rate of attacks by the Houthis, political and naval attention is not only elsewhere, but it is challenging to attribute attacks to pirates, and international voices conflate the two problems. Pirates will further test the international response. The more they succeed in negotiating ransoms for vessels, the more it is likely that a spiral that we have seen in 2008 unfolds.

No one expects that in the current situation the UN Security Council will start to address the return of piracy, although it would be duly needed. Yet, at a very minimum voices in the international community, including regional states, need to demonstrate that they take the situation seriously, call for the release of the MV Ruen, and send strong signals that further attacks will not be tolerated.

Political declarations from the European Union and the Indian Ocean Commission, both crucial inter-governmental counter-piracy actors are urgently needed. The informal groups, such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct or the Contact Group on Illicit Maritime Activities should consider emergency meetings. A stronger naval presence will also be needed, and those navies currently not bound with resources in the Red Sea, including the navies of China, Japan, or Korea should consider supporting the Indian navy in counter-piracy.

Christian Bueger is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of Understanding Maritime Security (Oxford University Press, with Tim Edmunds), and has been studying piracy in different parts of the world since 2009.