On March 23, the European Union announced that it would expand its anti-piracy mission, Atalanta, to include for the first time the Somali coast itself and waterways inside the country. The statement said the EU would be working with Somalia’s transitional federal government and other Somali organisations to support their fight against piracy from the coastal area. EU foreign ministers also indicated that the operation would be extended until at least the end of 2014.

Although EU foreign ministers did not specify what they meant by “coastal territory and internal waters,” European officials have argued that  the new tactics could include using warships or their helicopters to target pirate boats moored along the shoreline, as well as land vehicles used by the pirates.   

The EU launched the European Naval Force Somalia – Operation Atalanta (EU NAVFOR – ATALANTA) in 2008, as part of the European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The operation was set up in response to the growing international concern with the continuing impact of piracy and armed robbery at sea off Somalia’s coast on international maritime security, and on the economic activities and security of countries in the region. At present, within the framework of the Atalanta mission, the EU keeps up to ten warships off the Horn of Africa. NATO has a similar anti-piracy flotilla, known as Ocean Shield, and other countries have dispatched naval vessels to patrol the region.

Why this renewed focus on piracy? A quick glance at the piracy-related statistics is all it takes to understand the scale of this problem: pirates carried out 151 attacks on ships in 2011, compared to 127 in 2010. An estimated 3000 to 5000 pirates operate off the Horn of Africa; over the past few years, 1000 pirates have been captured and are going through legal processes in 21 countries. (Sources: European Union Naval Force Somalia, ICC International Marine Bureau)

Operation Atalanta’s aims include:

  • the protection of vessels of the World Food Programme (WFP) delivering food aid to displaced persons in Somalia;
  • the protection of African Union Mission on Somalia (AMISOM) shipping; and
  • the deterrence, prevention and repression of acts of piracy off the Somali coast.

What, then, are the significance and the likely implications of the EU decision to expand and extend this mission? The move comes following repeated calls by several EU officials, as well as military officers, to broaden the international anti-piracy effort. Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, the operation commander for the EU Naval Force in Somalia, has long argued that while Atalanta has made considerable progress targeting the pirates at sea, until now the Europeans have not been able to change the strategic conditions under which Somali pirates operate. Or—in his view, and the view of many military experts—in order to change those conditions, Atalanta must be able to target every stage of the pirates’ operations. The recent decision to expand the mandate of Atalanta seeks to enable the EU to do precisely that: to disrupt what a British officer described to me as “the pirates’ business model”.

But is this likely to succeed?  There can be little doubt that given the scale of the problem, any serious effort to combat piracy must go beyond targeting pirates at sea. Until now, pirates have been able to operate from coastal bases in Somali towns with relative impunity—and that has encouraged them to carry out ever-bolder attacks. Taking the fight against Somali piracy to bases on land is a major step-up for EU operations, which might indeed hit the pirates where it hurts most.  This, in turn, could potentially make it less attractive for many Somalis to participate in piracy operations. To look at this from a different angle: if successful, the expanded Atalanta mission could provide a much-needed boost to the credibility of the EU in the sphere of international security.

But the EU’s new policy also entails significant risks. To begin with, in spite of assurances to the contrary by European officials, it is very difficult to ensure that no innocent civilians will be hurt in the course of attacks on the Somali coastal territory. This, in turn, could give rise to a certain degree of hostility vis-à-vis the EU on the part of Somali citizens, who would probably question the Union’s claim that a fundamental aim of its mission is to protect them. In other words, the legitimacy of the EU operation could be compromised. As a corollary to that, the Europeans’ ability to cooperate with Somali authorities and other Somali organizations, which is widely regarded as a pre-condition for the success of Atalanta, could be severely undermined. In addition, the new European policy will probably enrage the pirates, who may decide to punish the innocent merchant sailors they regularly kidnap for ransom.

More broadly: given the desperate circumstances that motivate many Somalis to become pirates, no military measure can, by itself, fully address the problem of piracy. The solution to Somali maritime piracy is indeed on land, rather than at sea, but it involves addressing the deep, multi-faceted socio-economic and political problems facing Somalia. EU foreign ministers (among others) are fully aware of this situation, and, in theory at least, are committed to fighting the root causes of piracy. European officials have repeatedly argued that the EU—together with other international actors—is seeking ways of offering real alternatives to young men who are enticed to become pirates. At a conference held in London last month, world leaders agreed to boost support for measures to fight political instability in Somalia, and formulated a seven-point plan promising, inter alia, support for African Union peacekeepers and better international coordination in the provision of humanitarian aid, and a new emphasis on long-term needs. But it remains to be seen if this commitment will translate into concrete, effective actions. Until it does, many Somalis will probably continue to risk capture and death for the multi-million dollar business that piracy has become.

Print this page