Adjoa Anyimadu¬†is a research associate with the Africa Program at Chatham House, London. She is also the author of “Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea: Lessons Learned from the Indian Ocean.”
While concerns about the fate of hostages held by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb mount, on the other side of the continent, piracy off Somalia‚Äôs coast has practically become a business model.
Since the mid-2000s, badly protected commercial vessels traveling slowly near Somalia‚Äôs northeastern coast have provided relatively easy pickings for groups of armed men in small skiffs seeking to take a cut of ransom ‚Äî earning up to $6,000 per successful hijack. But¬†recent figures¬†from international maritime bodies show that incidences of piracy have fallen dramatically since the heights of 2010-11, when the highest ransom alleged to have been paid for the release of a vessel was $14 million.
One of the chief reasons for this drop is the increased action taken by commercial shipping companies to protect vessels traveling within the Indian Ocean.¬†Best Management Practices for Protection Against Somalia Based Piracy, a set of periodically updated industry guidelines that provides recommendations for ship operators seeking to avoid hijack, are now being implemented on most vessels that belong to major shipping companies.
A far more controversial, but undeniably effective deterrent is the use of privately contracted armed guards aboard commercial vessels. Over the past five years, there has been an increasingly relaxed attitude by governments ‚Äî including those of the United States and the United Kingdom ‚Äî concerning their use.
The shipping industry has been proactive in advocating measures to avoid hijack, but it has also been unanimously vocal in arguing that if a ship is taken by Somali pirates, ship owners will continue to negotiate the payment of ransoms with the hijacker, as this is seen as the only effective means of getting out of the situation with lives and cargo intact.
The lack of international consensus among policy makers, private companies and even European countries, some of which are notorious for publicly condemning ransoms while privately facilitating payments for their citizens, means that payments remain the most expedient way of overcoming thorny politics and diverse interests. The alternatives to ransoms are few, and none are without risk. Military intervention to free hostages considerably raises the risk to their lives. The exchange of prisoners for hostages can also be seen as a capitulation or reward.
While ship hijackings are down and somewhat controllable, kidnappings by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates seem to be escalating and more difficult to navigate. Robert Fowler, a former United Nations special envoy to Niger who in 2008¬†was held for 130 days¬†in the Sahara by affiliates of¬†Mokhtar Belmokhtar,¬†strikingly described¬†his captors‚Äô most powerful weapons to be their belief that time is irrelevant, their faith that victory is preordained and their active desire to die in the process. Furthermore, ransoms paid to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are used to fuel further terrorist activity, not to line the pockets of wealthy financiers abroad, which is the case with Somali piracy.