- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2011

By Martin Murphy
Columbia University Press, $26.50, 277 pages

The proliferation of piracy in the waters off the East African state of Somalia has constituted a severe threat to international shipping since the early 1990s. The United States, its European allies, Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and even China and India are gravely concerned about this threat to their vessels’ safety. Piracy has led to an increase in shipping costs through the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden because of the hijacking and holding for ransom of the vessels’ crews, who are held hostage in pirate-held towns along the Somali coast. These pirate-infested waterways have led to increased patrols by Western and other navies, including private security forces, but with no effective solution in sight.

Martin Murphy’s important book “Somalia, the New Barbary?: Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa,” is an authoritative and comprehensive account of how Somalia has become the epicenter of one of the world’s most dangerous piracy hot spots and the measures that are required to defeat it.

Based in Washington, D.C., Mr. Murphy is one of the world’s leading experts on maritime security, having written several highly acclaimed books on this subject.

In this book, he sets out to examine the factors driving the proliferation of piracy emanating from Somalia, ranging from the congenital disorder of the Somali “state” to the takeover of the country (if it can be termed a country) by politically linked criminal networks that are embedded in the society’s dominant clans.

Even al-Shabaab, al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, is linked to piracy. While publicly condemning the pirates for hijacking ships, especially Saudi Arabian Muslim vessels, it reaps financial gains from its share of the ransom proceeds.

The bounties generated by the multimillion-dollar ransoms paid by ship owners and their insurance companies have brought illicit affluence to the coastal towns where the leaders and operatives of the criminal networks thrive. As Mr. Murphy writes, in these towns, the pirates are “identifiable by their cellphones, Western cigarettes and access to plentiful supplies of khat [a popular narcotic].” Many of the young aspire to become pirates, with piracy becoming “socially acceptable,” enabling them to marry “the most beautiful girls.”

Mr. Murphy provides an account of someone “who in one year went from being a poor fisherman to a man of substance with three houses and a second wife who he married in a wedding so extravagant that the house was surrounded by the 150 cars owned by the guests.”

The influx of wealth into these communities has led to the establishment of new businesses that provide the pirates with the goods and services they require, such as new boat building, GPS systems, satellite phones, night-vision goggles, construction, restaurants, money-changing and car dealerships. But this has been accompanied by rampant inflation, “bad culture” in the form of alcohol, drugs, the commercial sex trade and its accompanying AIDS epidemic, street fights and killings.

Even the previously thriving legitimate maritime businesses such as fishing, fish processing and stevedoring have been affected negatively, with owners of fishing boats having difficulty hiring crews, losing out to piracy’s easy money.

This illicit economy thrives because of its protection by government authorities in regions such as Puntland, piracy’s epicenter, with its officials handsomely paid off, including through the wider community along clan lines.

How can Somali piracy be stopped? Mr. Murphy proposes a comprehensive strategy based on political measures that would compel a policy change by Puntland’s political leaders who benefit from piracy, accompanied by a more robust international naval force than the one currently operating in those seas in order to safeguard maritime security at vital points.

Even such a strategy, Mr. Murphy cautions, has built-in limitations. First and foremost, the anarchy in Somalia as a “failed state” makes it virtually impossible to negotiate with any political leader. Second, although naval action and shore bombardment against the pirate strongholds along the coastal areas might have some effect, a land campaign that could root out the problem in the long term “is to be avoided” because of its high costs, mainly in placing the lives of the hostages at risk, and in having the pirates simply move the hostages farther inland, where they would be difficult to locate.

With Somalia’s neighbors, especially Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, also experiencing turmoil and state failure, it is even more crucial to end Somali piracy. As Mr. Murphy warns, if al-Shabaab and al Qaeda in Yemen both took control over their countries, maritime security in the geostrategically vital Gulf of Aden would be compromised. Mr. Murphy’s book is an invaluable and authoritative account of how Somali piracy has become such an entrenched and growing security threat to the international maritime vessels transiting those dangerous seas.

Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech.

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