“They destroyed our equipment - reduced it to ashes. This was one of our key supply centres,” admits self-confessed pirate commander Bile Hussein. He was speaking to an AP reporter about last week’s EU bombing raid on targets along the coast of SomaliaRadio Netherlands reports.
“The fuel fed the flames and added to the destruction. Nothing was spared.” The pirates' speed boats, fuel and arms depots were all destroyed in the attack. There were no reports of any casualties.
It was the first time EU forces made use of their new expanded mandate to attack pirate supply bases on the coast. The operation went precisely as planned. Captain Ad van der Linde, director of the new EU anti-piracy operations centre, told RNW that this was how the EU’s new mandate should work. He believes attacking targets along the coast can make a big difference in the fight against piracy. Captain van der Linde:
“We can only go after the pirates after they put to sea in their boats and enter the huge expanse of ocean. Our policy is to keep them as close to the beach as possible. So we’d like to take out their supplies before they can use them.’
EU and NATO forces have wanted to bomb targets along the coast for some time and, in March, Brussels finally agreed to the wishes of the military and allowed such attacks.
No military solution
EU leaders are aware, however, that solving the problem of piracy will require more than just military action. So Brussels is expanding its Comprehensive Approach to Somalia strategy. It will be Captain Van der Linde's task to coordinate the various aspects of EU policy on Somalia. A civilian training mission will be added this year to the two ongoing military operations.
The military efforts to combat piracy in the waters off Somalia were launched four years ago and have been showing some success recently. This should come as no surprise, given that the EU, NATO, the US, China, Russia, India and Malaysia are jointly spending nearly 2 billion euros a year to fight what amounts to a rag-tag of men in speedboats.
Somalia's coast is 3,000 kilometres long and some 16,000 ships pass through its coastal waters every year. Even a career soldier such as Captain Van der Linde accepts that there is no military solution to the problem of Somali piracy.
“You’re not going to solve this problem with the navy. You need to stabilise Somalia, make sure there’s a government, that they have sufficient means, that they have a police force, a coastguard, a judicial system, prisons. That’s the only way to really get rid of piracy.”
Captain Van der Linde is convinced that the EU is well-placed to help stabilise Somalia. He sees the EU as a unique organisation:
"It has so many different capacities: political, economic, military. The EU can do things at all of these levels. That’s why the EU is precisely the organisation that can solve this type of problem.”
Finding a lasting solution to the problem, though, remains a tall order. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government is not widely accepted. What’s more, while piracy has been reduced (there were 43 attacks in the first three months of 2012, compared to 97 attacks in the same period last year), pirates have also become more professional - and more violent. As of the end of March this year, suspected Somali pirates still held 15 vessels and 253 crew members, with an additional 49 crew members kept hostage on land, according to figures from a maritime watchdog.
The long run
The new EU mandate to attack targets on the coast may have just made life more difficult for pirates like Bile Hussein. Until Somalia becomes a functioning state again, piracy will continue to be a lucrative option. Captain Van der Linde will do everything he can to help Somalis rebuild their nation, but he warns that this is not going to happen soon. It will take years.
“We have to do this, though. We have to go after this at its roots. Otherwise, we’ll have to protect our shipping and sources of energy till the end of time. Stabilising Somalia is really the only solution to the problem.”