In the wake of recent European Union agreements, the Netherlands will intensify its anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast. The EU hopes to get a grip on the problem by tackling the pirates on land as well as at sea. Operation Atalanta, which started in 2008, now looks to be extended until at least 2014. But just how involved should the Netherlands get? It certainly won’t be a walk on the beach.
Dutch rescue missions
Hans Lodder sailed to the Gulf of Aden in 2010 as a commander of the Royal Netherlands Navy’s frigate Hr. Ms. Tromp. He looks back on what he describes as a “challenging time”. It was under Captain Lodder’s command that a team of special forces freed the crew of a German merchant vessel.
“We went over there with a beautiful rescue team,” said Lodder with pride. “We overpowered ten pirates. They were sent through the Netherlands to Germany, where the trial is still in progress.” An excerpt of that mission was recorded and released on YouTube.
In its total years of sailing, the Hr. Ms. Tromp apprehended 83 pirates. All but ten were picked up before they could conduct any act of piracy, so had to be let go – though not before their weapons and piracy tools were confiscated and the pirates were sent home.
Setting foot on land
The initiative to set foot on Somali soil is a precautionary measure. “In the past, we were not allowed to operate on land because it's a naval mission,” said Lodder. “Pirates dump their ships and supplies and oil on the beaches. We noticed it would be easier to stop the pirates before they leave by destroying these supply camps. That doesn’t mean we’re now allowed to actually operate land...it’s just getting on shore, destroy the camps and get back on the ship.”
Rem Korteweg, a strategic analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, is afraid the EU has failed to take the broader picture into account. “Once we start becoming involved on land, we also become involved in that very complex conflict dynamic. Of course, if you look from a military perspective, and you want to prevent pirates from hijacking, you necessarily need to be [open] to attacking them on land,” he said. “The question is whether that leads to an escalation of Western nations becoming too much involved. When attacking them on land, they can take defence measures and move further back inland...then what do you do? That’s where things start to become a mess.”
Piracy is a job
Despite increased patrols and intelligence-gathering, the EU seems to have a weak grasp of the problem. It is unclear how many pirates are active in the region. From a distance, they aren’t distinguishable from fishermen.
“Every pirate is different,” said Captain Lodder. “They are of every age – from minors to sixty [years old] – and from different regions and tribes.”
“You have the petty criminal and you have the organized, well-structured form of piracy,” added Korteweg. “Part of the Somali elite is involved in piracy because it’s so financially rewarding. It’s basically white-collar crime with a deadly accent.”
Dahir Alasow agrees. The Somali refugee who lives in the Netherlands is editor of Somalia’s most popular online newspaper, Waagasucub. “It’s all about money. It’s been proven a lucrative business, now that pirates are more experienced and ‘grown-up’. They even cooperate and share money with terrorist organisations Al-Shebab and Al-Qaida.”
Get rich or die trying
Piracy still appears to be a lucrative undertaking and the European anti-piracy mission has so far failed to scare them off. Some experts wonder if the problem has a military solution.
“They’re not afraid of foreign vessels,” said Alasow. “A pirate thinks about one thing: he’s going to get money or die. It’s like a suicide attack.”
“We’ve been there for some years now and the problem is increasing,” explained Korteweg. “So obviously, we are not solving the problem. I would even argue that we aren’t really managing it either.”
According to Alasow, the only solution for the Netherlands and the EU is to interfere in Somalia – on land. But whether this is something they still want to do after the bloody events of the 1990s remains questionable.