Houthi militant attacks in the Red Sea raise fears of Somali piracy resurgence


Renewed attacks on ships by suspected Somali pirates since November 2023 have fuelled fear of a new threat of piracy off the east coast of Africa.

The area at risk stretches from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. At least four ships have been hijacked off the Somalia coast since November 2023. Concern has risen amid the Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi group’s militant campaign of support for Hamas, the Palestinian political and military organisation governing Gaza and currently at war with Israel. Many observers suspect a collaboration between Somali pirates and the Houthis.

I have researched piracy off the east coast of Africa, counter piracy efforts and the enduring relevance of naval power. I have no doubt that the Houthi attacks have emboldened the Somali pirates. Their collaboration or at least combination is undermining security off the east coast of Africa and may not be resolved solely by military means.

The alarm

The combination of Houthi maritime attacks and Somali piracy has disrupted traffic in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and Mediterranean. Most ships are taking the longer route around Africa, and this is increasing shipping costs and lengthening shipping time, with negative implications for prices and the global economy.

The Suez Canal, which accounted for 12% to 15% of the total global trade in 2023, recorded a 42% decrease in ship traffic over December 2023 and January 2024, according to the UN’s trade and development agency, Unctad. The Suez Canal connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. For instance, shipping from the UK, east Africa’s key trading partner, mostly passes through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.

These developments and others have raised the cost of shipping globally by more than 100%, and from Shanghai to Europe by 256%.

The global economy incurred a colossal loss at the peak of Somali piracy. The World Bank estimates that Somali pirates not only kidnapped seafarers but also received between $339 million and $413 million as ransom for hijacked ships between 2005 and 2012.

The threat raised the cost of shipping, as shipping firms had to spend billions of dollars to install security equipment and hire guards aboard. They also had to pay more as compensation to endangered crew and insurance for goods. One Earth Foundation, a nonprofit organisation, estimated that $7 billion was lost to Somali piracy at its peak in 2011.

Indian Navy commandos en route to rescue the crew of the Genco Picardy following a Houthi attack.

Preparedness of international shipping

The threat of the Houthis and Somali pirates against maritime commerce has attracted international military responses. Prior to the latest crisis, the US, France and China maintained a significant military presence in Djibouti. This has since been activated and, in some cases, reinforced, for maritime policing in the Gulf of Aden. In addition, India and Iran, among other nations, have deployed warships to the region.

The US and the UK have jointly launched airstrikes to undermine Houthi capabilities and motivations for maritime attacks in the region. But the group has intensified its attacks.

The US forces rescued a hijacked tanker and arrested five Somali pirates involved on 26 November 2023. The Indian navy also rescued a cargo vessel from pirates on 4 January 2024, and two hijacked fishing vessels later in January while the Seychelles defence force rescued a hijacked Sri Lankan fishing boat.

But the threats of maritime piracy and terrorism off the east coast of Africa have persisted. Without confidence in the current security situation in the region, many ships have rerouted around Africa to avoid the hotspot.

Previously, the threat of Somali piracy to global trade attracted a series of multinational initiatives. These included efforts to combat Al Shabaab and reconstruct Somalia state authority to govern its territory.

Many countries deployed their navy to the region. The EU naval operation Atlanta commenced in the region in December 2008, and that of the US in January 2009. Similarly, Operation Ocean Shield by Nato, the military alliance of EU and north American states, started in August 2009. Russia, China, India and Iran also deployed warships to the region. These forces joined the regional players in north and east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to combat Somali piracy.

Many pirates from Somalia were arrested, imprisoned and tried across the world or killed.

Consequently, Somali piracy eventually declined from its peak in 2011 to zero in 2015. Except for 2017, when attacks were recorded, Somali pirates have generally kept a low profile from 2018 until November 2023.

The current counter piracy efforts mainly revolve around military power, coalition building and diplomatic engagements. Little effort is being made to resolve the root causes and trigger of the crisis.

Next steps

To address the emerging crisis off the east coast of Africa, there is a need to take a holistic approach to security in the region.

More concerted efforts are required to address the root causes of the crisis, starting with strengthening the Somali state to govern its territorial space.

Ending the Gaza war that attracted the solidarity of the Houthis, which in turn emboldened Somali pirates, is also important for the general stability of the region.

Written by Samuel Oyewole, Lecturer, Political Science, Federal University, Oye Ekiti.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.