Menus Subscribe Search

What Are Those Warships Doing Off Somalia?

• November 18, 2009 • 5:00 AM

Pirate-fightin’ navies find that parking off the Horn of Africa provides cover for counterterrorism and protects scofflaw fishermen.

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year — 35 by mid-November — is only seven below the total for all of 2008, before NATO and the EU had anti-pirate missions in the region.

So why are they there? The short answer is that Western governments don’t know what else to do. But the U.S. and Europe also have different self-interested reasons to cruise the Indian Ocean.

For most of the European governments involved, the obvious idea is to protect their domestic shipping business. “For these big shipping nations, it’s not a big deal,” a Horn of Africa expert named E.J. Hogendoorn, at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, told me in September. “They’ve got big shiny navies; what the hell are they gonna do with ‘em anyway? Might as well park ‘em off the coast of Somalia. It’s as good a training as any.”

And defending the sea lanes is more or less what everyone’s claiming to do. But America’s interest is more complicated. In spite of the dramatic rescue of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama last April, the ocean isn’t terribly crowded with American merchant vessels. (Even American shipping lines sail under foreign flags, to save money.) The real draw to this part of the world, for Washington, is counterterrorism.

The Navy won’t say so. “Piracy’s an international problem requiring an international solution,” said Lt. Matt Allen, a spokesman for the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, where the separate U.S.-led counterpiracy coalition (Combined Task Force 151) is based. “Even though a small portion of the [merchant] vessels are U.S.-flagged, a majority are allies and friends. Every nation has a vested interest in insuring the safe passage of the sea lanes.”

But Washington’s military buildup on the Horn of Africa started with the war in Afghanistan, which led to a (still-growing) naval base in Djibouti, just north of Somalia. Officially, the base in Djibouti has nothing to do with pirates. It’s lodged inside what the Pentagon calls an “Arc of Instability” stretching from Kenya to Yemen. Al-qaeda and some like-minded groups have civil wars running in Yemen, Somalia and Sudan — and Somalia, of course, could become “the next Afghanistan” if Islamists like al-Shabaab take over. Washington wants to watch these developments.

In September, a small American team killed a long-wanted terrorist named Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan south of Mogadishu, which suggests that the Pentagon has good intelligence in the region. No one in Djibouti, Bahrain or the AFRICOM headquarters in Germany will admit to organizing the raid, but Special Forces from an American warship reportedly helped, which might indicate a measure of support from the Navy’s counterpiracy base in Bahrain (since the Djibouti base doesn’t send out warships, officially).

The Navy’s new jet-sized surveillance drones based in the Seychelles — officially to watch pirates — also have more than enough range to glide over Somalia and the rest of the Pentagon’s “Arc of Instability.”

But there’s a third interest at stake in the fish-rich Indian Ocean. Some European fishing boats wander down from the Mediterranean (and away from hated EU regulations) to trawl the lawless coast of Somalia for tuna, lobster, shrimp and shark.

“It is particularly ironic that many of the nations that are presently contributing warships to the anti-piracy flotillas patrolling, or set to patrol, the waters off the Horn of Africa, are themselves directly linked to the foreign fishing vessels that are busily plundering Somalia’s offshore resources,” Clive Schofield, an Australian research fellow at the University of Wollongong and author of a paper called Plundered Waters: Somalia’s Maritime Resource Insecurity, has written.

Namely: France and Spain. Hogendoorn, at the International Crisis Group, singled out Spain. “I’ve spoken to diplomats in Europe who’ve made it quite clear that Spain has been very active in the piracy issue because of its own national interests,” he said, “which can only be interpreted to mean that they have fishing vessels making lots of money off of fishing in Somali waters.”

Decimation of Somali fishing is a major complaint of the pirates themselves. The notion of a Somali fisherman hijacking a cargo ships because of collapsing fish populations is over-simple — piracy is organized crime — but the complaints about systematic decimation of African fish is real. Many Somalis, in fact, think the warships they see from their beaches have arrived to make the seas safe for foreign boats.

Aboard a NATO frigate in September, a British officer, Lt. Cmdr. Graham Bennett, noticed the lack of fishermen out on a calm, sunny day. It was the start of fishing season in the Gulf of Aden — the monsoons had just ended — but Somali fishermen seemed to be staying home.

“We need to get the word out that we’re not here to arrest everyone,” he told me. “We got on Somali TV the other day [and] said we really do want to protect the fishermen themselves from piracy. But some of the Somali people thought we were just here to protect the European fishing trawlers. That surprised us a little.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.