Attacks by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa may have fallen recently, but the barefoot bandits continue to pose a significant threat to international shipping. According to the European Union's anti-piracy naval force, pirates are still holding at least 200 hostages in Somalia or off its coast. Just this week, pirates hijacked an Italian cargo ship with 18 crew on board off the coast of Oman.
Now the European Union is considering expanding the scope of Operation Atalanta, as the anti-piracy mission is officially known. But the proposal has prompted strong criticism from German opposition politicians, who are wary of mission creep.
On Thursday, the German Foreign Ministry confirmed a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that the EU's Political and Security Committee had recently assigned Operation Atalanta's commander to draw up plans for how the EU's forces could attack the pirates' onshore infrastructure, as well as revising the rules of engagement accordingly.
The EU is apparently considering ramping up the operation to target the pirates' weapons arsenals, speedboats and fuel depots on the beach. The plan foresees helicopters targeting the infrastructure from the sea. The aircraft would not, however, fire on people. The German Foreign Ministry stressed that the expanded mission would only involve destroying the onshore infrastructure and would not be "an operation on land."
Until now, the fight against Somali piracy has been restricted to targeting the boats used by pirates. In addition, Atalanta forces track the motherships that pirates use to operate hundreds of kilometers from the coast. The mission also provides escorts to World Food Program vessels delivering food to the Somali people.
The German parliament, the Bundestag, would have to approve a new mandate for Germany's contribution to the mission before Berlin could get involved in onshore operations. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, the EU's foreign service will discuss the changes with Somalia's transitional government, which has already signaled its support. The transitional government is backed by the United Nations but has only limited power within the war-torn country.
Opposition politicians in Germany have reacted with skepticism to the idea, however. In remarks to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Rainer Arnold, a defense expert with the opposition center-left Social Democrats, called on the German government to make sure that "no risky undertakings" are planned on the European level. He told the newspaper that he was "very skeptical" about the proposal, explaining that he could not see the logic behind it. The masterminds behind the pirate operations were not "on the beach but in their villas somewhere in the hinterlands," he said. In addition to securing shipping routes, the problem of piracy could only be solved if Somalia were to become a stable country again, he said.
Omid Nouripour, the defense spokesman for the Green Party's parliamentary group, was even more outspoken. He called the idea of targeting the pirates' onshore facilities "sheer madness." He spoke of the danger of mission creep should the pirates retreat further onshore in response to attacks.
The Foreign Ministry gave a cautious reaction to the plan. "Any new orientation of the Atalanta mission will have to be thoroughly examined," said a ministry spokesperson in Berlin.
With Somalia still without a functioning government, scores of young men continue to set out to sea to hijack ships passing along the vital trade route. The vessels and their crews are then held hostage for ransom, a lucrative activity.
The EU launched Operation Atalanta in December 2008 in a bid to tackle the problem. As well as EU member states, non-EU countries such as Norway, Croatia and Ukraine have also contributed to the operation. The force has around 1,500 military personnel at its disposal, including around 550 soldiers. Depending on the time of year, it typically has between five and 10 surface vessels on deployment off the coast of Somalia and in the Indian Ocean, as well as auxiliary ships and patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. Military units are currently drawn from a core group of 13 contributing countries, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom among others. Germany is currently contributing one frigate to the operation.
In addition to Atalanta, there is a substantial international force in the area, including the US-led, multinational group called the Combined Maritime Forces. NATO is also present and ships from China, India, Japan, Russia and other countries also patrol the waters.
The latest figures from the European Union Naval Force suggest that efforts to fight piracy may finally be starting to bear fruit. There were just 12 attempted pirate attacks in November 2011, down from 35 in the same period last year. Observers believe the decline is at least partially due to the increasing number of armed guards on ships.