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Houthi threat triggers surge in pirate attacks off Somalia coast

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Increased Houthi Militancy Spurs New Wave of Pirate Activity off Somalia’s Coast

The resurgence of piracy off Somalia’s coast has been linked to the recent increase in attacks by Iran-backed Houthi militants in the Red Sea. According to Vice Admiral Ignacio Villanueva, a European naval commander, this development has reinvigorated Somali pirate networks, leading to a rise in both the number and sophistication of pirate groups.

The Yemen-based Houthis began targeting vessels in the Red Sea last year as part of their strategy to pressure Israel and its allies over the war in Gaza. This campaign has significantly disrupted global shipping, forcing many vessels to take longer, more expensive routes around southern Africa. The resulting surge in carbon emissions and freight costs has been substantial as ships extend their travel times to avoid the Red Sea.

Pirates in Somalia have seized this opportunity, exploiting the increased maritime traffic along Somalia’s coast. They have ventured further into the Indian Ocean, testing the limits of Western and international naval operations designed to curb piracy. Admiral Villanueva highlighted that pirates are now using tactics that involve hijacking smaller boats like skiffs or dhows, which they use to launch attacks on larger vessels in the middle of the Indian Ocean after about ten days at sea.

The recent surge in piracy includes 30 attacks on commercial vessels, fishing boats, and dhows since November. The pirates involved are reportedly more organized, better armed, and larger in numbers than in previous years. Villanueva noted that recent attacks have involved groups of 25 to 30 pirates, equipped with satellite phones and heavy weapons, demonstrating a high level of coordination and capability.

In December, the first successful hijacking of a vessel off the Somali coast since 2017 occurred when pirates took hostages on the Malta-flagged MV Ruen. The crew of 18 was eventually rescued by Indian, Japanese, and Spanish warships. This incident marks a troubling return to the kind of piracy that plagued the region in the early 2000s, peaking in 2011 with 237 incidents and 736 hostages taken.

The rise in piracy has been fueled by the instability caused by the Houthis, whose attacks on commercial ships reached a peak last month with 16 vessels targeted, according to naval forces in the region. The interplay between the Houthi militancy and Somali piracy underscores the broader geopolitical instability affecting maritime security in the region.

The renewed threat of piracy presents significant challenges for international naval operations, which must now contend with increasingly daring and sophisticated pirate groups. As global shipping routes are disrupted, the international community must find ways to address both the immediate security threats and the underlying political and economic factors driving the resurgence of piracy.

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Beauty in the Crossfire: Miss Somalia Pageant Amid Violence

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Amid Explosions and Controversy, Somali Women Defy Odds in Groundbreaking Beauty Pageant

On a night when most of Somalia tuned in to the Euro football final, a very different kind of spectacle unfolded at Mogadishu’s Elite Hotel. Hundreds gathered to witness the Miss Somalia pageant, a daring celebration of beauty and resilience in one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a woman. Just a kilometer away, the grim reality of Somali life was underscored by a car bomb explosion that killed five and injured twenty. The militant group al-Shabab, notorious for its reign of terror over Somalia, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The juxtaposition of a beauty pageant with such violence highlights the schizophrenic nature of life in Somalia. While pageant contestants paraded in glamorous gowns, the nearby explosion shattered the night, a stark reminder of the pervasive threat of terrorism. This contrast paints a vivid picture of a nation grappling with its identity and future.

Hani Abdi Gas, founded the competition in 2021. In a country where Islamist militants and conservative traditions dominate, her initiative is nothing short of revolutionary. Gas, who grew up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya before returning to Somalia in 2020, sees the pageant as more than a beauty contest. It’s a platform for lifting women’s voices, fostering unity, and empowering Somali women.

Gas believes that Somalia, long deemed one of the worst places to be a woman, is ready to join the rest of the world in celebrating female beauty and aspiration. “I want to celebrate the aspirations of women from diverse backgrounds, build their confidence, and give them a chance to showcase Somali culture worldwide,” she said.

This year’s contestants reflected this diversity. Among them was a policewoman, a powerful symbol of women breaking barriers in a traditionally male-dominated society. However, not everyone was pleased. Many Somalis view beauty pageants as affronts to their culture and religion. Clan leader Ahmed Abdi Halane expressed disgust, saying, “Such things are against our culture and our religion. If a girl wears tight clothes and appears on stage, it will bring shame upon her family and her clan. Women are supposed to stay at home and wear modest clothes.”

Some women also oppose the pageant. Sabrina, a student, criticized the contestants for appearing in public without covering their necks, saying, “It is good to support the Somali youth but not in ways that conflict with our religion.”

Despite these criticisms, the pageant proceeded with its vibrant display of Somali culture. Aisha Ikow, a 24-year-old university student and make-up artist, was crowned Miss Somalia, taking home a $1,000 prize. Ikow, representing South-West state, vowed to use her platform to combat early marriage and promote girls’ education. “The competition celebrates Somali culture and beauty while shaping a brighter future for women,” she said.

The judging panel, which included Miss Somalia 2022 and a representative from the Ministry of Youth, found it hard to choose a winner. They assessed contestants on physical beauty, public speaking, and stage presence. An online vote, costing $1 per vote, funded the event and future international pageant participation.

The glitzy event in a luxury hotel contrasted sharply with the harsh realities faced by most Somali women. Four million Somalis, a quarter of the population, are internally displaced, with up to 80% being women. The UN ranks Somalia near the bottom on the Gender Inequality Index, with alarming rates of gender-based violence and female genital mutilation. Traditional practices still dictate that a rapist must marry his victim, and legal protections for women are severely lacking.

Despite these challenges, the Miss Somalia pageant signifies a slow but significant change. The fact that such an event could be held in Mogadishu, even amid nearby violence, indicates a shift in societal attitudes and an improvement in security.

The crowd at the Elite Hotel stayed until the early hours, undeterred by the attack’s proximity. They were engrossed in the pageant, the sound of the explosion drowned out by the waves crashing on the nearby beach.

In a nation torn by conflict and conservative values, the Miss Somalia pageant stands as a beacon of hope. It is a testament to the resilience of Somali women and their determination to carve out spaces of empowerment and celebration. As Somalia continues to navigate its complex identity, events like these are crucial in shaping a more inclusive and progressive future.

Kiin Hassan Fakat, reporting with Bilan Media, and Mary Harper, author of two books on Somalia, provide a lens into this transformative moment, capturing the courage and aspirations of Somali women amidst a backdrop of turmoil.

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Piracy

Somali Piracy: A Resurgent Threat Amid Global Decline

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Despite a global drop in piracy incidents, Somali waters are seeing a dangerous resurgence in violence, underscoring the need for heightened vigilance. The International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) mid-year report for 2024 reveals a paradoxical trend: while the number of piracy and armed robbery incidents worldwide has decreased, the severity and brutality of these attacks are on the rise, particularly off the coast of Somalia.

The IMB recorded 60 piracy incidents in the first half of 2024, a slight decline from 65 in the same period last year. However, the nature of these attacks is increasingly violent. Perpetrators successfully boarded 84% of targeted vessels, with 85 crew members taken hostage, 11 kidnapped, and two threatened. Weapons such as guns and knives were used in 34 of the 60 incidents, marking a troubling increase in violence.

In Somali waters, eight incidents were reported, including three hijackings, showcasing the enduring threat posed by Somali pirates. On January 4, 2024, the MV Lila Norfolk, a Liberian-flagged bulk carrier, was attacked 455 nautical miles southeast of Eyl. Armed pirates fired upon and boarded the vessel, but the crew was able to muster in the citadel and await rescue by the Indian Navy. Fortunately, all 21 crew members were unharmed.

A more harrowing incident occurred on March 12, 2024, when Somali pirates hijacked the MV Abdullah, a Bangladesh-flagged bulk carrier, 550 nautical miles east of Mogadishu. The pirates, heavily armed and numbering over twenty, demanded a $5 million ransom. After tense negotiations, the vessel and its 23 crew members were released on April 14, 2024. This event marked a significant and alarming resurgence in Somali piracy, demonstrating the pirates’ capacity to operate far from their home shores and target vessels with impunity.

The IMB emphasizes the importance of continued regional cooperation and sustained vigilance to protect seafarers and secure global shipping routes. “While the decline in reported incidents is welcome,” said IMB Director Michael Howlett, “there is no room for complacency.” The organization urges vessel owners and masters to adhere to the latest Best Management Practices (BMP) and consider employing Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) when transiting high-risk areas like Somali waters.

Somali piracy not only endangers lives but also disrupts global trade and raises shipping costs. The resurgence of these violent attacks serves as a stark reminder of the persistent threats in international waters and the need for a robust and coordinated response from the global maritime community.

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Piracy

Houthi Attacks in Red Sea Trigger Somali Piracy Resurgence, Says EU Naval Chief

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Increased pirate activity threatens global shipping and stability in the Indian Ocean

Recent Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea have reinvigorated piracy networks off the coast of Somalia, according to Vice Admiral Ignacio Villanueva, commander of the European Union’s anti-piracy operation. The Iran-backed Houthi militants, based in Yemen, began targeting ships in the Red Sea last year to pressure Israel and its allies amidst the Gaza conflict. This has significantly disrupted global shipping routes, causing vessels to detour thousands of miles around southern Africa, which has increased carbon emissions and freight costs due to extended travel times.

Vice Admiral Villanueva highlighted that Somali pirates perceive the heightened shipping activity and the Houthi threat as an opportunity to revive their operations. He noted that piracy networks are expanding and becoming more sophisticated, with pirates now venturing further into the Indian Ocean. Pirates typically hijack smaller boats such as skiffs or dhows and use them to launch attacks on larger vessels after traveling for about ten days into the ocean.

“We are encountering 25 or 30 pirates on the same attack. They are very well coordinated with satellite phones and heavy weapons,” Villanueva reported. Since November, there have been 30 attacks on commercial vessels, fishing boats, and dhows.

Somali piracy first emerged at the start of the country’s civil war in the early 1990s, escalating significantly in the early 2000s following the conflict ignited by the Ethiopian invasion aimed at toppling an Islamist administration. The peak of piracy occurred in 2011, with 237 reported incidents, 32 vessels hijacked, and 736 people taken hostage, according to the EU Naval Force.

The resurgence of piracy due to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea poses a significant threat to international shipping and regional stability in the Indian Ocean, necessitating heightened security measures and international cooperation to curb this growing menace.

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