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The Uprise of Somalia’s Piracy in the 21st Century

Since the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has become a country ruled by lawlessness and scarred by disputes between numerous war clans. Due to these anarchic conditions the recent uprise in Somali piracy has grown and become a real problem for shipping with pirates often hijacking vessels and demanding large ransoms for their safe return.

Somali pirate attacks were initially limited to the Gulf of Aden[1] – a stretch of water between Somalia and Yemen and a part of the Suez Canal – and an increasing number of pirate attacks were registered in 2008 with more than 90 commercial ships attacked and over 40 ships hijacked. Whilst there is no data for the number of Somali pirates active in the region, it is known that the majority come from the Puntland region in the north east of the country and are associated with several war clans. (Dagne, 2009)

Since 2008, the pirates have again shifted their focus for operation. Due to increasing anti-piracy operations in the Gulf, pirate attacks have become a greater threat in the north-west Indian Ocean, with an average of 214 ships attacked and 31 ships hijacked in the region by the end of 2011, resulting in an increase in maritime security operations. (Burns, 2012)

However, despite these increased security operations Somali pirates still pose a real danger to international shipping. In 2010, Somali pirates earned an average of $250 million in ransom payments in exchange for releasing ships and hostages. These pirate groups have access to information on the location, timing and cargo of ships entering the Gulf provided by their ‘mother ships’[2] – large fishing vessels, often acquired through hijacking, that possess sophisticated technologies and weaponry, and allegedly supported by Somali businessmen in return for a share of ransom revenues.  (Ploch, 2011)

Reasons for Somali Piracy:

From the Somali perspective, a part of the population sees piracy as being a foreign problem that does not affect their daily routine. Some say that as long as ransoms are being paid to the pirates, attacks will continue and Somali leaders contend that citizens became involved with these type of criminal activities in order to survive, since they had their means of income ruined by outside interests. (Dagne, 2009)

There is some truth in these claims; while the large ransoms can be a reason for some to turn to piracy, many members of these pirate groups did so more out of necessity, being former fishermen or militia members of Somali Warlords whose sources of income were ruined by illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping by outside organizations. (Dagne, 2009)

The price for dumping toxic waste in Africa is very low; it costs an average of $2.50 per ton in comparison to $250 per ton in Europe, and the water pollution that has occurred as a result of this dumping has been largely ignored by foreign governments because it is profitable. (Dagne, 2009). It is due to this international disregard that many Somali fishermen changed their way of life by making piracy a lifetime profession.

International Anti-Piracy Operations:

In order to combat the Somali pirate issue, the international community should, besides working to repair the waste dumping and illegal fishing, have a more securitized approach to piracy and create a common framework to deal with the problem that piracy causes. (Bueger, 2012)

Indeed, the United Nations convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS[3]) states that: “All States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State”. In other words, every country has the right to capture a pirate ship and arrest the personnel on board. (United Nations)

Accordingly, fleets from the European Union (EU), NATO[4], and numerous other countries including the United States (US), Russia, China, India, and Japan, have positioned their ships around the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden in order to preserve global trade routes and repel attacks led by the Somali pirates. (Nanda, 2011)

Remarkable examples of the international efforts against Somali Pirates:      

Russia became a part of international anti-piracy operations in 2008. Their warships accompanied an average of 130 commercial ships from numerous nations through the pirate infested areas around Somalia. In 2010 a Russian frigate captured 7 pirates in the Gulf of Aden during an attack on a merchant ship. (Novosti, 2012)

The United Kingdom (UK) plays a leading role in the Atalanta Operation, a conjoint operation with other EU countries to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, due to the ability and integrity of the Royal Navy. This mission has been proven to be very successful and effective in defending the World Food Programme (WFP[5]). (European Union Committee, 2009-2010)

In 2011 the Indian Navy, in cooperation with the Coast Guard, had their first main anti-piracy mission close to Indian shores. They managed to sink a pirate “mother” ship, arrest 15 Somali pirates and rescue 20 fishermen. In most of the operations India sinks the pirate ships instead of negotiating with them. (Novosti, 2011)

Spain in 2009 paid a ransom of almost $3.5 million to Somali pirates in order to free 36 fishermen and their tuna ship, known as the Alakrana. Prime minister Zapatero mentioned that the government did what they had to do to recover the ship. The vessel was being occupied by 60 pirates.  (Cala and Cowell, 2011)

However, with the exception of the E.U. and the U.S. who are leading a conjoined mission known as Shade[6] in order to combat the pirate threat in unison, these nations do not cooperate enough in their anti-piracy operations. This is unlike the pirates who, despite lacking an organized commando structure, communicate and coordinate attacks together. With greater cooperation in the international community, an increased naval presence in the Gulf could be achieved in order to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean more efficiently. (Hanson, 2010)

In addition to providing a great naval presence in pirate infested areas, the American State department has advised countries not to pay ransoms nor open concessions to pirate groups as it is seen to promote hijackings, kidnappings and other criminal activities. However,  despite this, some countries still pay ransoms; Spain, for example, continues to pay. The payment of ransoms aggravates the problem by providing funds to pirates which in turn leads to the investment in advanced technologies to be used by them and the expansion of  similar types of criminal actions. (Ploch, 2011)

Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC) :

It is certainly due to the increasing number of attacks each year,  and perhaps partly due to the less than efficient way in which the international community has been dealing with the Somali pirate problem, that a market for Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC) has appeared with companies offering anti-piracy protection services. Most of these companies were founded in 2008, after the significant increase of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden, and focus on providing maritime security against piracy and robbery in international waters. (Isenberg, 2012)

The price of hiring their services to travel around the Gulf can cost upwards of $60.000 a voyage. Despite this high price, companies are happy to pay this price to PMSC agencies as they would appear to be an effective deterrent to the pirates; no ship has ever been successfully hijacked in the presence of armed forces. (Isenberg, 2012)

Most shipping companies have no choice but to hire PMSC services to protect their cargo from pirates, since the main shipping routes involve navigating  the Suez Canal and subsequently the Gulf of Aden. More often than not, the cargo being transported is worth far more than the price of hiring a PMSC service, so shipping companies see it as a worthwhile expenditure. For example, spending $60,000 to prevent the hijacking of a shipment full of oil worth more than $100 million would be seen as logical. The pirate threat adds insecurity and additional costs for shipping companies which will ultimately lead to the increase in global oil prices and shipping costs. The rise of pirate activities forces the international community to allocate extra resources to this region however their lack of efficiency and co-ordination has made PMSCs necessary to ensure shipments to arrive safe at their destination.


With commercial ships often targeted, the Somali piracy problem represents an important threat to global shipping routes and affects several countries; in 2011 439 attacks were registered, with 45 commercial ships hijacked. (World Shipping Council, 2012)

The majority of these cases occurred in the Gulf of Aden, around the Somali coast, and in the Indian Ocean. From early 2012 there has been an average of 51 attacks off the coast of Somalia, 11 hijackings and 158 hostages with unprotected ships not following the UN BMP guidelines being the most targeted.

Whilst it is important for ships to be prepared to counter pirate attacks, it is clear that a greater effort is needed in order to address an issue with such global repercussions. An international coordination of governments and companies is needed to solve not only the problem of pirate attacks, but also the cause of piracy in Somalia.  (World Shipping Council, 2012)

[1] The Gulf of Aden is located in the Arabian Sea between Yemen, on the south coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.

[2] These ‘mother ships’ are usually larger fishing vessels that have been commandeered through acts of piracy.

[3] United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea

[4] North Atlantic Treaty Organization

[5] World Food Programme

[6] Shared Awareness and Deconfliction

* Cover image ‘EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Belgian frigate BNS Louise-Marie intercepted one skiff with five suspected pirates on board’ by EU Naval Force Media and Public Information Office


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