Sea Piracy in Somali Waters

Reviewed By:

Prof. Bruno Dupreyon

Co- Auther – Sarah Van Houten


The act of piracy dates back to almost 200 years ago in ancient Greece when Greeks found out that ships carrying cargo, mostly oil and grain, could be easily attacked resulting in profitable gains (Sumaila and Bawumiab 2014).

Somalian sea piracy is a complex and multi-faceted policy issue, which has had a widespread impact on the world since the early 1990s. In order to understand this issue’s complexity, this paper undertakes a comprehensive examination of the background and history as well as the operational style of the pirates and the social and international impact of their activities.

Given that about 80% of the world’s trade travels through the Horn of Africa and approximately 20,000 ships pass through Gulf of Aden annually, this issue has had a significant impact on the world, affecting the United States, Russia, Britain, India and many other countries (Baniela and Ríos 2012). Estimates show that in since 2005 about US $360 million has been paid to pirates in ransom (Shippingwatch 2013).

This raises important questions, since Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world and lacks a stable government, where does responsibility for the piracy lie and what should the role of the international community be going forward?

Sea Piracy in the Indian Ocean is perhaps the longest lasting policy issue of today’s world. It dates back to 1695 when Henry “Long Ben” Avery captured the fleet of Lord Mughal of India near Madagascar. Since then sea piracy in Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean has been a critical political issue (Mejia, Kojima and Sawyer 2013).

Since 1990, about 6000 incidents of violent attack on merchant ships have been reported to the International Maritime Bureau of International Chamber of Commerce.


2010 2011 2012
People killed 8 8 6
People injured 37 42 28
Hostage situation 1181 802 585
Ships boarded 196 176 174
Ships fired 107 113 28
Ships hijacked 53 45 28

(Mejia, Kojima and Sawyer 2013)

Somalia has geographical importance as about 7% of world’s oil supply travels from Somali waters. Because of the piracy issue, shipping companies are forced to divert their route through the Cape of Good Hope instead of the Horne of Africa, which lengthens their journey by adding an extra 2700 miles (Percy and Shortland 2013). In 2011, pirates have caused about $25 billion worth of loss to the shipping industry (Hodgkinson 2013).

One incident of hijacking can cost a company anywhere between US$500,000 to US$9 million and individual pirates can get between US$10000 to US$ 15,000. Because of unsafe waters, shipping companies are facing high costs increasing year by year in the form of insurance premiums (Percy and Shortland 2013). A single transit premium through the Gulf of Aden has risen from$500 to $20,000 (Kraska and Wilson 2009). Because of this threat, oil transit through Suez has declined by 50% since 2008 (Percy and Shortland 2013).

Although there has been an increase in naval deployments by the countries like the US, EU, Japan, China, South Africa and India the issue seems difficult to control. From the view point of Somalia itself, piracy issues hamper the supply of humanitarian aid from the UN and Western Countries to the Somali people (Beri 2011).

Cost of Piracy: Data from 2010

Ransom (Excess costs, Not including actual ransom value as it is generally covered by insurance $176 million
Insurance Premiums $460 million to $3.2 billion
Re- routing $2.4 to 3 billion
Security Equipment $ 363 million to $2.5 billion
Naval forces $2 billion
Prosecutions $31 million
Piracy deterrence organizations $19.5 million
Cost to regional economy $1.25 billion

(Parmar 2012)


Operational Style and Profile of Somali Piracy:


Somali pirates have a unique style characterized by “Somali-Style Piracy”. This is defined as smaller ships with sophisticated arms and GPS systems taking much larger ships by force and kidnapping crew for ransom (Hodgkinson 2013). They also use a mother ship to carry out operations far in to the sea. Pretending to be fishing boats, pirate ships often go unnoticed in the busy shipping lanes. These mother ships are abandoned once supplies run out or suspicions are raised (Percy and Shortland 2013).

Apart from the mother ship, pirates may also carry AK-47 assault rifles, RPG-7 rocket launchers and TT3 semi-automatic pistols acquired from Yemen. It’s also believed that they have sound information networks with informers in regional ports giving updates about the movement of the ships on shipping lines (Beri 2011). A French naval commander has been quoted saying that Somali pirates are well organized and have good communication systems and rules of engagement (Bueger 2013).

On sea operations are normally carried out by low-level foot soldiers. The financers, who plan and finance the operations, are the ones who make most of the profit from ransom. The financers rarely take part in the on-field operations. As per an estimate by the UN in 2011 there are about 10-12 financers, 50 main pirate leaders, 300 leaders of pirate attack groups and about 2, 500 low-level foot soldiers (Hodgkinson 2013).


In 2008, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) stated four major gangs in Somali waters were involved in sea piracy.

  • The National Volunteer Coast Guard (NVCG)
  • The Marka Group
  • The Puntland Group
  • The Somali Marines – this group is reported to have a military structure, with a Fleet Admiral, Admiral, Vice Admiral and a head of financial operations (Parmar 2012).

Geopolitical Analysis of the region:

 Somalian piracy is directly related to the political failure of Somalia as a state. In 1960, the former British Territory and Italian Colony were merged as Somalia. Soon after the birth of a nation, Said Barre took power in 1969 through a coup. The Barre regime ruled with the vision of Greater Somalia that included parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. This evolved conflicts with Kenya and war with Ethiopia. The Barre regime banned political parties, and as a result political loyalties started to be based more on ethnicity and clans (Beri 2011).

The Barre regime failed in 1990 and since then, Somalia has been at civil war. The region of Somaliland was established as a de facto state. Since then there have been 14 unsuccessful attempts to establish a working government (Percy and Shortland 2013).

The situation became worse after 1993’s black hawk down when the US pulled out of the Somali conflict, giving, as some argue, more power to Islamic militant groups like Al – Quada (Stevenson 2010).

Without a stable government since 1990, Somalia lacks a functional economy. The political actors are divided into various warlords, Islamic militant groups, and pirates who don’t have any national loyalty (Baniela and Ríos 2012). The lack of centralized stable political government also allows pirates to operate with immunity in Somali coastal towns and camps. The “failed state” of Somalia has created perfect grounds for the rise in the current situation (Baniela and Ríos 2012).

Methodology: All the data and information used in this analysis is based on secondary sources. These sources include books, academic journals, case studies, research by various institution and newspaper articles.

Policy Issue:

As per the Geneva Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1958 – any act of violence, detention or act of depression to crewmembers or passengers by a ship or aircraft in high seas (international waters) is illegal (UN 1958).

In last decade, Somali waters have been a haven for the pirates. Since 2005 to 2012, about US$ 360 million has been paid to pirates with operational costs of US$18 billion a year (Shippingwatch 2013).

Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world; in 2008 its GDP per capita was estimated at US$ 650 and average income was about US$ 298. On the other hand, with a single act of piracy, a foot soldier pirate can make about US $10,000 or more (Stevenson 2010).

About 80% of world’s trade transits through water and 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden supplying 12% of the world’s daily supply. In spite of various patrol ships from the US, Russia, Britain and India issue is out of control (Baniela and Ríos 2012).

Origin of Somali Piracy:

Sea Piracy did not evolve all of a sudden as some Somali fishermen took weapons and started hijacking ships.

After the fall of the government in 1991, illegal fishing and toxic dumping in Somali waters increased. Somalia has 3,300 kilometers of coastline with affluent marine resources.   About 700 international ships illegally approached Somali waters. This unregulated illegal shipping industry was reported to have the capacity of US$1 billion (Klaus 2005). From the Somali fishermen’s point, illegal ships continued fishing in their waters with unregulated techniques like using dynamite to break fragile coral reefs (Beri 2011).


From the Somali point of view, countries like Spain and France were the biggest fish pirates and the UN Security Council and NATO were interested only protecting interest of France and Spain. (Bueger 2013)

The absence of government and the low cost of dumping ($2.50 per ton in Somalia instead of $250 per ton in Europe) attracted European countries to take advantage of Somali waters for dumping their toxic waste. Toxic waste damaged the marine life making Somali fishermen worse off (Beri 2011). About 55% of Somalia’s population lives on the coast line. The tsunami of 2004 spread toxic waste on the costal line spreading lethal diseases (Klaus 2005). It was alleged that in 1992, 500,000 tons of toxic waste were dumped in Somali waters by just one Italian firm with the help of local Somali corrupt political leadership (Atteh 1993).


In early 1997, the United Nations assessment warned the international community about the possible consequences of toxic waste dumping and suggested a framework to protect Somali waters, but it was not heard (Parmar 2012).

In the absence of the government, desperate fishermen decided to take matters in their own hands for survival and began the conflict with foreign ships on the seas. Factors like economic hardship and grievances against foreign exploiters transformed poor Somali fishermen into pirates. Pirates started to legitimize their activities by presenting themselves as defenders of Somali waters and started identifying themselves as the “Coast Guard of Somalia” (Beri 2011),

In 2008 after the hijack of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship, pirates demanded $35 million for cleaning up the toxic waste (Parmar 2010).

Somalia has not had a stable government since 1992, this has resulted in high levels of corruption and a power vacuum in which there has been no one to take control of a lawless situation or to address the causes of that situation such as poor economic conditions, illegal fishing and illegal dumping of toxic waste (Baniela and Ríos 2012)


Currently the Somali public supports the Somali Pirates viewing them with a celebrity or Robin Hood like status, due to the fact that Somali Piracy is a large component to Somalia’s overall income and they provide the Somali citizens with jobs and other economic opportunities. This makes catching them more difficult and recruitment easier (Ghosh, 2014).

Maritime laws also pose an issue because they are unclear in regards to the prosecution of crimes committed in international waters. Currently under maritime law a citizen is to be tried in their country of origin. As a result Somali pirates often escape charges due to an unstable governments and high levels or corruption. (Howell 2006).

Illegal commercial fishing by foreign fishing companies has further added to the destabilization of the area, these companies have overfished Somalia’s waters depleting the majority of marine life that was previously available to local fisherman; this has destroyed a legitimate industry and has resulted in fishermen turning to piracy (Klaus 2005).

Illegal dumping of toxic waste off of the coast of Somalia by foreign companies such as World Fleet TEU Capacity, Swiss firm, Achair Partners, APM-Maersk and an Italian waste broker, Progresso” (Clayton 2005).

How is Piracy in Somalia affecting the rest of the world:

The effect of piracy on the world is visible in a number of ways. Firstly there is the human cost that is represented in lives lost, suffering and quality of life. Secondly there is the financial cost, piracy disrupts the International trade between Asia, Europe and the United states and as a result raises the overall price of all international commerce rises.

Since 1995 over 350 sailors have lost their lives in pirate attacks with Somali Pirates seizing 49 vessels and taking 1,016 hostages in 2010 (Houreld 2011).

Countries are having issues sending aid to Somalia due to a high risk of hijacking, as a result those who are in desperate need of humanitarian and are the most vulnerable are left without aid and risk suffering from famine (Doucette 2008).

Piracy is used to fuel international crime, while the activities of piracy does account for a large portion of Somalia’s GDP a large portion of money earned from piracy is laundered through real estate brokers and money traders and is reinvested in terrorism, arms trafficking and human trafficking (Bengali 2009).

According to “International Maritime Bureau” the estimated costs of piracy is between $18 and $26 billion per year in economic losses (Ryan 2006).

The cost of operating a ship in the Gulf of Aden has increased significantly as a result of piracy this increase is seen in the form of higher insurance premiums as well as increased costs for liability and ransom coverage. These costs are ultimately being passed onto the consumer (Weitz 2008). Increased insurance premiums and diverted trade affects also affects economic growth and discourages Investment while a dangerous environment impacts tourism. This is most notable in Egypt in the form of reduced revenue from Suez Canal.


What is being done to address the issue of piracy:

A high naval presence has been created in the area with vessels from 16 countries patrolling the waters in order to deter piracy and hijacking incidents.

A safe navigational corridor has been established through Gulf of Aden in cooperation with United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations(UKMTO),European Union Naval Force(EUNAVFOR), Combined Maritime Forces(CMF), Indian Navy, Forces from NATO ,China, Malaysia and Russia. This transit corridor is intended to deter acts of piracy (Beri 2011).

Shipping companies are hiring private contractors and security firms to ensure the safety of their vessels as well as taking evasive action. To date no vessel protected by private contractors has been taken (IMO 2011)

Vessels are also avoiding the Suez Canal by instead returning to old shipping routes and going around the Cape of Good Hope, this increases the operating expenses of vessels in the form of increased maintenance, increased fuel costs and increased voyage duration however due to low oil prices and reduced insurance costs companies are finding the longer voyage to be a more attractive option (Percy and Shortland 2013).

Social Impact:

It is important to recognize that the social impact of Somalian sea piracy varies greatly depending on the perspective. Views on piracy and its impact can be strikingly different depending on whether they come from within Somalia itself or from the outside world.

Clan and Tribal Dynamics:

 There are a number of interest groups with much at stake in the issue of Somalian sea piracy.  To begin with the social impact within Somalia itself, it is important to recognize that Somalia’s clan structure is integral to the social organization of the country.  As Pollock argues, clan distinctions can provide Somalis with a sense of belonging and ancestral connection (Pollock 2014, 46).  A few tribes are considered dominant in Somalia including the Majeeteen, the Dhulbahante and the Warsangali. According to Ghosh, the Majeerteen tribe is the most dominate within Somalia, but others such as the Dhulbahante and the Warsangali also have a significant presence (Ghosh 2014, 19).  There are complex relationships between these tribes and conflicts also often occur. As Gosh points out, many high ranking government officials are Majeerteen tribe members who are suspected of being complicit in pirating activities and profiting from them (Ghosh 2014, 19). As such, this clan structure can be viewed in both a positive and negative light even among Somalis, and is inherently tied to the piracy itself.

Piracy Communities:

 As noted above, Somalian pirates usually operate in groups and the social organization of these groups is constantly changing. What to the outside world can appear as a band of criminals, can be viewed very differently within Somalia, where pirates are often seen has having high status and gaining respect for their pirating activities. Connected to this, the pirate groups can be vulnerable to infighting and disputes over the sharing of spoils (Ghosh, 2014).  Pirates usually obtain the funds to start their operations from creditors and therefore must divide the earnings between investors, the hijacking group, as well as guards and other creditors (Ghosh 2014, 21).  As a result, hierarchies can develop within the piracy groups with more status and wealth going to those pirates who take on more personal risk and engage in more dangerous aspects of the operations.  Some pirates are even considered “experts” and are sought out and paid accordingly by investors (Ghosh 2014, 21).

Communities and Ecosystems:

It is important to note that within Somalia itself, from the perspective of Somalis, pirates are viewed more as Pollock suggests: “a band of brothers acting in the position of a coast guard, protecting Somalia from foreign invaders who have destroyed the livelihoods of many” (Pollock 2014, 49).  As Pollock points out, Somalian pirates do not view themselves as criminals who are unjustly stealing others’ property, but rather as projecting their own fishing grounds from foreign fishing boats who have engaged in damaging fishing practices that have destroyed natural reefs and breeding grounds for lobster (Pollock 2014, 49).  Somalian communities that depended on lobster harvests have been significantly impacted by the destruction of coral reef ecosystems over time.  In fact, some pirates view themselves specifically as protectors of vulnerable reef ecology with a goal of saving reefs from damaging steel fishing nets and other unethical fishing practices and of obtaining justice for the irreparable damage already done to these coral reefs (Pollock 2014, 49).

Impact on victims:

 Of course, piracy also takes a toll on those who are taken hostage and their families. There is much conflicting evidence about the number of hostages that have been taken by Somalian pirates, and the number of those who have been abused or killed. However, as an example, it is estimated that 589 people were held hostage by Somali pirates in 2012 (Hurlburt and Seyle 2013). The toll taken on hostages can be physical, psychological and financial (Hurlburt and Seyle 2013). These hostages are also not always held in their ships, but can be transported to land and held for much longer periods of time (Hurlburt and Seyle 2013). Also important to note, is that the number of hostages with OECD nationality has been steadily decreasing, while the number of hostages from developing countries has been increasing (Hurlburt and Seyle 2013, 17). As Palmer points out, Somalian piracy also exposes the issue of “the dirty underbelly of the shipping industry; some ships and their crews have been abandoned by owners unwilling to pay any ransoms … in some cases the shipowners have been as bad as the pirates” (Palmer 2014, 303). In thinking about the social impact on victims, it is no longer possible to lay blame entirely with the pirates themselves.

Child Pirates:

As Somalian piracy has become more of an issue, so has the issue of child piracy. As Sterio points out, it is required by law under the article 10 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that youth under 18 must be treated differently than adults (Sterio, 2013). As a result, it has been increasingly difficult to bring juvenile pirates to trial and many young pirates have simply been released by anti-piracy patrols (Drumbl 2013). In 2011 there were about 1000 Somali pirates under the custody of various countries and juvenile pirates represented about 31% of the total number (Drumbl 2013).

As a result, some Somali families and communities see piracy as a way for their child to escape from the extreme poverty at home. Even if they are captured and persecuted they they are seen to be better off in a Western country than they are at home (Drumbl, 2013).


It is clear that Somali piracy is a by-product of failed policies and international ignorance towards the welfare of a poor country. As suggested by the United Nations in 1997, if a mechanism had been developed to stop illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping, piracy may never have emerged as an issue.

If illegal fishing from France and Spain were stopped and toxic waste dumping by Italy and the EU had been monitored, the world might have not paid and continue to pay the heavy cost of piracy.

Although piracy has recently decreased significantly in Somali waters, with the heavy use of patrolling and the help of private security, it does not seem like a permanent solution. Illegal fishing took away the single source of economic activity for Somali fishing communities while piracy further damaged the industry and toxic dumping put their health in danger. Somali fishermen had only one option – to die trying rather than do nothing. Somali piracy will never completely stop unless the world community addresses the core issues of illegal fishing and toxic dumping.

Importantly, illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping is still happening in Somalia and other parts of Africa such as Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria and world community largely continues to ignore it (Atteh 1993). If Somalia is any example, such an approach will only lead to other more complex and costly problems.



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1 thought on “Sea Piracy in Somali Waters”

  1. He notes that given the tremendous social and political conflict occurring in many piracy prone countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, counter-piracy efforts at sea will likely fail.

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