ATbar Somali Piracy: An Escalating Security Dilemma

Somali Piracy: An Escalating Security Dilemma

20/08/2009 | by Multiple Authors  
This article was first published with Harvard Africa Policy Journal, Vol. 5, Spring 2009, pp. 55-70.

By Shani Ross and Joshua Ben-David*


Piracy off the coast of Somalia has grown exponentially in recent years. This paper will explain the growing trend, which is the result of a number of factors, including the unstable political environment, the collapsed economy and the presence of Islamic terror groups in Somalia. The research concludes that only a unified stance by the international community that addresses a two-part strategy can facilitate the eradication of Somali piracy. If the global actors involved do not enhance cooperation in the fight against piracy while simultaneously enacting measures to improve stability in Somalia, global commercial trade will continue to suffer from extortion, and Islamic radicalism in Somalia will continue to thrive and potentially overtake the country.

The dramatic increase in piracy[1] off the coast of Somalia in recent years and the enhanced organizational capabilities displayed by the perpetrators are sounding alarm bells in the ongoing Somalia security saga. Piracy in the region and in the world is by no means a new occurrence. However, the significant rise in the frequency and sophistication of piracy off the Somali coast (the number of incidents has more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year[2]) has had significant consequences: (1) the payment of multi-million dollar ransoms; (2) the suspension of critically needed food aid; (3) major disruptions to the international shipping industry and the resulting price hikes, especially in oil; and (4) the potential for environmental disasters created by attacks on oil shipments.[3] Most alarming, however, is the growing concern over the possibility of cooperation between these organized groups of pirates and Islamic militants, predominantly al-Shabaab[4] (“The Youth”). Al-Shabaab is the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, and is waging a fierce insurgency against the forces of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and their allied Ethiopian troops. While there is a limited availability of information to verify unequivocally that such a connection exists, increasingly there are reports to substantiate the assertion that al-Shabaab is forming closer ties with the pirates for a mutually beneficial relationship. That is, the Islamists seek financial and material gains to sustain their insurgency, while the pirates are interested in financial wealth and freedom to continue operations.[5] Direct involvement with criminal networks by insurgent and terrorist groups is the primary means by which these groups secure financial support for their operations.[6]

The article opens by identifying Somalia’s pirates and their methods of operation. The authors continue by examining the causes for the upsurge in piracy that derive from state failure and the ensuing instability and lawlessness that has ravaged the country. The two key resulting factors are that first, the ineffective TFG lacks any capacity to govern or provide security on land or along its coastline; and second, extreme poverty and lawlessness have spurred the piracy industry and created an incredibly lucrative business[7] with little risk of punishment for those involved.[8] In the third section, the authors examine the prospects of cooperation between the Somali pirates and Islamists (namely al-Shabaab), an issue that is at the center of current debate amongst scholars and security experts. The authors support this claim by demonstrating the mutually beneficial relationship between Somalia’s Islamist insurgents and the pirates.[9] The paper concludes with an evaluation of the international community’s efforts to safeguard the shipping industry which the authors claim is an inefficient, stand alone strategy that is likely to fail in accomplishing its objectives unless a cohesive international response to the root cause of the problem, Somalia’s instability, is undertaken. Without international action that deals with both of these issues, there will likely be a continuation of brazen attacks by pirates and an increasingly successful insurgency by Islamists who may succeed in taking complete control of Somalia.

Who are Somalia’s Pirates?

Andrew Mwangura, the program coordinator for the Seafarers’ Assistance Program in Kenya, argues that the Somali pirates can be divided into four main groups based on their tactics and capabilities.[10] Each group has a unique structure, but all have the same objective – profit. The most sophisticated of the pirate groups are the Somali Marines[11] operating out of central Somalia who have adopted the “mother-ship” model as an operational plan for besieging cargo ships that sail far away from the Somali coast. The Marines commandeer large fishing boats with the capacity to sail long distances and load them with smaller and faster skiffs. This allows the pirates to reach far distances on the mother-ship before transferring to the skiffs which they use to approach and board their targets. The Somali Marines have carried out more than 80% of the piracy in Somalia due to their ability to launch attacks in deep water.[12] Other groups include the Puntland pirates operating from Bosasso, scattered factions based in Marka in the southern coastal region, and the National Volunteer Coast Guard who operate mainly from Kismayo. These groups use modified and many times stolen fishing boats with mounted weapons to carry out piracy and armed sea robbery.


Map of Somalia


Source: United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Map No. 3690 Rev. 7, January 2007.

Many of the pirates operating in Somalia are former fishermen who attack foreign fishing boats claiming that they are illegally fishing Somali waters and threatening their business. This is especially true for the Somali Coast Guard which sees itself as the protector of the Somali fishing industry. “We don't consider ourselves sea bandits,” say members of the Guard. “We consider sea bandits [as] those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas.”[13] As the struggle for government power continues to prevent effective public institutions from forming, Somali pirates are free to take the law into their own hands. Ironically, however, Somali pirates often fulfill the government’s duty to prohibit illegal fishing and smuggling.

Over time, the pirates have developed a sophisticated operational model that has dramatically increased their efficiency and subsequently the frequency of attacks. Their operation consists of an assemblage of three types of groups: (1) ex-fishermen who have intimate knowledge of the sea; (2) ex-militiamen who have manpower, strength and combat skills; and, (3) technical experts who can operate hi-tech equipment such as GPS systems and military hardware to assist with navigation and the detection of shipping targets.[14] The pirates also have an intelligence network based out of certain ports through which they receive information on potential targets and threats.[15] In addition to the core group of men used to hijack ships, there is a broader support operation which includes accountants, negotiators and even local pirate restaurants to prepare food for the crews and hostages.[16] This demonstrates the evolution of piracy from small, ad-hoc groups of opportunistic thugs seeking to defend their waterways from illegal fishing to well organized and resourceful pirates with a resolve to achieve their aims effectively.

Rise in Piracy

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been a developing problem for over a decade. In the wake of Siad Barre’s downfall and the irreconcilable conflict between warring parties that followed, Somalia’s degeneration to a failed state has been a key reason for the rise in piracy off the Somali coast. Without an effective government to administer national institutions and public services, foster economic growth, and enforce law and order, criminality and nefarious activities have flourished. The most significant increase in piracy incidents occurred during 2008. When comparing the incident rate of 2007 to that of 2008, an increase of nearly 200% is noticed in reported instances of piracy on the east coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.[17] It is this sharp rise in incidents and a number of brazen attacks in recent months by the pirates which draw increasing concern from the international community.

The increase in piracy in recent years can be attributed to three main reasons: first, the development of a more sophisticated method of operation has allowed pirates to successfully attack bolder targets and thus reap greater rewards; second, the growth of the region’s maritime industry has increased the number of potential targets; and third, the worsening state of affairs in Somalia has made illegal activities an increasingly attractive and viable business.

Piracy in the region has evolved from small scale attacks to highly organized operations whereby pirates are using advanced technologies and expertise to maximize their effectiveness. For example, pirates groups often are comprised of several units, including security and attack teams, and offer assistance to one another during an operation.[18] In turn, pirates have been able to push their operations farther out to sea and target larger ships that offer substantially greater rewards. The first such attack occurred in late September when a Ukrainian cargo ship, the Faina, was captured. The ship was carrying 33 tanks, small arms, rockets and ammunition, sparking grave concern that the military equipment would fall into the hands of the pirates or even worse, the Islamic militants. On November 17, 2008, a Saudi-owned oil supertanker, the Sirius Star, was seized by pirates in an unprecedented attack, as it was the largest vessel hijacked by pirates to date, carrying barrels of oil worth about $100 million.[19] Another surprising factor in this incident is that the ship was attacked 400 nautical miles out to sea, far deeper than any other previous attack. The pirates emerged victorious from this high profile attack with a ransom payment of US$3 million made to the pirates in early January.[20] The scale of these attacks emphasizes that the pirates are clearly using the ransom money to invest in superior and more sophisticated equipment (including high speed boats, weapons and GPS satellite devices) which increases their attack capabilities. It is estimated that in 2008 between US$18 million and US$30 million in revenues was received by pirates, and it is these extremely high returns that have encouraged the significant growth in the piracy industry.[21]

The Gulf of Aden is the main trade route between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, with approximately 16,000 ships navigating this area each year.[22] The maritime industry off the Somali coast has grown over the years and today, the Gulf of Aden serves as host to 12% of global maritime trade and 30% of the world’s crude oil shipments.[23] Despite the economic slowdown in 2008 and its repercussions for global trade, the Gulf of Aden remains a vital and busy international lane of commerce. Shippers have few alternatives to avoid this route, as the added cost of navigating around the Cape of Good Hope is quite substantial.[24] Pirates thus have a wealth of potential targets that they use to their advantage.

The third major reason for the sharp increase in piracy relates to the dire state of affairs in Somalia which have continued to worsen due to the unrelenting internal conflict, the lack of an effective government, a crippling drought, and limited business prospects. Indeed, in a country “where legitimate business is difficult, where drought means agriculture is nothing more than subsistence farming, and instability and violence make death a very real prospect,”[25] involvement in piracy is seemingly worth any perceived risks. Some analysts would go as far as claiming that due to the recent global food prices hikes which have exacerbated the calamitous living conditions in war-torn Somalia, a growing number of Somalis have been enticed to embrace piracy.[26] At the same time, piracy is having a negative impact on Somalia’s already devastating humanitarian crisis, as humanitarian aid shipments (primarily food) have been disrupted either as the result of a direct attack on a ship or due to decreased shipments stemming from the increased risk.[27]

Weak Government and Lack of Security

The prevalence of Somali piracy can be attributed predominantly to the lack of an effective government since the downfall of Siad Barre in 1991, resulting in an unremitting period of conflict that has allowed criminality to flourish undeterred. The only period in Somalia’s seventeen years of chaos that can be considered an exception in terms of security provision occurred during the latter part of 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) gained power. The ICU brought a period of relative stability which also allowed businesses and state facilities to operate with relative ease, boosting confidence in the business sector and spurring investment money to once again flow into Somalia’s economy.[28] As the ICU began instating law and order in an anarchic Somalia, piracy was substantially curbed. The ICU’s resolve to combat piracy and “tame their crime-plagued fiefdom” appears to have been successful during this period due to their threat to employ harsh Sharia-based punishments (execution and amputation) to those involved in piracy.[29] The improvement to Somalia’s economy also provided a growing number of Somalis with a livelihood which gave hope and encouragement to participate in the formal economy, as opposed to involvement in nefarious acts such as piracy. The lull in piracy ended after Ethiopian troops, with the tacit support of the United States and the Somali president, invaded Somalia in late 2006.[30] The Ethiopians ousted the ICU and ended Somalia’s short period of stability. Analysts point to the ICU’s rule to illustrate that an effective government in Somalia that can instill law and order is key to promoting stability and stifling the chaos and criminality rampant across the country.[31]

Fourteen attempts have been made since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991 to construct a functioning Somali government. However, they have been unsuccessful due to the immense difficulty of reconciling the warring clans, many of which have strongly opposed foreign intervention by Ethiopia. The current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is the most recent attempt, although it is nearing collapse. Formed in 2004, the TFG governed from neighboring Kenya until February 2006, when Parliament convened for the first time in Somalia. Despite receiving a significant amount of foreign aid since it began governing from within Somalia, the TFG has not had the resources, internal support, or influence to provide security on land, let alone guard its coastline. Although the TFG is backed by the U.S. and its Ethiopian ally, it has failed to gain recognition and legitimacy from the population due to a lack of unity and internal strife from clan competition and disagreements. In the words of African expert John Prendergast, the TFG is considered “feeble, faction-ridden, corrupt and incompetent.”[32]

Piracy as a Lucrative Business

The most profitable year ever for the pirates was 2008, with Kenya’s foreign minister stating that more than $150 million was paid in ransoms.[33] Piracy is an industry that awards handsome profits and is an increasingly attractive option in a country with dwindling economic opportunities.[34] “All you need is three guys and a little boat, and the next day you’re millionaires,”[35] said Abdullahi Omar Qawden, a former captain in Somalia’s now defunct navy. In fact, according to reports, conspicuously extravagant residential buildings have sprung up all over Somalia’s poverty-stricken towns, raising questions as to the origins of this unaccounted capital influx. Newfound riches plundered from large shipping corporations as ransom for their crews and cargo have lined the pockets of Somalis and awarded them lavish lifestyles. “They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns,” says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in Garowe. “Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.”[36] As long as piracy is “trendy” for disenfranchised Somali citizens, the industry can be expected to develop and expand over time.

Although the piracy industry is managed and run by Somali citizens engaged in criminal activity, the economic benefits of piracy are not limited to Somalia’s private sector. “Believe me, a lot of our money has gone straight into the government’s pockets,” said Farah Ismail Eid, a captured pirate sentenced to fifteen years in jail. Farah carefully detailed his team’s payment structure whereby 20% of the spoils went to his bosses, another 20% went toward future missions to cover weapons, food and other vital materials, 30% went to the mission members, and the last portion of 30% was allocated to government officials.[37] Various experts, including political analysts, NGO workers and government sources, further corroborate the claim that piracy funds are being channeled into government coffers. According to Roger Middleton, a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, “all significant political actors in Somalia are likely benefiting from piracy.”[38] Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Somalia, Ahmedour Ould-Abdallah, has stated that the “Puntland leadership has made it easy for pirates to establish a base there” and that ransom money would “be used to fund the 2009 presidential elections in Puntland.”[39]

Source: “The Fragmentation of Somalia,” The Economist, 4 October 2007.

Government officials in Somaliland, a breakaway region in Somalia, say they recently carried out a sting operation on the nephew of Puntland region President Mohamud Muse Hirsi and found him carrying $22,000 in cash when they arrested him.[40] Occurrences like this and numerous first-hand accounts of pirates admitting to paying off public officials give rise to suspicion of the direct involvement of government members in the sanction and support of piracy in Somalia.

Ineffective government and the lucrative incentives of the piracy industry are the two core issues of the current piracy crisis. While international attempts to combat piracy at sea are a necessary short term tactic, the long term strategy must entail greater international commitment towards the development of a comprehensive strategy to enhance security not only within Somalia, but also at the regional level. Piracy destabilizes the international shipping industry and, more worryingly, also contributes to the escalation of Somalia’s Islamist insurgency. The continuation of this insurgency will likely have dire consequences for regional security, a view expressed by terrorism expert J. Peter Pham who has stated, “it is intolerable that the lawlessness [in Somalia] should spill over and threaten the security of neighboring states like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen, as well as global commerce as a whole, much less that it should augment the already considerable terrorist challenge.”[41]

Escalating Security Dilemma

Review of Somalia Crisis

Since the ICU was ousted in early 2007, al-Shabaab has launched an increasingly vicious insurgency against the TFG and allied Ethiopian troops. Daily fighting primarily in Mogadishu has resulted in approximately 9,000 civilians killed this year alone, according to some reports, and hundreds of thousands fleeing war stricken zones.[42] Roadside bombings, explosions, regular gunfire and the resolve of the Islamists have presented an almost impossible situation for the Ethiopian troops to overcome. The Islamic militants continue to tighten their grip on the country, having now gained control over most of southern Somalia and other key ports and towns along the coastline. The TFG controls only parts of Mogadishu and Baidoa[43] which emphasizes their precarious position and the immense difficulty of solidifying control amidst ongoing UN-mediated peace talks.

Fueling the Insurgency

The most troubling aspect of the current piracy crisis is the increasing evidence confirming that Islamic insurgents are benefiting from the pirates’ success. In September 2008, a Greek-owned trade ship carrying a cargo of salt destined for Mombasa, Kenya was hijacked and redirected to a southern port in Somalia controlled by Islamists, rather than back to the usual pirate bases in the north-eastern region of the country near the Gulf of Aden.[44] Indeed, the southern port of Kismayo was recently taken over by al-Shabaab which has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States and has suspected connections with al-Qa’ida. Former notorious pirate cum radical Islamic leader Yusuf Mohamed Siad, better known by his nickname Inda’ade, is a member of al-Shabaab and the strongman in Kismayo.[45] Using the ransom money and broad connections with various pirate groups in the country, Inda’ade funds and provides weapons for the al-Shabaab insurgency in Kismayo.[46] Cooperation between Islamists and pirates also extends beyond the city of Kismayo to the Puntland region in the north, as Islamists sent trucks from Mogadishu to the Gulf of Aden to unload weapons from the captured Faina.[47] According to Bruno Schiemsky, a Somali analyst based in Kenya, al-Shabaab has joined forces with the pirates, offering combat training in return for lessons on hijacking ships at sea.[48]

An October 2008 report by Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor examines the strengthening relationship between Somali Islamists and piracy, warranting concerns that the ramifications of piracy are far more sinister than the threat to the shipping industry. The report identifies three areas in which the two entities cooperate: arms trafficking, investment in piracy, and training. Arms trafficking has been essential for the insurgents and their fight against the Ethiopian-backed forces, insofar as it enables the Islamists to hire the pirates, due to their extensive maritime knowledge, connections and resources, to smuggle weapons and foreign fighters. This was evident when pirates delivered a shipment of explosives and missiles to Sheikh Hassan Abdulle Hersi (a.k.a. Hassan al-Turki) in May 2008.[49] In terms of investment, cooperation is based on mutual benefit, with al-Shabaab receiving a share of the ransoms - “pirate groups are shipping arms to the insurgents, who are also supplying some pirates with weapons and training in return for a share of their ransoms.”[50] It is claimed that between 20% and 50% of the ransom money is at times received by al-Shabaab, depending on the level of cooperation.[51] Training is also part of the cooperation package, making the pirates increasingly efficient at the benefit of both al-Shabaab and the pirates. Training is a two-way endeavor: the pirates receive training from al-Shabaab to increase their military proficiency, and the pirates provide al-Shabaab with training for the development of their maritime component.[52] According to J. Peter Pham, there is “credible intelligence that…al-Shabaab…is trying to create a small naval force of its own,”[53] which would create a serious deterioration of security not only for Somalia but, even more worryingly, for the entire region.

Despite reports that illustrate the operational collaboration between the Islamic militants and pirates in Somalia, a RAND Corporation report on the maritime dimension of international security declared, “the objectives of the two actors [pirates and terrorists] remain entirely distinct.”[54] The rationale for this argument is based on the diverging long-term interests of terrorists, whose aim is the complete destruction of international trade and commercial markets, and Somali pirates whose strategy is profit-driven and thus actually benefits from a functioning international trade system. Though this theory is accurate at the ideological level, it cannot explain the convergence of the pirates and Islamists towards the same, short-term, practical ends – high sea robbery. In reality, the Islamists show a great deal of pragmatism by working with the secular pirates to attain weapons and money, while opportunistic pirates are obliged to cooperate with the Islamists to ensure that their activities continue uninterrupted.

International Response

International action to contain Somalia’s piracy crisis developed as a response to an increasing number of states that have suffered pirate attacks off the Somali coast. Countries that have been directly targeted by Somali pirates, including the U.S., UK, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, India, Germany, France, China and others have sent warships to protect their national shipping industries and to safeguard UN World Food Program (WFP) shipments destined for bereft Somalis by establishing “safe” shipping lanes. Success in doing so has been limited due to the sheer distance of Somalia’s coastline which extends over 3,300 km. With the recent capture of the Sirius Star by pirates at such a great distance out at sea, it is estimated that between five to seven million square miles require protection,[55] an amount that naval resources cannot possibly cover. Regional organizations have similarly deployed frigates and warships to enhance maritime security. The European Union adopted the decision on December 8, 2008, to launch a military operation called EU NAVFOR Somalia, which will include up to six frigates and three maritime patrol aircraft, utilizing approximately 1,200 people at any one time, at an estimated cost of EURO 8.3 million.[56] In late October 2008, NATO established a maritime presence off the Somali coast – the NATO Task Group of Operation Allied Provider – consisting of three vessels mandated to escort ships carrying WFP cargo and to carry out deterrence duties. The international community has, however, been slow in responding to the crisis, which has been escalating quite evidently throughout the past year.

Piracy has been an increasingly important issue for the UN throughout 2008, as is evident with Security Council resolutions 1801 (2008), 1816 (2008), 1838 (2008), 1844 (2008), 1846 (2008), and most recently 1851 (2008) which all make explicit reference to the growing concern over piracy and provide recommendations for action. The importance of these resolutions is firstly to ensure that piracy off the Somali coast and its threat to international peace and security remain on the agenda of the international community. Secondly, they provide the legal framework for international action. For instance, prior to UN Security Council Resolution 1816 which gave authorization to states cooperating with the TFG to “enter the territorial waters of Somalia and use ‘all necessary means’ to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea,”[57] states were prohibited from entering Somali waters to pursue pirates. The resolution is a welcomed development, as it allows countries to circumvent the 1972 Law on the Territorial Sea and Ports which legally recognizes that Somali territorial waters extend 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometers) from the shoreline.[58] The downside of the resolution is that it permits international action against pirates only on the high seas. Thus, without a clearly defined system for prosecuting suspected pirates (Somalia lacks any capacity to do so), the resolution will not likely be as effective as it could. The signing of an agreement between the United Kingdom and Kenya in early December that sets provisions for Britain to hand over suspected pirates to Kenya for trial enhances the applicability of this resolution. However, there remain numerous obstacles.[59] While removing the legal barrier for prosecuting Somali pirates in a host country improves the international community’s capacity for combating piracy, discrepancies remain in relation to legal jurisdiction. For example, Yemen is challenging the jurisdiction of Kenyan courts, stating that the eight Somali pirates captured in Yemeni waters should be handed over to Yemeni authorities and not to the Kenyan authorities.[60] Consequently, the trials have been delayed, something that will likely continue due to legal uncertainty.

On December 16, 2008, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1851 which authorized for the first time international operations against pirates on Somali soil. Advancements of this kind further reinforce the international community’s capacity to fight piracy in Somali waters. Pursuant to the request of the TFG which appealed for international assistance in a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Security Council authorized all states capable of lending assistance to undertake all necessary measures “appropriate in Somalia” to interdict the pirates at sea and on land. Such action will nevertheless entail a substantial risk due to likely resistance from warlords and pirates onshore whose interest is to defend their operations. Similarly, Islamists will likely act to repel any international presence on Somali land in order to prevent further obstacles to gaining complete control over Somalia. In the words of an unnamed al-Shabaab member, “Our goal is to have Sharia as the permanent law of our country, and to get the infidels out of our country, whether they are Ethiopian or Americans.”[61] It thus remains to be seen if or how international forces will utilize this provision.


The international community must recognize the grave threat to regional and international security posed by a developing relationship between Islamists and pirates in Somalia. States must work together to develop a comprehensive strategy that addresses not only security offshore, but also the root causes onshore. The authors call for four specific policies that the international community should adopt. First, the actors involved in the fight against piracy must implement the UN Secretary General’s recommendations to bolster existing efforts aimed at combating piracy and promoting stability in Somalia.[62] One such method should involve expanding the sphere of operations of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), authorized under UN Security Council Resolution 1744 (2007), to include a military component to tackle piracy onshore. At present the majority of funding for AMISOM originates from external organizations and donor states,[63] as most AU member states have resource limitations. Thus, the United Nations should take the lead in coordinating international funding, logistical support, training and equipment in order to enhance AMISOM’s operational capacity to bring security and stability to Somalia.

Second, in addition to the maintenance and expansion of AMISOM’s capabilities, the authors believe a UN-mandated maritime task force empowered with offensive military capabilities for sea and land-based operations against pirates is essential for any attempt to undermine the pirates. While Security Council Resolution 1851 sets the provisions for land based action against pirates, a force that is mandated and equipped specifically to carry out offensive operations against piracy has a far greater chance of debilitating the industry. Such a force should be fully integrated with AMISOM and given the appropriate means to work closely with other international parties operating in the region. The establishment of such a maritime force may, however, be met with hesitation by UN members reluctant to commit forces to a land based campaign in Somalia, especially as the threat of a power vacuum looms after the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and the takeover of Islamists. Moreover, the American experience in the early 1990s has ensured a continuous unwillingness by western governments to get involved in a land campaign in Somalia. A maritime task force would also require substantial financial resources which will be difficult to assemble given the present global economic climate.

Third, it is imperative that the international community take a united stand against the pirates in respect to their demands for ransom. Piracy is largely the result of the troubled political environment which offers little economic alternatives other than crime to Somali citizens. A policy led by international shipping companies and their governments of not capitulating to ransom demands should lower the incentives for pirates to continue operations. An inherent drawback is that once a policy such as this is introduced, the pirates could change their tactics and hijack ships not primarily for the ransom, but for the cargo itself. However, it would be much more difficult to steal cumbersome cargo from ships and would demand an entire reorganization of the piracy industry’s methods of operation. This would be very costly and time consuming in the least, if not impossible.

Fourth, improved clarity regarding the legality of regional countries prosecuting captured pirates is essential if this strategy for deterring piracy is to be effective. A greater number of countries operating in the area must sign agreements with regional neighbors to lay out the necessary legal provisions for the extradition and trial of captured pirates.

Thus, the authors believe that a strategy that offers any hope of success must combine two approaches. First, a coordinated and comprehensive effort aimed at undermining piracy at sea which includes a united international stance against capitulation to pirate demands, enhancing the clarity of provisions relating to the capture, extradition and prosecution of pirates, as well as a UN-mandated maritime task force with the military capabilities to pursue pirates at sea and on land. The second approach must be directed at improving security within Somalia which means finding a political solution.

With the TFG facing imminent collapse and Ethiopian troops in the process of pulling out of Somalia, the Islamists are sure to receive a boost in confidence and power which will further destabilize the country and threaten international peace and security. As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, it is imperative that anti-piracy efforts “be placed in the context of a comprehensive approach…to rebuild security, governance capacity, address human rights issues and harness economic opportunities throughout the country.”[64] Only greater international commitment and a more comprehensive approach to this regional and international security crisis would increase the chances for the eradication of piracy and its contribution to the campaign of Islamic radicalism in Somalia.




[1]Article 1 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), defines piracy as: “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft; (c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).

[2] Middleton, Roger. “Piracy in Somalia – Threatening trade, feeding local wars”, Chatham House. October 2008. p.1.dleton. “Piracy in Somalia.” p.1.

[3] Ibid. pp. 8-10. The Gulf of Aden is an important shipping route for manufactured goods and oil from the Middle East and Asia.

[4] The United States designated al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization on 29 February, 2008, describing it as a “violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al-Qa’ida… [and that] Many of its senior leaders are believed to have trained and fought with al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan”. “Designation of Al-Shabaab”, U.S. Department of State Press Release, 28 March 2008. Notable figures of al-Shabaab have provided safe havens for al-Qa’ida’s East Africa cell during the late 1990s. Menkhaus, Ken. “Terrorist Activities in Ungoverned Spaces: Evidence and Observations from the Horn of Africa.” The Brenthurst Foundation. January 2007, p. 10. []

[5] “Unholy High Seas Alliance.” Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor. 31 October, 2008.

[6] “On the Border of Crime and Insurgency”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 January, 2001.

[7] Piracy has brought tremendous wealth and status to the perpetrators and is transforming villages into boomtowns with lavish restaurants, hotels and shops springing up to provide for the new wealth. In the coastal towns of Haradhere, Eyl and Bossaso, luxury cars, lavish houses and restaurants are appearing at a rapid rate as the pirate economy skyrockets. Even catering that prepares western-style food for the hostages have been employed. Hassan, Mohamed Olad. “Somali pirates transform villages into boomtowns.” Associated Press. 19 November 2008. []

[8] Whilst some pirates have been arrested, the potentiality for sharing in the extremely large ransom payouts is a big enough incentive to continue their involvement.

[9] See, for example, “Unholy high sea alliance”, and an interview with J. Peter Pham, “The Pirates of Somalia.” PBS. 21 November 2008. [].

[10] Mwangura, Andrew. “African Sea Pirates.” European Community on Protection (ECOP) – Marine. []

[11] “Malaysia starts talks on hostages, has 65 hostages in Somalia; 4 known pirate groups listed.” United Filipino Seafarers. 2 September 2008. []

[12] West, Sunguta. “Piracy Revenues Financing Warlords in Somali Insurgency.” Terrorism Focus. Vol. 4, No. 42. 30 December 2007. []

[13] Axe, David. “Future Face of Conflict: No Quick Solutions to Pirate Crisis.” World Politics Review. 6 October 2008. []

[14] Hunter, Robyn. “Somali pirates living the high life.” BBC News OnLine. 28 October 2008. []

[15] De Nesnera, A. “Pirates Step Up Attacks on Vessels in Gulf of Aden, Off Somalia Coast.” Voice of America. 4 November 2008. []

[16] Harper, Mary. “Life in Somalia's pirate town.” BBC News OnLine. 18 September 2008. []

[17] The International Maritime Bureau of the ICC reports that out of the 293 worldwide incidents of piracy reported in 2008, 111 occurred in Somali waters. Whereas global piracy increased in 2008 by 11%, Somali pirates increased their activity by almost 200%. “IMB reports unprecedented rise in maritime hijackings.” International Chamber of Commerce. 16 January 2009. []

[18] Schiemsky, Bruno. “Piracy’s rising tide – Somali piracy develops and diversifies.” Jane’s Intelligence Review. 20 January 2009.

[19] Kaslowsky, Raissa, and Webb, Simon. “Pirates Hijack Oil Supertanker off East Africa.” Mail and Guardian. 25 November 2008. []

[20] “Timeline – Ethiopia pulls out from Somali capital.” Reuters. 13 January 2009. []

[21] Schiemsky, Bruno. “Piracy’s rising tide – Somali piracy develops and diversifies.” Jane’s Intelligence Review. 20 January 2009.

[22] Brice, Arthur. “Somali piracy threatens trade, boosts terrorists, analysts say.” CNN. 1 October 2008. []

[23] “The year Somali pirates challenged the world.” The Economic Times. 15 December 2008. []

[24] A report produced by the U.S. Department of Transportation clearly illustrates the added costs in time and resources involved in avoiding the Gulf of Aden to travel the safer route around the Cape of Good Hope. “Economic Impact of Piracy in the Gulf of Aden on Global Trade.” U.S. Department of Transportation. 12 December 2008. []

[25] Middleton, “Piracy in Somalia.” p.5.

[26] Baldauf, Scott. “Who are Somalia’s pirates?” The Christian Science Monitor. 21 November 2008. []

A report by Chatham House similarly raises the point that pirates weigh the risks of engaging in piracy and benefiting from massive rewards and non-engagement, in a country “where legitimate business is difficult, where drought means agriculture is nothing more than subsistence farming, and instability and violence make death a very real prospect”. Middleton, “Piracy in Somalia.” p.5.

[27] “Special Report: Somalia – the impact of piracy on livelihoods and food security in Somalia.” Famine Early Warning Systems Network. USAID. p.1.

[28] Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Islamists Calm Somali Capital with Restrain.” New York Times. 24 September 2006. Available online: [ =2&n=Top/ Reference/Times%20Topics/Subjects/R/Religion%20and%20Belief&_r=1]

[29] A similar punishment was handed down to those who committed serious crimes including murder. Freeman, Colin and Stares, Justin. “Pirates Fear the Lash of Sharia Law.” Telegraph. 14 October 2006. []

[30] “Piracy Resumes in Somalia.” Terrorism Focus. Vol. 4, No. 9. 10 April 2007.

[31] See Middleton, “Piracy in Somalia.” p. 3. and, Freeman, Colin & Stares. “Pirates Fear the Lash of Sharia Law.” Telegraph. 14 October 2006. []

[32] Hanson, Stephanie & Kaplan, Eben. “Somalia’s Transitional Government.” Council on Foreign Affairs. Updated 12 May, 2008.

[33] “Pirates ‘gained $150m this year.’” BBC News OnLine. 21 November 2008. []

[34] Somalia’s state failure led to an extremely volatile situation with fierce fighting between warlords, clans and Islamists and an escalating conflict that has displaced over a million people since 2007. Drought, prolonged conflict, and lack of governance have created a humanitarian crisis in which 43% of the population are in need of international aid. “Somalia Humanitarian Overview.” Relief Web. Vol.1, No. 8. August 2008.

[35] Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Somalia’s Pirates Flourish in a Lawless Nation.” New York Times. 30 October 2008. []

[36] Hunter. “Somali Pirates Living the High Life.”

[37] Gettleman. “Somalia’s Pirates Flourish in a Lawless Nation.”

[38] Ibid.

[39] Pham, Peter “Strategic Interests: Time to Hunt Somali Pirates.” World Defense Review. 23 September 2008.

[40] Gettleman. “Somalia’s Pirates Flourish in a Lawless Nation.”

[41] Pham. “Strategic Interests: Time to Hunt Somali Pirates.”

[42] “The world’s most utterly failed state.” The Economist. 2 October, 2008. []

[43] “Islamic fighters take over Somali port.” Mail and Guardian. 12 November, 2008. []

[44] Pham, Peter. “The Challenge of Somali Piracy.” Atlantic Council of the United States. 29 September 2008. []

[45] Ryu, Alisha. “Pirate Ransom Helped Somalia Islamist Militants Seize Port.” Voice of America. 27 August 2008 [ 6&CFTOKEN=81781269]

[46] Ibid.

[47] Crilly, Rob. “Islamists plunder weapons from hijacked ship in Somalia.” Times Online. 29 September 2008 []

[48] Ibid.

[49] “Unholy high sea alliance.” Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor. 31 October 2008.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] “The Pirates of Somalia.” PBS. 21 November 2008. []

[54] Chalk, Peter. “The Maritime Dimension of International Security.” RAND Corporation. 2008. p.31.

[55] “Modern-day Somali Pirates Increase Attacks.” PBS. 19 November 2008. []

[56] “Military operation of the EU NAVFOR Somalia.” December 2008. []

[57] United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1816. 2 June 2008.

[58] Law No. 37 on the Territorial Sea and Ports, Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Article 1. Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations. 10 September 1972. [] The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets the provisions for the breadth of territorial waters as 12 nautical miles, but for which exceptions can be made such as in the case of Somalia. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 10 December 1982.

[59] Houreld, Katherine. “UK, Kenya sign agreement to prosecute pirates.” Associated Press. 11 December 2008. []

[60] McKenzie, David. “Somali men accused of piracy face January trial.” CNN. 11 December 2008. []

[61] “Meeting Somalia’s Islamist insurgents.” BBC News OnLine. 28 April 2008. []

[62] “Piracy problem inseparable from overall Somali crisis, Ban warns.” UN News Centre. 16 December 2008. []

[63] Hull, Cecilia & Svensson, Emma.“African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM): Exemplifying African Union Peacekeeping Challenges.” Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). October 2008. p.29, 36.

[64] “Piracy problem inseparable from overall Somali crisis, Ban warns.” UN News Centre.