Piracy in Somalia

Threatening global trade, feeding local wars




1. Piracy around Somalia

1.1 How the pirates operate

1.2 Where the pirates originate

1.3 Ransoms

1.4 New trends

1.5 The international response

Box 1: A victim’s story

2. Why it matters to the international community

2.1 What piracy does to Somalia

2.2 What piracy does to international trade

2.3 Potential environmental catastrophe

2.4 Possible co-opting by international terrorist networks

Box 2: Private security and Somali piracy

3. Options for the international community

3.1 Organize shipping into a safe lane

3.2 Provide a coastguard for Somalia

3.3 A large naval presence

3.4 Pay no ransoms

3.5 Do nothing

4.Anti-piracy measures. Military presence


List of addresses

Summary points

  • Piracy off the coast of Somalia has more than doubled in 2008; so far over 60 ships have been attacked. Pirates are regularly demanding and receiving million-dollar ransom payments and are becoming more aggressive and assertive.

  • The international community must be aware of the danger that Somali pirates could become agents of international terrorist networks. Already money from ransoms is helping to pay for the war in Somalia, including funds to the US terror-listed Al-Shabaab.

  • The high level of piracy is making aid deliveries to drought-stricken Somalia ever more difficult and costly. The World Food Programme has already been forced to temporarily suspend food deliveries. Canada is now escorting WFP deliveries but there are no plans in place to replace their escort when it finishes later this year.

  • The danger and cost of piracy (insurance premiums for the Gulf of Aden have increased tenfold) mean that shipping could be forced to avoid the Gulf of Aden/Suez Canal and divert around the Cape of Good Hope. This would add considerably to the costs of manufactured goods and oil from Asia and the Middle East. At a time of high inflationary pressures, this should be of grave concern.

  • Piracy could cause a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Aden if a tanker is sunk or run aground or set on fire. The use of ever more powerful weaponry makes this increasingly likely.

  • There are a number of options for the international community but ignoring the problem is not one of them. It must ensure that WFP deliveries are protected and that gaps in supply do not occur.


Piracy1 off the coast of Somalia is growing at an alarming rate and threatens to drastically disrupt international trade. It provides funds that feed the vicious war in Somalia and could potentially become a weapon of international terrorism or a cause of environmental disaster. For long piracy has been a problem mostly associated with the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia, but it is now a growing issue for fragile African states. Up to 25 September 2008, 61 actual and attempted hijacks had been recorded by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau (IMB) . In the last week of August 2008 alone four vessels were captured, and the year has seen Somali piracy rise up the news agenda, propelled by the capture of the Luxury yacht Le Ponant and the kidnap of a German couple who had been sailing their yacht through the Gulf of Aden. Since the end of 2007 piracy activity has shifted away from the Mogadishu port area and into the Gulf of Aden. The actual number of attacks could well be higher: not all incidents will have been reported as there is much illegal activity in Somali waters, and the official statistics do not measure the impact of piracy on Somali coastal trade. Some 16,000 ships a year pass through the Gulf of Aden, carrying oil from the Middle East and goods from Asia to Europe and North America. So one of the most important trade routes in the world is now threatened by the chronic instability in Somalia. Piracy has been a problem in Somali waters for at least ten years. However, the number of attempted and successful attacks has risen over the last three years. The only period during which piracy virtually vanished around Somalia was during the six months of rule by the Islamic Courts Union in the second half of 2006. This indicates that a functioning government in Somalia is capable of controlling piracy. After the removal of the courts piracy re-emerged. With little functioning government, long, isolated, sandy beaches and a population that is both desperate and used to war, Somalia is a perfect environment for piracy to thrive.

1. Piracy around Somalia

1.1 How the pirates operate

Pirates operate using small skiffs with powerful outboard engines that can be pulled up onto the beach. These boats are fast and maneuverable but they lack the range necessary for richer pickings. Pirates now regularly use ‘mother ships’ to increase their range. The IMB recently put out a warning identifying potential mother ships.2 These are generally fishing trawlers that the pirates capture closer to shore and then use as staging posts for attacks further out to sea. Reports from a Yemeni fishing vessel that appears to have been used as a mother ship indicate that the pirates patrolled the entrance to the Gulf of Aden in the captured vessel and then deserted it in their skiffs once a suitable target was spotted. The use of mother ships helps to explain how pirates have managed to increase their range so dramatically; the old warning to stay at least 50 nautical miles from the coast has now been replaced by warnings to stay at least 200 nautical miles away. It is generally thought that from sighting pirates to being boarded takes approximately fifteen minutes. Such a short space of time helps to explain why even with international patrols in the area ships are still captured. To prevent an attack a naval vessel would need to be close and have a helicopter ready to go at moment’s notice. This is not to say that prevention is impossible: the USS Peleliu was able to scare pirates away from the Gem of Kilakari on 8 August 2008 after launching helicopters, but the Peleliu was only ten miles away and able to respond quickly. In other circumstances captains must take whatever evasive action they can. In one instance a tugboat put itself into a high-speed spin and continued until the attackers gave up and left. Other less nauseous ways of preventing boarding include sonic cannon and water guns. Sonic cannon can only point in one direction, however, so an attack by more than one skiff renders them ineffective. The other serious complaint about using non-lethal weapons to deter pirates is the lack of protection they offer to crew members, who become sitting targets for pirates with automatic weapons and rocket launchers while operating the device. It is possible to identify the factors that make a ship more vulnerable: low sides, low speed, low crew numbers and lack of adequate watch-keeping. Pirates have consistently targeted ships with low sides (including Le Ponant and the Danica White) as these are easier to board from their own low skiffs. At present it seems that scaling the high sides of large oil tankers is beyond their capabilities. It should be pointed out that this did not prevent them from taking speculative pot shots at the Japanese tanker MV Takayama with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).3 Low speeds also make a vessel more vulnerable; the pirates’ small vessels can move fast and sluggish transport tankers and pleasure yachts will have difficulty evading determined attackers. There is little that a ship-owner with a slow, low-sided ship can do in such circumstances. But some problems can be ameliorated. Low crew numbers have become increasingly common as higher insurance premiums and fuel costs cut into ship-owner’s margins. Without a full complement of crew it is impossible to maintain a sufficient watch in dangerous waters, making evasive measures less effective.

1.2 Where the pirates originate

Puntland, the semi-autonomous region in the northeast of the country, appears to be the base for most pirates in Somalia. A small number of acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden may originate in Yemen but most illegal activity originating there is connected to fishing and protecting fishing grounds. Traditionally, most pirates, including the infamous Afweyne, come from Harardheere (Xaradheere) and Hobyo in Central Somalia – although Afweyne is reportedly unlikely to be involved in current operations. The Mayor of Eyl has asserted that ‘the pirates who hijacked the ships are the same ones who received ransom payments before’. This would support other reports that the pirates are not engaged only in one-off attacks but are in the business for the long term. The fact that the pirates originate from Puntland is significant as this is also the home region of President Abdullahi Yusuf. As one expert said, ‘money will go to Yusuf as a gesture of goodwill to a regional leader – so even if the higher echelons of Somali government and clan structure are not directly involved in organizing piracy, they probably do benefit. Puntland is one of the poorest areas of Somalia, so the financial attraction of piracy is strong. Somalia’s fishing industry has collapsed in the last fifteen years and its waters are being heavily fished by European, Asian and African ships. Some pirates have claimed that they are involved in protecting Somalia’s natural resources and that ransom payments should be viewed as legitimate taxation. Indeed the pirates captured by France following the Le Ponant incident had a manual of good conduct. In any case, in a region 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, the dangers of engaging in piracy must be weighed against the potentially massive returns. (An unsubstantiated rumour offers a further hint as to the emergence of piracy in Somalia and illustrates how good intentions can backfire. In the 1990s a private security firm had a contract to establish coastguard facilities. The exercise fizzled out but some analysts now trace the nautical skills of the pirates to that experiment and anecdotal evidence suggests that equipment meant for the coastguard has been used in piracy expeditions. Captured sailors have also reported that pirates who held them claimed to have been former coastguards – see Box 1.) The small village of Eyl and others right up to the tip of Somalia have played host to many recently hijacked ships. The pirates have generally taken captured vessels to small ports like Eyl and held them there until ransom has been paid. The notable exception to this rule was the case of Juen K. and Sabine M., the German achters taken into the mountains and held on land ordays until they were released on 9 August following a ransom payment believed to be between alf-a-million and one million dollars.14 Clearly, the difference here was that the vessel itself held no value but the two sailors did.

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