Illustration: Laura Rokaite

Nelson Moura,

Correspondent (Politics)


Sea piracy isn’t by any chance a current trend and is certainly not a long-gone practice. Pirate activity is common from the waters of the Caribbean to the waters of Southeast Asia and piracy in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have been constant since the silk road trade. However, since 2005, a wave of piracy, with its basis in the Somali coast lead to a surge of high human and financial cost.

According to reports from the World Bank and Oceans Beyond Piracy on the cost of Somali piracy, at its peak in 2011 there were almost 250 piracy incidents and almost 50 vessels were hijacked with 3,863 seafarers being fired upon by Somali pirates with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades and 1,206 people held hostage.

This increase in piracy has led to a major disruption of shipping on the horn of Africa, with about 340 million dollars paid in ransoms and  the total cost of piracy in global trade was calculated in 28 billion dollars.

These made piracy in the region a major economical and humanitarian issue for the international community and many measures were implemented to try and resolve it.

Somali pirates

What made piracy such an appealing prospect for Somalis is still a topic of debate. One of the accepted main reasons for it has been attributed to the inability of Somali fisherman to compete with more modern methods used by foreign illegal fishing vessels. After the collapse of the regime of former President Siad Barre in 1991 that plunged the country into civil war, many fishermen fleets from Europe and Asia started moving illegally to the now unprotected Somali coastline.

The local fishermen, who still relied on more traditional and less advanced fishing methods could not compete with the modern and industrial fishing fleets that started exploring the fish stocks into exhaustion.

This decimated the former livelihood of thousands of Somali fishermen who turned into ransom piracy as a way of sustenance, exploring the immense amount of ‘new preys’ present on strategic located coastline for maritime trade .

“There are plenty of reasons in the end,” says Christian Bueger, a researcher of the global governance of maritime piracy from Cardiff University. “First of all, hostage taking and kidnapping is an age-old Somali practice; they have been doing for many many years. When you combine that with weak law enforcement, people with seafaring skills and you put that all together, plus some very creative people and they come up with kidnapping and ransom piracy.”

In order to organise a pirate attack, a group would have to pass through three steps. It would have to gather manpower, commanders and instigators who would organise the missions and coordinate the ransom negotiations, and  crew members to sail boats towards the prey, attack and board them, bring the hijacked vessel to the Somali coastline and the guard it while the negotiations took place.

It would have to gather enough capital to purchase motor boats with powerful engines, supplies, energy and weapons for the takeover such as AK-47s and RPG’s rocket propelled grenades. Last but not the least, political capital was vital for Somali piracy. The possibility to anchor hijacked boats for months and even years and a political and social environment where officials, militia commanders, religious leaders, members of local communities, clan representatives and others condone and support piracy.

Many ransom pirates also started resorting to a nationalist philosophy that saw piracy as a way to fight back against the illegal fishing and waste dumping international ships carried in Somali waters. Their main tactic would be hijacking a Dhow, a big fishing vessel traditional in the region, and use it as a mothership; the long range capacity of this boat would allow them to conduct piracy operations in further distances from the coast.

So at the peak of pirate activity, the region affected by Somali piracy attacks can be defined as the North, East and Southern coast of Somalia with past attacks reaching such regions as the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Some past attacks have taken place more than 1,000 nautical miles from the Somali coast near the Pakistani and Indian coast.

“The usual tactic between 2009 and 2012 would be to have one mothership, and then two or three smaller skiffs (smaller motorboats) that basically circle the vessel,” says Bueger. Then these skiffs would attack and hijack unsuspecting passing vessels.

In a country ravaged by war, poverty and famine the incredible amount of cash in the hands of pirates was extremely attractive for the Somali unemployed youth. Although it is still open for debate on whether piracy was profitable for most of the involved. “You have to think about piracy as any other business,” says Bueger, “You usually have an investor, a manager of the piracy operation, then you would have a couple of sub-managers and then you have the foot soldiers.

“The ransom is split up according to this task, in a different chair. So for the investor it pays off, he doesn’t necessarily have to be a Somali, he can be Saudi Arabian or Somalis in other countries investing lets say about 20 thousands with an expected record of three to five million plus operation costs.”

“If you’re in the middle management, you can expect something like 30 or 40 thousand dollars if the attack as successful. It gets interesting when you get to the lower ranks. Let’s assume you are one of the guys who hijacked the vessel. Now you think ‘hurray, we have captured a vessel and we’ll be rich men’ and you start spending of course. You think you are now a rich man and everyone in the village will give you credit. You want to chew some khat (a very popular natural narcotic in the region), women, and alcohol because you want to live like a rich man.”

“The end result is that for many of the low rank pirates once the ransom finally comes in after five or six months there’s not that much left. You might end up with just one or two thousand. For some people it’s a very lucrative business but if you look at the lower ranks its almost tragic, either they die, end up in the jail or as a stigmatised criminal that has brought shame on his family.”

However in the last years a decline in pirate activity has been registered in the region. The last successful hijacking by Somali pirates was registered on May 2012, the MV Smyrni, a Greek-registered tanker carrying crude oil worth tens of millions of dollars that was released after 11 months of negotiations and payment of  a record-breaking ransom of almost $15 million.

While in 2010 there were 47 hijackings registered, in 2012 only 12 seen, a decline of 75%  that can be attributed to a large number of factors. Those factors go from natural monsoon causes to the joint collaboration of  the navies of more than 80 countries and international organisations in patrolling the region. Also the tracking the financial flows from piracy operations leading to the capture and jailing of pirate kingpins; the establishment of a responsible government in Somalia capable of controlling its territorial waters and perhaps one of the most important actors, placing armed security teams aboard merchant ships.

Navy patrolling“The attack rates have been down since 2011 and there’s three main explanations but I can’t say which is the crucial one. The first one is the naval operations and the persistent effort to contain piracy by the European Union, the American government, NATO, China and so on,” says Bueger.

“The second factor, and perhaps the most crucial is that the major shipping companies started to employ private security. Prior you would threaten the crew and master of the vessel and at some point they would give up, because they think their life is at risk. That changed when vessels started to have five heavily armed private security professionals on board, who have been reported to shoot on first sight, having even in some occasions hit and injured innocent fishermen.”

“What happens is that the risk calculation for a pirate changes completely. While before the major risk would be about going to jail or even find asylum in Germany and the US, now it is of ending up dead at sea.”

“The third factor is what is happening within Somalia. The stabilisation of the political situation with a new parliament in place and the Al-Shebab militias being defeated show that Somalia becomes more orderly.”

Bueger alerts that although piracy now isn’t in the previous large scale of attacks on supertankers and private commercial vessels,  and is nowadays focused more on smaller fishing vessels, it doesn’t mean that criminal activities are over and that piracy can’t make a comeback.

“Many of these pirate gangs are still in business but they’ve switched to focusing on land robbery and hostage taking of international citizens and also smuggling. If you’re a criminal there’s other illegal activities you can do that are less dangerous than piracy.”

Although piracy has decreased, the international community cannot suppose that piracy has just disappeared in Somalia. The criminal structures that carried them still exist and piracy can come back very easily. “The infrastructure in place in East Africa to deal with piracy is so weak that in the moment the international community withdraws, piracy can increase again,” Bueger says.

In conclusion, while the danger of death and arrest for Somalis who embark on piracy have dissuaded them for now, poverty and unemployment, the causes that made them sail into sea, haven’t disappeared at all.

Image Courtesy:Blatant World (http://www.flickr.com/photos/blatantworld/5058572013/)

Image Courtesy: Author unknown, as a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.| Wiki Commons