Sea Bandits: Poverty, Business and the Rise of Somali Piracy

By DAVID ZLUTNICK of the Friendly Fire Collective

An expanded version of this article is available here.

Stories of Somali piracy abound lately as a sharp increase in attacks in the Gulf of Aden have caused a crisis in the shipping industry and an international naval mobilization. At this writing, several ships and over two hundred crewmembers are being held by pirates, including a Saudi oil tanker containing two million barrels of oil and a Ukrainian cargo ship loaded with weaponry. This year there have been over 120 acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, compared to only 37 during all of 2007. In response, warships from a host of countries are patrolling the area, so far without much success.

Many questions arise: What are the reasons for this huge increase in piracy? Why such alarm in the media when the military response has been generally restrained? What is at stake economically and politically? And, the unasked question, what is at stake for Somalia and its people?


A study of Somali piracy must begin with some context. Somalia has been a failed state without a central authority since 1991. Factionalism between rival clans, warlords and secessionist movements has created a desperate situation. The exception was the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) through most of the country, taking control and establishing a tenuous peace more or less welcomed by the general population. The UIC held power for only six months before being ousted by a US-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006. The invasion backed the weak but internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG), a loose coalition of rival clan warlords plagued by infighting and power-grabs.

Two years later, however, the more radical segments of the UIC are engaged in an insurgency against the TFG and its Ethiopian backers, the latter of whom are withdrawing their forces in early January. The UIC has proven fairly successful. Insurgents again control most of the country, leaving only the cities of Mogadishu and Baidoa in the hands of the government.

Who and Why?

The instability in Somalia has had tragic effects. The UN’s World Food Program, which expected to feed 3.6 million of the country’s 6 million inhabitants by the end of 2008, is calling it “the worst humanitarian crisis” in the region in decades. With essentially no economy – meaning no livelihood for many – piracy has arisen as a profitable and worthwhile occupation. Somali piracy is based primarily out of Puntland, an autonomous region on Somalia’s northern tip. Puntland was once home to many fishing villages, but following the collapse of the central government in 1991, the coast was left unguarded. The result has been overfishing and dumping of hazardous waste in the unregulated waterways. The waters that the populace have counted on for survival for generations are now unfishable.

In interviews, the Somali pirates have rejected the notion that they are criminals. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” Sugale Ali told the New York Times, speaking from the deck of the hijacked MV Faina. “We consider sea bandits 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. Think of us like a coast guard.” Sugale’s group and others claim that ransoms for hijacked ships serve as a replacement for taxes, licensing fees and reparations for fishing and waste disposal. “We don’t see hijacking as a criminal act but as a road tax because we have no central government to control our sea,” said Asad Abdulahi, a pirate interviewed by The Guardian.

Piracy is generally supported by local communities, as well as some members of the government, largely due to the economic stimulus generated by pirate boomtowns along the Puntland coastline. Money is now pouring in from ransoms, creating new restaurants, bars, construction projects and even employing people to act as the pirates’ accountants and negotiators.

The Economic Cost of Piracy

The number of ships attacked in the Gulf of Aden has increased significantly over the past year, and so has the rhetoric of governments and international bodies. But why? What is the real or perceived threat to these institutions from Somali piracy?

Interestingly, global piracy has dropped slightly over the past several years. There were 199 acts of piracy around the world in 2008 from January through September, 63 of which were in the Gulf of Aden or Somali coastal waters, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). In 2004, the number was 251 during the same period, with only six in the highlighted area and the majority occuring in Southeast Asia. Outside Somalia there has actually been a decrease in piracy of almost 45 percent. While these numbers do show a steep rise in piracy in Somalia, why is it perturbing global governments in a way that piracy in Southeast Asia never did?

Economics and geopolitics are the primary factor. Somalia finds itself situated in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Ships leaving the Mediterranean Sea to reach Asia have to pass through the Gulf of Aden to avoid the much longer trip around the Cape of Good Hope. Twenty-one thousand ships pass through this waterway annually. The actual impact of the pirates is minimal – in the first nine months of 2008 there were only 199 pirate attacks out of a world trading fleet of 50,525 ships. Yet the capture of a Saudi oil tanker, the Sirius Star, worth $250 million in total, and the attempted attack on a luxury cruise liner in early December, have contributed to a significant reaction by the shipping industry. Talk among the big companies is about rerouting around the Cape of Good Hope, which can add two to three weeks to travel time and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The alternative is to withstand the relatively low risk of attack by pirates – although serious in terms of human risk and monetary loss – and pay the ever-growing price of insurance to travel through the Gulf, which in some cases is ten times what it was a year ago.

Pirates vs. Islamists vs. World

Besides economic concerns, politics is prompting governments to respond. Who will rule Somalia, and whose side will they be on? What role will the pirates play?

Soon after the Sirius Star was captured, word came that al-Shabab, the radical wing of the Union of Islamic Courts, was displeased and sending its militia. “Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and hijacking its ship is a bigger crime than other ships,” a spokesperson, Sheikh Abdirahim Isse Adow, told Reuters. Under Sharia law, piracy is punishable by death. According to reports from Michelle Lynn Ballarin, a contractor involved in the negotiations, the pirates’ demands include that they are not offloaded in Somalia, where the Islamist militias await.

During the months of UIC rule, piracy was severely diminished, as the Islamists made sure arms and money stayed under their authority. However, the invasion that took the UIC from power allowed piracy to flourish in an even less stable setting. The invasion also splintered the UIC, with the radical Islamist militias, in particular al-Shabab, coming out on top. While the dispute between pirate groups and the Islamists continues, as evidenced by the reaction to the Sirius Star, many now allege collusion between the two.

The allegations include pirates transporting arms and foreign fighters into Somalia, and training the Islamists in naval tactics. The real fear for governments the world over, however, is what happens to the massive resources gained through piracy. Millions of unregulated dollars could tip the balance of power in real terms, as could material gains such as the large arms shipment, including 33 tanks currently being held on the MV Faina. Thus, five US Navy ships, as well as a Russian frigate, according to reports, are surrounding the hijacked ship. "Our concern is right now making sure that this cargo does not end up in the hands of anyone who would use it in a way that would be destabilizing to the region," said Geoff Morell, the Pentagon press secretary.

"Anyone" presumably means in particular the UIC. But the pirates claim that they have no plans to aid the Islamists, especially with weapons. Sugale Ali told the New York Times, "Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons. We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money."

And many analysts, such as Richard Cornwell at the Institute for Security Studies, say the evidence of pirate/Islamist links is thin – although not nonexistent – and the best chance at fighting piracy is the reestablishment of Islamist control. "The last thing the Islamists want to do is give an unnecessary provocation to the major powers, who might come after them in a big way," Cornwell says. "What experience tells us is that if the Islamists did take control of Somalia, piracy would stop overnight." This fits with al-Shabab’s public statements. Spokesperson Hassan Yacub has made it clear that an Islamist administration in Somalia would ensure security in the waters off its coast. Governments are thus forced to choose between piracy and the Islamists.

The World Responds

The response to the pirates by the international community has been fairly restrained. International naval deployments followed the hijacking of the MV Faina. The US Navy sent its Fifth Fleet, along with NATO and EU forces, as well as ships from a handful of other states. So far they have had little success. Under their watch, several more ships have been hijacked, including the Sirius Star, and others continue to be held for ransom.

Despite having AK-47s, RPGs and no fear of punishment, the Somali pirates have yet to kill any of their captives. “Killing is not in our plans,” said Sugale Ali. We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.” The pirates have been relatively kind to hostages, according to released sailors. After French commandos recaptured a yacht in April, it was reported they had found a pirates’ “good conduct guide” with rules for treatment of hostages. There has even been some friendly interaction between the pirates and sailors during the long waits for ransom money. So far, the only casualties of piracy in the Gulf of Aden have been pirates and fourteen Thai fisherman mistakenly killed by the Indian navy.

The international response has been complicated by differences in individual nations’ laws regarding piracy. The US, for example, has a law that targets pirates, but it only applies to attacks against US-flagged vessels, of which there were only four in 2008.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allows military actions against pirates, but first an officer has to board and inspect the ship in question, an unlikely event in a pirate hunt. UN Resolution 1816 allows anti-pirate operations in Somali waters with permission from the government. But even if the TFG allows it, it’s barely arguable that it has authority to grant such permission. In October, UN Resolution 1838 was passed to temporarily authorize the use of force to stop piracy in international waters, but states aren't necessarily eager to send their navies to hunt pirates. With over 1.1 million square miles of water in the Gulf of Aden and the navies of the US and UK bogged down in other operations, sending warships to scour the sea for pirates isn’t a priority. Militaries are now openly prescribing a different solution.

Piracy Stimulates the Economy

In 2005, the TFG in Somalia attempted to hire a private security firm, Top Cat Marine, to fight the pirates for $50 million. But the deal fell through after scandals surfaced surrounding the US company’s CEO Peter Casini, as well as ties to Sandline International, a former mercenary company all too connected to many of Africa’s messy conflicts throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. A French company, Scopex, reportedly won the deal to take Top Cat’s place in June, but it now appears to be up in the air.

Centuries ago,governments would often hire mercenaries to fight piracy. This option is again being pushed by governments as an alternative to committing their navies. Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of the fleet now patrolling Somali waters, said his forces are over-extended and is urging the shipping industry to hire private security firms. "The coalition does not have the resources to provide 24-hour protection for the vast number of merchant vessels in the region," Gortney told Reuters. "The shipping companies must take measures to defend their vessels and their crews." The Royal Navy’s senior commander, Commodore Keith Winstanley, has also said they recommend shipping companies hire armed guards.

With security teams costing up to $60,000 per trip, this may sound like a lucrative opportunity. Contractors are found throughout the anti-piracy industry, from negotiators to ransom-drop teams to security. And where there’s money to be made from conflict, there's Blackwater Worldwide. Blackwater is steaming into the Gulf of Aden on their new 183 foot ship, the MacArthur, which carries two helicopters, inflatable assault ships, 15 crew persons and 35 armed guards. "As a company founded and run by former Navy SEALs, with a 50,000-person database of former military and law enforcement professionals," a press statement said, "Blackwater is uniquely positioned to assist the shipping industry."

Other private security firms, however, aren’t thrilled with Blackwater’s approach. Former British Army pilot Nick Davis runs Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (APMSS), specializing in non-lethal security using high-tech audio equipment. The sound causes terrible pain within two or three hundred yards and, combined with evasive maneuvers, barbed wire, grease, etc., prevents pirate attack. Davis told that he is "filled with dread" at the prospect of Blackwater deploying to the Gulf. "The pirates are not aggressive," he says. "It’s a very, very difficult and sensitive issue with regards to arms." Davis worries about trigger-happy contractors and overly aggressive engagements. "[B]asically, if we start killing people, or private security companies start killing people, then they’re going to start killing their hostages and that will turn the situation upside down and be very, very bad news."

Davis’ point explains why many shipping companies are wary of arming commercial ships and why some insurance companies charge a higher rate if arms are on board. Overall, however, the shipping industry desires the security teams in the absence of state protection, making the Gulf of Aden a lucrative market for military firms. Some innovative British mercenaries have teamed up with insurance companies to offer package deals, with lower rates for ships carrying armed guards. With such collusion, the Somali pirates could generate hefty profits for some London executives.

The World Only Cares About Pirates

Rerouting ships, adding security teams, increased insurance costs and ransoms are causing hysteria in the world economic community. Several small boatloads of Somalis have wreaked havoc on the region’s shipping and energized naval powers. Contractors long waiting in the wings are finally getting their chance to reap rewards. The pirates will probably fall increasingly under attack if they continue to seek large prizes in an effort to live beyond their former poverty.

Meanwhile, the root causes of piracy will most likely be ignored. Little will be said of the rampant environmental exploitation that drove fishers to piracy, and deploying destroyers will do little to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis or reverse Somalia’s tremendous poverty. The lack of stability as a result of repeated foreign intervention leaves a perfect breeding ground for pirates and other extremists. No military campaign can solve this problem."World powers have neglected Somalia for years on end, and now that its problems are touching the world, they have started on the wrong footing," said Bile Mohamoud Qabowsade, an advisor to the president of Puntland.

Until there is a marked shift in priorities and governments begin to pay attention to the human costs of policy; until countries are not abandoned due to economic insignificance; until intervention to determine a nation’s political future is done only by its own people; and until the theft of capital derived from misery is instead considered reparations, long live the Somali pirates!

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