Combating Maritime Piracy

Combating Maritime Piracy

A surge in pirate attacks off the Somali coast in recent years has prompted the deployment of an international coalition of navies. But experts say that military force alone cannot address the underlying issue of failed Somali governance.

Last updated March 23, 2012 8:00 am (EST)

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Maritime piracy has been on the rise for much of the past decade, even as international efforts have helped reduce the number of successful hijackings, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy 2011 report. Large-scale attacks off the coast of Somalia in 2008 prompted the deployment of an ongoing international coalition of navies to the Gulf of Aden. A report by One Earth Future’s Oceans Beyond Piracy initiative estimated Somali piracy’s impact on the global economy to be $7 billion for 2011, the most detailed estimate to date. A previous report by OEF estimated the global cost of piracy for 2010 to be in the range of $7 to $12 billion.

There were 439 worldwide piracy attacks in 2011, more than half of which were attributed to Somali pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and off the coast of Oman. Other piracy hotspots for 2011 included the coast off Nigeria and Benin in West Africa, and Southeast Asia, near Indonesia. In the case of Somalia, analysts say one of the largest drivers of piracy is the lack of an efficient governing authority in the country.

The Modern Piracy Threat

Pirate attacks are largely confined to four major areas: the Gulf of Aden, near Somalia and the southern entrance to the Red Sea; the Gulf of Guinea, near Nigeria and the Niger River delta; the Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia; and off the Indian subcontinent, particularly between India and Sri Lanka.

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Somali pirates, by far the greatest global piracy threat, have increasingly pushed farther off the Somali coast. They have moved deeper into the Indian Ocean, off Seychelles and the Maldives, and further south along the East African coast, off Kenya, Madagascar, and Mozambique, the IMB’s 2011 report says.

Somali piracy emerged as a potent force shortly after the regime of longtime Somali dictator Major General Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1991. With the absence of any central governing authority, commercial fishing fleets began to exploit the country’s coastline. Local fishermen responded by arming themselves, boarding illegal trawlers, and charging a fine of a few thousand dollars. "But the fishermen soon realized that the fishing fine was more lucrative than the fish," the New York TimesJeffrey Gettleman wrote in a 2010 essay for the New York Review of Books. "By the mid-2000s," he wrote, "many part-time fishermen had graduated to full-time piracy."

Somali piracy tactics have centered on hijackings and kidnappings--lasting an average of six months--to extract large ransoms. Somali piracy has been largely free of violent tactics because it is in the pirates’ interest to keep their hostages alive. In 2011, average ransom payments to Somali pirates were above $5 million, wrote Chatham House’s Roger Middleton in a paper for the April 2011 Dubai School of Government conference on piracy. "The result," Middleton wrote, "is that piracy is now likely to be the second largest generator of money in Somalia, bringing in over $200 million annually."

"Pirates have reinvested their profits in coastal communities, so [the communities] have a vested interest in supporting piracy." – Peter Chalk, Rand Corporation

Piracy off West Africa has been driven much more by political and social grievances. In the Gulf of Guinea, many hijackings target oil tankers, with pirates seizing the oil and then selling it for a profit on the black market, Peter Chalk, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, told Chalk says there is evidence that Nigeria’s rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)--which has pressured the Abuja government to more equitably allocate oil revenues--has been involved in attacks on oil tankers off the coast. In early March 2012, MEND claimed responsibility for shooting four police officers on a boat patrolling the Nembe river in Bayelsa state, while indicating ties with pirate groups (al-Jazeera) in the region. According to the IMB, the "underreporting of attacks from Nigeria continues to be a case for concern." The IMB also notes that "2011 has also witnessed a probable extension of Nigerian piracy into neighboring Benin waters."

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In Southeast Asia, piracy has focused on the ransacking of cargo fishing products. While attacks in the South China Sea decreased in 2011, the number of incidents off Indonesia rose for a second consecutive year, according to the IMB. These attacks have largely taken place in the Malacca Strait, through which 30 percent of the world’s trade (VOA) and half of the world’s oil shipments pass. In September 2011, Indonesia and Malaysia deployed two warships to the strait as part of a joint patrol targeting pirate attacks. The countries have also developed an "Eye in the Sky" operation with Singapore and Thailand, by which they jointly carry out air patrols above the strait. In late September 2011, Indonesian police arrested four suspected pirates thought to be part of an organized crime network (JakartaGlobe) operating across the strait.

Governance and Piracy

Many experts say the root of Somali’s piracy problem has been the lack of an effective central government in Mogadishu, tied with limited economic opportunities throughout the country. Somalia is composed of a large number of clan groups, and the law is largely implemented at the local level. For many of these groups, particularly those in the Puntland province, piracy provides an economic lifeline, and so local authorities, if not directly involved, are willing to look the other way and refrain from prosecuting pirates. Moreover, there is often no legal regime under which local authorities can hold pirates accountable, Martin Murphy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, told

Somali pirates are able to sail hijacked ships back to the Somali shore and hold them there for months because there is no central government to enforce the rule of law in many coastal communities, says Rand’s Chalk. He adds: "Pirates have reinvested their profits in coastal communities, so [the communities] have a vested interest in supporting piracy."

In the south, however, Islamist al-Shabaab rebels have been waging a violent campaign to impose Sharia law and serve as a de-facto governing authority. Al-Shabaab, which swore its allegiance to al-Qaeda in early 2012 and is categorized by the EU and United States as a terrorist organization, controls its territories with an iron fist, making it much harder for pirates to exploit the coastline as they do in Puntland.

But some experts suggest a link between Somali pirates and al-Shabaab. Bruno Schiemsky, the former head of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia, believes al-Shabaab and pirates are working together to advance a militant agenda. In a 2009 essay for Jane’s Intelligence Review, Schiemsky said Somali pirates have provided training to the maritime wing of al-Shabaab, while al-Shabaab has used some pirate groups for arms smuggling.

However, many experts say there is little hard evidence to substantiate such a link. Any relationship between al-Shabaab and the pirates is "purely opportunistic," says Murphy. Pirates, he says, are not working toward any ideological end, like the Islamists. For al-Shabaab, pirates are likely just to be "another source of finance," he adds.

International Coordination

The international community has taken a number of steps to tackle piracy since Somali pirates emerged as a threat to international maritime security four years ago. In 2008, the UN Security Council passed a series of measures targeting Somali piracy, culminating in the unanimous approval of U.S.-led Resolution 1851. The move authorized states with navies deployed in the Gulf of Aden to, with the permission of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, take action against pirates and armed robbers within Somalia.

"Piracy cannot be solved by military means alone." – IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu

Resolution 1851 facilitated the creation of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) in January 2009. The group was tasked with "addressing military and operational coordination, capacity building, judicial issues, shipping self-awareness and public information related to piracy." Along the same lines, since January 2009, nine east African countries have signed the Djibouti Code of Conduct. That agreement was engineered by the UN’s International Maritime Organization, tasked with implementing certain aspects of the 2008 UN resolutions.

The UK hosted an international conference on the future of Somalia (Guardian) in London in February 2012, which focused on new international measures for combating and prosecuting piracy off the Somali coast. The steps included a joint Memorandum of Understanding between the British and Tanzanian governments allowing the British Royal Navy to transfer suspected Somali pirates to Tanzania for prosecution; an agreement that will see convicted pirates captured off the coast of Seychelles transferred to Somaliland for imprisonment; and the formation of an international task force on pirate ransoms. "The Conference agreed that piracy cannot be solved by military means alone and reiterated the importance of supporting local communities to tackle the underlying causes of piracy and improving effective use of Somali coastal waters through regional maritime capacity-building measures," IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu said following the conference.

The international community also has at its disposal the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty, which came into effect in 1994, is binding for 154 nations and the European Union. The United States has yet to ratify the agreement. The Convention governs "all aspects of ocean space," including the "settlement of disputes relating to ocean matters." It also makes "piracy a universal crime, and subjects pirates to arrest and prosecution by any nation," writes Georgetown University’s Mark V. Vlasic for the Huffington Post. The Convention "provides the legal foundation to help combat piracy and prosecute piracy cases," he writes. The United States’ refusal to adopt the treaty, despite support in the U.S. Senate and by the Obama administration, has complicated Washington’s ability to tackle piracy with its international partners, Vlasic argues.

Patrolling the Seas

Both governments and the shipping industry have been working to devise deterrence measures off the Somali coast. However, many experts stress that most of the current tactics do not address the state instability that allows piracy to flourish.

Following the 2008 UN resolutions, three main naval missions have been deployed to Gulf of Aden, including NATO, EU, and U.S. operations. There are also independent navy ships-- including those of Australia, China, India, and Russia--patrolling the corridor from all over the world, Chatham House’s Adjoa Anyimadu told However, Anyimadu notes, many Somali pirates have adjusted their tactics and managed to avoid naval patrols by operating farther offshore, outside the Gulf of Aden.

There are also too few ships patrolling the Gulf, writes the Atlantic Council’s Murphy in a December 2011 piece for the Rusi Journal. "The current military response--with only a handful of navy ships available to provide protection on any given day--has just been a sticking plaster on a gaping wound," Spyroa Polemis, the chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, told Murphy.

As a result of these challenges, many ships have begun to hire armed guards as a preemptive deterrent for would-be attackers. However, while this tactic can be quite effective, Anyimadu cautions, there is not yet a process for regulating these guards, creating potential legal complications. As an example, she cites an incident off the coast of India whereby two Italian marines aboard a cargo ship (FT) shot and killed Indian fishermen suspected of being pirates. More broadly, Anyimadu argues, the shipping industry and national governments should be better coordinating their response to the piracy threat.


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