The Rise and Fall (?) of Somali Pirates

The Rise and Fall (?) of Somali Pirates

צילום אילוסטרציה (123rf)

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By Boaz Zalmanowicz

Illustration photo (123rf)
Illustration photo (123rf)

Pirates operate in many regions around the world, including the Bengal Bay, Guinea Bay, the Caribbean and the Malaka Straights close to Indonesia. The Somali pirates of the Horn of Africa, however, are the most significant – especially because of the severe damage they caused to shipping and insurance companies. According to World Bank reports Somali piracy led to the loss of 413 million dollars in ransoms between 2005 and 2012, while costs of changing the shipping lanes are estimated at billions of dollars.

More than 50% of the pirate attacks reported in 2011 occurred within the Somali pirates’ zone of activity. As any criminal industry, piracy leads to the growth of “support” industries of its own – ship builders, cooks, lawyers, pimps and others. A few use their earnings to finance weapon smuggling, drug smuggling or human trafficking, while others launder their money by taking over legal businesses or giving bribes.

Piracy funds terror and is supported by terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab. After 2012, however, there has been a decline in the number of successful attacks in the Horn of Africa region. Analysis of the causes which led to the rise of piracy and to its fall later on will help us understand the global phenomenon of Piracy and ways to combat it.

Piracy first appeared in Somalia even before the government failed in 1991. The chaos allowed pirates to freely operate out of their bases and allowed foreign fishermen to sail close to Somali shores, driving away locals and forcing them to take up piracy for survival. The failure of local authorities allowed the use of military force, which is difficult to use against a functioning state. This failure of government, however, isn’t a sufficient explanation for piracy in other regions around the world, making it important to further examine this specific, complex case.

IHLS – Israel Homeland Security

The catalysts of Somali piracy:

  • Compatible geography: Access to waterways and shores allows pirates to build bases and utilize hiding places for pirate ships or hijacked ships.
  • Weak law enforcement: The risk involved in piracy is smaller than the expected gain. Law enforcement in Somalia almost vanished during the prolonged civil war, but it was always weak, influenced by tribal social structure and rampant corruption. Top government officials enjoyed the fruits of piracy, some of them even taking part in pirate operations themselves.
  • Maritime insecurity: The Somali waters and the Gulf of Eden are traditional routes for smuggling and illegal activities, influenced by the lack of Somali control over the country’s territorial waters and leading to illegal fishing and to toxic waste dumping.
  • Economic dislocation: Most pirates come from communities on the periphery – distant and poor – with high unemployment rates, their traditional income source, fishing, under constant threat.
  • Cultural acceptability and skills: Somali pirates, originally fishermen, already had the skills required for piracy. Their skills included navigation, weapon operation, conducting negotiations and other criminal skills learned on land. Piracy was accepted in their communities of origin for many reasons, but mainly because of a narrative which treats piracy as a response to Somalia’s lack of maritime security. Pirates, essentially, were seen as the local coast guard.
  • Entrepreneurs: The rise in piracy was the result of the right people being in the right places, leading the rise in piracy.

All these led to a drastic increase in the number of successful Somali pirate attacks, and in the extent of the damage they caused.

Eventually, however, other elements led to a reduction in the number of attacks:

  • Ships protected against pirates, especially those carrying valuable cargo and employing armed guards, organized and trained to handle pirate attacks. The first well-known case occurred in 2009 and involved an Italian passenger ship and its Israeli security guards, followed by other cases where pirates were killed during the attack. Many cases weren’t made public in order to avoid negative PR, lawsuits and retaliations.
  • Deploying military forces on shore and at sea. In light of the rise in the number of attacks and the severe economic damage they caused, several international military-naval efforts were launched, to patrol the seas and to prevent attacks. Under the U.N. Security Council resolution 1383, passed on October 2008, NATO and EU forces were sent to the Gulf of Eden, in addition to other, independent forces. In December 2008 the council passed a resolution which allowed fighting pirates on Somali soil. This cooperation, and the relatively high levels of power of the participants, contributed the reduction in the number of attacks.
  • International legal actions. After the international maritime law was changed, and countries became willing to press charges against pirates, more the 1,100 pirates are currently being tried in 21 states.
  • Reduced support from local communities. International organizations, including the World Bank, the European Union and the African Union, which help rebuild Somalia’s government and security forces, together with locals opposing pirates in light of the social problems they caused, led to the weakening of pirate bases on land.

As a result of all these the last two years saw a significant drop in Somali piracy. The basic situation in the Horn of Africa and Somalia’s shores, however, hasn’t changed, and unless efforts continue the pirates will one day make their return.