Somali Pirates: The Anatomy of Attacks

Authors: Beatriz Binkley & Laura Smith

Somali Pirates

Somali Pirates © Veronique de Viguerie, via The Guardian

The past two decades have witnessed a significant increase in the level of worldwide maritime piracy. With more than 50 percent of all contemporary maritime attacks attributed to Somali pirates, no other region is capable of generating more piracy-related investigations and analysis. Unfortunately, as the proliferation and success of Somali pirates continues, the organizational sophistication of pirate gangs will also increase, and the problem will spread to other areas with similarly enabling factors. Somali pirates are models for other prospective pirates to emulate. Yet they also provide case studies into how shipping companies and the international community can work to address the piracy problem. Against this background, this analysis moves beyond discussing the root cause of Somali piracy and breaks down the anatomy of attacks, looking at the possible successes and failures at different stages of the process. However, with high rewards and low risks for the pirates, the struggle to reduce piracy may be an uphill battle. Continue reading

USMC Boards Pirate-Controlled Merchant Vessel

Update by Sean Hannan

On September 9, 2010, 24 Marines from USMC 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) force reconnaissance platoon boarded the Magellan Star after it had been taken over by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. In what is known as a visit-board-search-seizure, or VBSS, the Marine raiders boarded the pirate-controlled vessel and stormed the ship, taking the nine hijackers into custody without firing a single shot. According to Captain Alexander Martin, USMC “As soon as the first stack [of Marines] made our way into the bridge, their hands were up, their weapons were down, they moved to their knees, and were very compliant.”1 The Marines launched from the USS Dubuque which was operating under the control of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151).11 A Turkish frigate had been the first to respond to the Magellan Star’s distress signal, and the USS Dubuque and USS Princeton subsequently provided additional support. The eleven Magellan Star crewmembers retreated to a safe room onboard as the pirates boarded their ship3 and White House and Pentagon officials decided to launch the raid after it was confirmed the crew was out of harm’s way.4 The successful VBSS of the Magellan Star marks the first time US military forces have boarded a ship actively controlled by Somali pirates.5

This should be viewed as both an encouraging incident, and a precedent for direct military action against Somali pirates. Permission for the force reconnaissance operators to board and retake the pirate-controlled vessel is reported to have come directly from Defense Secretary Roberts Gates.6 Consent for the mission was also developed in conjunction with other top-level Pentagon and White House officials.7 This suggests that top-level officials are aware of the type of response needed to quell incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Aden. Indeed, the United States has been the lead military force in taking direct action against Somali pirates, as seen by the Magellan Star boarding, as well the rescuing of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama by Navy SEAL snipers in April 2009.8 The United States continues to bear the burden of applying military force, and the United States Marine Corps has increased training in VBSS tactics in hopes of promoting readiness to conduct counter-piracy operations.9 Even before the Magellan Star incident, such training had taken place at USMC bases nationwide.10 East Coast-based Marine MEUs have been training in the use of VBSS from the air by boarding vessels using helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft for fast roping onto ship decks. West Coast-based MEUs have been perfecting the art of seaborne boarding – the tactic used in the Magellan Star VBSS – using rigid inflatable boats. Both methods operate in conjunction with the US Navy, with sailors also taking part in VBSSs.11 While it is reported that the increased training is not a direct response to the number of piracy attacks off the Horn of Africa, it is a sign that more military intervention is expected.

While the root causes of piracy, such as underdevelopment and lack of domestic governmental control within Somalia, cannot be ignored, direct military action that defeats and deters acts of piracy will continue to be pursued by the United States operating under the jurisdiction of CTF 151. Military interdiction is necessary to fill the gaps while development and governmental control take hold in Somali. Hopefully, Somalis will desist from piracy as a legitimate economy develops. That development will take some time, maybe even decades to establish. The United States is preparing for a long fight. It can only be hoped that the fight is as successful as the retaking of the Magellan Star.

  1. Martin, Alex. “Pirates Beware: Force Recon Really Does Have Your Number.” U.S. Naval Institute, August 2010. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  2. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel, seize control.” (accessed September 14, 2010)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lamothe, Dan. “Conway endorses force recon after pirate.” Marine Corps Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  5. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lamonthe, “Conway endorses force.”
  8. “Captain freed after snipers kill pirates.” (accessed September 14, 2010).
  9. Ewing, Philip. “Marines increase training for at-sea boardings.” Navy Times. (accessed September 14, 2010).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

This Month in Somali Piracy

August – September 2010

Updated by Sean Hannan

  • In the first quarter of 2010 (January 1, 2010 – March 31, 2010), there were 35 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the waters off East Africa, fourteen fewer than the first quarter of 2009.1 As of September 8th, 2010, there were an estimated 23 vessels and 141 crew members being held in Somalia.2
  • A group of Somali pirates stumbled into international custody when they mistook the USS Ashland for a merchant vessel and attempted an attack. On April 10th, 2010, the pirate skiff chased the USS Ashland and then opened fire on the warship. The USS Ashland is an amphibious landing ship accommodating up to 500 US Marines, and a number of amphibious landing craft and helicopters, as well as a crew of 300 sailors. US sailors returned fire, killing one Somali, and destroying the skiff. The remaining six pirates were taken into custody, and moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where the Ashland is home ported. On August 27, 2010 Jama Idle Ibrahim plead guilty to piracy-related charges – attacking with intent to plunder, engaging in an act of violence against people on a vessel, and using a firearm during a crime of violence. There had been some controversy over the charges since, it was argued that the pirates neither boarded nor took control of the vessel, and had thus not committed any act of piracy.3
  • Pirates seized control of a Malta-flagged cargo vessel Olib G on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010. The vessel is crewed by 15 Georgians and Turks and was traveling through the internationally-prescribed transit lanes off the coast of Somalia. The United States deployed a helicopter to attempt contact with the vessel, but it was unable to reach the vessel in time. The European Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) subsequently tracked the ship via radar as it transited south towards Somalia.4
  • reported that on September 9th, 2010, the United States Marines boarded and seized a merchant vessel that pirates had captured. The pirates had taken control of the Merchant Vessel (M/V) Magellan Star on Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 off the coast of Somalia. The 11 man Magellan Star crew locked themselves in a safe room onboard as the pirates boarded. At 5 a.m. local time, the United States Marine Corps 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit Maritime Raiders, a 24 man maritime special operations unit, stormed the vessel and took the nine pirates into custody without firing a single shot. The Maritime Raiders were stationed aboard the USS Dubuque (LPD-8) serving in the anti-piracy Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151). The nine pirates, according to the US Fifth Fleet, are in CTF-151’s custody and “pending further disposition.” This marks the first direct boarding action undertaken by US military forces in the anti-piracy mission off Somalia.5

  1. “REPORTS ON ACTS OF PIRACY AND ARMED ROBBERY AGAINST SHIPS: First quarterly report (January to, and including, March 2010)”. International Maritime Organization. June 9th, 2010. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  2. “Pirates seize ship with Georgian, Turkish crew off Somalia.” AFP. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  3. “Somali pirate admits attacking US warship.” BBC. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  4. “Pirates seize ship with Georgian, Turkish crew off Somalia.” AFP. (accessed September 9, 2010).
  5. “U.S. forces board pirate-captured vessel, seize control.” (accessed September 9, 2010).

Suspected Hezbollah Financier Arrested in Paraguay

“Whether we call it operational or not, Hezbollah is deeply rooted in the tri-border region.”
-Ryan C. Crocker, career Ambassador within the United States Foreign Service

Discussion over the activities of Hezbollah in the TBA prompted a great deal of discourse between members of a panel taking part in a recent hearing sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee. Testimony provided by Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, argued that “no credible information” has been collected “to indicate that Hezbollah has an operational presence in Latin America.”1 It was Benjamin’s use of “operational” that prompted Mr. Crocker’s statement that is featured above. Since 9/11, the methods that terrorist organizations employ to raise funds for future activities have been closely monitored. To enhance this process efforts have been made by Argentina, Paraguay, and the United States to improve the regional intelligence center established in Foz do Iguacu, which is an extension of the 3+1 Group. Former coordinator for counterterrorism, Henry Crumpton, has suggested that cooperation is “uneven” between each of these nations, but that signs of progress are taking shape.2

Lebanese national Moussa Ali Hamdan is escorted to trial in Paraguay

Signs that multilateral efforts are paying off are evident in the arrest of Moussa Ali Hamdan a well-known financier of Hezbollah. Agents of the Paraguayan affiliate of Interpol apprehended Hamdan in downtown Ciudad del Este following a request from the United States government. The United States’ desire to have Hamdan extradited from Paraguay stems from a 2008 indictment of twenty-six suspected Hezbollah operatives. In that case charges were framed around Hamdan’s support of Hezbollah, which included a provision of 1,500 cell phones and a bevy of computer electronics.3

The presence of Hezbollah in the TBA is increasingly troublesome for United States officials on many fronts:

  • As the relationship between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez develops, so do fears of their allegiance to an “Axis of Unity” against the United States.
  • The use of proxies by Iran (Hezbollah) and Venezuela (the FARC) creates more tension in the region, while speculation over whether or not these groups are collaborating still fills the air.4
  • Chávez has expressed his full endorsement of Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear technology, and now seeks to construct a nuclear complex of his own.

As long as the TBA continues to provide the largest source of financial support for Hezbollah outside of the Middle East (est. $20 million annually) it will represent a potential challenge to the national security interests of the United States.5 Now, with the emergence of the Chávez-Ahmadinejad regime it is important that the Latin American community monitor the relationship between Hezbollah and the FARC.

Updated by Joshua T. Hoffman

  1. U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “Assessing the Strength of Hezbollah.” Subcommittee Hearing, June 8, 2010. 39:19-39:45.
  2. Crumpton, Henry A. Reviewing the State Department’s Annual Report on Terrorism. Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation. May 11, 2006. 72.
  3. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania . United States of America v. Moussa Ali Hamdan. November 24, 2009. 14.
  4. “Clinton takes questions on Hezbollah-FARC ‘nexus.'” Palestine Note, June 12, 2010.
  5. Treverton, Gregory F. and Carl Matthies. Film Piracy, Organized Crime, and Terrorism. RAND Safety and Justice Program and the Global Risk and Security Center, 2009. xi.

Piracy off the Horn of Africa

Author: Sean Hannan


According to Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy: consists of any of the following acts:

  1. any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
    1. on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
    2. against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  2. any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
  3. any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b). Continue reading