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.

The different definitions of piracy employed by various international organizations have much broader implications than simple semantics. For example, the definition used by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) allows coast guards and navies relative freedom to pursue piracy, which is defined as: “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of the act.”1 The IMB definition, however, circumvents jurisdictional issues that arise from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 which describes piracy as:

  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. i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
    2. ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  2. b) 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.2

The majority of piracy attacks take place within the jurisdiction of a state, but the UN definition restricts the ability of law enforcement to take action within territorial waters.3 Pirates are therefore able to evade capture by sailing from the high seas into the territorial seas of a state with little means to combat maritime crime, putting themselves out of reach of domestic and international law.4 The International Maritime Organization (IMO) attempted to address this problem by defining “armed robbery at sea” as acts of piracy that are committed within a state’s territorial waters. The entrance of foreign navies into a state’s jurisdiction is understandably not always welcome as it challenges sovereignty. This provides pirates with an additional layer of protection from capture and prosecution. It should be noted that piracy, as defined by UNCLOS, does not include ”public” or “political” acts, and thus excludes terrorists and insurgents.

Determining an accurate account of piracy presents a significant problem insomuch as the majority of accounts rely on self-reporting. Kidnapping victims might be intimidated into silence and shipping companies might be reluctant to make reports that could damage their reputation, increase crews’ demands for additional payment, and cause a ship’s delay during the investigation.5 Extensive records of pirate attacks do not exist prior to the early 1990s making it difficult to analyze long-term trends. What is possible, however, is to examine the speed at which the Somali pirate problem has increased, making the region the world’s hotspot for piracy within a relatively short period of time. This is illustrated in table 1.

Table 1


Actual & Attempted Attacks 2003-2009

International Maritime Bureau, 2008 &2009

As of September, 2009 Table 1 shows clearly that while attacks may have decreased on a global level since 2003, Somali attacks have increased so greatly that they now account for over fifty percent of all actual or attempted attacks. By 2009, attacks in the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Oman were also attributed to Somali pirates. Globally, the number of successful attacks has decreased, likely due to increased patrols; however the number of incidents in which guns were used has increased by 200 percent.6

Table 2

Distribution of Attacks by Region

International Maritime Bureau, 2009

Undeniably, Somalia’s geographic location contributes to the abundance of piracy in the region. Somalia’s proximity to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean place it in the middle of shipping lanes. Shipping companies have been warned by entities such as the European Union (EU) Naval Force to keep a safe distance, but these warnings are not always heeded. Large tankers that are too big to use the Suez Canal are required to sail around the western coast of Africa on their way to Europe or the United States. If ships avoid the northwest Indian Ocean and southwest Arabian Sea they can add days to their transport time. Not only do operating costs rise due to higher wages and fuel costs, but insurance premiums rise as well.7 As warnings are made to stay away from piracy-prone waters, pirates themselves are shifting the location of their attacks. In early 2009, there were reports of pirates attacking 600 miles off the coast of Somalia – a distance thought by some to be unlikely – but by the end of 2009 the reported distance had increased to 1000 miles.8

Table 3

Somali Pirate Attacks 2009

International Maritime Bureau, 2009

Table 3, showing attacks from the beginning of 2009, demonstrates the high concentration of attempted attacks in the Gulf of Aden, as well as the distance from the coast that pirates are willing to travel.

Conflict and Disorder

The origins of modern Somali piracy can be traced back to the early to mid-1990s, when Somalia’s warlords overthrew the socialist dictator Muhammad Siad Barre, thrusting the country into chaos. The resulting lack of state infrastructure created conditions in which external actors were able to take advantage of Somali waters for financial gain. Without effective control of Somali waters, local Somali fishing industries fell victim to exploitation by commercial fishing fleets from Europe and Asia.9 Overfishing became such a problem that many thousands of Somalis who previously made their living from the fishing industry soon found their primary source of income gone. Somali fishermen also reported that the poachers “employ vicious measures against local communities that protest the depletion of their resources.10 According to analyst Mohamed Abshir Waldo, approximately $450 million USD worth of fish was illegally removed from Somali waters, devastating local profits and depleting vital food sources.11 Despite ongoing efforts by the international community and humanitarian aid organizations, there remain approximately 1.55 million internally displaced people in Somalia and approximately half the population is in need of outside assistance.12

In addition to marine resource exploitation, there is evidence that European and Asian companies – acting without the permission of their governments – were responsible for dumping toxic and nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia. The European Green Party has publicly displayed copies of contracts signed by two European companies and Somali warlord representatives that spelled out an agreement to pay the Somalis $80 million USD in exchange for accepting 10 million tons of toxic waste. According to Sweden-based Somali academic Abdullahi Elmi Mohamed, the European companies were able to pay as little as $8 USD per ton, while waste disposal costs in Europe are closer to $1000 USD per ton.13 The 2004 tsunami reportedly caused this toxic waste to rise to the surface and wash inland, creating health problems for the local population including respiratory infections, bleeding mouth ulcers, abdominal hemorrhages and unusual skin infections. Such problems are consistent with radiation sickness. In some cases the toxic waste had simply been dumped in leaking or disposable containers on some of Somalia’s remote beaches.14

Overfishing and toxic waste dumping by foreign entities has fuelled Somali motivation for maritime attacks. For most, the primary incentive is profit; however a great number also view their work as protecting the waters from thieves. This encourages a certain level of cultural acceptability, creating a more permissive environment for piracy to flourish. According to the Africa Faith and Justice Network, seventy percent of Somalis support piracy as a method of national defense.15 The influx of ransom cash into the impoverished region also adds to public support for piracy, – although even without public support, the country’s inadequate law enforcement would be unable to substantially reduce attacks. In 2008, Somalia scored thirty-five on the Global Integrity Report, the lowest score in the history of the report.16 The poor score can be attributed to the fact that law enforcement agencies do not receive regular funding because the country does not have sufficient financial reserves.

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) established control after the warlords’ rule collapsed. This created a temporary setback for the pirates who had been operating under the protection, perhaps even direction, of the warlords. Later the same year, however, the US-backed Ethiopian forces overthrew the ICU amid concerns that they were harboring Islamist extremists.17 Not long afterwards, pirate activity resumed and has continued to increase since then (see Table 1).

Somalia’s general lawlessness and high level of conflict and disorder is a significant factor in encouraging Somalis to accept increased levels of risk for financial gain. The financial return from selling stolen cargo or holding crews hostage can be large enough to mitigate the relatively small risk. According to reports, Somali pirates took 815 crew members hostage and brought in $150 million USD in profits in 2008 alone.18 Yet the challenge of capturing and prosecuting pirates means that a relatively low number of pirates are actually serving jail time. This problem is mitigated further by the unaffordable burden of maintaining an effective judicial and prison system. Indeed, there have been significant spillover effects, and both Muslim leaders and police in Kenya have voiced concerns that Kenya has become a dumping ground for Somali pirates, as by June 2009 it had over 100 of them in custody. 19

Levels of Organization

Somalia’s piracy can be seen as a crossbreed of opportunistic attacks, which amount to little more than armed robbery, and more organized and well-resourced hijacking. The latter comprises a much smaller portion of total attacks, but demonstrates how funding and intelligence can escalate the risk of violence and increase the potential for profit. The increased level of hostage taking can also be seen as evidence that piracy is becoming more sophisticated. Based on a system of categorization that looks at piracy’s form, it is also possible to describe the evolution of Somali piracy from an episodic phenomenon, which flourished “at specific moments as the result of the weakening of imperial or state power and the consequent distortion in trading patterns” to something that has become intrinsic. 20 The intrinsic form of piracy exists where piracy is a component part of a society’s fiscal or commercial life. This form of piracy applies to Somalia where the pirates are investing large sums of ransom money into their impoverished communities and steadily gaining support.

IV. THE ANATOMY OF AN ATTACK The following steps represent the process by which Somali pirates organize and attack their targets, the subsequent negotiation process and the ways in which the profits are obtained and distributed.

Step 1: Recruiting As discussed earlier, the systemic problems currently facing Somalia create powerful motives for piracy and make it easy to recruit young men into organized crime. Such individuals grow up in an environment of perpetual conflict between warlords and an ineffective government. Furthermore, educational and economic opportunities are severely limited to the point of being non-existent. If there are any opportunities for income, they are likely illegal.

The average pirate is between twenty and thirty five years old.21 This statistic is important as the average age for Somali men is seventeen, with a life expectancy of forty seven years.22 Given this demographic, Somali pirates’ average age represents a group of men in the prime of their short lives. However, the reported average age for pirates is disputed because there are very few means to discover the true age of an arrested pirate, as Somalia does not require birth certificates. Suspects such as Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, on trial in the United States, recognize that as minors they will be given a lesser charge for their crimes.23 And usually there is “little or no possibility of verifying” a pirate’s age.24

The majority of pirates come from Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in the far east of Somalia.25 Constituting over one third of Somalia’s coastline, the region traditionally depended on its fishing industry.26 The southern city of Merca, a well-established port city close to Mogadishu, has also become a haven for piracy. Both Puntland and Merca are prime recruiting areas because of the traditional fishing economy and safe harbors.

The most important recruiting device for piracy is the promise of profit. Many pirates claim to be fishermen who have turned to piracy in the face of a depleted fishing industry and lack of alternative sources of income.27 The pirates claim they provide the security and retaliation the Somali government is incapable of delivering. However, reports that the levels of fish stocks have returned to normal have not been matched by similar reports of individuals returning to the fishing industry, which suggests that young men now regard piracy as a more viable source of income. As one Somali noted, piracy has become “fashionable,” with those participating getting “the most beautiful girls; building big houses; they have new cars; new guns.”28

Fishermen are not the only young Somali men who have turned to piracy. Former fighters from the interior regions have moved to the coast in hopes of finding more profitable opportunities. As described in a report from the Christian Science Monitor, these men’s “entrepreneurialism and survival” lead them to join the pirates.29

Recruitment is further based on particular skill sets. The young men who engage in the actual assaults on the ships are divided into three categories. The first group consists of those with experience sailing and with knowledge of the sea. In order to reach potential targets the pirate groups must have a fairly good understanding of how to operate at sea. The second group consists of men from militia backgrounds with weapons experience. The last skill set needed for at attack is an understanding of technology. As the pirates become more sophisticated with the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), they need recruits who are capable of using the devices. 30

Step 2: Creating the Network The debate regarding Somali pirates is polarized over the degree of organization involved. One interpretation is that piracy is a crime of opportunity, operated with little organization and no need for a real network. The second points to a highly organized, well-informed international network. While there is evidence to support each interpretation, it is likely that the majority of successful pirate attacks fall somewhere in between the extremes.

Pirate groups, or ‘gangs,’ as they are often labeled by the media, number between four or five. On a very basic level, groups can range from loosely organized, to something much more militaristic. The Merca group is composed of various small pirate gangs located around the southern city of Merca. Reportedly, Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, a well-known warlord and Security Chief of the Islamic Courts Council, commands the group.31 Similarly, the Puntland group is composed of traditional fishermen who operate along the coasts of their home region. 32 These two groups suggest that organized piracy has developed naturally as the number of participants increase and has done so without a sophisticated command and control structure.

The National Volunteer Coast Guard and Somali Marines represent far more organized networks. The first network operates much farther south, near Kenya and is under the command of Garaad Mohamed. In 2006 a Somali radio station interviewed Mohamed. He claimed his group was “doing [its] national duty by dealing with foreign ships that took advantage of Somalia’s inability to guard its waters.”33 This statement further demonstrates the pirates’ personal justification of their actions. Supposedly the most powerful and well organized, the Somali Marines operate under a clear chain of command that includes a “fleet admiral, admiral, vice admiral and a head of financial operations.”34

The Merca and Puntland groups support the notion that Somali piracy is not well organized and is little more than a crime of opportunity. According to a recent statement by retired U.S. Rear Admiral Terence McKnight, the sophistication of pirates has been overestimated. McKnight suggested the pirates are easy to spot and have nothing more than “a skiff with grappling hooks, rope ladders, guns and a GPS.”35

The second interpretation warns of something far more sinister, with reports that Somali pirates are operating within a very well connected transnational network. These reports suggest the possibility of informants operating in Great Britain, along the Suez Canal, and in other important port cities in the Middle East. Information about the crew, cargo, and shipping route is passed to the pirates prior to the attack, allowing pirates to select the most profitable targets.36 Possible international financing is another indicator that piracy is embedded in a larger network It has been suggested that Somali expatriates are responsible for financing piracy operations via connections with family members still living in country, the hawala system of informal money transfers,37 and wire transfers.38 In his 2006 interview, Garaad Mohamed noted that his group had “wide support among Somalis all over the world.”39

There are also fears that piracy finds support from Islamic extremists groups. While there is clear evidence to support direct ties between piracy and the Islamic Courts Council through the leadership of Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, there is little evidence to suggest that extremist networks such as al-Shabaab fund piracy. Rather, as discussed below, there is more evidence to suggest that piracy supports religious extremist groups.

Most likely, the reality of the piracy network rests somewhere in between the two contrasting assessments. The use of GPS devices and cell phones suggests a level of sophistication beyond simple opportunism. Furthermore, the use of international informants is also very likely. However, informants are more likely to be everyday dockworkers and associates camped along the Suez Canal rather than industrial spies from shipping companies. Finally, while there is evidence of financiers and clear chains of command, reports on support from expatriates or religious extremists have not been fully substantiated.

Step 3: Arming the Pirates
The equipment needed to participate in piracy is relatively limited, but not insignificant. First, pirates require boats. While this is obvious, the size and power of the boats reflect the particular needs of Somali pirates. Originally, most pirates used small motorboats and attacked ships that sailed relatively close to the shore. As the desire to capture more profitable and larger ships increased, so did the transportation needs of the pirates.

Mother ships are used to extend the pirates’ attack areas. They are typically large captured fishing boats. For example, in April 2009, an Egyptian fishing vessel was captured in the Gulf of Aden. The pirates failed to demand a ransom, indicating the possibility that the vessel became a new mother ship.40 Typically, the ship’s crew also remains onboard, serving as both hostages and human shields. These larger boats are capable of going much farther from the coasts and can offer support to the smaller skiffs. Skiffs, or small boats equipped with powerful engines, are more commonly used in the actual assault. They are fast and can easily pull along close to their targets.

Other important weapons for pirates range from high-tech to mundane and everything in between. Pirates are increasingly using cellular or satellite phones to stay in touch with one another as their network continues to grow.41 Using the information they get from their network abroad, the pirates use GPS devices to track specific ships and avoid international navies. While high-tech accessories are used to locate targets, pirates then often use grappling hooks, rope and aluminum ladders to get aboard their targets.42

Finally, Somali pirates are often armed with rocket propelled grenade launchers (RPG), small arms, and explosives. For most ships attacked by pirates the RPGs present the most alarming, and therefore the most effective, threat. Although pirates use a variety of small arms, most pirates carry AK-47s. In May 2009, a Portuguese warship captured pirates with a cache of explosives. Such explosives have not yet been used, but could present a serious security risk.43

It has been relatively easy for Somali pirates to obtain weapons for their attacks. Since the 1990s and the country’s civil war, Somalia has been a central point for arms trading networks. Pirates’ weapons are brought through these networks either from Yemen or from the capital, Mogadishu.44

In September 2009 the New York Times reported that a U.S. delivery of around forty tons of weapons to the newly elected Somali government was promptly passed on to violent non-governmental groups.45 Likewise, in 2008 the pirates captured the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying weapons and tanks. During the negotiation process the ship was heavily guarded to ensure the weapons stayed onboard. Yet, the incident raises the possibility of pirates specifically targeting ships to increase their arsenals.46

There are several ways the pirates fund the purchase of these weapons. As former militants, many pirates already have a supply of guns. As previously discussed, as piracy has increased and become more lucrative there have been increasing reports of piracy financing. One such example from Haradheere, a coastal city and suspected pirate lair, has seen the creation of a type of stock exchange where local community members “invest” in one of seventy-two pirate “companies.” Investments are made in the form of “cash, weapons, or useful materials.”47 This example also supports the contention that Somalis living abroad help support the pirates. Some reports have suggested that financing also comes from Dubai, but representatives from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have adamantly denied the accusations. 48

Step 4: Choosing a Target Somali pirates have attacked every type of vessel crossing through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. According to a report by the ICC International Maritime Bureau “bulk carriers, containers, fishing vessels, RoRos, tankers, tugs, and yachts have all been targeted by the Somali pirates.”49 While they frequently strike fishing boats, attacks against private yachts, cargo ships, and oil tankers get the majority of international attention. Like the Egyptian vessel captured in April 2009, fishing boats are tempting targets since they can be used for further acts of piracy. The larger vessels, while much more lucrative for the pirates, are also far more difficult and risky to capture.

At least some pirates choose their targets based on information —such as a ship’s crew, cargo, and sailing route— received from abroad. It is sometimes suggested that information about potential target ships originates from international maritime organizations, which receive the information voluntarily from the shipping companies. Early in 2009 pirates boasted to captains that they knew the layouts of the vessels and ports of call with enough time to prepare an attack. As reported by The Guardian, the “Greek cargo ship Titan, the Turkish merchant ship Karagol, and the Spanish trawler Felipe Ruan” were victims of this network of intelligence sharing.50 According to an interview with a pirate in 2009, the groups are also selective about the nationality of the ships they attack: “no-one will come to the rescue of a third-world ship with an Indian or African crew,” deeming such ships to be unviable targets.51

Step 5: The Attack Pirate groups patrol the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for weeks at a time. Utilizing a mother ship, pirates roam target areas approximating six hundred nautical miles from the coast.52 Based around a mother ship, smaller skiffs will cover an area of forty to fifty nautical miles. For those groups in the Gulf of Aden, many will wait in Yemen’s territorial water, beyond the reach of international navies, until their target comes into range. Leaving the mother ship, the much faster attack skiffs chase down their target. Two or three of these motorboats will carry anywhere from five to fifteen pirates. However, the number of pirates used for an attack fluctuates greatly. For example, in one case as many as thirty pirates in two boats attempted to attack a Panamanian cargo ship53

During an attack the pirates typically surround the vessel and begin firing their RPGs and small arms. One report in 2009 suggested that a recent decrease in the number of successful attacks by pirates has lead to “desperate” and “indiscriminate” shooting of weapons in the hope of “intimidating” the captains.54 As the violence increases, pirates have taken to targeting the bridge and crew quarters, shooting out windows or firing their RPGs.55 While they want to create enough fear in the crew to force them to stop, the pirates do not risk damaging the potential hostage. If the attack is successful, the pirates board the ship and secure the crew. Once the target ship stops, one pirate will scale the side of the vessel using ladders or a rope and grappling hook.56 After he is onboard, the pirate lowers more ladders for the rest to climb and they secure their skiffs alongside the now hijacked ship. After all of the pirates are aboard, the ship’s crew is confined together in one area of the vessel. The captain, on the other hand is kept on the bridge and in control of operating the ship. Once all the hostages are secure, the ship is moved to a pirate friendly port in Somalia or simply nearer to the coast.57 Eyl, a coastal city in the southeast region of Puntland, is one of the most heavily used, pirate friendly ports.58 After the ship reaches a safer area, more pirates are brought onboard.

Not all attacks are successful. Of the 147 attacks reported as of October for the 2009 year, only 32 actually resulted in the hijacking of the target.59 Captains of ships traveling in known pirate waters are advised to keep “twenty-four hour visual and radar watch.”60 Early detection of pirates allows the ship more time to utilize evasive actions and gives international navies time to intercept the attack. Ships will attempt to use speed and weapons onboard to escape the pirates. Once an attacked vessel sends out a distress signal, small war ships from one of the multiple navies stationed in the area rush to the ship’s assistance. If they can reach the vessel in time, they will intercept the pirates and take them into custody. If the ship is already hijacked, the navies will follow the captured vessel at a close distance.

Less frequently, crewmembers of the hijacked ship attack the pirates as they attempt to climb up the sides or once they are onboard. One of the few examples of this occurred on the Maersk Alabama. Members of the crew captured one of the pirates and barricaded themselves in the engine room. As the international navies approached the ship, the pirates fled with the Alabama’s captain. While resistance might provide enough time for military support to arrive or even repel an attack, it also gives the pirates a reason to use lethal force. Some attempts to repel the pirates have led to the injury or death of crewmembers.

Step 6: Negotiation
After both the ship and crew are secure, the pirates begin negotiating the ransom. If the pirates have prior knowledge of the ship, the starting negotiating price will already be determined. The ransom will be based on the nationality of the crew, the type of cargo it is carrying, and the shipping company.61

The attacking pirates are rarely involved in the negotiation process, typically hiring a middleman instead.62 The middleman is usually highly trusted by the group, is perhaps even a family member, and can speak English. The pirates use the information onboard the hijacked ship to contact its owners and sometimes contact the media in hopes of exerting more pressure on the shipping company.63 As another pressure mechanism, the pirates allow the ship’s crewmembers to contact their families then fire their guns to incite fear in the hostages and their relatives.

Once a vessel has been hijacked, shipping companies usually begin preparing for negotiations. The first step is consulting the company’s legal counsel, who most often encourages the hiring of a security or risk management company. Like the pirates’ middlemen, these security companies will act as professional negotiators. Legal counsel will also be needed to handle any governmental red tape. With most countries discouraging the paying of ransoms to the pirates, legal counsels find it difficult to get the large sums of money withdrawn, converted into cash, and taken across international boundaries. Additionally, media advisors are often hired in response to pirates contacting the press and to withhold information about the ransom’s amount.64

Negotiations, on average, last between six to eight weeks. There is a limited time during which the pirates can keep the ship guarded and supply the crew with food and water.65 The shipping company is also on a deadline. In addition to pressure from the crew’s families, the company must keep enough fuel in the ship to allow its departure once the ransom is paid.66 In some cases the pirates try to extend negotiations or receive more for their hostages using this problem of limited supplies. In addition to the original ransom money, they might also demand more food and fuel be delivered to the ship at the cost of the company. Most shipping companies, however, keep accurate fuel records and can avoid an additional payout.67

During the negotiations the pirates usually take excellent care of both the crew and the ship. They recognize the value of their hostages decreases if any members of the crew are killed or if the vessel becomes useless.68 Other reports suggest the pirates refrain from killing any hostages because of moral and religious ethics.69 However, so far the pirates have been very successful in receiving ransoms. If they begin to kill hostages or damage the captured ships, companies may turn to private or international militaries to take back vessels by force.

During the negotiations, shipping company representatives are sometimes passed between several different pirate middlemen. The theory of organized pirate networks suggests that as time passes and the negotiation process intensifies, the company’s negotiator will be told that the pirate middleman must speak to the decision maker. Once negotiations have reached this point it is clear that a deal has almost been reached.70

Step 7: Receiving the Ransom Not all negotiations end in the delivery of a ransom. In rare cases military interventions rescue the hijacked ship and hostages. In April 2009 the French military attempted to rescue a family, including a child, being held onboard a yacht. It was feared the family would be taken on land if negotiations lasted very long. During the rescue mission two of the pirates and one of the hostages were killed.71 In the case of the Maersk Alabama, the U.S. Navy rescued Captain Phillips after shooting all but one of the pirates. However, most shipping companies do not want military interference for fear of putting the crew and ship at a greater risk. In most cases military interventions are not utilized after completed negotiations.

The ransom is always delivered in cash to the pirates, who usually request large currency U.S. bills. On average, the ransom is between one and three million U.S. dollars.72 Most ransoms were originally delivered by air, dropped onto the deck of the ship or into the water in a waterproof capsule.73 More recently and with the increased use of security companies, the ransom is delivered by hand,74 usually to the ship, but with some recent reports describing the money being delivered on shore. Pirates generally have currency counting and counterfeit testing equipment to ensure that the money is correct and not counterfeit.75

Step 8: Splitting the Ransom After the pirates receive the ransom money it is divided into five parts.76 At least 30 per cent of the ransom is divided amongst the pirates involved in the actual hijacking (or their families if a pirate is captured or killed during the attack.) A double share is given to the pirate who boards the captured vessel first.77

  • Around ten per cent of the ransom is given to the ground militia. These are the men on land who protect the ports or any important towns used by the pirates. The majority of hostages remain onboard their ships, but in some cases hostages are brought ashore to be guarded.
  • Another ten percent is given to the local community. Most of the time, this refers to religious leaders, but is also used to improve infrastructure and keep the community pirate friendly.
  • Twenty percent is paid to the financiers of the pirates. This includes paying local businesses that give the pirates supplies during the negotiating process and any community members invested in the group.

The last thirty percent is given to the pirates’ sponsors. While there is little concrete evidence of specifically who sponsors pirate groups, it is clear that many piracy missions are financed with seed money from an outside source. One report claimed it cost $30,000 USD for each attempted hijacking and that pirates are usually only successful 1 in 4 times.78 However, if a hijacking proves successful, the sponsor could receive around $900,000 USD from a 3 million dollar ransom.

Although the system of division seems fairly straightforward, the actual process is very complicated. Captain Andrey Nozhkin of the hijacked CEC Future described it as “total chaos.”79 Throughout the negotiating process the pirates are often utilizing loans from local business owners for supplies and local cooks to prepare food for the hostages. Once the ransom is received the owners begin charging interest and the cooks demand to be paid. Captain Nozhkin recounted knife-fights, firing into the crowd, and slamming hands in doors as punishment for greed between the pirates and their creditors.80

Step 9: Spending the Money
The final step in the anatomy of the pirate attack involves understanding how the ransom money is spent. The most visible use of ransom money is the purchase of luxury automobiles and the construction of luxury homes.81 In addition to purchases, pirates often use their new wealth to increase their number of wives and start up new businesses. As the businesses become more profitable they retire from hijacking ships, though they might continue to finance pirate operations.82

To many, the money infused in the impoverished communities is very welcome. The construction of houses, the creation of new businesses, and the ability to make purchases boosts economic growth. However, not all community members are pleased with the massive influx of wealth in their highly unstable economy. Prices for basic goods increase and it becomes difficult for those not involved in piracy to buy basic goods. The combination of heavily armed young men with increasing drug and alcohol abuse has resulted in new security problems for pirate communities. Residents also fear military air strikes from international forces and worry that the pirates’ new cars and big houses will make their towns targets for retaliation.83

Most reports suggest the majority of the ransom money stays in Somalia, where the cash does not need to be laundered. However, increasing evidence points to money being sent abroad to neighboring African countries. These communities have seen an increase in the number of Somali businesses and landowners. Furthermore, reports suggest that some of the laundered money goes through the capitals of the Middle East.84

Providing a portion of the ransom to religious extremist organizations is another possible, though unsubstantiated, use of the piracy money. Tensions between the pirates and al-Shabaab insurgents have not created a perfectly symbiotic relationship. Some reports suggest that up to 50 per cent of ransom payouts are given to al-Shabaab.85 However, an equal number of reports relate incidents of violence between the organizations. In 2008, after pirates hijacked the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, Islamic militants retaliated by attacking the pirate port of Haradheere.86 The group disapproved of the pirates’ attack of a Muslim owned ship. Similarly, al-Shabaab reportedly became angry when pirates did not agree to hand over the weapons shipment from the captured Ukrainian ship in 2008.87 While some of the ransom money might be turned over to religious extremist organizations, it is most likely not by the pirates’ choice.

International Response to Attacks

United Nations
As concerns about the level of Somali attacks have increased, international organizations have made efforts to address the issue In December 2008, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to allow states and regional organizations the power to use “all necessary means” to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia.88 Granted with the approval of the Somali Transitional Federal Government, the resolution allows states and regional organizations to enter Somalia’s territorial waters and use means such as naval vessels and military aircraft, to seize and dispose of boats and related piracy equipment.89 Originally created with a twelve month time frame, the success of this approach led to the renewal of the resolution for a second twelve month term. Though generally viewed as a success, the resolution has also raised concerns about the use of military force to combat a civilian problem.

NATO In 2008, at the request of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, NATO began providing escorts for UN World Food Program ships, under the auspices of Operation Allied Protector,90 an operation intended to provide anti-piracy support in coordination with other international actors. In addition to escorting aid ships, Operation Allied Protector conducted regular patrols intended to deter piracy. Additionally, assets of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) were redirected in order to supply additional anti-piracy support. Although Operation Allied Protector was canceled, it was succeeded by Operation Allied Provider which consists of five ships that are deployed by a rotation of contributing countries – the United States, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Spain routinely contribute to the rotational force.91

More recently, NATO has built upon the experience of previous counter-piracy methods to commence Operation Ocean Shield. Although not able to fully eliminate piracy, counter-piracy operations can build on past successes. Additionally, Operation Ocean Shield will contribute to capacity building for regional states, helping them to develop their own ability to combat piracy, and to effectively complement the efforts of other international organizations.92

United States A key player in the effort to combat piracy, the United States has developed both domestic and international task forces to address the problem. In coordination with Resolution 1846 the National Security Council released the “National Strategy for Countering Piracy off the Horn of Africa: Partnership and Action Plan”. The strategy outlines three objectives for responding to the threat of piracy including: (1) prevent pirate attacks by reducing the vulnerability of the maritime domain to piracy, (2) interrupt and terminate acts of piracy consistent with international law and the rights and responsibilities of coastal and flag States; and (3) ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their actions by facilitating prosecution of the suspected pirates in a just forum. 93

The United States has also been instrumental in the development of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. Currently, 45 countries and seven international organizations participate in the Contact Group, which examines the following issues: (1) Military and Operational Coordination, Information Sharing, and Capacity Building, (2) Judicial issues, (3) Strengthening Shipping Self-Awareness and other Capabilities, and (4) Public information. The Combined Maritime Forces, an international working group, also established Combined Task Force 151 in January 2009 specifically for counter-piracy measures. Comprised of ships and assets of more than 20 nations, Task Force 151 works to deter, disrupt, and bring to justice those involved in acts of piracy.94

The United States, in addition to increasing intelligence sharing and patrols, has encouraged all countries to adopt a policy of no concessions when dealing with pirates. As such, when Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama was held hostage, the US government refused to negotiate with the captors and instead made one of its few direct rescues. The sole surviving pirate from the attack, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, is currently being held in the United States awaiting trial, making him the first person to be tried for piracy in the US since 1885.95 Proceeding with the case has been difficult, as lawyers have struggled to confirm whether or not he is a minor and to identify the extent to which he played a role in the attack.

Varying Responses Although there has been a certain level of international cooperation, the fact remains that different governments have varying approaches in their responses to piracy. While the United States government holds firm in its decision not to pay ransom to pirates, the Spanish government has reportedly paid money for the release of hostages. It is alleged that the Spanish government paid more than $1 million USD for the release of a Spanish trawler and 26 crew members who had been captured by Somali pirates in April 2008. Again, in November 2009 the Spanish government reportedly paid more than $3 million USD for the release of 36 crew members who had been held hostage for six weeks.96 These actions by the Spanish government are not only contrary to the policy of most Western countries, but greatly undermine efforts to combat piracy. Paying the pirates any part of their demanded ransom essentially reinforces their motivation to undertake further attacks. As more pirates come home with large sums of money, the idea of piracy becomes a more attractive and viable option for others.

The French response has been somewhat different and more aggressive than that of the Spanish. Although the French too have been known to pay ransom, they have gained notoriety among pirates for their willingness to attack, and their ability to frequently do so with success. On several occasions the French have begun negotiations, stalled them, and then attacked the pirates. This approach can be dangerous, but has resulted in pirates in Puntland seeking to avoid “the French option.” 97 The fact that pirates now avoid French ships suggests that the French have found an effective anti-piracy approach (which was also the approach used by the United States in rescuing Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama). Nonetheless, such methods send the message that Somali pirates should not attack the French or Americans, but that attacking ships from countries with less powerful navies is acceptable. Without a collective approach the dozens of warships assembled in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean from a variety of different navies will only act in protection of their own national interests, if at all.98

Shipping Companies The sheer size of the territory patrolled by various navies off the coast of Somalia makes it practically impossible to guarantee the safety of all passing ships. Shipping companies are well aware of this and have developed their own strategies for coping with pirates. Some have hired private security firms, such as Blackwater Worldwide and Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, to serve as guards for large ships.99 Security firms may travel with the ship or maintain a physical presence on board. Blackwater Worldwide also has helicopters based on their security ship, the McArthur, which can be used to patrol without putting armed guards on board the vessel.100

As the problem of piracy grows, new security companies are emerging, claiming to be experts on piracy. These remain basically unregulated and might not be adequately trained or effective. The idea to arm shipping company crews incited a storm of controversy: not only does such action increase the likelihood of violence in the event of an attack, but it also increases the danger that cargos with dangerous chemicals could explode, causing environmental disasters and accidental deaths. Additionally, arming crews increases the possibility of an arms race with the pirates who would likely increase the quantity or strength of the arms they carry in response. Shipping companies who arm their crews or use security guards also incur increased costs.

In order to circumvent these risks, some shipping companies are using non-deadly tactics to deter pirates. The use of floodlights at night is an inexpensive tactic that can help give the appearance of being on anti-piracy watch. Fire hoses are also a low-cost, non-lethal weapon that can be used to spray pirates off of their ladders and prevent them from boarding. Long Range Acoustic Devices, or sound cannons, can be used to emit loud sounds to ward off attackers, although these are more costly. Electric fences, remote control hoses, and tracking devices are just a few of the other options available to shipping companies.

Ultimately, shipping companies will not always be able to prevent pirate attacks and some prefer to take their chances rather than investing heavily in counter-piracy measures. Depending on the vessel and the cargo, it might be simpler and less expensive for a shipping company to go about business as normal, paying out ransoms when necessary rather than to change routes, hire security personnel, arm the crew, or buy non-deadly weapons. But as previously noted, piracy will continue for as long as ransoms are being paid.


To a degree, Somali pirates can be viewed merely as nuisance fishermen but the potential for increased piracy and related security risks calls for continued attention to the piracy problem. The year-by-year increase in the number of pirate attacks indicates that the escalated efforts by the international community are not having the hoped for deterrent effect. Similarly, the increase in the number of hostages taken suggests that the pirates are becoming increasingly organized and have gained capital. This idea is supported by the fact that pirates continue to expand their attack zones farther out to sea, increasing their reliance on external resources, such as fuel and a mother ship. Major criminal hijacking is typically well-resourced with smoothly run operations.

The legal and practical difficulties that law enforcement faces in the pursuit of pirates have created a low risk/high reward opportunity for a group of people with few economic possibilities, a situation that will continue as long as the international community remains unable to work collectively to counter piracy. Shipping companies, and at times governments, inadvertently encourage pirate activity through the payment of ransoms. Although this appears to be an appropriate short-term strategy to ensure the safety of crew and cargo, in the long run this strategy adds fuel to the fire.

The effect of Somali piracy on land is worthy of equal attention. According to Martin Murphy, the degree to which piracy affects communities on land “depends on the degree to which it is an organized activity with links to other organized crime or corrupt networks within legitimate authorities.” 101 Piracy has affected local communities beyond the obvious problem of simply interrupting shipments of food and humanitarian aid. At its current level, Somali piracy has disrupted local and national economies with an influx of cash. The development of pirate boomtowns might appear as a positive effect, but the drastic increase in prices for goods can intensify problems for those already living in extreme poverty. Some Somalis now see pirate gangs as a reasonable investment option, as evidenced by the pirate ‘stock exchange’ in Haradheere.102

The continued success of piracy due to payments of ransom creates a number of security risks. First, it increases the danger that piracy will spread to other regions where conflict and disorder are rampant, geography is favorable, there is jurisdictional weakness, and cultural acceptability. For example, Nigeria fulfils most of these requirements and reports of piracy off West Africa are beginning to rise. Piracy might not cause weak states, but pirates certainly exacerbate the problem. The challenges that law enforcement faces in dealing with piracy has led to the use of potentially dangerous methods by shipping companies. Crews that are armed to defend the ship from attack put themselves at great risk, but also increase the likelihood of an arms race. As the strength of weapons increases, the possibility of explosions and environmental disasters increase as well.

Piracy is clearly defined as illegal in international law and Somali piracy represents an international, as well as regional problem. The transnational nature of the crime, as well as the involvement of transnational networks, indicates that a unified approach from the international community is necessary. Key players, such as the UN and NATO, have taken steps in creating an orchestrated international response, but as long as pirates are able to extract ransom payments from their captives and face little risk of capture themselves, Somali piracy will continue to thrive.


  1. International Maritime Bureau, 2009.
  2. IMB Quarter 3 Report, 2009.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Martin Murphy, Contemporary Piracy and Maritime Terrrorism. International Institute for Strategic Studies. (New York: Routledge, 2007).
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Global pirate attacks more frequent, violent: IMB report” Business Times. Friday, December 18, 2009.
  7. “Admiral: Sea too big to stop all pirate attacks” Associated Press. December 1, 2009
  8. Ibid
  9. Paul I. Adujie, “Somalia Pirates are Merely Resisting Toxic Nuclear Wastes Dumping and Over Fishing,” October 2009.
  10. Ibid
  11. 1 Ibid
  12. World Food Program, 2009.
  13. Jonathan Clayton “ Somalia’s Secret Dumps of Toxic Waste Washed Ashore by Tsunami” Times Online. March 4, 2005.
  14. Ibid
  15. “Evaluating the Somali ‘Pirate’ Situation” Africa Faith and Justice Network. April 14, 2009.
  16. “What’s going on with Ecuador’s Police?” Global Integrity Commons. April 30, 2009.
  17. Rob Crilly “Pirates help fund Somali Warlords” Christian Science Monitor. August 27, 2008.
  18. See for example,
  19. Catherine Philp, “Captured Somali pirates are being dumped in Kenya, officials say” The Times June 12, 2009.
  20. Martin Murphy, op. cit.
  21. Robyn Hunter, “Somali Pirates Living the High Life,” BBC News, October 28, 2008, Accessed December 10, 2009.
  22. 2 “Somalia,” The World Factbook 2009, (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2009).
  23. Benjamin Weiser, “Somali Piracy Suspect Pleads Not Guilty,” The New York Times, May 21,2009,
  24. [24] Documents in Somalia and Sudan. Norway: Landinfo: Country of Origin Information Centre, 2009.
  25. Hunter, op. cit.
  26. “State Profile,” Puntland State of Somalia,
  27. Mohamed Olad Hassan, “It’s a Pirate’s Life for Me: Interview with Dahir Mohamed Hayeysi” BBC News, April 22, 2009.
  28. Hunter, op. cit.
  29. Scott Baldauf, “Who are Somalia’s Pirates?” The Christian Science Monitor, November 20, 2008,
  30. Hunter, op. cit.
  31. “Pirates,”, See also “Fact Sheet for Supreme Islamic Courts Council,” Silobreaker,
  33. “Somalia: Pirate group threatens new measures,” Somalinet, January, 26, 2006.
  35. “Media Attention Dramatizes Somali Piracy,” Naval History and Heritage Command Public Affairs, December 7, 2009,
  36. Giles Tremlett, “Somali Pirates Guided by London Intelligence Team, Report Says,” The Guardian, May 11, 2009,
  37. Hawala is an alternative or parallel remittance system. It exists and operates outside of, or parallel to ‘traditional’ banking or financial channels. See Interpol General Secretariat, Lyon, January 2000.
  38. “Somali Pirates Get Help from Expats in Canada,” The Star, December 11, 2008, .
  39. Somalinet
  40. “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships,” ICC International Maritime Bureau, p 30
  41. John Lichfield, “Yacht Raid Reveals Hi-Tech Somali Pirate Network,” The Independent, April 10, 2008,
  42. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009, p 32.
  43. “British Ship Hijacked by Somali Overnight, As Attack on Norwegian Vessle is Thwarted,” The Daily Mail, May 2, 2009,
  44. Hunter, op. cit.
  45. Jeffrey Gettleman, “Somalia,” The New York Times, September 17, 2009,
  46. Sam Jones and Chris McGreal, “Somali Pirates Release Ukranian Arms Ship,” The Guardian, February 6, 2009,
  47. Daniel Wallis, “Somali Sea Gangs Lure Investors at Piracy Lair,” Reuters, December 1, 2009,
  48. Hunter, op. cit.
  49. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009, p 23
  50. Tremlett, op. cit.
  51. Noah Schachtman, “Exclusive Interview: Pirate on When to Negotiate, Kill the Hostages,” Wired.Com, July 28, 2009,
  52. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009, p 25.
  53. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009, p 36.
  54. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009, p 23.
  55. Joe Capua, “Somalia – Security: Somali Pirates Target New Area, Adopt Tougher Tactics for Hijackings,” International News Safety Institute, August 4, 2009,
  56. Capua, op. cit.
  57. Rob Walker, “Inside Story of Somali Pirate Attack” BBC News, June 4, 2009.
  58. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009.
  59. “Q&A: Somali Piracy,” BBC News, November 2, 2009,
  60. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009, p 25.
  61. Shachtman, op. cit.
  62. Walker, op. cit.
  63. Robyn Walker, “How do you pay a pirate’s ransom?” BBC News, December 3,2008,
  64. Brian Baxter, “Seward & Kissel Lawyers Help Negotiate Deal with Somali Pirates,” Law.Com, February 10,2009,
  65. Shachtman, op. cit.
  66. Baxter, op. cit.
  67. “They Know It’s a Successful Business Model” Spiegel Online, April 21, 2009,,1518,620292,00.html.
  68. Shachtman, op. cit.
  69. Baxter, op. cit.
  70. Spiegel Online.
  71. ICC International Maritime Bureau 2009, p 35
  72. Hunter, op. cit.
  73. Baxter, op. cit.
  74. Hunter, op. cit.
  75. “Somali Pirates Live the Good Life” CBS News, November 19, 2008,
  76. Mary Harper, “Chasing the Somali Piracy Money Trail,” BBC News, May 24, 2009,
  77. Harper, op. cit.
  78. Schachtman, op. cit.
  79. Walker, op. cit.
  80. Walker, op. cit.
  81. Hunter, op. cit.
  82. Walker, op. cit.
  83. Hunter, op. cit.
  84. Kihuro, Macharia, “Stand Up Against money Laundering,” Business Daily, December 3, 2009. Opinion & Analysis section, Online edition.
  85. Harper, op cit.
  86. Tim Butcher, “Somali Piracy: Islamic Militants ‘Attack’ Pirates Over Hijacked Saudi Tanker,” The Telegraph, November 21, 2008,
  87. “Somali Pirates: Islamist Insurgents Demands Weapons from Hijacked Ship,” The Telegraph, October 5, 2008,
  88. United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1846 (2008).
  89. Ibid.
  90. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. April 2, 2009,
  91. Ibid.
  92. Ibid.
  93. National Security Council released the National Strategy for Countering Piracy off the Horn of Africa: Partnership and Action Plan, 2008.
  94. “New Counter-Piracy Task Force Developed” United States Navy January 8, 2009,
  95. “Prosecutors: Young Pirate Brash and Brazen.” CBS News. April 22, 2009.
  96. Mail Foreign Service. November 18, 2009.
  97. Christopher Dickey “ How to Deal” Newsweek. April 15, 2009,
  98. Ibid.
  99. Joan Goodchild, “How Shipping Companies can Fight Pirates” CSO Security and Risk December 7, 2008.
  100. Jennifer Lawinski “Enemies of All Mankind: Who Can Stop the Pirates?” Fox News April 9, 2009,,2933,513957,00.html.
  101. Martin Murphy, op. cit.
  102. Mohamed Ahmed “Somali Sea Gangs Lure Investors at Private Lair” Reuters December 1, 2009,