Somali Piracy Case Study

PIRACY remains a concern for ships passing the Horn of Africa, even though the number of incidents has plummeted since 2011, when armed protection was beefed up on board many large vessels. The topic grips the public imagination. Witness the success of “Captain Phillips”, a film in which a vessel captained by the actor Tom Hanks is hijacked by Somalis. Yet the pirate economy is poorly understood. A report*, to be released on November 4th by the World Bank, the UN and Interpol sheds new light.

The authors interviewed current and former pirates, their financial backers, government officials, middlemen and others. They estimate that between $339m and $413m was paid in ransoms off the Somali coast between 2005 and 2012. The average haul was $2.7m. Ordinary pirates usually get $30,000-75,000 each, with a bonus of up to $10,000 for the first man to board a ship and for those bringing their own weapon or ladder.

Qat, a narcotic plant that is chewed by many, is often provided to pirates on credit during an operation. Their consumption is recorded and, when the ransom is paid, each pirate gets his share, minus what he consumed.

Other deductions include food and fines for bad behaviour, such as mistreating the crew, which often carries a $5,000 fine and dismissal. This is in keeping with centuries-old pirate codes: John Phillips (no relation), an 18th-century pirate, was said to have stated that anyone who “meddled” with a woman without her consent “shall suffer present death”. Some pirates find it difficult to retire because they end up in debt at the end of a hijack. Part of the ransom money flows to local communities that provide services to pirates.

Payments go to cooks, pimps and lawyers, who are increasingly sought after, as well as banknote-checkers with machines that can detect fakes. Money is also paid to militias that control ports. Under one agreement in Haradheere, a port north of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, pirates paid a “development tax” of 20% to the Shabab, an Islamist rebel group tied to al-Qaeda.

During operations, pirates spend with abandon. Interest rates on loaned goods and services are high: $10 of mobile-phone airtime is charged generally at around $20. The men on the anchored ships also pay up to three times the market price for qat, driving up prices on the coast. “With piracy everything became more and more expensive,” complains a fisherman-turned-pirate. Some locals (including former pirates) offer services to potential and actual victims of piracy, for instance as consultants, negotiators or proof-of-life interviewers. Some of these “companies” openly advertise their services, sometimes contacting victims directly.

Financing pirate expeditions can be quite cheap by comparison. The most basic ones cost a few hundred dollars, which may be covered by those taking part. Bigger expeditions, involving several vessels, may cost $30,000 and require professional financing, This comes from former police and military officers or civil servants, qat dealers, fishermen and former pirates. They take anywhere between 30% and 75% of the ransom.

A typical operation has three to five investors. Some provide loans or investment advice to other financiers. Some financiers, especially those in the Somali diaspora who have little cash inside Somalia but large deposits abroad, employ what the report describes as “trade-based money-laundering” to send funds to Somalia. This involves finding legitimate Somali importers willing to use a financier’s foreign money to pay for their shipments and reimburse him at home in cash once the goods are sold.

Pay as you go

The same technique is sometimes used to transfer ransom money out of Somalia. Cash is also smuggled across the region’s porous borders or transferred through intermediaries. One pirate took $12,000 in $50 and $100 bills to an office that transmits money and wired it abroad, bought a car and shipped it back to Somalia. The Somali financial sector is surprisingly dynamic and growing more quickly than state institutions. Various internet-payment services have popped up, even in the roughest parts of the country.

The report identifies Djibouti, Kenya and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the main transit points and final destinations for much of the loot. The financial institutions in Dubai, part of the UAE, are a particular worry. Investigators concluded that the ransom from the hijacking of the MV Pompei in 2012 was moved to Djibouti, then wired to banks in Dubai.

A third of pirate financiers invest profits in setting up militias or gaining political influence. Some also finance religious extremists. Ciise Yulux, one of the most active pirate leaders who is reckoned to command up to 70 men, provided money and equipment to fighters linked to the Shabab and al-Qaeda in 2012. Much of the rest flows into property and the qat trade.

Qat-chewing is big (and generally legal) business in much of the region, and the role of Somalis in distributing it is growing. The lack of transparency or monitoring of the qat trade in Kenya, the main supplier to Somalia, makes it susceptible to crime. Nine tonnes of the green leaf is flown each day from Kenya to Mogadishu, say airport officials. In some cases, pirate financiers have taken over entire qat co-operatives. They invested in the trade partly to feed the pirates’ habit. That is especially lucrative because of their willingness to pay over the odds. The writers of the study suggest ways to disrupt the money flows from piracy, such as better monitoring of cash transmitters and qat producers. But it may be harder to stop laundering the money than to curb the piracy itself.

* Pirate Trails: Tracking the Illicit Financial Flows from Pirate Activities off the Horn of Africa

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Anna Zaros

February, 2010


Somalia has long been viewed as a country constantly mired by war, a hopeless case that many in the international community are hesitant to engage. "It has mutated from a civil war in the 1980s, through state collapse, clan factionalism and warlordism in the 1990s, to a globalized ideological conflict in the first decade of the new millennium."[1] Somalia has recently been receiving renewed attention, however, because of the increase in the activity of Somali pirates. This article will seek to uncover why and how some Somalis are involved in piracy, the current international response to these acts, and ways in which the responses could better reflect an attempt at sustainable peacebuilding.

Somali Piracy

While Somali piracy has only recently captured major headlines, it has actually been occurring for quite some time. Somali piracy began with a "sporadic" first phase in the 1990s. As it became increasingly apparent that Somalia was spiraling towards becoming a failed state, international crews chose to take advantage of this and began illegally fishing and dumping waste in Somalia's waters.[2] Sometimes these illegal acts even included "violent assault on Somali fishermen and their equipment."[3] Illegal fishing and dumping has robbed Somali fisherman of their ability to earn a living. In a country already experiencing terrible living conditions, hunger, and poverty, piracy is a way to survive and a way to fight against what the pirates perceive as a source of their poverty.[4] Some pirates even claim to spread the captured wealth to the poor in their communities and/or use the money for efforts to clean up the toxic waste dumped in their waters.[5]

Since 2005, however, the amount and size of the pirates' activities has sharply increased. Most attribute this increase to the strengthened organization of the pirates: "what began as mere 'maritime muggings' has evolved into sophisticated, adaptive, and multifaceted international organized crime."[6] Today the pirates are largely based in Puntland, on the northeast coast of Somalia. Towns known as pirate havens include Haradheere, Garacad, Hobyo, and Eyl.[7] Operating in the Indian Ocean, and recently shifting also to the Gulf of Aden, the pirates use the following tactics:

[Somali pirates] use hijacked tuna-fishing boats or local dhows as the mother ship, then launch attacks from skiffs, usually at dawn or dusk. They hold the crews hostage with machine-guns and semi-automatic pistols, then force the captain to anchor off the northern part of Somalia's coast for several weeks until a ransom is paid.[8]

At least one author argues that present day Somali piracy follows a predictable historical pattern of piracy.[9] If Somali piracy follows a historical pattern, it could perhaps be suppressed in the way that piracy has previously been suppressed, that is, through a strong, hegemonic, naval force.[10] Although Somali piracy might be following the usual pattern, it has the potential, and arguably already is, developing beyond piracy. First, as already noted above, Somali piracy has developed into "a sophisticated and lucrative form of multifaceted international organised crime."[11] Additionally, there is increasing evidence that Somali pirates are making connections with fundamental Islamic groups. Even though al Shabaab, one of the largest Islamist insurgency groups in Somalia, denounces piracy as immoral,[12] there are reports that al Shabaab is helping the pirates learn how to fight against western Special Forces, and the pirates are teaching al Shabaab maritime fighting tactics in return.[13] There are also claims that the pirates may be forming ties with al Qaeda.[14] By deepening one's understanding of current day Somali piracy one can see that it may be unique from previous instances of piracy — a difference that may necessitate a new and unique set of responses than have been previously used to combat piracy.

International Responses

Thus far, regional and international actors have largely confronted the issue of Somali piracy through the use of force. In 2008 the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia allowed foreign navies to patrol Somalia's waters and pursue pirates. Currently, there are several countries that have sent naval warships to Somalia's waters, including, the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan.[15] The European Union has created Operation Atlanta and NATO has created Operation Ocean Shield to escort international ships, patrol the waters, and engage in combat with the pirates if there is an attack.[16] Additionally, the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions regarding Somali piracy, most of which are concerned with approving foreign navies to combat piracy. For example, Resolution 1851 supports the use of foreign navies to combat piracy with approval from the TFG, recommends creating a mechanism to foster cooperation among these navies, and calls for states to increase their ability to prosecute pirates.[17]

Possible Peacebuilding Responses

While these responses may seem adequate to the countries whose ships are being hijacked, they fail in their ability to foster a sustainable, peaceful solution for Somalis. A sustainable peacebuilding response requires an understanding of the "integrative, comprehensive, analytical framework" of the conflict.[18] Additionally, peacebuilding must consist of "long-term, on-going activities and operations," and it should address "every stage of the conflict cycle," and involve all members of society."[19] In short, for peacebuilding to truly be sustainable it must be carried out with a comprehensive understanding of and response to the conflict at hand.[20] In light of the Somali situation, this understanding of sustainable peacebuilding helps one to understand that piracy is only an immediate concern — a concern that must be understood and addressed within the broader context of physical and structural violence Somalis experience:[21]

What we are seeing in the Gulf of Aden and western Indian Ocean is just the visible tip of a complex web of challenges inside Somalia, a web that reaches across the country, the region and the world. Somalia is one of the poorest, most violent, least stable countries anywhere on Earth. It suffers from severe drought and its people face hunger and violence on a daily basis... For this reason the current attempts to fight piracy from the sea are only dealing with symptoms. They do not address the reasons why young men are prepared to risk their lives chasing ships around the ocean.[22]

Therefore, in order to truly address Somali piracy, the complexity and roots of the issue must be acknowledged. Additionally, a purely naval response, one formulated only with the immediate concern of stopping piracy, may only increase the violence and may not stop Somali piracy in the long term.[23] Viewing Somali piracy with a comprehensive peacebuilding framework can remind policy makers that a response to Somali piracy should not merely include naval ships but also combating poverty, fostering jobs, and stabilizing the country. For example, the TFG has not only allowed foreign navies to combat pirates, but it has also asked for international help in combating illegal fishing and dumping on the Somali coast.[24] If international actors had a more comprehensive view of the conflict, they would see the merit in helping Somalis defend their coast from illegal fishing and respond to this call for help.

Another specific way in which piracy can be addressed within the broader Somali situation is by reviving law and order in Somalia. The pirates operate with the understanding that they will most likely not be held accountable for their actions.[25] One way to overcome this atmosphere of impunity would be to strengthen the TFG so that it is able to create enforcement institutions that can crack down on piracy.[26] A strengthened TFG could also organize a coast guard, for instance, that would be able to protect its waters not only from pirates, but also from illegal dumping and fishing. The United Nations or other international actors could lend a hand in strengthening the TFG and by encouraging other state actors and businesses to respect Somali waters. Although support can and should come from outside actors, decision making regarding fostering law and order must come from Somalis:

What is needed is more direct support to the government of Somalia so it can maintain a standing force of its own and establish a police force to bring about law and order. That is the kind of force that could make a difference. If such support were available, Somalis would be able to set their own priorities for dealing with insurgents and bringing about stability. It is their country; they know the terrain and the issues. They are better placed than anyone else to find ways to tackle the problems, including that of piracy.[27]

Also, efforts to address Somali piracy could take a lesson from the current, successful efforts being undertaken in Somali society to foster peace and order. "[I]n the absence of government and a judicial system, Somalis fell back on traditional institutions and practices of governance to manage security and maintain order, including customary law (xeer Soomaali) and Islamic law (shari'a)."[28] Customary law, in particular, is upheld by the power and authority of clan elders. The authority of these clan elders is so powerful in Somali society that they have been involved in all reconciliation processes led by Somalis. Additionally, clan elders in Puntland have been useful in combating piracy. Some youth have abandoned piracy under pressure from clan elders.[29] The international community could recognize the importance of these clan elders, customary and Islamic law in peacebuilding and engage these resources in an effort to create a sustainable peace in addressing Somali piracy.

Lastly, a comprehensive peacebuilding response to Somali piracy must be open to questioning the concepts of sovereignty and jurisdiction. The UN Security Council, in Resolution 1851 reaffirms, "its respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and unity of Somalia, including Somalia's rights with respect to offshore natural resources, including fisheries, in accordance with international law."[30] Footnote needed. It is laudable that the UN states its respect for Somalia's offshore resources as an extension of Somalia's territorial jurisdiction. The problem, however, is that the solution to the conflict in Somalia, and by extension, Somali piracy, may not be found by creating a sovereign nation-state. As has been shown through Somali peacebuilding efforts, "[t]he statebuilding approach to resolving the Somali crisis reflects an external analysis of the problem and fails to get to grips with the problematic nature of a Somali state."[31] Somalis may not support a Somali state and such statebuilding may be antithetical to their traditional, decentralized, political culture. The autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland defy conventional wisdom that a centralized nation-state is the solution to internal state conflict.[32] In short, a peaceful Somalia may not be a Somali nation-state. Unfortunately, the UN Security Council's recognition of Somalia's territorial jurisdiction of its waters is dependent on Somali national sovereignty. In the future, the international community and Somalia may have to discover ways to demand respect of Somali waters from illegal fishing and dumping without demonstrating traditional conceptions of sovereignty.[33]


There is currently a spotlight on Somalia. Many countries are sending their navy ships to the Indian Ocean to combat piracy. Within the UN countries are debating how to deal with the Somali "problem."[34] The interests of the international community to confront Somali piracy are being voiced loudly, but Somalia, entrenched in a protracted conflict is unable to represent itself to the international community and voice its own concerns and solutions.[35] "If there is a silver lining to the piracy issue it may be that a deeper, broader and more imaginative engagement with Somalia develops."[36] If Somali piracy is addressed with a mindset of sustainable, comprehensive peacebuilding, the international community, with the voice of Somalis, has an opportunity to foster a peaceful end to a conflict by addressing the current crisis of Somali piracy.

[1] Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy, "Endless War: a Brief History of the Somali Conflict," Whose Pace is it Anyway?: Connecting Somali and International Peacemaking, Accord no. 21, ed. Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy (London: Conciliation Resources, 2010), k/accord/somalia/endless-war.php.

[2] Patrick Lennox, Contemporary Piracy off the Horn of Africa (paper prepared for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Calgary, Alberta, December 2008), 8, /Contemporary%20Piracy%20off%20the%20Horn%20of%20Africa.pdf. See also Massip Farid Ikken, "The Reasons Behind Piracy," New African no. 486 (July 2009): 34-35.

[3] Lennox, 9.

[4] Farid Ikken, 34.

[5] Lennox, 2.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 3.

[8] "A Long War of the Waters," Economist 394, no. 8664 (January 9, 2010): 47-48.

[9] See Lennox.

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] African Partnership Forum, Peace and Security: Drug Trafficking, Piracy and Money Laundering — The International Dimension of Organised Crime (12th Meeting of the African Partnership Forum, June 10, 2009), 5-7, 42949251.pdf.

[12] Lennox, 3.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] "Somali Justice Advocacy Center Expresses Deep Concern Over Al Qaeda Involvement in Piracy in Somalia and Cautions U.S. to not Exercise Military Force," US Newswire, April 9, 2009.

[15] "A Long War of the Waters."

[16] "Piracy Attacks off the Horn of Africa: Motives, Tactics, and International Response," International Debates 8, no.1 (January 2010): 15-20.

[17] UN Security Council, 6046th Meeting, "Resolution 1851 (2008)[On Somali Piracy]" (S/RES/1851), December 16, 2008, d/4952044e2.pdf.

[18] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace: 1997), 60.

[19] John Paul Lederach and R. Scott Appleby, "Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview," in Strategies of Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), forthcoming.

[20] Ibid.

[21] John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003), 10-13.

[22] Middleton, "Piracy Symptom of Bigger Problem."

[23] Faird Iken, 35.

[24] Farid Ikken, 34.

[25] "A Long War of the Waters."

[26] Also, a short term response within the framework of strategic peacebuilding that could lessen impunity is by prosecuting captured pirates. There have been multiple cases of pirates being captured by naval ships and then being released. These pirates are released because of complications of jurisdiction, extradition, and prosecution when arresting someone at sea. The United Nations, for example, has called for nations to clarify their policies on these issues so as to reduce impunity. See Tullio Treves, "Piracy, Law of the Sea, and Use of Force: Developments off the Coast of Somalia," The European Journal of International Law 20, no. 2 (2009): 408-412.

[27] Mahboub M. Maalim, interview conducted by Sally Healy, "Regional Engagement in Somalia: A Conversation with HE Engineer Mahboub M. Maalim," Whose Pace is it Anyway?: Connecting Somali and International Peacemaking, Accord no. 21, ed. Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy (London: Conciliation Resources, 2010), work/accord/somalia/igad-interview.php.

[28] Abdurahman A. Osman, "Order out of Chaos: Somali Customary Law in Puntland and Somaliland," Whose Peace is it Anyway?: Connecting Somali and International Peacemaking, Accord no. 21, ed. Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy (London: Conciliation Resources, 2010), k/accord/somalia/order-chaos.php.

[29] Ibid.

[30] UN Security Council, "Resolution 1851 (2008)[On Somali Piracy]."

[31] Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy, "How Does it End? Towards a Version of a Somali State," Whose Pace is it Anyway?: Connecting Somali and International Peacemaking, Accord no. 21, ed. Mark Bradbury and Sally Healy (London: Conciliation Resources, 2010), k/accord/somalia/conclusions.php.

[32] See Ibid.

[33] For example, civilian fishery agreements have been utilized to provide security against other incidents of illegal fishing in the region. These agreements partly operate by recognizing the national sovereignty of countries over their waters. See Gary E. Weir, "Fish, Family and Profit: Piracy in the Horn of Africa," Naval War College Review 62, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 23-25. It could be feasible, however, to create fishery agreements with regional powers and Somali clan leaders, instead of national government leaders. The UN could then support these agreements and call for the international community to respect them.

[34] See Saeed Shabazz, "At UN, Discussion on Combating Somali Piracy but not on Stopping Toxic Waste Dumping," The New York Amsterdam News, September 17, 2009 - September 23, 2009, 2.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Middleton, "Piracy Symptom of Bigger Problem."

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