History of Pirates in Somalia

Because of the power and reach of the United States Navy and other first world naval forces of the world, attacks on ships and international shipping lanes by pirates, also known as sea bandits, are rare. One major exception is the waters near Somalia, where pirates have been attacking and hijacking ships since the turn of the 21st century. Pirate attacks have occurred from as close as the Somali coast line to the Arabian Sea, close to the coast line of India. Somali piracy has cost the world between $6 and $12 billion per year.

When the Somali Democratic Republic collapsed in 1991 during the outbreak of a civil war, Somalia's navy fell apart and disbanded. This left Somalia's coast line unprotected, and as a result fishing vessels from other countries started to poach in the region. In addition, other ships came and started using the unguarded Somali waters as a dumping area for toxic waste, including radioactive nuclear waste. In some cases, foreign ships even rammed Somali fishing boats to destroy them. Somali fishermen and other citizens appealed for international help to deal with the illegal fishing and dumping, but no action was taken. The damage from these activities devastated Somali fishermen and threatened the food supply for the people of the war-torn region. Unable to find remedy in the international community, the local fishermen took up arms to attack the commercial ships in the region, in an attempt to stop the stealing of fish and the dumping of toxic waste. As the international community started efforts to put an end to the attacks on ships passing through the area, Somali militia joined forces with the fishermen. From that point forward, the Horn of Africa, also known as Somalia, became the breeding ground for what is now known internationally as the Somali piracy problem.

As of 2005 the pirate threat region mostly included the area closest to the Somali coast line. This area, however, was adjacent to Yemen and Oman, which border Saudi Arabia. It also involved the Gulf of Aden, where over 30,000 commercial ships pass. These include oil tankers as well as other forms of commercial shipping. One out of every ten gallons of oil shipped in tankers, passes through this region. Over the years, however, pirate attacks have spread far beyond the Somali coast line, toward the Maldives islands and the Indian Ocean as of 2010.

Somali piracy has considerable support from the Somali populace. It has evolved from a defensive reaction against illegal dumping and illegal fishing, to a criminal enterprise. Typical Somali pirate attacks involve attacking commercial ships, taking hostages, and demanding high ransoms, often in the millions of dollars. The attacks involve fishing trawlers which launch small attack boats, known as skiffs, to seize larger cargo ships. Somali pirates are often armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles. Somali fishermen are typically the masterminds of the operation, and they often have the help of former civil war militiamen. When confronted with a modern naval force, pirates will throw their weapons overboard to eliminate evidence. This has helped make it difficult to prosecute them in international courts of law. Pirates got their funding from various sources, including from within Somali, but also from Yemen and other foreign places. Pirate operations were so successful that they were receiving funding from local stock exchanges, where investors would trade shares in pirate groups. Effectively this meant that they were funding and speculating on the success of future pirate attacks. The profits from pirate attacks rose to an estimate of well over $200 million as of 2010. The benefits of piracy to local Somali communities have manifested in the form of business from pirates spending their money at local businesses. In addition, pirate attacks have succeeded in fending off illegal foreign fishing in some places, resulting in improved fishing harvests for local fishermen.

Most pirate attacks do not result in the harming of the hostages that the pirates take. However, Somali pirates are suspected in the killing of four Americans on board a yacht in 2010. Pirates killed a Chinese sailor in 2007 when their ransom demands were not met. There have also been reported incidents of torture, and the use of hostages as shields against defensive fire.

The international community has struggled to deal with the piracy problem, but has made appreciable progress. The United States, Russia and India, among other nations, have fielded warships and Navy special forces teams to deal directly with pirates and pirate ships. Various government entities in Somalia have also worked to stop piracy by attacking their bases on land. Over the years, pirate attacks skyrocketed, reaching a peak of 151 known attacks in 2011. International naval interception efforts have led to a drop in pirate activity, such that only one attack occurred in October of 2012. The lack of success has also dried up the various sources of funding that pirates have been able to secure for their operations. Overall, Somali piracy has experienced a pattern of rapid decline since 2012.

Piracy in Somalia began as a result of the collapse of Somalia and the onset of foreign dumping and illegal fishing. Because of the depletion of fishing stocks around the Somali coast, piracy became a way for fishermen to not only replace their lost income but to also scare off intruders. The success of the international community's war on piracy has depended heavily on military intervention, but the rejuvenation of fish populations and the cooperation of Somali authorities has proven to be equally as effective. While Somali piracy is on the decline, its complete elimination may not occur as long as Somalia remains a failed state.

Please see the following links for more information on Somali piracy.

  • Ohio State University, E-History: Pirates of Puntland, Somalia: An article about piracy off the Somali coast. This page talks about the attack on the Sirius Star, along with a brief history of Somali piracy and piracy in general.

  • George Washington University, The Elliott School of International Affairs: Rise of Piracy and Other Maritime Insecurity in Somalia: This page is a summary on a 2009 Maritime Policy Summit meeting. It describes the nature of the threat of Somali piracy as well as some background information. Information about anti-piracy operations are also included.

  • DIW Berlin: The Business of Piracy in Somalia: A PDF document that addresses the difficulty of ending Somali piracy. This article discusses the role of organized crime in piracy, as well as the lack of other economic opportunities for those who depend on piracy. It also notes that even insurance companies depend upon piracy because of the increased premiums they get from shipping companies.

  • Maritime Piracy: A PDF document on piracy from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The document focuses primarily on the piracy off the Horn of Africa. Under the section titled "What is the Nature of This Market?", the document reviews the history and cause for piracy in the area. The document also includes charts that illustrate piracy in Somalia and in other areas.

  • Mount Holyoke College: Somali Pirates Interview: An interview of a Kenyan consult about Somali piracy. In the interview the cause of piracy in Somali, when it started, the Somali community's views on piracy and how it can be stopped. Clicking on the additional tabs on the website will take the reader to further discussions on who the pirates are and the root cause of piracy.

  • CIWAG Case Study on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups: Piracy: A Naval War College PDF document about Somali Piracy. Subjects covered include background information, the history of Somali piracy since 1996, and anti-piracy efforts. The article also discusses specific strategies for putting an end to piracy in the region.

  • Modern Pirates Steal Swag from Their Legendary Predecessors: A PDF article about Somali piracy. This document seeks to dispel romantic notions about pirates. At the same time it also points out the problem of illegal fishing and attacks on Somali fishing boats that caused Somali fishermen to turn to piracy in the first place.

  • The New York Times - Piracy at Sea: A short news story about Somali piracy. It touches upon the causes as well as the results of attempts to stop the attacks.

  • CDFAI: Contemporary Piracy Off the Horn of Africa: A PDF article by the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute about piracy off the Somali coast. The document discusses what the general cycle of piracy is as well as causes and contributing factors. The reader is also given information about piracy in Somalia from 1991 to the present. The document includes a number of figures illustrating attacked and hijacked vessels and density of attacks

  • Kenyan Fishermen Celebrate Somali Pirates: A PDF news story discussing the effects of Somali Piracy on illegal fishing off the Somali Coast. Formerly depleted fishing areas are now reportedly yielding orders of magnitude more fish than they were during recent years.