Piracy in Somalia

March 2011


Martin Murphy, a piracy expert at the Center for Foreign Policy Studies, believes that Somali pirates are the biggest threat to the peaceful use of the sea since the Second World War. These pirates have attacked as far south as Madagascar and as far west as India. He argues that the number of naval ships protecting commercial ships near Somalia is like four policemen patrolling an area the size of Texas.

What do we do? I don’t think putting armed personnel on commercial ships will reduce piracy. First, approximately 11% of the world’s shipping passes through the Gulf of Aden. Arming enough ships to make the pirates think twice before attacking would be extremely expensive. Second, this is the Wild West. No rules of engagement exist for when we can attack the pirates and who can attack them. Imagine the uproar if a private security contractor killed an innocent Somali fisherman whom he suspected of piracy. And no one knows what to do with the pirates captured on the High Seas (technically, a U.S. Navy ship captain can hang the pirate from the yardarm, though that’s not going to happen). Lastly, Somalia’s per capita G.D.P. is $600. Averaging about $5 million per ship taken provides a huge incentive for Somali pirates to continue pirating.

Currently, we only react to piracy after the pirates have taken a ship- like the Maersk Alabama incident or the recent kidnapping of an American couple sailing around the world. The only long term solution to Somali piracy is to restore Somalia’s economy and ensure Somalia has a stable government. After the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, the U.S. gave up on restoring the country. Dr. Murphy, the piracy expert, believes that Somali pirates have more sanctuary on land than any other pirates in modern times. Until a 2008 U.N. Resolution, the U.S. could not legally take the fight to the land. By encouraging legal industries like farming and fishing, the U.S. could reduce the number of Somalis who steal ships to merely to survive.

In conclusion, Somali pirates are not terrorists. They terrorize ships’ crews when they attack, and they kill civilians. But their motives for taking ships are purely mercenary. Terrorists, on the other hand, work to enact some type of religious or political change. Somalia may harbor Al-Qaeda cells because they are a failed state, not because the pirates want global jihad. The U.S. government does not list Somali pirates as terrorists; we should not fight them as such.

Posted by jjames in Maritime Security, Piracy

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  • If so, why has not the USNI Proceedings in a manner other than saying that the pirates are so much small potatoes?

  • Aaron Brotman

    I agree with your points here. Pirates are making a business choice. We should look at use of military forces or private guards in a similar light, at least at this juncture. However, there is an upward trend in both the number of attacks and distance from coastline. At a certain point, the level of piracy may deter from trade in the region which would not be in our interests.

  • RickWilmes

    Pirates are not businessman but thieves so it is a mistake to equate the pirates decision to take what is not theirs with a business decision.

    To solve the piracy problem one of the first steps is to properly define their nature and a business man making business decisions is not what a pirate does.

    Pirates are thieves and kidnappers looking for easy targets and opportunities.

  • LCDR Claude Berube, USNR

    Midn James,
    Good topic. Here are some additional thoughts in response to points you made:
    1) Why private armed personnel? Perhaps because no known ship that has employed armed riders to date has been taken.
    2) It’s true that there aren’t enough private armed guards to protect every ship that transits GOA, but you don’t need to. About 70% of ships that transit annually have a high enough freeboard and/or are fast enough that they normally don’t have to worry about pirates. Others sufficiently employ BMP. Others, however, can benefit from private armed personnel.
    3) You’re right that there would be an uproar if a contractor killed a Somali fisherman; arguably there are similar uproars when civilians are accidentally killed by any country’s military.

    Given the lack of civilized nations to invest in maintaining a constant presence on the ocean, having some private maritime security personnel hired by the shipping companies – subject, of course, to regulations – makes sense. It’s similar to having private security at a mall or an office lobby since police can’t be everywhere all the time.

  • When did punitive expeditions disappear from our menu?


    I take exception to several (most) of the points.

    1. “Second, this is the Wild West. No rules of engagement exist for when we can attack the pirates and who can attack them.”
    Catagorically false. According to International Law, piracy is a national crime. The Flag state clearly has jurisdiction in cases of piracy. Hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. The rules are clear, the will to enforce them is not. Now attacking them when your own national law hasn’t been violated, that is a different matter. If a boat filled with armed Somalis is off the coast of Somalia and has not attacked anyone, are they pirates?

    2. “Imagine the uproar if a private security contractor killed an innocent Somali fisherman whom he suspected of piracy.”
    Already happened (at least a dead pirate was found on a small boat that attacked a merchant ship carrying a security detachment that engaged the pirates in self defense. Fishermen do not approach and attack ships in vessels not equipped for fishing) no big uproar. Again, national law applies. In most countries, you have the right to repond to lethal force with lethal force.

    3. “And no one knows what to do with the pirates captured on the High Seas (technically, a U.S. Navy ship captain can hang the pirate from the yardarm, though that’s not going to happen).”
    Uh, no. No US Navy Ship Captain can make summary executions, much as you want to sometimes. Again, USC specifies punishment for piracy in the US. The Flag state rules of piracy apply, again it is the will that is missing.

    4. “Currently, we only react to piracy after the pirates have taken a ship- like the Maersk Alabama incident or the recent kidnapping of an American couple sailing around the world.”
    Again, false. We patrol, board ships suspected of being pirates (catch, dump guns and ladders, and release), etc. But as previously stated, they are not pirates until they do something!

    5. “The only long term solution to Somali piracy is to restore Somalia’s economy and ensure Somalia has a stable government.”
    No, the only long term solution, the only solution period, is to remove the sanctuary the pirates have. Its the only way piracy has ever been suppressed. However, there are other ways. Like quit paying for release of the ship and military recapture of the ships held, retalitory raids, etc. For that matter the modern day Malacca pirates were supressed (OK, they were drowned) by a Tsunami.

    6. “After the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, the U.S. gave up on restoring the country.”
    Not true. The US has backed, or at least been accused of backing, the Ethiopian intervention and the current government. We just don’t have our forces there.

    7. “Until a 2008 U.N. Resolution, the U.S. could not legally take the fight to the land.”
    There are a variety of ways, without a UN Resolution, that we could attack pirates on land. Just right off the top we could land forces to rescue US citizens being held (except there weren’t any) and conduct reprisals (of which we did not have justification). That we have chosen not to is largely because we have not had any legal justification.

    8. “By encouraging legal industries like farming and fishing, the U.S. could reduce the number of Somalis who steal ships to merely to survive.”
    that’s like saying the drug trade could be eliminated by encouraging the farmers to grow something else. How many fish do they need to catch to make $10k in a day? The simple fact of the matter is the potential pay-off is so high, as long as the pirates have santuary, they will resort to piracy, even if they can fish. In other words, while some Somalis would rather fish or farm, there are enough excess that it won’t matter.

    9. “The U.S. government does not list Somali pirates as terrorists; we should not fight them as such.”
    This statement implies that we are currently treating them as trans-national terrorists, which could not be further from the truth. We treat them as criminals, pirates if you will, and that’s were most of the problem lies. If they were terrorist this would be easy! The US has strong laws against piracy, sufficient will to enforce its laws, and a willingness to be a Flag State in all regards. Sadly, the can’t be said for a large part of the rest of the world.


    MIDN James,
    If you are interested in piracy, a great resource about current operations and the legal aspects of piracy is the Eaglespeak blog (www.eaglespeak.us) by Eagle1.

  • maineiac

    I agree with most of what USNVO and LCDR Claude Berubeabove says.

    With regards to RoE it’s simple, If you are either being fired upon or being boarded by the crew of another vessel – fire back. In the first case, fire warning or disabling shots (or use flare type devices or the like) and the second case shoot to disable or to kill.

    As to cost, ship owners that use crews based in countries where the likelihood of crew members filing lawsuits if captured have been able to find the wherewithal to provide protection.

    Ship’s crews are typically 12-20 people. A four man crew can provide good protection. (crew takes the watch during the day, security on standby, security takes the watch at night) If the security is making five time more then crew, crew costs would double, but only in during the transit. This doesn’t strike me as an onerous burden. If all the ships which transit were required to have adequate security the costs could be passed onto the customer without putting owners who are taking steps to protect crews at a competitive disadvantage.

  • MIDN James – well said and as you get criticism here, take it in adn think about it but don’t be afraid to stick to your guns!

    My experience with Somali piracy is not as relevant as it once was, but I agree with the thrust of your post as well as your assertions (USNVO’s long list of opposition is noted, but not agreed with).

    Keep writing, keep thinking!

  • Okay, I’ll buy a round of adult beverages (or, for those not of age, a suitable replacement) for a citation to that current law or regulation which allows a U.S. Navy ship captain to hang pirates “from the yardarm.”

  • LCDR Claude Berube, USNR

    USNVO: on your point #2 that a private contractor killed a pirate. Are you talking about the AL-MEEZAN? If so, I’m not sure that’s a clear-cut case of a “private contractor.” Was it a legitimate, recognized contractor? As Patrick Cullen and I wrote in the Washington Times last year: “this week’s attack on the Panamanian-flagged vessel Al Meezan purportedly has demonstrated the first example of another form of lethal force being used against pirates: teams of armed private security guards hired by commercial shipping companies to protect their assets en route through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Details about the attacked ship Al Meezan – as well as its private security contingent – remain hazy. The ship has been attacked and boarded by pirates twice in the past year, and there has been speculation as to whether or not this cargo vessel has been used in illegitimate commerce. Despite these questions, original reports indicate that the ship’s private security guards exchanged gunfire with the pirates, fatally wounding one, according to the European naval force that arrived on the scene after responding to the ship’s distress call.”

    If you were talking about another incident or had clearer information on this incident, please correct me so that I don’t cite that incident improperly.


    Yes, I was specifically refering to the AL MEEZAN incident. There have actually been at least three cases that I can remember when private (as in non-Flag state) provided security forces have responded to piracy attack. In all three cases the pirates left.
    The AL-MEEZAN (Panamanian Flagged).
    The MSC MELODY, an Italian cruise ship (Panamanian Flagged) in the Red sea returned fire against pirates. Actually happened before the AL-MEEZAN incident.
    3. Most recently the Maersk Alabama

    The AL MEEZAN was the only incident to my knowledge where anyone died. In all three cases, all of which happened in International Waters, no laws of the flag state were broken and that is the only thing that counts. Neither Panama or the US chose to press charges against the security personel nor was there any great public outcry to do so. I don’t believe the pirates requested that the security forces be prosecuted. I don’t think Panama, Liberia, Malta, or any of the other flag of concenience states will make a big deal about it one way or another as long as their checks from the ship owners clear.

    The idea that armed security forces would somehow start mowing down “innocent fishermen” is just not believable. How many innocent fishermen decide to close with merchant ships just on a whim? How many merchants are going to go out of their way to attack a small boat that clearly poses no threat to them?

    The thing with Piracy in international waters (or the high seas if you want) is that it is purely national crime for the flag state. The big difference between Somali and say the Barbary Pirates, is that in the latter case, the ships were US Flagged with US Crews. Today, piracy is against shipped flagged in Liberia, Panama, etc with no US crews, Let the Flag state deal with it, it is not our problem. The US has maintained the security of the US waters and our EEZ and prosecuted every case of piracy that was against US ships and citizens on the high seas, we have met our obligation under international law.

  • maineiac

    I’ve made numerous transits of the GoA as master. If the boat crew is not firing or attempting to board your vessel don’t shoot, if they are, do shoot. There are also various very effective non-lethal gadgets that can be used to warn if in doubt.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    1 – there’s a suitable replacement for ANY adult beverage?

    2 – considering that the problem is probably going to spread. Maybe not get worse by a quantitative measure (in the mid-term). But, qualitatively, their attacks are improving.

    What I wonder:

    – What is the feedback function of qualitative improvements of their gear? How does this affect their ability to recruit?

    – Do the pirates take into consideration how many attacks they attempt each year, is their C2 that sophisticated? The tripwire for increased international involvement seems to be number of attacks, not the sophistication of the attacks.

    – Where is the tipping point? Increases in their ability and range. What other improvement(s) are they missing from reaching a tipping point, to where current anti-pirate tactics are no longer reasonable or effective what so ever?

    They seem to be fully cognizant of international sentiment and they are operating accordingly. Is this the status quo that Somali’s are comfortable with and have no plans to increase their efforts? If so, then what are they using piracy for — what other effort(s) is piracy supporting? Is piracy a means to an end, or the end itself?

  • LCDR Claude Berube, USNR

    Thanks for the clarification. There have reportedly been far more incidents of a gunfire exchange between pirates and maritime security, including those from escort vessels. I agree that these companies aren’t in the business of mowing down fishermen since – as you note – they’re not going to approach ships if they’re just simple fishermen.

  • Matt Yankee

    USNVO’s point 7 says it all:

    “That we have chosen not to is largely because we have not had any legal justification.”

    Some bright officer should ask the CIA why they weren’t able to prevent 9/11 beforehand and I would predict they would say the same line. So I guess we will just remain on cruise control until we suffer some major incident again. AND it is just SO hard to predict…just stupid and yes shameful considering the preference of the undeclared CYA policy instead of covering your fellow citizen’s a## policy which should receive the attention. Yea…but no big deal…just some poor little fellows trying to make a living…surely they are too small and puny to do anything mean…it’s not like they have a few thousand tons of steel, fuel and whatever cargo they get lucky enough to come across. Gee isn’t that how we used to look at airplane hijackings…yea they will never utilize a ship to ram anything…cause their just simple little people trying to make a buck…have pitty.

    It is SO nice to be able to sleep at night knowing good Americans are following Internation Law regardless of the consequences. How brave.

  • YN2: Sonic Strawberry Slush

  • SanDogWeps

    One day I’ll be sailing around the world in a 56′ Motor Sailer. Tucked into a golf bag (purchased in some shady locale before transiting that particular region and dumped overboard after this particular transit) will be at least a shotgun and an AK-47 in good working order with ammunition. I’ll keep a good watch manned, and should anyone in a suspicious boat approach my vessel there will be exactly 1 (one) warning shot. After that it will be batteries release should they continue their approach. Odds are these thieves are interested in living to spend their payday, not get full of holes by someone who has sense enough to think ahead and protect himself.



    You miss state my point 7.

    To paraphrase Sierra Madre “UN Resolution? I ain’t got no UN Resolution, I don’t need no UN Resolution, I don’t have to show you any stinking UN Resolution”

    We do not need any UN resolution to take action against pirates on the Somali mainland or anywhere else. If US citizens were illegally held there, and the government of Somalia (what there is)does nothing (which is likely), we can go get them back. If pirates attack US ships, and the government of Somalia (what there is) does not do anything (which is likely), we can conduct measured reprisals against them (I am not sure of the specific legal term here). But please note,

    Piracy is a national issue! I have talked to some of the judges from the UN Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, they unequivically stated that piracy is a violation of national law, international law does not apply other than in defining what piracy is and that all nations have an obligation to surpress it. In many respects, this is just like Air Hijackings.


    What, ere you advocating? Are you advocating that we just storm ashore in Somalia and start shooting people without justification or cause? Because that would be a crime under US and International law. Are you advocating shooting people who have not conducted any crime, without trial, just because we “know” they are pirates? Because there is no way we could ever win a court case without clear evidence and having a AK-47 on a non-US flag boat boat on the high seas is not evidence of piracy or a violation of any US Law.

    If a group of Somalis hijack, I don’t know, an Ethiopian plane and fly it to Somalia, and no US citizens are onboard, is it our concern? What US Law has been broken? Then why is it our concern that a Liberian flagged tanker with a crew from the Phillipines that is owned by a firm in Greece is hijacked on the high seas?

    Please note, in the cases we have attempted to thwart pirates, outside US Flag vessels, we were acting under collective self-defense. We have a legal right, and an obligation under international law, to suppress piracy. Thats why we can board ships, get rid of guns and ladders, etc. But once a ship is taken, it is no longer our problem unless they sail into US Controlled waters or becomes a threat to US citizens or property (or others, remember collective self-defense).

    And if a pirated ship does pose a threat to US interests, I am pretty sure we will do something about it (because legally we can). So you really can rest well at night knowing that the Somali Pirates are not going to sail a captured ship into the Brooklyn bridge or something (which then would no longer be piracy but I digress).

    Piracy has been going on for thousands of years and is prevelent today in numerous places besides Somalia. Places like the Niger delta, South America, South East Asia (except the Tsunami put paid to most of the Pirates there), and other places. Why don’t you care about them?

    What makes Somalia unique is that ir gives sanctuary to Pirates as opposed to arresting them. As soon as the Pirates have no sanctuary, there is no more problem. But until the international community wants to do something about that, the US should protect its citizens and US Flag ships. The cheapest and best way to do that is by placing armed security guards onboard those ships. Since most US Flag ships are US chartered anyway, we can just make it a requirement of the charter. It appears the Maersk Alabama learned its lesson.

    Final thought.
    For probably the last 100 years or so, definitely the last 60, the majority of the world has largely been economic “Free-riders” when it comes to Maritime security. They knew that the United Kingdom or the US would keep the world oceans safe so they didn’t have to spend a dime to do it and they largely didn’t (though they whined loudly). Those days are no more. We gave away our sovereignty in the Arabian Gulf in 1986 when we agreed to protect everyone during the tanker war. At least there, we had a better reason. We shouldn’t do it again. The US has something like 300 US Flagged merchant ships in international trade, Somalia is not our problem but we are doing more than everyone else combined. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it and we shouldn’t be concerned that other countries will not protect their sovereignity or their citizens. Protect US ships and citizens, let the Flag states that are willing protect their ships, and the devil, or Somali pirates, take the rest.

    OK, rant over.

    Eagle1/YN2: A&W Rootbeer from the tap in an icy mug or a Sonic Cherry Limeade, especially if you have to drive!

  • Matt Yankee

    USNVO, you make some interesting points.

    Point 1 is that to my knowledge there has not been any response to the killing of the four Americans on the Quest…at least no response seen ashore…where the leaders are.

    What I am advocating is placing a force in a protected but forward position forming a boundary. How about starting on the actual beach. Build fifteen FOBs spread out two miles apart and support with UAVs. Just having a Marine with a gun on the beach will probably have a large impact by itself. Not unlike our experience on our own southern border. Show up… observe …observe…when the first brave one tests the water drop him. Then when you understand the locals a little bit and where the problem is coming from move from the beach to whereever you can observe and protect yourself. UAVs should give you a pretty good idea of where the pirates are living, concentrating, launching skiffs and so on…bet they don’t do it too far from a town. So we really aren’t talking about FOBs the whole length of the shore…but if they moved to another part of the beach you should be able to observe them moving skiffs and relocate.

    This is not that complicated…like the border you show up and show yourself and that you are very much interested in squashing their plans and they will stop their BS and move somewhere else or just stop if they realize you will move with them wherever they go. It does not take shooting Mexicans to stop them from crossing the border either…you simply have to show interest in even protecting the border by being there.

    As far as the other pirate hot spots I don’t read or hear much about them at all so I wander just how they compare to Somalia in terms of ships taken and hostages in custody…and how many Amercans they have killed in the last 12 months. The Pirates changed their strategy after the Alabama and it resulted in the Quest. The Alabama incident should have had a response ashore and the Quest definately should have. When we are so unwilling to do the hard work we make an implied statement to them that their strategy is working and they are emboldened. Is the problem getting better or worse??? Who else on planet Earth is really going to do anything but us…so if we don’t they know they have an excellent, winning strategy.

    And I did not mean to imply terrorists would use a ship against North American targets from Somalia…Mumbai and any targets in the Indian Ocean or Red Sea are very much possible. The thing about it is you cannot pretend to predict what they will do with their very own supertanker…the problem is these Pirates are even able to take such a massive weapon…just like airplanes. Just shouldn’t be allowed to go there…period.

    Fighting piracy from 100 miles offshore is like defending the southern border with BS from Washington D.C. …it does not work. First and last point is you must be present to be in the fight. No magical fairy dust, million dollar missiles or billion dollar warships will do it. It takes people.



    I understand your frustration but fighting piracy is not the same as defending your border or even ASW (although their are a lot of similarities).

    OK, your plan would work except.

    1. Sanctuary is what is important, The Pirates do not have to go out in skiffs, they have to come back in ships with Hostages from non-US countries and not be arrested when they arrive. You can be 100% effective and not make a difference because…
    2. Outsourcing is real. We are already seeing Yemeni pirates with the Somalis. The pirates can go to where ever they can catch a boat (Yemen, Ethiopia, (insert place with guns, weak borders, and systemic corruption issues (hell, most of Africa), they don’t have to go in boats from the Pirate enclaves. Its like trying to stop U-boats in the Bay of Biscayne, you get a few and slow them down but you don’t solve the problem.
    3. Authorization to do it. Its not our country and US ships are usually not being attacked. Piracy is a national crime, what has the typical Somali villager done that is against US Law and therefore lets us take action? Nothing, even if we know they will be pirates some day. I don’t want to protect a Liberian flag ship if they don’t want to do it themselves. Why should my tax dollars protect tax cheats?
    4. Hostages. How does your plan address the hostages (currently in the hundreds) that the pirates are holding?

    I could go on, but I think that is enough. I would recommend the following as a better solution.

    1. No negotiation, we will retake any US flag ship. Period
    2. Embark Naval Guards on all US Flag Ships in the area with M2s and Javelins. Do it at no cost to the shipping companies. Don’t fire warning shots when fired upon, just sink them.
    3. Shoot any pirate boat in the act of Piracy against a non-US ship with a Hellfire. Send the bill to the flag state.
    4. Retaliate for any attack on a US ships by bombing identifiable pirate hangouts.
    5. Require US flag ships in the area to be illuminated with a giant US flag at night. Make it a sign of fear.
    6. Work with anyone willing to follow the same rules and to bear the same burden we are. Ignore the rest, its not our problem.
    7. Make a new wing at GITMO for pirates.

    This has several advantages over your plan.
    1. We can do it without violating US or international law. Yeah its a real idea killer, but we need to follow it even if we don’t like it.
    2. We can do it cheaply without putting troops in harms way
    3. We can dis-incentivize (I hate the buzz word but it fits) flags of convenience and free riding.
    4. We can dis-incentivize attacks on US ships and citizens

    I feel your frustration, but I fear your plan would just make it worse.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Couple of nits…

    Gurkhas come trained and experienced (British Army RIF’s), and work for less than a tenth of what you cite (less than half the crew wage for an AB.

    6 is a bare bones minimum (IMO). Two 12 hour watch sections of 3, two rovers and a watch supervisor. This allows you to meet a two axis attack with concentrated firepower and have a small reserve once all guards are on station and other measures which gain tactical flexibility. The infantry squad leaders can explain in detail.

    Your main point is sound. On board antiboarding deterrance is cheap and effective insurance, especially when you consider the ever escalating cost of the alternative. Not to mention it might save your butt one night.