Home inFocus The Decline of Maritime Piracy in the Horn of Africa

The Decline of Maritime Piracy in the Horn of Africa

Peter Cook and RADM Terry McKnight Fall 2019
U.S. Navy sailors from the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer connects a tow line to the lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama to be processed for evidence after the successful rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips April 13, 2009 in the Indian Ocean. Phillips was held captive by suspected Somali pirates in the lifeboat for five days after a failed hijacking attempt off the Somali coast. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

In the early morning hours of 17 November 2008, the M/V Sirius Star, approximately 450 nautical miles off the east coast of Kenya, was transiting the Indian Ocean with a full load of two million barrels of crude oil heading for the United States. Well south of Somalia to avoid the prominently pirate-infested area of the Gulf of Aden. The crewmembers of the Sirius Star believed they were well clear of any pirate activity. Without warning the ship was under attack and hijacked by Somali pirates. Even to this day it has never been determined how the pirates knew the location of the Sirius Star, but being fully loaded, with a low freeboard and steaming at less than ten knots the vessel became a prime target.

In the storied history of global pirate activity, the Sirius Star became the largest ship ever hijacked. The Somali pirates had hit the jackpot. Shortly after her capture the Somali pirate leaders demanded the ship owner pay $25 million for her release. In January 2009, after months of tense negotiations and pressure from major maritime powers in the international community not to make ransom payments, a final agreement was reached to pay the pirates $3 million for the release of the Sirius Star.

From 2007 to 2012 there were more than 200 vessels captured by Somali pirates in the Horn of Africa region. Fearful of being hijacked in the Gulf of Aden, many merchant ships avoided the area and transited farther out to sea in the Indian Ocean. Starting in 2005 with the hijacking of the M/V Feisty Gas and the eventual ransom payment of over a quarter of a million dollars for her recovery, the cost of piracy off the Horn of Africa reached its peak in 2010 with ransom payments totaling over $200 million. As in the case of the Sirius Star and the legendary capture of Captain Richard Phillips with his vessel the M/V Maersk Alabama, the Somali pirates changed their tactics and extended their reach hundreds of miles off their coastline into the complexities of the Indian Ocean. This extraordinary increase in pirate activity in the Northwest Indian Ocean region during this period amazed the entire maritime world.

Understanding Somalia

To understand the beginning of this event in history, you must understand the region and the Federal Republic of Somalia. Located in the Horn of Africa, Somalia borders the Gulf of Aden one of the busiest shipping regions in the world. More than 25,000 vessels transit this waterway each year. Most vessels are heading to or from the Suez Canal for ports of call in the Middle East, Mediterranean, Far East and the United States. The state of Somalia itself was formed in 1960 after years of colonial rule by both Italian and British governments. With a government never able to establish any form of rule or economy, Somalia has been devastated for years from tribal warfare and terrorism. Boasting 1,800 miles of coastline, the waters off the coast of Somalia are some of the most abundant fishing grounds in the world. With no central government to fund a navy or coast guard to defend its territorial waters (12 nautical miles), much less the economic exclusive zone (200 nautical miles) numerous foreign fishing fleets have devastated Somali waters without any concern of expense or retribution. Trying to deter these actions, Somali fisherman formed their own law enforcement coalition, capturing fishing vessels and demanding ransom payments. Quickly realizing the considerable profits gained by hijacking merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden, tribal leaders began recruiting young males to go to sea and capture any vessel they could apprehend. With the seizure of the MV Danica White in June of 2007 not only were fishing vessels under attack, but merchant vessels as well. After almost three months in captivity and a ransom payment of nearly $1 million for the release of the Danica White, during  the next five years piracy in the Gulf of Aden developed into an exceptionally lucrative business.

How Did it Happen?

How could this vast maritime region be terrorized by a third-world nation? Who were these swashbucklers? With Somalia’s per capita income of less than $300 per year, most of the pirates themselves were young desperate men in their late teens and early twenties with no realistic employment prospects, pushed to a life of crime. They were hired by more experienced local fisherman that served as “pirate leaders” as a result of their familiarity with fishing in the region. However, it has been revealed over the years that reputable warlords served as the negotiators for ransom payments once the vessels were captured. During the height of the piracy period, there was even a “Pirate Stock Exchange” in wich investors would provide either money, weapons or small craft to profit from the ransom payments. With a clear understanding of the global economy, the pirate kingpins required ransom payments be made in U.S. dollars only and in $100 bill denominations.

In the early stages of piracy, the buccaneers departed the port of Bosaso in the northeastern Puntland State of Somalia. Generally, with several small boats teaming together, they were loaded with six to eight pirates each, an assortment of Soviet-era weapons (AK-47 assault rifles), GPS receivers, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG’s) and grappling hooks. The indisputable indication that these boats were not fishing vessels is that they were generally overcrowded and showed no visual sign of any fishing nets. The pirates themselves having very little knowledge of the sea, would head north in the Gulf of Aden and attack in the busy shipping lanes. As the pirates became more brazen and had the assistance of dhows (medium size fishing vessels – motherships), they extended their reach to the Indian Ocean. As successful as they would be if they seized a vessel, nearly 50 percent of the pirates that ventured to sea never returned.

With heightened concern over the reduction in the free flow of commerce in the region, it became essential for the maritime powers to come together and find a resolution. Most suggested that more navy ships would solve the problem. However, with an area of over 2.5 million square miles, there could never be enough navy ships to patrol this strategic waterway. After much debate, four significant measures that became major factors in stemming piracy in the region.

Maritime Task Forces

In 2001 U.S. Central Command established Combined Task Force 150 to patrol the Horn of Africa to fight the global war on terrorism. With very little resources to deal with the piracy problem Task Force 150 was hastily shifted to provide support for the anti-piracy mission. With the increasing number of pirate attacks in 2008, U.S. Central Command took an additional measure and in January 2009 Combined Task Force 151 was commissioned exclusively for counter piracy operations. More than 20 countries provided critical resources from ships to aircraft, in support of Task Force 151. First commanded by a U.S. Navy admiral in 2009, today the task force is under the command of Rear Admiral Byeong-Ju Yu, Republic of Korea Navy.

To provide protection along the Somalia coast for vessels belonging to the World Food Program (WFP) and African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), Operation ATALANTA was established in 2008 with nations from the European Union (EU) providing support. Approved by the North Atlantic Council in 2009, Operation Ocean Shield was established with assistance from NATO nations for anti-piracy missions.

Even today Task Force 151 and Operation ATALANTA are fully operational and still provide many security measures for the region. Operation Ocean Shield sporadically patrolled the Gulf of Aden and ceased operations in December of 2016. Over the last several years there have been scores of maritime powers providing resources to the counter piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Even the Swedish Navy provided boarding team training to African maritime personnel. One noteworthy navy that has continually deployed to the region to protect its massive merchant fleet is the People’s Republic of China – Navy (PLAN), first operational in late 2008. The Chinese clearly understand  the importance of the region for the free flow of commerce. China has even established a logistics facility in Djibouti. Even though they operate independently, PLAN forces have continuously cooperated with the other task forces and are a major reason why piracy has decreased in the region.

U.N. Security Resolutions In December 2008 the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed both Resolutions 1846 and 1851. These gave States cooperating with the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) the powers to enter Somalia’s territorial waters and use “all necessary means” to fight piracy in the region. With these resolutions, navies could extend their reach to go after the pirates in their encampments and if necessary bring down their economic support enterprises.

There are very few times over the years when the U.N. Security Council has voted with all 15 members supporting a resolution to enforce international laws. Without these resolutions the navies patrolling the region would only have been allowed to take measures in international waters and the pirates would have had the protection of their territorial waters under international law.

Shipping Industry

Despite the unprecedented cooperation and coordination by naval forces from a plethora of nations, the pirates retained the upper hand, hijacking ships at an alarming rate. In 2009, the year that Combined Task Force 151, EUNAVFOR’s Operation ATALANTA and NATO’s Operation OCEAN SHIELD commenced coordinated operations, more than 75 vessels were attacked by pirates, of which more  than 40 ships were successfully hijacked, with at least 850 seafarers being taken hostage for several months. It was clear that a sea area greater than 2,500,000 square miles was almost impossible to dominate without a significantly greater commitment of naval resources than were deemed available by contributing governments. The U.S. State Department and the British Admiralty had already made the point that “piracy” was a merchant navy problem, implying that the industry should take measures to protect their own ships.

Consequently, the international shipping associations worked with the International Maritime Organization (IMO – the U.N. agency responsible for the safety and security of international shipping) to establish the Best Management Practices (BMP) for ship self-protection, establish the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (IRTC – a convoy route for ships escorted by warships) through the Gulf of Aden and define a voluntary reporting area (later referred to as the High Risk Area – HRA) of the Northwest Indian Ocean. The associations also worked closely with the naval coalitions to improve mutual understanding and collaboration.

Armed Security Teams

As the number of attacks across the vast expanse of the High Risk Area increased, several ships per day on some occasions, ship owners were anxiously looking for a different way to reassure their crews against capture, and protect their ships and cargoes. Additionally, the growing number of attacks and successful hijackings also dramatically increased insurance premiums for ships transiting one of the busiest areas of sea in the world (at any one time, around 40 percent of the global commercial fleet are in the western Indian Ocean), significantly increasing costs for ship owners. Several shipowners were experimenting with using unarmed security advisors to support their crews during the transit to avoid pirate boardings.

The unprecedented use of private military and private security companies in Iraq and Afghanistan, led by the U.S. and UK, had demonstrated an innovative effective way to measurably improve “point” rather than area security, at a reduced financial and potential political cost to governments. While the use of private armed guards to protect ships was initially viewed by most of the commercial shipping industry as repugnant, several incidents, including the capture of the M/V Biscaglia in November 2008 (in which the unarmed guards jumped overboard to save their own lives, having failed to deter a pirate hijacking), forced shipowners to reconsider.

Embarking small teams of armed guards on ships transiting the High Risk Area became increasingly popular, especially when their use reduced the cost of insurance premiums, making it often a break-even decision. In 2011, this developing trend prompted the IMO, along with shipping associations and the Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI the representative and regulatory body for armed guards) to issue guidance on the use of armed guards by flag states and shipowners. In 2012, the shipping industry defined a standardized contract for the employment of armed guards, while the IMO, shipping industry and SAMI stipulated how private maritime security companies should conduct their activities. This was soon followed by the introduction of a model set of “Rules for the Use of Force” for private armed guards protecting ships against attacking pirates, sponsored by flag States, shipping associations and SAMI.

What Success Looks Like

The collective efforts of the naval coalitions and merchant shipping self-protective measures, including the use of armed guards, worked, spurring the Chief of Staff of EUNAVFOR’s Operation ATALANTA to state publicly that “armed guards are part of the solution, not part of the problem.” In May 2012, pirates successfully hijacked their last large commercial ship, in this most recent episode of piracy in the Northwest Indian Ocean. There have been several isolated piracy attacks in the High Risk Area over the past few years, but they have all been unsuccessful. The naval coalitions maintain a presence, albeit significantly reduced, BMP protection measures for ships have been improved and embarked private armed guard teams continue to be used in large numbers.

This unlikely triumvirate is effectively deterring pirate attacks. However, complacency is the greatest enemy. Pirates retain the capability and capacity to return to sea and, if they sense the opportunity of success, piracy will return. The best way to fight piracy at sea is to invest in Somalia as a nation because pirates may ply their trade at sea, but they live ashore and that is where the difference is made.

Since the peak of piracy in the Horn of Africa region in 2010 the number of hijackings in last few years has virtually come to a standstill. This does not mean that seafarers can lower their guard on the high seas. As long as ships go to sea, there will be piracy. Off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea there has been a major increase in piracy and armed robberies. The pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have a far more combative nature than the pirates of Somalia. The Somali pirates stick to the “pirate code” and in only a few rare cases have injured their captives. This is not the case in the Gulf of Guinea. These pirates are going after the oil rich cargo and have little regard for human life.

The most remarkable outcome in  the history of piracy is that the entire maritime community came together to find a solution  regarding Somalia.  Starting with the United Nations Security Council, to the coalition forces working jointly together, the merchant community investing in its own protection and heads of state providing the funding to improve the lives of the average Somali citizen. The unabridged Horn of Africa counter-piracy operation has been a text book success for future international conflicts.

RADM Terry McKnight, USN (Ret.) was the first Commander of Task Force 151 off the Horn of Africa and has written a book entitled Pirate Alley – Commanding Task Force 151 off Somalia. Peter Cook is a retired Royal Marine officer. He was a Founder and the CEO of SAMI. He is a maritime security consultant for flag states and intergovernmental organizations including UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Program and a university lecturer.