Diagnosing Somalian Piracy: Symptom Or Disease? – Analysis


By Prerna Bakshi

While history recounts the plunderous eras when pirates reigned over high seas, sabotaged trade and caused anarchy on land, Somalian piracy materialises this into the grim reality of the 21st century.

What started off in the war torn region of Somalia as a local effort by fishermen to protect their coastline, soon evolved into one of the deadliest installations of modern day maritime piracy with pirates infesting waters as far as 1000 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia into the Indian Ocean and as strategic for global trade as the Gulf of Aden.[1]

More than 30,000 vessels annually transit the Gulf of Aden (GOA) and more than 20% of global trade moves through this route.[2] With nearly 4000 crewmembers of 125 different nationalities captured by 2012, 150 ships reportedly ransomed for an estimated $US385 million, and insurance premiums increased by almost 10 fold for ships transiting this route,[3] Somalian piracy exerts its influence on world trade, international relations and global politics and has assumed a ‘pandemic’ status worldwide.

Certainly, this malady of the seas has not gone unnoticed by the international community. In 2009, the United States Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) created the ‘Combined Task Force 151’ with naval forces of multifarious countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In addition, NATO sent two missions in 2008 and EU launched ‘Operation Atalanta’ in 2009, to aid in the difficult issue of tackling pirate activity.[4]

However, these missions seemingly proved ineffective as Somalian piracy levels shot to an all time high in 2011, attributed to over 200 attacks, 700 hostages and 30 boats held in the year. [5] It wasn’t until late 2012 that piracy levels began to wane and were finally brought under control by 2013. This multifaceted episode triggers numerous questions. For instance, did the International community play a role in abetting Somalian Piracy? What role did it play in curbing piracy? Why did the various missions meet with initial failure? Can the era of Somalian piracy really be deemed as over?

In my paper, I attempt to address Somalian piracy with regard to these questions, and analyse whether Somalian piracy is an independent ‘disease’ or merely a symptom of the real ailment on-shore.

Lennox[6] categorises Somalian Piracy into two phases, each of which have a correlation to socio-political events in the country. It is no coincidence that the first phase of Somalian Piracy surfaced in 1991, immediately following the fall of Somalia’s government and supplant of Barre’s regime by clan-based warlords.

The second phase, from 2005 onwards, saw an escalation of piracy in terms of quantity, value and ransom demanded.

This phase correlates to the 2004-2006 famine that scorched Somalia aggravating poverty, limiting access to essential resources and stimulating further clan based conflict. It is evident that the off-shore problem of piracy has on-shore roots, however there is need to analyse the current cause-effect relationship between the two. Piracy is certainly the result of a larger problem in Somalia: of poverty, complete state failure, lack of government and inter-clan conflict.

However, piracy has evolved into and additionally functions as an aggravating factor for its on-shore problem. According to a UNSOM report, pirates and pirate financiers advance and finance other criminal activities as well and have built significant paramilitary capacities on land. They thus possess the potential, resources and motivations to destabilise the region and have effectively been doing so.[7] Hence, given the current scenario, piracy has forged a complex relationship with its roots in Somalia. It not only stems from these roots but has evolved to further cultivate them. Viewing piracy independently as a disease has always been a fallacy; it can more accurately be classified as a symptom that has dangerously metastasised. Treating Somalia’s state failure or Somalian piracy exclusively rather than mutually has limited potential in eradicating either problem.

While the relationship between piracy and civil conflict in Somalia is evident and direct, indirect factors play a substantial role in the creation of this situation. Falling under the purview of global governance, the situation in Somalia can be greatly attributed to several macro factors. In essence, it can be considered representative of neglect, exploitation and poor global governance by the international community.

In 2002, Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, the president of the Transitional National Government, expressed deep disappointment at the lack of support from the international community for rehabilitation in Somalia. During a press conference in Mogadishu, he said if the international community “keeps neglecting us”, Somalia could become “a safe-haven” for local terrorists who collaborate with international terrorists.[8] His concerns were certainly not unfounded as following the 9/11 attacks Somalia was viewed as a breeding ground for transnational terrorism.

Even after, the restoration of a Somali government became part of a counterterrorism strategy, rather than a way to deal with the root causes of state collapse and conflict. Policies of big players have also been criticised as having played a role in creating the conditions that led to a famine in Somalia in 2011.[9] ‘Al-Shabaab’, the clan based organisation controlling majority of Somalia, withheld aid from local populations and worked primarily towards their own economic and politic motive.

On the other hand, aid agencies were banned from providing assistance in areas where supplies or money might end up in the hands of Al-Shabaab operatives. This effectively created a vacuum where both sides neglected the people of Somalia. Although, it is well established that civil conflict has transnational repercussions, this truth was ignored by the international community for a prolonged period of time. While Wilson,[10] postulates that the stabilisation of Somalia would be the first step to overcoming piracy, Menkhaus,[11] cautions that delayed external action to revive and support failing states only compounds the difficulty of state building later; this is exactly what happened in the case of Somalia.

Neglect is not the only adverse contribution of the international community towards the situation in Somalia. Illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping are accused of provoking piracy by inducing local fishermen to protect their coastline at all costs. The United Nations estimated that illegal fishing companies from Europe and Asia rob Somali coastlines of over $300 million a year.

In addition to this stimulus, a private British company, Hart Security, provided military training to Somali fisherman in the 1990’s in an effort to create a “Fisheries Protection Agency”[12].The bulk of training was dedicated towards “how to handle weapons and board boats at high sea”[13] – the exact tactics currently used by Somali pirates.

In fact, Somali pirates are so conditioned that they portray themselves as the nation’s unofficial coast guard, fighting against illegal fishing and waste dumping by foreign corporations. Somalian pirates are also abetted by international sponsors; Somali refugees as far as Canada and the United States contribute money to the cause, in addition to financial backing from sources in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Yemen and Al Qaeda.[14]

The political structure operational in Somalia also has its roots in foreign intervention. Wais Kassim H. Dahir[15] notes that the militarisation of Somalian government can be attributed to Soviet Union’s post cold war support. He also points out that when the cold war ended, superpowers left behind large amounts of weapons that turned Somalia into an armed camp. Subsequently, every household had more arms than food which kept the civil war going. Thus, it is once again apparent with the case of Somalia that civil conflict is both influenced by and influences the international sphere, re-emphasising the need for good global governance.

Having established the role foreign factors have played in indirectly encouraging piracy, it follows to question why their direct efforts to eradicate the same met with initial failure. One of the major reasons for the growth of piracy despite multinational counter-efforts was the purely naval nature of foreign response.

The initial strategy to tackle piracy seems to be based on the assumption that piracy was the ‘disease’ to be independently remedied and not the ‘symptom’ that it more rightly is. Causes of piracy may have started with grievance and shifted to greed, but the roots of the problem, including poverty and conflict, cannot be addressed with a naval response.[16] It is important to consider that waning pirate attacks in 2012 and 2013 could, in part, be related to the establishment of a government in Somalia.[17] However, spending on capacity-building in Somalia is still only equivalent to 1.5% of piracy’s annual cost.

The need of the hour is for nations to realise that their trade revenue interests go hand in hand with capacity building in Somalia.[18] While Somalian piracy has fallen sharply in the recent years, this may well be a suppression of the problem than its complete eradication. If Somali piracy is going to be combated using solely sea-based tactics it will require a critical mass of warships and air assets to maintain a constant presence in the region.

However, it would be wishful thinking to expect this sort of a presence to continue for any prolonged period given the cost of modern naval deployments.

The GOA is a large body of water, and warships are not a long-term cost effective method of providing commercial vessels with protection from Somali piracy. Without a two-pronged approach it is only a matter of time till the naval forces move out of Somalian waters and Somalia’s poverty and conflict find global expression through piracy or other internationally detrimental means.

The efficacy of a two-pronged approach is implicitly outlined in the UNSOM 2013 report. Among other capacity building initiatives, the report mentions the Security Council’s decision that UNSOM support the Federal Government of Somalia on governance, security sector reform, the rule of law, the disengagement of combatants, maritime security and mine action. It also states the agenda to strengthen the fisheries sector, by creating strong institutions and developing the policy and legal frameworks. In this context, extensive work is being carried out by rehabilitating feeder roads, clearing land for agriculture, and constructing water catchments in Somalia. These efforts are indicative of the dawning realisation for a more comprehensive strategy to address the complex issue.

The complete impact of recent and ongoing capacity building efforts on piracy remains unclear and difficult to determine due to its nascent nature. Conversely, the present situation in Somalia strongly suggests one hard truth. The naval forces may have successfully suppressed piracy but cannot provide a long-term solution. Hence, by no means can 2013 be regarded as the end of Somalian piracy. While the two-pronged approach will prove to be a panacea in the long run, a shift in scope to include targeting not only the perpetrators but also the enablers will help the strategy gain momentum. In addition, it is crucial to establish a sound judicial system to set the foundation of stability. Blanket amnesty, punishment and lustration are all possible ways of addressing such issues, which once dealt with will make the road ahead smoother.

[1] ICC International Maritime Bureau. Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Annual Report 2009. London: IMB, 2009. Print.
[2] Johnson, La’Nita M. “The Consequences of Somali Piracy on International Trade.” Global Tides 8.1 (2014): 5.
[3] Do, Quy-Toan. The pirates of Somalia: ending the threat, rebuilding a nation. Washington DC: World Bank, 2013.
[4] Blanchard, Christopher M., et al. “Piracy off the Horn of Africa.” Washington: Congressional Research Service (2009).
[5] Malm, Sarah. “European Court Chides France Over Somali Pirate Arrests.” Mail Online. N.p., 2014. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.
[6] Lennox, Patrick. Contemporary piracy off the Horn of Africa. Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, 2008.
[7] United Nations Assisted Mission in Somalia. Secretary-General’s Report On Piracy And Armed Robbery At Sea Off The Coast Of Somalia. New York: United Nations, 2013. Web. 7 Jan. 2015.
[8] IRINnews.“SOMALIA: President Disappointed At Lack Of International Support.” N.p., 2002. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.
[9]Bradbury, Mark. “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Somalia?” Newint.org. N.p., 2012. Web. 13 Jan. 2015.
[10] Wilson, Brian. “Effectively confronting a regional threat: Somali piracy.” Conflict trends 1 (2009): 11-18.
[11] Menkhaus, Ken. “Governance without government in Somalia: spoilers, state building, and the politics of coping.” (2007).
[12] Al Jazeera, English. “Firms Reap Somali Piracy Profits – Africa.”Al Jazeera English. 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 15 Jan 2015
[13] ibid
[14] Kellerman, Miles G. “Somali Piracy: Causes and Consequences.” Student Pulse 3.09 (2011).
[15]Dahir, Wais Kassim. “Learning The Lessons: The Root Causes Of The Somali Conflict.” Somaliland Times 2002. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.
[16] Hall, Andrea. “Piracy And The Experience Of Somali Women.” Canadian Military History. N.p., 2013. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.
[17] ibid
[18]Oceans Beyond Piracy. Latest Oceans Beyond Piracy Report. 2014. Web. 7 Jan. 2015.


The A38 Foundation was an initiative to further international dialogue and scholarship in Public International Law. It was named so after Article 38, under the Statute of the International Court of Justice, which talks about the sources of Law. A38 ran ad hoc consultancies and research programs, while also maintaining an open access Quarterly Online Journal.

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