The Recent History of Somali Piracy

Published 5 years ago

Somalia has for centuries been a troublesome country and piracy in one form or another has taken place for hundreds of years. Things weren’t much better ashore, as Burton and Speke can attest to when they tried an exploration of the country having sailed over from Aden. It was a matter of good luck that they escaped with their lives.

Any yachtsman thinking of making the passage through the Indian Ocean to or from the Red Sea will be aware of the inherent dangers and carry out as much research as possible to help in determining their decision to do so or not. Having some knowledge of, in this case, the history of modern Somali piracy and the reasons for its occurrence will, I hope help the researching yachtsman.

Contrary to the poor supply of food from the land in Somalia, the sea there has some of the richest fishing grounds in the world with an abundance of squid, shrimp, swordfish and particularly lobster, not to mention the sought after yellow-fin tuna. It was the tuna, that ran in shoals up to five miles long, which was one of the few thriving industries for Somalia. In addition, the lobster was an important cash crop when delivered to wealthy countries in the UAE.

The civil war that raged throughout Somalia in 1991 allowed large well equipped trawlers from Asia and Europe to rape the Somali waters without fear of being challenged or caught. These large well organised companies took advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war and had no regard for the environmental impact of their devastating fishing methods. The situation was desperate for the fishermen as they watched helplessly whilst the “big boys” helped themselves.

It was only natural then that they, the fishermen, took action. They borrowed to buy a few guns and formed their own vigilante groups and gave themselves names like “The Somali Marines”, “The National Volunteer Guard of Somalia” and “The Somali Navy”. In the beginning they robbed the trawlers and took cash and equipment, but it wasn’t long before they were taking the ship and holding the sailors as ransom. The local warlords, of which there were and are many in Somalia, got involved and supplied more support for better guns and armaments and the enterprise became one of pure piracy. Whilst trawlers had been the initial target the pirates (not aggrieved fishermen anymore) now went after any ship in order to get more hostages. Yachts, cargo ships and even luxury liners were considered fair game.

The hijacking of the trawlers had largely gone unreported since the owners knew that they would be accused, quite rightly, of illegal fishing and sympathies would lie with the Somali fishermen. However, after the hijack of the “Sirious Star”, which was an oil tanker carrying $100 million of oil, any subsequent hijack became headline news.

It wasn’t just the illegal fishing that was causing so much angst, but the illegal dumping of chemical and hazardous waste. The culprits were the Italian mafia who saw it as a lucrative addition to their other nefarious activities. They often claimed a legitimacy saying they had obtained licences, but these had been issued by con-men pretending to represent a non-existent department of a fragmented government.

The Tsunami of 2004 didn’t just affect Thailand and Indonesia; the coast of Somalia bore the brunt of the enormous waves that battered its coast killing over 300 and making over 50,000 homeless. Tons of hazardous waste was washed ashore causing ulcers, breathing problems and skin infections along the whole coast but particularly around the town of Hobyo.


By 2010 there were hundreds of sailors held hostage including the Chandlers and their yacht “Lynn Rival”. They were held for 268 days and it is believed 2 ransoms were paid, the first having been intercepted by a rival piracy group. Dozens of ships were hijacked and taken to anchor off Hobyo and Eyl and there were over 600 sailors being held to ransom.

The extent of what became a highly organised piracy operation resulted in there being a shortage of pirates. They were almost all fishermen and were therefore a finite number. To overcome this problem young men were “recruited”. In fact they were forced onto the skiffs after their families had been taken hostage and were told not to return until and unless they had a hostage. They were sent out with barrels of fuel, some khat (a drug) a limited amount of water – the fuel was considered more important – a ladder and AK47 and perhaps an RPG. It is estimated that upwards of 1,500 young men, supposedly pirates, died at sea through lack of water.


This was by far the worst year for the yachtsman on passage. All 4 crew of the US flagged yacht “Quest” were murdered on board, whilst no less than 3 US warships surrounded it. Then 5 Dutch nationals were held hostage and separately 2 South Africans (the skipper escaping as the yacht was beached). Then a Frenchman was killed and his wife taken hostage for a short time before their yacht was successfully boarded by the coalition forces.

All this occurred whilst there was a massive presence of warships from many nations commonly referred to as “the coalition forces”. Properly named Combined Task Force 150., it was established with the sole aim of providing protection to ships carrying aid supplies to Somalia. It then expanded to provide protection within the IRTC (Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor) which was initially set up by the Indian Navy.

Piracy was rampant and whilst the military maritime forces had some effect they could do little to help the yachting fraternity. For example, a convoy of 27 yachts made the passage from Salalah to Aden in March 2010 and another slightly smaller one made a similar passage a few weeks later. Neither of those convoys received any active support. This was because the coalition forces were not mandated to do so and, whilst sympathetic, were unable to provide any help other than to accept twice daily reports of the convoys positions. Even when a piracy attack took place 25nm from the first convoy, the US warship involved could only watch as the pirate skiff, after an unsuccessful attempt on a South Korean vessel, motored away from the scene.

Not only was the mandate restrictive, the international laws pertaining to piracy were outdated. If for example, a British warship intercepted a piracy attack on a US flagged ship, they were unable to board that ship. The warships could only board hijacked ships of their own nationality. If a warship saw a skiff carrying ladders they could nothing about it, even knowing it was clearly a pirate vessel.


In 2012 this all changed. The international maritime laws were updated so that any of the coalition forces could board any ship that was being hijacked. If any vessel at sea looked as though it were equipped to carry out an act of piracy it could be seized. Any vessel at sea could be boarded if there were grounds to believe it might be involved with acts of piracy.

This had an immediate and beneficial effect, but other actions too resulted in the almost total closure of pirate activities in 2012. Probably the most effective of these was an airborne assault on the pirates’ main assets, their boats. Helicopters strafed the Puntland shoreline destroying skiffs wherever they saw them. It was brutal and no doubt innocent fishermen suffered as a result, but it was devastatingly effective.

The third contribution was a change of government which became proactive in anti piracy operations on shore.

The fourth was unusual. A renowned pirate – Mohamed Abdi Hassan also known as Afweyne – retired. It’s likely that he did so because he recognised that piracy was no longer the risk-free enterprise that it had been, but his retirement undoubtedly caused others to do the same. As a result, whilst there had been 35 hijackings in 2010 and 28 in 2011, there were only 13 in 2012. There had been about 200 incidents (which include unsuccessful hijackings) in 2011 but only about 70 in 2012.

The fifth and final contribution was the maritime industries introduction of best management practices for ships transiting the area of high risk. As a result, most ships in the region took on armed security guards and it is a fact that no ship which has carried armed security guards has ever been hijacked.

What then since 2012?

The coalition forces continue to protect those in the IRTC, although their numbers have decreased recently which is not surprising given that there was virtually no piracy from 2013 to 2017 (when there was one successful attack on the Aris 13 carrying oil to Mogadishu).

What has been missing since 1991 is adequate policing off the Somali coastline, particularly the coastline of Puntland and this is best achieved with an effective coastguard.

The international community have and continue to establish a maritime security force. Funds have been allocated (a UN trust fund for Somalia), but to date there is no training or procurement programme. The EU have provided coastguard and judicial training to Djibouti, Kenya and the Seychelles since 2012 and is mandated to assist the development of a coastal force for Somalia. This has not yet been initiated due to Somalia’s fragile political arrangement and unstable security situation. However, private security companies (PSC) are prepared to go where governments will not.

In 2005 the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia signed a $50 million contract with a US security firm, Top Cat. They were to train a Somali coastguard and hunt for pirate mother ships. The US government blocked the deployment. In 2008 the TFG signed a similar deal with a French PSC, Secopex. Sadly the funding never materialised. A lack of funding also aborted a Nairobi security provider in 2012. The new Somali Federal Government (SFG) said in 2013 that it had signed a deal with a Dutch company, Atlantic Maritime and Offshore Group, to establish a coastguard to combat piracy. No timetable or funding details have to date been released, but it has already provoked a hostile response from the autonomous states of Puntland and Somaliland.

PSCs have been seen to work in Somalia. In 2006 the self declared state of Somaliland engaged the Norwegian PSC Nordic Crisis Management (NCM). Notably, that organised piracy did not take root in Somaliland and the NCM were able to complete their 5 year contract, attests to the success of the venture aided no doubt by the guaranteed funding from the Norwegian government.

The autonomous state of Puntland, home to the majority of the pirates, also employed PSCs but with mixed results. In 2000 a British firm had some success but had to withdraw in the face of civil conflict in 2001-2. Then the Somali-Canadian Coastguard (SomCan) was set up and was funded by the sale of fishing licences. It had ties to the clan of the newly emerged Puntland president, so it was natural that the coastguards and fishermen of other clans would be unhappy. Ultimately it failed but might have been successful had it not been so closely linked to a single clan. (There are 6 major clans in Somalia and they control just about everything)

A very ambitious project funded by the UAE was set up in 2010 using a South African PSC, Saracen International (later Sterling Corporate Services). It quickly grew to a force of some 500 marines supported by a small fleet of small ships, aircraft and armoured vehicles. The Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF) evolved and became operational in 2012. It has disrupted pirate bases in the Bari and Bargaal regions and successfully rescued 22 sailors aboard the MV Iceberg. The UN was the cause of its downfall. They said it violated the 1992 arms embargo on Somalia and that the UAE failed to disclose its financial support. As a result the support was withdrawn and although it has since been resumed there are fears that it has become entrenched in the Farole (president of Puntland) administration and may have been used as a tool of political oppression. The PMPF is at a crossroads with the hope that it will be integrated into a Somali wide security regime.


There has been a limited but nevertheless resurgence of piracy in 2018 and there are reasons for this happening. The decline in the numbers of warships patrolling the region, a change of government which is thought to be more corrupt and less hostile to pirate activities and an increasing number of unemployed young men, something in the order of 70% are unemployed. However, it is unlikely that the level of piracy will in the foreseeable future reach the levels it did in 2010. That said, one piracy attack is more than enough, particularly if that one is on you.

Tom Sampson

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of or the World Cruising Club

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