Has Somali Piracy Returned?

Recent piracy incidents (one additional hijacking off Puntland not shown)

Published May 22, 2017 4:55 PM by Lisa Otto

Since the hijacking of an oil tanker off the coast of Alula, Puntland on March 13 and its release without ransom three days later, the media has voiced concerns as to whether Somali piracy maybe about to resurge. This recent incident and those that have followed it provide an opportunity to look back at Somali piracy: what caused it in the first place? What caused it to abate and where we are now?

The International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre’s website indicates that, at the time of writing, three vessels have been hijacked since the beginning of the year, while another has been boarded and one other fired upon. These incidents have all taken place within the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast, per the image generated from the Bureau’s live piracy map (above).

Aside from the attack on March 13, a dhow was hijacked off the coast of Eyl, Puntland on March 23 with 20 crew members being taken hostage. Thirteen were released in a skiff while the remainder of the crew was released on March 26. It appears no ransom was paid, but the pirates made off with food and diesel. On April 1, a third hijacking took place off Bosaso, also in Puntland area, where 13 crew members were hijacked within Somali territorial waters. Somali forces managed to free the crew and escorted the vessel to its next port of call. On April 8, a tanker was boarded from a skiff in the Gulf of Aden. The crew retreated to the citadel and when local authorities arrived the following day the pirates were gone. On April 14, a tanker came under fire off the eastern coast of Yemen and, the next day, another tanker was fire at in the Gulf of Aden just south of the central Yemeni coastline. On April 22, an attempted attack was made on a tanker in Somali waters, with the tanker being chased for two hours. A warship came the vessel’s assistance following a distress call. One crew member was reported as injured.

The news reports of these attacks have been startling because there has not been a successful attack in the region by pirates for more than four years. The lack of attacks in the region has made it difficult for international forces to justify continued naval deployments in the Gulf of Aden. While this will be borne out by the official figures reported by the International Maritime Organisation and the International Maritime Bureau, it does not take into consideration the attacks perpetrated against regional shipping, which suggest that Somali piracy is not resurging – it never went away in the first place.

Why would this be the case? The answer is that the conditions that led to the rise of piracy in 2008 have not changed significantly enough for Somalis to halt their attacks on merchant vessels. In addition, the criminal organizations that have perpetrated piracy are still present. Furthermore, the Somali government is unable to assist because of poverty and the lack of economic development. These are persistent challenges for the democratic government elected in 2012, which is still challenged by drought and famine. Importantly, fishing, which is the traditional livelihood of many Somalis, remains threatened by illegal fishing in the nation’s territorial waters.

The media also suggest that commerical shipping has relaxed its preventive measures, including maintaining higher speeds while transiting these waters and employing armed guards to protect their ships. Unfortunately, these methods are not always used because they negatively impact profit margins. There are now fewer naval deployments in the Gulf of Aden because these are expensive as well. 

As a recent article in the Economist pointed out: “A lack of international [rather than local] victims had made it easy for the world’s attention to move elsewhere. But until piracy ceases to be an attractive business opportunity it will remain a plague.”

While there has been a decrease in the numbers of pirate incidents in the region, vessel operators still need to use precautionary measures for the safety of their crew and safe passage through the region. The international community needs to focus on the improvement of socio-economic conditions in Somalia, which will improve the lives of the Somali people. It is also vitally important to address illegal fishing and ensure that local authorities will prosecute those people caught.  Vessels must also continue to implement Best Management Practice (BMP4) for preventive and evasive measures during transit in Somali piracy waters.

Dr. Lisa Otto is a research associate at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR).To learn more about CTPSR’s research on maritime security, please contact the author at [email protected].

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.