Piracy is Back in the Horn of Africa – What’s Behind its Return?

Caught red-handed: Indian Navy commandos stand behind pirates captured off the east coast of Somalia on 29 January. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

While the US and the UK attempt to contain Houthi attacks in the Bab al-Mandab and Red Sea, Somali pirates have made a daring comeback off the Horn of Africa.

The successful hijacking of the Iranian vessel Al-Meraj 1 interrupted a long hiatus. Only 13 attacks were recorded between 2016 and 2022, which led the International Shipping Commission (ICS) to remove the north-eastern Indian Ocean’s ‘high risk’ status, after there had been no successful hijackings since March 2017.

The capture of the Al-Meraj began a spate of attacks on fishing and commercial vessels which has continued into this year. High-profile incidents include the Maltese-flagged Ruen, captured on 15 December, and the Liberian-flagged MV Lila Norfolk, captured on 5 January. Both ships were intercepted by the Indian navy, with the hijack of the Maltese vessel also prompting the response of the Spanish navy, operating under EUNAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta.

It is tempting to draw a link between the Houthis and Somali pirates. However, although the Bab al-Mandab and the Horn of Africa have always been intimately connected, there is no clear link between the Houthis and active pirate networks. The nature of the threat that each poses is quite distinct too. The Houthis have built up an arsenal of missiles, drones and unmanned kamikaze vessels, and count on international allies to launch premeditated attacks, while Somali piracy is far more localised, opportunistic and modest in capacity.

The Rise – and the Fall

The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 devastated Somalia after 13 years of civil war, compounding the effects of persistent overfishing by foreign trawlers in Somali waters. Many impoverished coastal communities turned to piracy. Pirate networks consisted of protean groups of hijackers – local affiliates who would hold the captured crew – and translators (often taken from the Somali diaspora), who would negotiate a ransom with the victims’ company or family, often in their native language. At the helm of these networks stood figures such as Mohamed Abdi Hassan, also known as ‘Afweyne’ (‘Big Mouth’), who would take huge cuts from successful ransoms and launder the proceeds within Somalia and abroad.

Piracy in the Horn of Africa reached its apogee in 2011, with a record 212 attacks on merchant vessels. This posed significant financial and strategic issues to global shipping and commerce: the World Bank estimated the cost to shipping between 2005 and 2012 at around $18 billion a year.

Although the Bab al-Mandab and the Horn of Africa have always been intimately connected, there is no clear link between the Houthis and active pirate networks

The severity of the situation in 2011 instigated a multilateral response from all five members of the UN Security Council. At sea, a NATO-led coalition (succeeded in 2016 by the EU’s 34-nation Operation Atalanta) took to the Horn of Africa, while shipping company owners and flag states took special anti-piracy measures to protect themselves. In an historic move, China built its first foreign naval base in Djibouti in 2016, paying testament to the value it placed on anti-piracy operations. On land, states and NGOs worked with the Federal Transitional Council to build capacity and a legal framework to prosecute pirates. By 2017, piracy off the Horn of Africa was no longer lucrative, and the main actors had either ceased their activities, or diversified into other illicit trades.

Why Now?

Piracy has, however, returned to the Horn of Africa, and the past three months have seen more activity than at any point in the past six years. There are a host of internal and external factors at play in this recent surge in pirate attacks.

The region of Puntland, both between 2005 and 2011 and today, has been the major source of pirate crews, owing to both its geography and political status. Puntland is the closest of Somalia’s regions to global shipping lanes, and its population has long depended on its rich fisheries. As an autonomous region of Somalia, it has a devolved security apparatus. Puntland has neither the desire for international recognition (and with that the desire to fulfil international norms) of breakaway Somaliland, nor for the state collapse of southern and central Somalia. Instead, it has a regional government which has been prone to corruption and has historically enabled maritime crime, from piracy to trafficking and illegal trawlers.

The Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) is responsible for anti-piracy efforts in the autonomous region. As piracy has declined, the anti-piracy focus of the PMPF has too. It has become, rather, a ‘generic security provider’, according to Nicolas Delaunay, east and southern Africa project director for International Crisis Group. Puntland has recently been racked by internal instability following violent clashes in the state capital, Garowe, in June. Supporters of rival armed factions clashed as the regional government debated constitutional amendments that would have altered the voting system and extended President Said Abdullah Deni’s term, leaving 36 dead and 30 injured. Punctures to Puntland’s internal law and order have therefore provided cover for piracy to make a daring comeback.

The external role of EUNAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta cannot be ignored either. As piracy in the Horn of Africa declined to virtually nil between 2016 and 2023, EUNAVFOR’s level of alert in the region inevitably decreased with it. The focus of anti-piracy operations shifted to the Gulf of Guinea, and although it remained, the prevailing view was that the risk of piracy in the Horn of Africa was far lower than before. In this light, Somali pirates have called EUNAVFOR’s bluff.

While reduced law enforcement and economic privation have caused a spike in piracy off the Horn of Africa, clear evidence pointing towards a wider paradigm shift back to piracy is much harder to find

Last September, expert Peter Viggo Jakobsen from the Royal Danish Defence College assessed piracy operations in the Horn of Africa as entailing ‘high risks’ and ‘few rewards’. This is mostly true – none of the recent attacks on shipping have achieved their goal of extracting a ransom, and only the Al-Meraj was successfully hijacked and piloted back to the Puntland coast. The risks of interception by foreign navies are therefore higher (and the chances of success far lower) than they were during Somali piracy’s heyday over a decade ago. Yet Somalia has suffered five consecutive years of drought, and illegal overfishing continues unabated, costing the Somali economy as much as $300 million a year. A six or seven-figure ransom pay-out remains seductive to young, under-employed fishermen with families to feed and little to lose, even if the odds of landing such a sum are slim.

Back for Good?

The resurgence of pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa is certainly a bolt from the blue. As tantalising as it may seem to Somali pirates, a return to the levels of a decade ago is highly unlikely. The security measures taken by companies and states in response to the dramatic rise in Somali piracy largely remain in place and still act as a deterrent to pirate crews. Further, the number of pirate syndicates operating out of Puntland, south and central Somalia has greatly diminished, as their leaders turned to trafficking people, arms and raw materials as their main sources of income. Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa estimates that there are ‘at least two’ armed piracy groups operating out of Somalia.

This number does not look set to drastically increase any time soon. While reduced law enforcement and economic privation have caused a spike in piracy off the Horn of Africa, aided by a momentary lapse in international anti-piracy efforts in the region, clear evidence pointing towards a wider paradigm shift back to piracy is much harder to find.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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George Hancock

Course Assistant

Organised Crime and Policing

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