Somali Piracy Q&A

Piracy off the cost of Somalia has become an increasingly salient international issue. These questions and answers provide a background understanding of the phenomenon and survey possible responses from the shipping industry and the international community.

Prepared by Bjoern H. Seibert for

What are the root causes of piracy off the coast of Somalia?

The current wave of piracy is primarily motivated by the desire for financial gains and exacerbated by a lack of governance and high poverty levels. While illegal activity by foreign countries in Somali waters – including illegal fishing and waste dumping – may have played a role early on, the current level of piracy cannot be explained by such activity. Rather, piracy has become a very lucrative business model, which provides one of the poorest states in Africa with a significant source of income.

What economic damage is piracy causing?

The full extent of the economic damage is very difficult to assess. In addition to ransoms paid (some estimate between US$18–30 million were paid last year) piracy imposes significant burdens on the maritime industry as ships take steps to protect themselves from being hijacked – e.g. hiring private security guards, and installing non-lethal deterrent equipment. In addition, insurance premiums on ships crossing through the Gulf of Aden have gone up substantially. According to a recent study, the additional insurance costs for ship-owners alone are at $400 million annually. [1] While the total economic damage is only a small fraction of the total volume of ocean transports, it will ultimately be passed on to consumers around the world.

Is there a nexus between piracy and international terrorism?

While some have warned of a nexus between international terrorism and piracy, most analysts remain skeptical about the existence of such a nexus. Some cite the lack of credible evidence, while others suggest that one reason why a nexus has not formed is that international terrorist organisations are in general too secretive to work with criminal organisations. [2] At the same time, however, the situation on the ground is volatile and a growing nexus could develop between the pirates and local Islamist insurgence groups such as Al-Shabab. A number of recent reports in fact claim to detect growing financial ties between pirates and local Islamists groups. [3] It should be noted, however, that the latter are, at least currently, local insurgence groups with a primarily local agenda, and should not immediately be confused with terrorist organisations with a more international outlook.

Why is there no regional response?

Somalia is, by all accounts, a failed state. Given this almost complete lack of governance, the current central government is unable to effectively respond to the piracy problem, either ashore or at sea. At the same time, Somalia’s regional neighbors, Kenya, Djibouti and Yemen, do not have the capacity to address the problem either. While Egypt has shown diplomatic initiatives, it has not taken any concrete steps to address the problem. Thus, unlike the case of piracy in the Straits of Malacca where regional cooperation proved highly successful, regional cooperation in the case of the Somali piracy is less able to effectively address the problem.

What has been the international response?

The international response to Somali piracy has been twofold. On the military level, one of the first steps was the establishment by the U.S.-led Combined task Force 150 (CTF 150) in August 2008 of a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) to act as protected sea-lanes. CTF 150 was subsequently supported by the deployment of additional task forces led by the EU, NATO, and several other nations’ navies. The naval presence is meant to deter and/or disrupt pirate activity.

At the same time, on the diplomatic level, a Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) was established at the United Nations. The contact group’s task is to facilitate discussion and coordination among states and organisations to suppress piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Who participates in the international naval presence?

Currently, three task forces are deployed off the coast of Somalia: The European Union’s task force, known as Operation Atalanta; NATO’s task force – Operation Allied Protector; and the US -led task force Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151). In addition to these, several nations have deployed vessels in independent efforts. These include India, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Why are there still attacks ongoing despite the international naval presence?

A combination of factors – specifically space and time – makes the naval operations very challenging. The operations have to cover a sizeable area, which includes a large part of Somalia’s 2,300 nautical mile long coastline. At the same time, navies have a very limited window of opportunity to respond as attacks last less than twenty to thirty minutes. Once the pirates are in control of the vessel and have hostages, stopping the pirates becomes much more risky. In addition to the issues of time and space, a further problem is that a very large number of ships pass through the area: the Gulf of Aden is one of the world’s busiest waterways with some 20,000 ships passing through each year.

What are the problems/limits of the current approach?

There are questions about how sustainable the current approach is. The presence of a large number of naval vessels is expensive and so it remains to be seen how long the participating states are willing to sustain their operations. This is especially salient at a time when most states face increasing pressure to cut budgets, including defense budgets. At the same time there are questions about how effective the current approach is in substantially reducing acts of piracy.

What about traditional counter-piracy tactics such as blockading and convoying?

A blockade would likely prove to be unenforceable. While pirates are currently using coastal cities such as Eyl to launch their operations, they in fact require little infrastructure to do so. Hence, even if some ports were successfully blocked, the pirates could easily launch their skiffs from beaches.

While convoying merchant vessels could be a more effective use of resources for navies, it has thus far not been very attractive for the shipping industry. Given that only 15-20 warships are currently operating at any point in the area, assembling convoys would take time and is thus a costly undertaking for the shipping industry. As the risk of falling prey to the pirates is still relatively low, the shipping industry will likely continue to find it an economically inefficient and impractical way to respond, preferring to pay the ransoms once the risk materialises.

What about arming merchant vessels?

Arming merchant vessels can be undertaken in different ways. One option is to put armed security teams aboard vessels. A second, and more controversial option, is to arm merchant crews. The first option is already undertaken in some cases – especially if the ship is considered high risk. Again though, given the low probability of being hijacked, stationing security teams aboard all vessels would not be cost efficient. The second option – arming merchant crews – has largely been rejected by shipping companies and port-authorities. The added security risks, costs, and legal liability are deemed too high.

What about taking action against pirates ashore?

The reason no military action against pirates has yet been undertaken ashore stems from political will rather than legal constraints. UN Security Council Resolution 1851 in fact authorises military action against piracy on Somali territory. If the piracy problem persists or even worsens however, such escalatory steps may become increasingly more plausible. Military action ashore could range from small raids against pirate equipment (such as boats, high-power outboard motors), to larger scale, sustained military operations. Neither will be risk free, and both could have wide-ranging and potentially negative implications for stability in Somalia and the wider region.

Are there other alternatives?

One alternative is the 'do-nothing option'. Rather than seeking to address the problem, the international community could learn to live with piracy. Some shipping companies prefer this option – after all the risk of any one ship being hijacked is still low, and crews and cargo are returned safely when ransoms are paid. The risk with this option would be that the lack of a strong response would encourage a further increase in piracy, as it would contribute to the feeling of security for pirates. Additionally, the current level of piracy has received broad international attention and thus become an important symbolic issue. Simply ignoring the problem now would be considered a weakness and thus unattractive for most governments currently involved.

Bjoern Siebert is a Visiting Fellow at RUSI and a Research Fellow at the Security Studies Program. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)


  1. Lloyd's List, 'Piracy Could Add $400m to Owners’ Insurance Cover Costs', November 21, 2008.
  2. See for example Martin N. Murphy, 'Contemporary Piracy and Maritime Terrorism: The Threat to International Security' Adelphi Paper, Vol. 338, 2007; and Peter Chalk, The Maritime Dimension of International Security: Terrorism, Piracy, and Challenges for the United States, RAND Corporation, 2008.
  3. See Lloyd's List, 'Sophisticated strategies behind spate of attacks', November 26, 2008.


Bjoern Seibert

Associate Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content