Somali Piracy: Risk, Benefit, Reward

by Jessica Lincoln


Is the threat of Somali piracy what it used to be? Taking stock of on-shore and off-shore conditions in the Horn of Africa.


Given the decline in attacks and speculation as to their causes, various factors underpinning Somali piracy are worth considering. On-shore conditions have not changed significantly, making it difficult to assess conclusively whether the current threat of piracy is less than what it once was. Pirates have not successfully captured a vessel [1] in over a year. With the release of the most expensive ransom payment to date (SMYRNI), now seems an appropriate time to review realities and perceptions of this criminal endeavour. This essay evaluates land and sea based dynamics, and contributes to the debate on Somalia’s stabilisation and development.



Very little has changed on shore to suggest  that pirate activities off the Somali coast and wider gulf of Aden/Arabia will end in the near future. In this light, counterpiracy efforts are required to make a more complete assessment of this maritime threat. Increased military efforts by international naval task forces, an increase in private armed guards on vessels, and compliance with best management practices have contributed dramatically to the safety of commercial vessels transiting this region. The Economist recently outlined, ‘higher cruising speeds in pirate-infested zones and rerouting have also helped, as have razor wire, high pressure hoses and citadels’.[2] However, such potentially cosmetic measures have been referred to widely as a ‘sticking plaster’ covering a much wider fracture; perhaps mainly due to the time-limited period international naval forces and expensive armed security will be in the region.

We have surprisingly not seen a significant evolution in tactics of the kind that might naturally be expected of traditional forces engaged in prolonged fighting.[3] Pirates typically have captured vessels under their control or Dhows for anonymity, and have always attacked using vessels from small, fairly fast, open skiffs using automatic weapons and the threat of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The disadvantage to the pirate operations is clear: they have to first mount one operation (i.e. boarding and seizing a vessel) before they can then conduct a second (i.e. getting the vessel back to safe anchorage). They would then need to engage in a successful ransom negotiation. All of these are situations that are readily countered with a little preparation and training.

We have however seen a shift in certain pirate tactics such as the splitting of hostages into various nationalities to be used as bargaining tools for prisoner exchanges (ASPHALT VENTURE and GEMINI); dishonoring the conditions of a ransom payment and holding back some hostages following pay-out (ASPHALT VENTURE and GEMINI); or increased ransom payments for alleged recompense for previous killing of comrades (SAMHO DREAM); an emphasis on land-based kidnap for ransom from within the pirate fraternity (for example – allegedly and not corroborated beyond media sources - Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted; two Spanish MSF workers – the latter two purportedly being held for a period on the MV ALBEDO but separated from the seafarers; and two South Africans who were held in Garacad); and various operational changes such as the use of Dhows rather than larger vessels as motherships,  in order to avoid detection.

If we accept that international naval forces have deftly thwarted attacks,[4] and that armed guards are for now a proven deterrent[5], we may also have to accept that as long as on-shore conditions remain relatively unchanged – and they seem likely to remain so for the foreseeable future – then we should expect that piracy will probably also change. It will either orbit and evade shipping security capabilities, or adjust its tempo to a ‘piracy business model’ – a much less active approach that in effect will mean fewer attacks.

The risk to benefit ratio has been altered to such an extent that ‘investors’ no longer provide funding up-front to mount a mission because the likelihood of success has diminished. The senior piracy figures who control anchorages, logistics and the like will wait until a vessel is captured and then assume control. Anyone who wishes to go to sea to mount an attack carries all of the risk until they are successful. There are few individuals with such financial and logistical capability in Somalia and this will also have an impact on the number of attacks (discussed further, below).  If we accept this as a possible scenario then time is a factor and it favors the pirates: a reduction in attacks means that eventually the armed deterrent will diminish as it moves to more pressing priorities. Once it is gone the risk-to-benefit ratio alters again.


On-Shore Conditions

Notwithstanding a new administration in Mogadishu, Somalia remains divided into what might be loosely termed federated states. The Puntland administration remains deeply entrenched in piracy, despite vociferous claims to the contrary.[6] Armed militias are fighting over the port city of Kismaayo and the Kenyans - via AMISOM - have a precarious hold on the southern region generally. The presence of external forces in Somalia is proving an intractable issue. On the one hand they provide necessary security, yet on the other al Shabaab uses their presence to justify the continuing insurgency.[7]  The latter still either control, or can disrupt, significant swathes of central Somalia and an increasing area in the north of the country, in the Galgala hills, approximately 30km from the port of Bosasso.[8] Recent attacks in Mogadishu are also testimony to their increasing range.

The Kenyans, again through AMISOM, and the Ethiopians  are likely to maintain a presence in Somalia.[9] This will be to ensure security and similarly for economic purposes given the abundant resources in Jubaland and commercial promise of Kismaayo. There is an ongoing tension between Kenya and Somalia pertaining to the status of its EEZ and ownership of lucrative oil blocks that sit in a disputed triangular section of water between the two countries. Despite the frictions, Kenya was keen to support Azania previously, which would support the argument that it is seeking to establish a stable buffer zone between itself and Somalia. AMISOM’s mandate has been extended until February 2014. Key actors in Somalia will have to demonstrate adroit political maneuvering and compromise with external military forces present within the country’s borders, if they hope to maintain any influence over internal political and economic dynamics.

Current President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud must navigate numerous domestic fault lines. His political reach still does not extend far beyond the capital Mogadishu. At first glance the current Somali Federal Government seems representative of Somalia’s dominant clan structure.[10] This is important as Somalis  generally self-identify most strongly throughClan rather than geographic representation (such as district, town or region), which can strongly affect the legitimacy of governments.[11] The Somali citizen, in other words, feels represented when a fellow clan member is in government, [12] Other major influences play important roles in government structures, the most significant of these being religion and in particular the central role of Islam throughout the Administration. By no means a new dynamic given Somalia’s historic Islamic traditions and society, it will assume an increasingly dominant position in Somalia’s future stability, growth and indeed, unity.

Religious Islamic identity and national Somali identity also play prominent roles, abut it is the clan that remains dominant and has played a role in the ongoing conflict. As Afyare Abdi Elmi argues, it is, ‘[A] glaring fact that most militia groups are organized along clan lines’. The geography of clan influence should not be understated, however: y. Aside from al-Shabaab, militias do not roam from one area to the next;  and each region of Somalia effectively has its own ‘army’.[13] Indeed, there has been an increase in the number of militias/armed forces running in parallel to formal state security structures, which raises questions about the shape of conflicts to come in the region.

Reintegration is another factor in the current and future security landscape .   In February 2013 the self-declared President/Governor of Himan and Heeb region, Mohamed Aden Tiiceey, declared that 959 pirates had been granted amnesty by. This area, like most of Somalia, has a large population of unemployed youth that has been drawn into piracy. Although there is evidence of improved political stability and economic and social development in Somalia,it is still early days. It will take time before the right kinds of opportunities manifest themselves in ways that can demonstrably shift this demographic  challenge in more constructive directions. Meanwhile, efforts to disarm and reintegrate former pirates will have to be carefully monitored for effectiveness, indications of recidivism, and the like.  

It is a truism  that if onshore conditions are conducive to peace then this will negatively impact and ultimately trump maritime piracy operations for good. But if, as may be the case, former-pirates are being recruited into land-based militias in return for renouncing piracy, then it is likely that one problem is simply being replaced with another, and instead of the problem being eliminated, it is only being diverted. Admittedly, this is speculation, but it suggests possibilities about the putative decline of piracy that needs to be considered.



Juridical responses to piracy have occurred in parallel to military counterpiracy operations. The US has driven piracy prosecutions but the UK remains surprisingly ambivalent in this regard. Greece and the UAE have similarly chosen not to pursue prosecutions despite having sufficient reasons to do so (i.e. in line with the number of flagged ships that have been hijacked).[14] Prosecutions would appear to be a decisive measure in dismantling piracy but it remains unclear  what real effect (if any)  it is having onshore. The insurance industry has also proved reluctant to   investigate  the problem.

In recent years arrests and prosecutions of pirates have happened globally:  Kenya (MV MAGELLAN STAR); USA (SV QUEST, MAERSK ALABAMA, USS NICHOLAS); Holland (CHOIZIL); Germany (MV TAIPAN); South Korea (SAMHO JEWELRY) and so forth. The Seychelles operates a dedicated pirate prison and holding centre, with66 Somalis awaiting trial as of May 2013. Other facilities are being built within Somalia itself,Bossaso Prison and Hargeisa being prominent examples. Internal politics have nonetheless also been borne out in the acceptance of pirate prisoners. Somaliland has in the past refused to take convicted pirates from other regions (such as Puntland) for fear that they would become political bargaining chips or sources of friction and conflict.[15] Puntland has been less restrictive in this regard,accepting convicted pirates from other parts of Somalia. Meanwhile, Somalia on the whole is prepared to accept convicted pirates back to its shores.

According to the BBC there are more than 1,000 convicted Somali pirates being held in prisons around the world. The Contact Group on Piracy believes this has ‘started de-glamorising piracy.’ By one estimate there are approximately 3,000 active pirates worldwide. If  over 1,000 are imprisoned and a further 300 to 400 die each year at sea from drowning and starvation, then the overall impact on pirate numbers is significant .[16]

High profile cases such as the SV QUEST notwithstanding, the rationale for overseas trials for Somali pirates has been called into question, not least because of the financial cost and doubts over the overall deterrent effect of such measures. The trials in Germany of 10 Somalis involved in the MV TAIPAN hijacking, for example, cost between EUR7 and EUR10 million ; whilst the shipping company that owns the TAIPAN allegedly incurred costs of EUR1.06 million as a result of the hijacking. This led to debate in the press about whether the fight against piracy is actually being won in German courtrooms, with critics calling them a ‘legal luxury’ and an ‘expensive farce’. Judicial options should be a robust element inthe counterpiracy arsenal, but such questions risk undermining the principles on which they are founded. [17] 


Pirates: Assumptions

Accurate population statistics do not exist in Somalia,  but it is estimated that the Somali population stands at approximately ten million.[18] According to the UNDP over seventy percent of Somalia’s population is under the age of thirty, with overall unemployment among people aged 15 to 64 estimated at 54 percent, up from 47 percent in 2002. The unemployment rate for youth aged 14 to 29 is 67 percent – one of the highest rates in the world.[19] The population of male youth  aged 15 to 24, considered to be the most likely demographic to engage in  piracy, is believed to number 978,197.

Even crude figures such as these demonstrate that the Contact Group on Piracy’s stated estimate of 3,000 active piratesis likely to be on the low side. Not all pirates are male, and not all of the 978,197 males in the 15-24 age bracket are pirates. What the numbers do tell us is that  there is an abundant source of unemployed youth from which pirate ranks can be drawn .

Another reason to question the Contact Group on Piracy’s estimate is Mohamed Tiiceey’s claim to have disarmed almost a third of them . If the number claimed in this instance are accurate,  then we can assume a direct correlation with the decline in the number of active pirate attacks and disruptions. But even then, we would have to assume a long timeframe in our analysis. This are two reasons for this. First, the South West monsoon period is about to begin,  and with inclement weather comes a natural reduction in maritime activity. Pirate attacks, in other words, would be lower anyway at this time of year, as sea conditions worsen significantly in the Somali basin and Indian Ocean preventing small boat operations and reducing the effective maritime space for pirate operations to the heavily patrolled Gulf of Aden.[20]

Second, the one advantage Somali pirates have over international naval forces and shipping companies is patience, or what might be more accurately termed ‘Strategic Patience’.[21] Pirates, much like insurgents, can lay down weapons and cease work for extended periods. WThis has been a tactic of al-Shabaab, whereby members adopt ‘normal’ clothes and melt into the population, but as soon as the situation allows, they regroup onshore and resume operationsr

There are several other factors to consider. Piracy has been prevalent in Somalia since the 1700s; weapons have been abundant in theregion since the Cold War; an informal economy has driven Somali life for the past few decades and will continue to do so until national structures are embedded and functioning; and criminal endeavor has reaped significant rewards for many Somalis..


Even if we disregard the pirates themselves, secondary industries around piracy is also substantial. Negotiations require radio and mobile telephone communications; sustaining and feeding hostages requires sustenance and outlets to provide it such as restaurants and shops; pirates themselves become consumers of desirable products, including the staple Khat; construction of houses, compounds, business facilities, and the like all of which requires tradesmen, equipment, resources and and facilities. The financing of pirate operations requires investors both locally and internationally. Essentially the business of piracy casts a wide net. The profitability of pirate operations and the ultimate prize (ransom payments) will remain an allure and economic driver in Somalia until sufficient, viable and legitimate alternatives exist.



Piracy has brought international attention to Somalia and driven a multitude of varied responses. As a result the country remains a high priority ‘problem to fix’ on the international agenda. To date, however, resolving the problem of piracy has largely been left up to the shipping industry to address, via private security and insurers. The military response has driven maritime agendas but it has long been acknowledged that issues on land need to be sorted out in order to thoroughly stem pirate operations at sea. Attacks are down as of mid-2013, and there are increasingly valid arguments to re-assess the extent to which piracy still constitutes a threat piracy. In its most tangible form, a stock taking exercise could lead to a decrease in the size of the ‘red zone’ (the High Risk Area)  the insurance industry uses to to map the problem and assess premiums.

The shipping industry has increasingly questioned the blanket threat assessment still used by the sector to quantify ]piracy risk: negotiations are at the fore regarding lowering insurance costs against the reduction in successful pirate captures. The SMYRNI is the most recent example of a disconnect between ransom payments made and the disproportionate insurance costs associated with them.[22] This is driven purely by the desire to cut back costs that have grown exponentially in the past six years. Such wrangling can occur far away from Somalia’s borders and pirates, who are in many ways unaffected by such changes; they will continue, pause or endure their ‘business’ regardless.

According to Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the International Maritime Bureau, : ‘Although the number of acts of piracy reported in Somalia has significantly decreased, there can be no room for complacency.’ The threat of Somali piracy remains a very real consideration; an incident was reported just 400 nm east of Mogadishu in the second quarter of 2013. Counter piracy efforts are robust and extensive, but a variety of factors conspire to undermine them: political and commercial drivers in the shipping industry – saving fuel, cutting costs, securing vessels, and so forth; international military commitments elsewhere; high demand for limited resources; substantial western budgetary cuts. The reward-to-risk ratio, and willingness to endure, mean that conditions remain favorable  for Somali pirates.



[1] Discounting the capture and successful release of the Indian Dhow in June 2013


[3] Our analysis starts in 2007 where we see the embracing of the K&R model come to the fore.

[4]  See for example the recent defence and rescue of an Indian Dhow (see EU NAVFOR, June 5th)

[5] See for example assessments made by the International Chamber of Commerce/International Maritime Bureau, April 2013:

[6] It is alleged that following the battle and release of the MV Iceberg, Indian officials paid USD 1.5million to Mohamed Farole, Adirahman’s eldest son (,2)

[7] See for example, ‘Somalia: Al Shabab Displays Kenyan Prisoners in Southern Town’, Mohamed Shiekh Nor in Mogadishu, 4 June 2013,

[8] It has been relatively quiet here for a few months and is widely reported as being due to the militant’s inability to maintain a logistic supply chain.

[9] The Ethiopians are widely acknowledged to be pursing their own agenda given their singular status outside of AMISOM

[10] There are five major clans in Somalia: Darod, Dir, Digil and Mirifle, Hawiye, and Isaaq, along with a coalition of smaller clans. According to Menkhaus, the ‘4.5 Formula’, a Somali variation on the Lebanese consociational democratic model in which each of the four major clan-families are equally represented, so negotiations over representation occur within rather than between the clan-families, each of which selects 61 MPs from their lineage (2007: African Affairs: 106)

[12] Ibid

[13] Foremost Somalia and piracy expert: Anonymous, UK

[14] The UK have focused on various piracy prosecutions but the Crown Prosecution Service would appear to prefer that pirates linked to cases involving UK citizens are prosecuted overseas; for a multitude of reasons. Piracy is an international crime and generally carries long prison sentences, the cost of which is significant for any state to bear: financially and politically. This is perhaps why we have seen such an investment in to international coalition efforts such as EUNAVFOR and pirate prisons in the Seychelles and within Somalia itself.

[15] There may be direct correlation towards efforts at international recognition however and increase in acceptance numbers may be tied to this.



[18] Sourced from the CIA World Factbook; an estimate as of July 2013


[20] although it was during the South West monsoon period that we have previously seen pirates venturing further afield into the Mozambique Channel and the Bab el Mandeb.

[21] Foremost Somalia and piracy expert: Anonymous, UK

[22] By this we refer to the ongoing discussions taking place within the insurance industry regarding the extortionate costs associated with making this ransom payment.


About The Author: Dr. Jessica Lincoln is Director of Intelligence with Rubeus Ltd, a conflict resolution firm. She is a lecturer in the Dept. of War Studies at King’s College, London, and formerly taught at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. Her book on war crimes prosecution in Sierra Leone, entitled Transitional Justice, Peace and Accountability: Outreach and the Role of International Courts after Conflict, was published with Routledge in 2011.

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