How do Somali pirates hijack ships?

Somali pirates use very low tech methods to hijack ships: they go out in fishing skiffs and are armed with fairly light weaponry, mainly machine guns or other automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They approach a ship and threaten to fire. Most merchant ships are undefended. It is easier and cheaper to pay insurance premiums that will allow a company to pay ransoms than it is to have security on all ships. As the odds of being attacked are fairly low, most shipping companies take a gamble on not being attacked.

Why do they do it?

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For the money. Piracy off the Somali coast is a ransom business, and a lucrative one. As a result, pirate hostages are very well looked after (another part of the reason shipping companies are reluctant to provide expensive security for their ships – they’d rather just pay the ransom). A whole infrastructure has sprung up along the coast that allows for looking after hostages. It is also possible to ‘invest’ in a pirate operation in cities like Toronto (home to a huge Somali diaspora). If the pirates are successful, you will get a return on the money you paid.
The political situation in Somalia obviously facilitates piracy. Somalia is the classic example of a ‘failed’ state, allowing criminal activity to go unchecked by central government. There are few economic opportunities for young men. Pirates face almost no consequences for their actions (see below). It’s fairly safe and very lucrative. Success builds success. Pirates who get a good ransom can get better weapons and faster boats, and take more ransoms. The more successful pirates are, the more people will want to become pirates.

How big is the problem?

It’s getting bigger every year. Piracy incidents for 2009 had overtaken those for 2008 in the first nine months of the year, and the International Maritime Bureau estimates that pirate incidents involving guns have gone up 200% this year. However, the number of ships attacked still constitute a very small percentage of the total amount of shipping that moves through the region.

What measures have countries taken to stop piracy?

There are three major naval operations working off the coast of Somalia trying to deal with the problem: Operation Atalanta, an EU mission, the NATO Operation Allied Protector, and the US-led Combined Task Force 150. These operations attempt to ensure the delivery of food aid to Somalia as well as protect shipping in the region. Military ships can arrest and detain pirates, sending them for trial, but what to do with captured pirates is not straightforward: it is not clear where they should be tried, and quite clear that many of them are happy to be captured, seeing it as a ticket to a Western country.

Will these measures work?

The naval operations are actually not tasked with doing very much: just to protect food aid (which is relatively easy and consequently has been relatively successful) and protect shipping. The latter seems to have had mixed success. The evidence seems to indicate that the naval operations are not stopping piracy, just shifting it to different places along the coast.
There are big structural problems that need to be overcome to stop piracy. First, shipping companies would rather use insurance to pay ransoms that just about any other alternative, from providing armed escorts or armed guards on ships to pushing for greater military responses. As long as insurance remains cheap this is likely to continue to be the case. The more ransoms get paid, the more piracy will flourish. Second, there is no question that it is hard to solve the Somali pirate problem without improving the Somali state, which is potentially impossible in the short term.

Is there a link between piracy and terrorism?

Probably not. It seems as though piracy in Somalia is almost completely apolitical and is entirely about the money. Even when pirates have captured ships carrying military equipment (like the Ukrainian vessel carrying battle tanks) it seems to have been by accident rather than by design. However, the success of the Somali pirates demonstrates what could happen should terrorism turn to the seas. Pirates have been very successful with very limited weapons, and terrorists could achieve similarly large effects at very low costs. This is extremely worrying, so the CIA and other agencies are monitoring the Somali pirate situation closely, both to make sure that no links develop between the pirates and groups like Al-Qaeda, and also to make the case that the world’s maritime areas need to be better secured.

Dr Sarah Percy is a Tutorial Fellow in International Relations at Merton College