Jan 13, 2012 | 16:39 GMT

14 mins read

Somali Piracy: 2011 Annual Update


Somali pirates continued their activities in 2011 but hijacked fewer ships than in 2010 or 2009. The pirates' area of operations contracted during the past year while the use of some countermeasures expanded. Although these countermeasures might have helped curtail Somali piracy in 2011, significant improvements will not be likely until serious efforts are taken on land to eliminate havens for pirates. Furthermore, piracy comes with a large economic incentive. Even if the Somali pirates are displaced from their current havens, they likely will find ways to operate if there are no alternatives for making money — alternatives that are scarce in Somalia, which has no significant economic resources.

Geographic Range and Tactics

Since at least 2008, pirates have been extending their area of operations farther to the south and east from Somalia, extending in 2010 to near Madagascar and the southwestern Indian coast. Though there was not much room to grow, 2011 saw the pirates' area of operations contract. The area in which the pirates hijacked ships in 2011, while still considerable, shrunk to about what it was in 2009 (with the exception of the North Arabian Sea, where the pirates maintained the geographic range of operations they expanded to in 2010).

Although the Somali pirates' area of operations has contracted, it has only done so on the margins; the pirates are still very active within their core area of the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Therefore, this decrease along the periphery does not necessarily indicate a serious limitation of the pirates' capabilities. Most of the ships hijacked in 2011 were in the central Arabian Sea, and two were in the Gulf of Aden.

One hijacking of note occurred within the port limits of Salalah, Oman, on Aug. 20. Ports such as Salalah generally provide increased security protection (in addition to Omani security, other nations' naval vessels regularly use the port of Salalah for replenishment, particularly the Chinese), yet the pirates who hijacked the MV Fairchem Bogey at Salalah appeared confident enough to operate in what would normally be a less permissible environment. If port security patrols appear to be decreased, or if the pirates feel they can blend in with local fishermen's boats at a port, then that port would be a good area in which to operate, as ports are target-rich environments. It is worth watching to see if pirates will seek out new areas of exploitation, such as inside port limits, within their decreased geographic range.

The Red Sea is another area of operations to watch. Not only is it more target-rich than the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean (ships transit it to reach the Suez Canal), it also does not carry the same threat of naval patrols as the Gulf of Aden, where an international flotilla of naval forces has carved out the International Recommended Transit and escorts merchant ships. Traffic is particularly heavy in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Although pirates only boarded three vessels in the Red Sea in 2011 — and it is not clear whether the pirates involved in these attacks were Somali or Eritrean — the Somali pirates have shifted their focus to that area in the past and have been known to operate in the Red Sea during monsoon season, which has a greater effect on the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

The pirates' use of swarming tactics in their attacks in the Red Sea during 2011 is worth noting. On Aug. 7, at least 60 pirates in 12 skiffs attacked a bulk carrier approximately 20 nautical miles off the Eritrean coast. The pirates could use this method to try to overwhelm traditional counter-piracy measures. However, it is risky for the pirates in that it forces them to concentrate their forces on one attack, making them more susceptible to foreign naval vessels in the area.

While notable pirate activity occurred in other areas, pirates' operations contracted considerably along the Indian coast in 2011. The Indian navy began counteracting the pirates with increased naval patrols starting in November 2010. The navy also bolstered its presence around the Lakshadweep and Kavaratti islands, with enhanced surveillance and joint patrols. These measures helped Indian authorities apprehend four mother ships between the start of 2011 and the end of March and take the attending pirates into custody, as well as rescue the crews. In addition, on June 18 and June 26, Indian officials captured suspected boats off the western Indian coast. Of the 38 individuals captured, 32 were Somalis suspected of piracy. These instances illustrate the Indians' increased alertness and action against pirates and could indicate that this increased vigilance prevented a successful hijacking in these waters in 2011.

Hijacked Ship Numbers

Somali pirates hijacked more ships in 2010 than in 2009 — 49, compared to 45 — but that trend reversed in 2011, which saw only 31 ships hijacked. Furthermore, before 2010, pirates tended to hijack more ships during non-monsoon seasons, but that trend did not hold in 2010 and did not re-emerge in 2011. Pirates have continued using captured fishing vessels and commercial ships to use as platforms for attacks on larger commercial ships that bring more ransom money. These larger ships make pirates less susceptible to the turbulent waters of the monsoon seasons in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

Pirate Ports

The pirates generally have used the same ports, along the north-central Somali coast between Mogadishu and Puntland, from Harardhere in the south to Bandar Bayla in the north. Some reports have said that a number of ships have been taken to Bargaal, approximately 280 kilometers (174 miles) north of Bandar Bayla. Other reports have said that pirates are operating in and around Kismayo, but no reports indicate that ships are being held there. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reportedly said that pirates are increasingly launching raids from Kismayo, which is also a stronghold of militant group al Shabaab (whose national factions recently renamed themselves the Somali Islamic Emirate). This port could be a staging ground for logistics, manpower, raids or kidnapping forays along the Kenyan coastline.

Piracy Countermeasures

Vessels attacked by pirates successfully used the "citadel tactic," in which the crew retreats to a safe room and cuts off the pirates' ability to control the ship, 16 times in 2011, up from 11 in 2010. In all the 2011 cases, the pirates either abandoned the ships or were captured when naval forces arrived. One unusual case was the hijacking of the German MV Beluga Nomination on Jan. 22, 2011. The ship's crew retreated to a safe room, but the rescuing naval ship took two and a half days to get to the ship, and the pirates were able to gain access to the crew. Some reports said the pirates used blowtorches to breach the safe room. No other such cases have been reported so far, but it is a tactic pirates could more broadly use to exploit a weakness Stratfor pointed out in the previous annual update on Somali piracy. This incident also emphasizes the citadel tactic's reliance on relatively quick response times — within approximately 24 hours — in order to prevent the pirates from having time to breach the safe room.

Another increasingly used tactic is employing armed guards on board commercial vessels. There has not been a single case reported of a ship carrying armed contractors being hijacked in 58 instances of crews using armed guards to defend against a hijacking. According to a Stratfor source, armed guard contracts are very lucrative, with guards earning $350-400 per day. The cost for a typical four-man team on a normal 40-day rotation would be $56,000-64,000 plus whatever the security company needs to make a profit from the trip. These contracts are so lucrative for the security contractors that they have been reported to drop their weapons overboard when the vessel they are guarding is about to enter a weapons-restrictive port and then purchase new weapons for their next contracted voyage.

Armed guards could have been used more in 2011 because several countries — including Norway, Italy, India and the United Kingdom — have passed laws allowing commercial vessels to employ such guards on board their flagged ships. In the United Kingdom's case, according to a BBC report, the use of armed guards reportedly is authorized only near Somali pirate waters, and the British Transport Department published guidelines for hiring private contractors licensed as armed guards by the Home Department. Italy also allows the use of private armed guards and permits shipping companies to "rent" military personnel and their armaments when traveling through Somali pirate waters. Other countries such as Germany, Cyprus and Greece have been considering enacting similar laws. Furthermore, other countries with large flagged fleets, such as Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands, have no laws barring the use of armed guards on board their flagged ships. Japan and the Netherlands reportedly are now the only major maritime nations that prohibit the use of armed guards.

A Stratfor source said that typically, four-man teams of armed security guards embark in the northern Red Sea (likely because Egypt will not let armed guards through the Suez Canal) and travel with a vessel through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf and any other trouble spots, then disembark, fly back to Cairo and start the cycle again. These teams work in 12-hour shifts and use cameras to document any security incidents they relay to the naval contingent. If necessary, the guards can radio out an SOS, and they have access to satellite phones if normal communication channels are unavailable. The guards also provide protection for their vessels during ports of call.

If pirates initiate an attack, the security guards have a sequence of intensifying actions to deter attackers: firing tracer warning shots, firing on the pirate skiffs to disable their engines and, as a last resort, shooting to kill. The security guards are armed with sniper rifles, assault rifles with modern optics and shotguns.

The same source told Stratfor that pirates have begun attacking ships via the pilot door (the small door on the hull where the harbor pilot can enter or leave the ship). Because the door is lower down on the hull, it is easier for pirates to access from the waterline than the deck, which must be reached by ladder. To combat this tactic, some ships include "murder holes" over the pilot doors so the security guards can engage pirates if they try to enter the vessel by the pilot door. Armed guards have also strung concertina wire around the pilot door (a countermeasure that has also been used on the rails at the top of the ship).

The concern with the use of armed security guards (which some crews have voiced) is that the pirates could start using heavier weaponry to overcome the armed guards. However, there appears to be a ceiling regarding heavy weapons; increasingly heavy weaponry could affect a ship's seaworthiness (probably not for larger vessels, but it would be a concern on fishing vessels or dhows) and the products on board. The pirates would want to protect the ship, merchandise and crew, because they would need a navigable ship to return to the Somali coast and would need protected goods and crew in order to negotiate a higher ransom. Furthermore, heavy machine guns are difficult to conceal and operate on board a pirate skiffs; their use could make the pirate skiffs easier for foreign navies to spot and engage, not to mention endanger a skiff's structural integrity — the movement of the gun during firing could shake a skiff apart. Also, if Somali pirates begin using heavier weapons, foreign navies will be more likely to relax the rules of engagement and be more aggressive in hunting the pirates.

Although pirates could begin using heavier weaponry, the most logical response to armed security on board merchant ships would be to halt an attack on an armed vessel and target the approximately 75 percent of ships transiting the Gulf of Aden without armed guards — though the crews on those ships could still use the apparently effective citadel tactic. Ships have also used other types of non-lethal means to deter pirates, such as foam, sonic weapons, blinding strobe lights, lasers and high-pressure water cannons. A chemical that causes attackers to vomit and mace, which can burn the eyes for up to 45 minutes, reportedly are available to counter pirate attacks. However, these weapons can be expensive to implement, especially for an entire fleet of ships. As more vessels employ these tactics, Somali pirates will face the prospect of fewer hijacking captures as it becomes more difficult to simply call off an attack and focus on a less-defended ship.

Another reported countermeasure is the use of private navies with armed guards protecting ships transiting the Gulf of Aden. Convoy Escort Programme Ltd., the world's first private navy to protect merchant ships from Somali pirates, intends to deploy seven armored former naval patrol boats, each with an eight-man security team. Convoy Escort reportedly will charge about $30,000 for a boat traveling in a convoy of about four commercial vessels for three to four days — cheaper than the minimum $56,000 charged for private armed contractors on board vessels. Academi, the private U.S. military company formerly known as Xe Services and Blackwater, had proposed sending private naval forces to Somalia and had even outfitted a ship to send to the Gulf of Aden, but the company later abandoned the idea. Stratfor will be monitoring whether this navy begins or cancels operations. The private navy option could be a response to the austerity measures in Europe that likely will include cutting the number of ships that can be deployed to the EU Naval Force's Operation Atalanta, in which European naval vessels patrol the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

Other Constraints

Somali pirates face other constraints, including reported raids carried out by Puntland regional authorities against pirate strongholds along the Somali coast. During a two-week operation in October 2011, Puntland authorities reportedly captured 150 pirates and numerous weapons, and in December 2011 Puntland authorities said they cleared out Bandar Bayla, according to Somalia Report. The Puntland authorities also stated that they plan to carry out similar raids in the future. If these land-based authorities follow through with their plans, they could deny the pirates havens and infringe on their operating environment (which Stratfor has pointed out is the only measure that could effectively limit piracy operations, as it would lead to a loss of manpower, a loss of logistic routes and a loss of ports, among other things). However, such land-based operations must become more systematic before they make a lasting difference.

Furthermore, al Shabaab or its local factions reportedly took over the area around Harardhere in February. This was said to have pushed some pirates north to Hobyo, while the pirates who stayed in Harardhere reached a working agreement with the al Shabaab elements in the area in exchange for a portion of the ransom money.

Finally, the Somali pirates could be constrained by Somalia's 2011 drought. Just as numerous al Shabaab militants returned home to assist their families during the drought, many pirates likely did the same.


Pirates have faced obstacles during 2011 both on the sea and around their havens along the Somali coast. Commercial ships' crews began using more effective tactics to protect their vessels from pirate attacks, while on land the pirates face a shifting militant landscape in Somalia, infringement on bases in the south by al Shabaab, raids by Puntland authorities and the effects of a severe drought. Together, these various forces have decreased pirates' ability to continue increasing the number of hijackings in a large geographic area. The pirates could recover from 2011 and employ new tactics, such as using blowtorches or explosives to gain access to safe rooms, attacking unsuspecting ships in presumably safe areas such as ports or using swarming tactics or heavier weapons to overwhelm armed guards.

The overall assessment from previous years remains: To effectively deal with the Somali piracy issue, authorities must deny the pirates havens along the Somali coast and address the fundamental issue of Somali economics to decrease piracy's economic appeal. No sustained, coordinated effort has been made to achieve these goals. Since the threat to shipping in this region from Somali piracy does not rise to the level of a strategic threat (it only affects a small portion of regional ship traffic), international forces are unlikely to significantly increase their engagement beyond naval patrols. Tactics and counter-tactics by pirates and seafarers will likely be the dynamic for the near future.

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