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The Rise and Fall of Somali Piracy

As a consequence of the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, the country was left without a government. The subsequent disbandment of the Somali Navy meant there were no forces to defend the coastline, which prompted foreign fishing vessels to employ a variety of non-sustainable fishing techniques that devastated Somali fisheries. Local clan leaders would send boats with militiamen to hold foreign fishing boats for 24 hours demanding ransoms of 50.000 dollars. They called themselves the Somali Coast Guards and argued these were license fees, and that’s how business worked in Somalia in the nineties.

Despite having the longest coastline among all African countries, Somalia has been a relatively poor country. In 1990 it had a GDP per capita of roughly 126 current U.S. dollars. Its position in the map is strategic for piracy as it’s bordered by the Gulf of Aden to the north. The gulf connects the red sea with the Indian Ocean and remains a worldwide shipping route, especially for oil coming from the Persian Gulf. 

Piracy in the nineties was small. Still, it began generating considerable wealth and eventually developed into a lucrative business. While most of the earnings were spent on bribes, the remainder was reinvested on weapons, ships and expanding personnel. By 2007, pirate organizations were much larger and generating more wealth; consequently attracting new young members. With more personnel operations were quickly expanded. 

A key development for the expansion of Somali piracy was the seizure of MV Danica in June 2007, the first hijacking of a merchant vessel. After months of negotiations, a ransom was settled for 1 million dollars. From then their influence grew exponentially. In 2008 there were 92 reported pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden. Somali pirates successfully carried out 42 hijackings.

While the worldwide maritime security was aware of Somali piracy, it was not yet a serious threat to the International Community. However, It all changed in the last quarter of 2008 when two cargo ships were captured. In September, the MV Faina carrying a shipment of arms destined to Sudan was hijacked. With the fear of the arms ending in the hands of Islamic militants, USA and Russia deployed military ships. After a payment of 3.2 million dollars, it was released. Weeks later, the pirates hijacked a Saudi crude carrier containing 2 million oil barrels for which they received another ransom of 3 million dollars.

Months later, in April 2009, there was a hijacking attempt of the US cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama which was rescued by the U.S. military. The movie Captain Phillips was based on this event. Despite not being a successful attempt, Somali pirates were becoming a threat to world trade. In 2010 a record was set for the most hijackings. Out of 219 attacks, 49 were successful. At its cusp, there was even a pirate stock exchange for investors to finance activities in exchange for profits from future ransom payments. 

Since 2008 the International community has deployed warships to patrol the area. However, the intervention of the powers could have been earlier. By the time action was taken, pirate organizations were very developed and managed to expand their operations by more than one thousand miles offshore of the Somali coasts. Nevertheless, the international response was successful and by 2015 no attacks were reported. 

More precisely, the fight against Somali piracy started on 8 December 2008 when The European Union Naval Force launched Operation Atalanta. Its main objective was to deter, prevent and repress piracy and armed robbery at sea. Later, in 2009 Operation Ocean Shield was approved by the North Atlantic Council with assistance from NATO nations. Lastly, because of the importance of the region in term of commerce, Russia, India and China had vessels continuously patrolling the area for private interests. All these together were key in eradicating Somali piracy. 

The Nato vessels officially departed in December 2016 as the operation had been concluded. Nowadays Somali piracy has decreased, but it still exists to a lesser extent since there are areas in the country completely controlled by pirate organizations. 

It is important to understand how did Somalia end up in this situation. The country has been without a functioning government for almost 30 years. Barely functioning governments would like to do something, but don’t have the tools to do so. A safer and more stable Somalia is, therefore, the solution, and getting an effective government in place should be the first step going forward.


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