Somali Pirates Are Back?

After an almost five-year hiatus, Somali pirates are back.  On March 13, a dozen armed Somali pirates attacked and successfully hijacked a commercial oil tanker, Aris 13, which had been carrying fuel from Djibouti to Mogadishu.  The tanker is now apparently docked in the coastal Somali town of Xabo, and the pirates are beginning to negotiate a ransom payment in exchange for releasing the hijacked crew.  This attack underscores that the Somali piracy threat is real and that it can resurface at any time- and particularly, if “western” countries let their anti-piracy guard down.

Piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia skyrocketed between 2008-2011, when the maritime community witnessed hundreds of attacks per year.  In 2011, the world community experienced a total of 151 piracy attacks (down to just 17 in 2015).  Attacks in this region were fueled by several factors, including the fact that Somali coast, and in particular the Gulf of Aden, are a commonly used shipping route from Europe to Asia, that most commercial vessels sailed unarmed and unprotected and were thus easy targets, that shipping companies, and at times countries, seemed willing to pay multi-million dollar ransoms, and that Somalia has been a lawless country where pirates can freely dock their ships and hold their victims while awaiting ransom.  The first factor (geography) as well as the last (lawlessness in Somalia) have not changed until today.  What had changed and contributed significantly toward the decrease of piracy attacks were enhanced anti-piracy efforts by maritime nations, which have included the presence of armed guards onboard commercial vessels, as well as more careful routing of vessels, to avoid sailing too close to the Somali coast.  In addition, several maritime nations as well as NATO launched anti-piracy operations in the region (NATO Operation Ocean Shield), which were able to successfully deter attacks.  As I, and others, have written before, Somali piracy has always been a crime of opportunity fueled by poverty in Somalia and the ease at which piracy attacks were successfully executed, at least in the beginning of the modern-day piracy era.  With increased maritime surveillance and anti-piracy operations in the region and armed guards onboard vessels, Somali pirates halted their operations and apparently re-routed their efforts toward more lucrative endeavors such as arms trafficking.  But they did not go away and instead waited for the opportunity to resume piratical attacks off the coast of Somalia.

This opportunity to resume may have come now.  In December 2016, NATO officials announced that anti-piracy operations, which had been extremely successful, were no longer necessary as piracy attacks seemed to have practically disappeared.  Some shipping companies may have become less vigilant in their routing, allowing ships to sail closer to the Somali coast (as was the case of Aris 13), and some may have ceased using expensive armed guards (Aris 13 was not protected by armed guards).  According to a maritime industry analyst, today only about 35-40 per cent of ships have armed guards on board.  Thus, the perfect piracy opportunity may have arisen again and Somali pirates seized upon it.

This attack’s modus operandi is identical to the previous piracy model, where pirates go after unprotected commercial vessels sailing close to the Somali shore and hijack the vessel and its crew, in order to demand a multi-million dollar ransom.  In the present hijacking of Aris 13, the cargo (fuel) may be of additional value to the pirates as it can be somewhat easily resold on the black market.  In fact, hijacking oil tankers with the purpose of reselling the fuel has been the more specific modus operandi of Gulf of Guinea pirates, whose focus seemed to be less on hijacking crew members for ransom and more on the value of stolen cargo.  Somali pirates seem to be back – having perhaps learned from their West Africa counterparts that cargo can be valuable too – and the international community may have to re-engage in serious anti-piracy efforts, to ensure that piracy does not re-fluorish in 2017.

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About Milena Sterio
Milena Sterio is a law professor at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where she teaches and specializes in International Law, International Criminal Law, Maritime Piracy, and Human Rights.

2 Responses to Somali Pirates Are Back?

  1. Pingback: Professor Sterio Publishes Blog Post on Return of Somali Pirates | CM Law Faculty

  2. It took almost five years, but the hijacking was not of large crude oil tanker in the Arabian Sea but a small coastal tanker 14 miles from shore.
    It is not sure that the incident is an indication of that Somali piracy on the high seas will return.

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