Piracy off the coast of Somalia - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

2  Somali piracy

Who are the pirates and how do they operate?

5.  Somali pirates are usually characterized in one of two ways. The first description of the pirate groups accords to a broadly sympathetic narrative in which they are former fishermen who were forced to protect their waters from illegal fishing and dumping of waste following the breakdown of order in Somalia. Some of the pirate groups encourage this description, even naming some of their groups as the 'coastguard' and making reference to the acts of piracy as a kind of 'tax' on the illegal fishing vessels.[5] However, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia[6] noted that only 6.5% of Somali piracy attacks have been against fishing vessels: the vast majority of piracy over the last four years has been against larger, merchant vessels carrying goods between east and west.[7] An alternative view of the pirate groups is less romantic, depicting the groups as "simple maritime criminals",[8] many of whom were never fishermen but rather were attracted by the lucrative illegal gains from piracy, and who have established a large-scale criminal enterprise which is actively harming development in Somalia. Captain Reindorp, Head of the Defence Crisis Management Centre at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), agreed with this view, stating: "The early days of what press reports and academic works describe as subsistence pirates, who go to sea because they have had their livelihood taken away from them, are long gone."[9]

6.  There are thought to be between 1,500 and 3,000 pirates operating off the coast of Somalia.[10] Saferworld, a non-governmental organization which works with grassroots organisations in Somalia, conducted focus groups in Somalia to find out more about the pirates and the Somali communities' view of piracy. Their respondents describe the pirates as men with few options, who are lured by the benefits of crime:

today's pirates range in age from about 15 to 30 and are almost entirely male. […] most pirates are uneducated and unskilled and many come from rural communities where they find it increasingly difficult to make a living from tending livestock. For these young men, […] piracy offers the possibility of getting rich quick and enjoying associated benefits of a more affluent lifestyle, marriage and increased khat use.[11]

7.  Captain Reindorp noted that these men are merely the 'foot soldiers' of piracy who are at the bottom of an investment chain.[12] Somali investors (who, as one witness to this inquiry noted, "could be serious businessmen or, as we found recently, a 19-year-old with his cousin") finance pirate operations and receive a return once ransoms are delivered.[13] Many experts also believe that some groups have sponsors abroad who receive a substantial share of the proceeds.[14] The role of investors is considered in greater detail in paragraphs 116-118.

8.  The pirates' area of operation has now extended far beyond the coast of Somalia into the Indian Ocean; for the purposes of this report, 'piracy off the coast of Somalia' and 'Somali piracy' will be taken to refer to piracy committed by groups whose base of operations is on the Somali coast. The piracy conducted by Somali groups is not traditional maritime piracy, which involves hijacking a ship and stealing it and/or its cargo. Somali pirate groups capture vessels in order to hold the ship, cargo and crew hostage and to demand a ransom from the ship owners or their families. As stated by European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) Operation Commander Major General Howes:

This is not piracy in the classic sense that Emperor Augustus, Pliny and raiders off the Barbary Coast in 1753 would recognise. It is hostage and ransom.[15]

9.  Captain Reindorp provided a description of how pirates attack:

Most attacks occur either from a single skiff, a small vessel, or from two skiffs—generally not more than that. Each skiff contains between two and six pirates. They are armed with a range of weapons, normally small arms, ranging from the traditional AK47s to RPGs.[16] They will manoeuvre one of the skiffs to come alongside the vessel and they will throw up a line on a hook, a grappling rope or some form of apparatus by which they can climb up on to the freeboard of the ship. If they are detected during that, they will usually fire at the ship, generally in and around the bridge, aiming either to get the master to slow down or to clear their way on to the freeboard. Once they have got on to the ship, they will proceed to the bridge and take it over.[17]

10.  However, Captain Reindorp cautioned that there was no "typical attack" and that Somali pirates had proven to be very adaptable. Following a successful attack, pirates will steer the vessel toward anchorages on the Somali coast and open a negotiation with the shipowner or, in the case of private yachts, they will contact the hostages' families. Negotiations are usually conducted via satellite phone and can typically take between three and 12 months.

11.  One example of the pirates' flexibility is their adoption of 'motherships', vessels that are larger than skiffs and can carry fuel and food, allowing pirates to extend both the time they can spend at sea and their area of operations. Such motherships are often themselves pirated vessels. Motherships have become a focus of anxiety in the industry. A number of submissions called for governments to act against motherships, and Baltic Exchange (a maritime membership organisation) told us about their effect:

some Baltic Exchange members have had cause to extend the zone where they consider their vessels to be under threat to 1,400 miles around the region. The use of motherships also makes pirate operations 'weather-proof' as they are able to provide shelter to pirate skiffs. As the monsoon season approaches pirate attacks would normally abate. This year, for the first time, there has been no reduction in the number of attacks as a consequence of seasonal change.[18]

12.  We note the recent abductions of European tourists and aid workers close to the Somali border in Kenya, prompting speculation in the media that Somali pirates may be expanding their activities. In the first of these attacks, a British man was killed and his wife, Judith Tebbutt, abducted. She is still being held hostage. In the interests of her safety, we will not comment further on these abductions in this report.


13.  Several submissions to our inquiry expressed concern about violence against hostages, including the use of torture.[19] Until recently, while hostages undoubtedly underwent difficult experiences and psychological pressure, they were not routinely physically harmed by pirates. However, over the last year there have been growing numbers reporting violence and mistreatment. Fifteen seafarers have died so far in 2011, including the killing of four US hostages on the hijacked yacht the Quest during a negotiation.[20] One witness attributed this disturbing change to "an increasing degree of criminality, as opposed to desperation, if you like, in the piracy problem".[21]

Impact of piracy off the coast of Somalia

14.  Somali piracy is a major issue for the world economy. 90% of the world's traded materials moves by sea, and 40% of this—around 28,000 ships annually—passes through the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea.[22] Globally, when the cost of insurance premiums, prosecutions, deterrent and security equipment and the macroeconomic impact on regional states is taken into account, the annual cost of piracy has been estimated at between $7 and $12 billion.[23] Graham Westgarth, Chairman of INTERTANKO, the international association of independent tanker owners, was quoted in March as saying:

Piracy is out of control. The pirates' extended reach through the use of hijacked merchant ships (so-called mother ships) means that for tankers coming from the Gulf, there is no longer an optional route to avoid the risk of hijacking. [24]

15.  Somali piracy also has the potential further to destabilize an already precarious situation in Somalia and affect the surrounding region. FCO Minister Henry Bellingham noted that piracy "perpetuates instability in Somalia and threatens the economies and well-being of other states in the region."[25] Major General Howes agreed, stating that Somali piracy was "becoming a vector of instability" in the region, and that:

in Nairobi, there is a very noticeable increase in criminality and violence as a consequence of the Somali diaspora and the very significant sums of money that are starting to flow in there. There is a geopolitical dimension to this.[26]

16.  Somali piracy may also pose a potential threat to international security. There are fears that piracy may contribute to further conflict and acts of terrorism. Some observers have suggested that some of the ransom money is going to the al-Qaeda linked terrorist group al-Shabab to fund its fight against the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).[27] A recent note by the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted a "growing synergy" between pirates and al-Shabab, stating that although the groups remained separate in aims and ideology, al-Shabab's need for new funding sources and its control of the port of Kismayo has allowed for "taxation and limited co-operation between the groups".[28] However, the Committee has received no evidence of a link between piracy and terrorism and Dr McCafferty, Head of Counter-Terrorism and UK Operational Policy at the MoD, told us that "there has not been any evidence of a link between the pirates and al-Shabab, the terrorists in Somalia".[29] Mark Brownrigg, Director General of the Chamber of Shipping, also noted Somalia's positioning at the edge of the Gulf of Aden in terms of energy imports and energy security for the world.[30]

17.  Other witnesses and submissions drew our attention to the "human cost" of piracy; over 3,500 seafarers have been taken hostage and 62 have been killed in the last four years, leading the campaign group Save our Seafarers to state that: "Those employed on ships trading these routes are exposed to the acute risk of suffering severe harm at the hands of the Somali pirate criminals."[31] Nautilus International[32] noted that as a consequence of these risks, the International Transport Workers Federation resolved in June 2011 to establish a planning task force on a call for seafarers to refuse to sail in the area.[33]


18.  Piracy off the coast of Somalia has so far directly affected very few British citizens. Paul and Rachel Chandler, who gave evidence to our inquiry, are high profile exceptions to this, but since 2007 only three British owned and registered ('flagged') ships have been hijacked:

  • the yacht Lynn Rival was hijacked on 23 October 2009, the yacht's British owners, Paul and Rachel Chandler, were taken hostage and held on shore for over a year before being released on 14 November 2010;
  • the chemical tanker MV St James' Park was hijacked on 28 December 2009 with a non-British crew of 26 on board. It was released on 14 May 2010, and
  • the vehicle carrier MV Asian Glory was hijacked on 1 January 2010 with a non-British crew of 25 on board. It was released on 11 June 2010.[34]

Two further vessels that were managed by UK companies but sailed under different states' flags were hijacked in 2009 and 2010.[35]

19.  Industry organisations argued that Somali piracy particularly affects British economic interests. The submissions we received emphasised the UK's interests as a maritime and trading nation, as well as one with substantial commercial interests through insurance, banking and legal sectors. This argument was put most strongly by Baltic Exchange, a maritime association:

Given the particular importance of the global maritime industry to the UK economy, combating piracy should be a major priority for the UK Government. The UK sits at the centre of the global shipping trade. A report by Oxford Economics (commissioned by Maritime UK) recently calculated that the total contribution of the maritime services sector to the UK economy (including direct, indirect and induced impacts) stands at £26.5bn or 1.8% of GDP. Aside from direct shipping interests, the maritime sector constitutes a major component of the UK insurance, banking and legal sectors. Whilst the number of ships travelling through the Gulf of Aden under a British flag is relatively low compared to other nations, a very large proportion of ships travelling that route are insured in the UK, regardless of their nationality. The cost of ransoms to insurers per year is currently estimated at $350 million per year. The global indirect economic cost of piracy has been estimated as being between $8 billion and $12 billion, and the UK will account for a sizeable portion of that figure. Piracy is therefore very much a British problem.[36]

The Chamber of Shipping, a trade association for the UK shipping industry, also emphasised the particular vulnerability of the UK as "both as an island and a maritime trading nation", which "is exposed to the risks of piracy owing to the high levels of essential imports of all types which transit the High Risk Area through the Gulf of Aden and across the Indian Ocean".[37]

20.  In a speech to the Chamber of Shipping, the The Minister Henry Bellingham noted that the turnover of the British shipping industry is worth £10.7 billion of the UK's GDP, and stated that "the crimes committed on the high seas off the coast of Somalia […] have a direct impact on the UK's security, prosperity and the lives of British people."[38] Piracy off the coast of Somalia has escalated over the last four years and is a major concern for the UK. The threat is not primarily to UK ships as very few have been captured. Rather, the threat is to the UK's economy and security. Piracy affects the UK's banking, insurance and shipping industries, and threatens the large volume of goods which are transported to the UK by sea. In light of these concerns, and as a state whose strengths and vulnerabilities are distinctly maritime, the UK should play a leading role in the international response to piracy.

5   See, for example, "Robbery on the High Seas Too Lucrative to Refuse", Spiegel Online, 16 June 2011, spiegel.de, "Somali pirates tell their side: they only want money", New York Times, 30 September 2008, nytimes.com. Back

6   A UN panel of experts that monitors compliance with the embargoes on the delivery of weapons and military equipment to Somalia and Eritrea, and investigates all activities-including in the financial and maritime sectors-which generate revenue that is then used to break the Somalia and Eritrea arms embargoes. (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=39196 ) Back

7   "Somali Pirates' Rich Returns", Bloomberg Businessweek, 12 May 2011, Businessweek.com. This trend was corroborated by a submission to our inquiry, which put attempted attacks against fishing trawlers at 3%, compared to 27% against bulk carriers, Ev 17 para 1.1. Back

8   Q 131 Back

9   Q 130 Back

10   Estimations vary as to the number of pirates. The Jack Lang report estimates that there are around 1,500, while the Economics of Piracy report provides estimates for 1,500 and 3,000 pirates.  Back

11   Ev 115 para 6. Khat is a leaf stimulant popular across East Africa. Back

12   Q 130 Back

13   Q 62 Back

14   See, for instance, "The Economics of Piracy", Geopolicity, May 2011, geopolicity.com. Back

15   Q 84 Back

16   AK47s are automatic rifles; RPGs are Rocket Propelled Grenades. Back

17   Q 113 Back

18   Ev 109, para 4.2 Back

19   Save our Seafarers Ev 129; Nautilus International Ev 102, para2.2; Chamber of Shipping Ev 62, para 5 Back

20   "Piracy News and Figures", International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre, icc-ccs.org. Back

21   Q 24 Back

22   Ev 128 Back

23   "The Economic Cost of Maritime Piracy", One Earth Future Working Paper, December 2010, oceansbeyondpiracy.org. See also Ev 114, para 3.1 Back

24   "Piracy: High Crime on the high seas", Lloyds, 28 Mar 2011, lloyds.com Back

25   Q 235 Back

26   Q 92 Back

27   This has been noted in public by a number of US figures, including former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton (see: "Treat Somali Pirates Like Terrorists", Washington Post, 14 October 2011), CIA director Leon Panetta (see "Somali militants aiming to attack abroad: CIA chief", AFP, 8 June 2011), and Baroness Ashton, who told us that links between al Shabab and pirates were "a worry at the present time"; see oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 21 November 2011, HC (2010-12) 1642-i, Q 41. Back

28   International Institute for Strategic Studies, 'IISS Strategic Comments', Vol 17, Comment 40, November 2011 Back

29   Q 193 Back

30   Q 18 Back

31   Ev 129 Back

32   A trade union and professional organisation representing maritime professional staff. Back

33   Ev 106; International Transport Workers' Federation, Seafarers Section Meeting, 'Motion on Somali Piracy', 13-14 June 2011 Back

34   HC Deb, 26 January 2010, col 838W Back

35   The Ariana, a bulk carrier with a Maltese flag was hijacked in 2009 and the Talca, a Refrigerated Cargo ship sailing under a Bermudan flag was hijacked in 2010. See written evidence from the International Maritime Bureau, Ev 131. Back

36   Ev 107, para 2.2 Back

37   Ev 62, para 3 Back

38   Henry Bellingham MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, speech to the Chamber of Shipping, 12 Oct 2011 Back

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Prepared 5 January 2012