In 2005, ships began to report a sharp increase in sightings of pirates in the Gulf of Aden off the northern Somali coast. Heavily armed individuals in small wooden skiffs fired upon merchant ships and on occasion, boarded ships, robbed the crews and held the ship for ransom. Some attacks took place nearly 400 miles from the Somali coast. By mid-2007, reports of hijacks and ransom demands had increased rapidly. By the end of 2011, Somali pirates had successfully hijacked 188 ships and attempted to hijack hundreds more.
Ship-owners paid millions of dollars in ransom payments for the release of their ships and crew. The pirates took hundreds of seafarers hostage and many languished for years waiting for release. Only in 2011 did a concerted international deterrence and suppression effort finally begin to stop Somali piracy. This effort is still underway today.
These boats moored off Mogadishu are similar to those used by Somali pirates. Pirates would often hijack a larger fishing boat and use it as a mother ship to attack and hijack merchant ships, such as the MV Faina pictured here.
Historically speaking, Somalia had all the right geopolitical conditions for piracy.
Opportunity came from the 20,000 ships that passed through the famous Suez Canal every year. Before reaching Somali waters, ships were forced through the Bab El-Mandeb Strait: a waterway around 20 kilometres wide that created the perfect chokepoint. As ships spilled into the Gulf of Aden, pirates sat in small, wooden skiffs waiting to ambush them. With at least 50 ships to choose from a day, they favoured older ships with low-lying hulls because these were easier to board. The pirates would pursue the target ship, brandishing their weapons and firing them near the ship to intimidate the crew, clamber onboard, and take control of the ship. They would then order the captain to set course for their preferred land base on the Somali coast.
Just like their predecessors, Somali pirates proved so successful because of the support given to the pirates on land. However, pirates connected to their land bases through their clan affiliation and relied on the loyalty mutual membership provided.
To put a complex situation simply, pirate groups used their clan connections to negotiate their access to a pirate base. They usually shared the same lineage with its occupants. So pirates who belonged to the large Majeerteen sub-clan and claimed the Iise Mahamuud sub-lineage could negotiate access to Eyl, an ancient and isolated coastal town on the Indian Ocean coast within the Iise Mahamuud’s traditional lands. Majeerteen pirates belonging to another sub-lineage had more success gaining access to a coastal town engaged in piracy in their traditional lands.
The township of Eyl on the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia. Eyl has a long history as supply town for nomadic pastoralists of the Iise Mahamuud sub-lineage of the dominant Majeerteen sub-clan. It became a notorious pirate base until the ascent of President Farole (of the IIse Mahamuud lineage) to the Puntland presidency.
Once a ship arrived at the base, the pirates hired local, clan-affiliated security guards to protect it. They then used the town as a supply base for fresh meat, water, khat (a chewable narcotic), and other supplies as they waited for a ransom to be agreed upon. During this time, the ship’s crew usually stayed onboard the ship, although the pirates took over their sleeping quarters.
Everything was paid on credit. When the ransom arrived, the pirate nominated as the accountant would tally up all monies owed, pay suppliers and security guards, and divide the ransom between the pirates depending on their seniority.
To the outside world, the entire Somali piracy operation relied on the weakness of any formal authority over the pirates (commonly simplified as the state’s failure to exert its authority) but the reality proved far more complicated.
Next: the pirates home of Puntland