How Piracy Saved Somalia



March 20, 2016 21:16 EDT

Somali piracy has had unintended positive consequences—from the economy to international cooperation.

In 2009, piracy off the coast of Somalia splashed onto the global stage at near epidemic levels. The impact of Somali piracy affected the entire international community as shipping expenses soared.

The wave of piracy attacks, however, was short-lived due to a quick and comprehensive response by the international community to counter piracy and its causes.

The global response to Somalia continues today and is a reversal of 20 years of alienation prior, which made possible the country’s devolution into a failed state that the world ignored and feared simultaneously. The success in countering the three-year piracy epidemic, however, shadows the success of piracy for Somalia by demanding attention and assistance for a withering nation. In effect, piracy saved Somalia.


To understand Somali piracy, the country’s history must be understood. Unlike the majority of Africa, Somalia was never truly colonized in the traditional manner. The entirety of what is historically known as Somalia has been sliced and diced over the course of a century by the Italians, Ethiopians, British, French, Kenyans and arguably its own people in the northern area known as Somaliland.

Whereas most African nations can be viewed in the chronological construct of untouched, colonized, transitioning or independent, Somalia was effectively passed through colonist hands in more of an asymmetrical way. This left Somalia fitting the profile of a foster child who has been passed from one home to another with no consistency like the other colonized countries. This particular case makes the nation highly difficult to fit into traditional colonial paradigms like other African states.

In 1956, Somalia was granted “Internal Autonomy” by its Italian colonizers. In 1960, Somalia was given full independence. From 1960 to 1969, the country saw a slew of border conflicts and domestic political struggles that left Mohamed Siad Barre as its leader. In 1970, Barre declared Somalia a socialist state with support from the Soviet Union. It seemed that Somalia was on course for being a successful Soviet client-state in a critical juncture of the world, with ample coastline and a strategic asset overall.

Barre’s zealous momentum led him to strive for a “Greater Somalia.” This would include the ethnic Somali territories taken by Kenya and the Ogaden region in Ethiopia. Annexing the Ogaden region would have been the final act of the “Greater Somalia” concept. However, in an ironic turn of events, it was this attempted annexation that became the downfall of Somalia as a solidified nation.

The country’s leader made a drastic miscalculation when he invaded the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977. Barre had hoped for a “Greater Somalia” by bringing all Somalis into the fold of a unified Somalia. Additionally, Somalia had just been hit with a draught and Barre may have been attempting to acquire more fertile ground in Ethiopia.

Surprisingly, the Soviets opted to back Ethiopia, in turn soliciting the United States to back Somalia over the Ogaden region. This fascinating conflict consisted of not only massive Soviet backing, but also support (to include large numbers of troops) from Cuba, North Korea, South Yemen and East Germany. The eight-month-long war killed over half a million people and ended with Somalia retreating to the pre-conflict borders with its military ravished.

As Somalia lay disheveled, with its military in ruins, it entered a state of disarray. In 1978, Somali forces were expelled from Ethiopia. By 1981, internal elements showed their disdain with the Barre regime and began to work against it. By 1988, a peace accord was signed with Ethiopia. The Somali people opted to oust Barre in 1991 for his failed efforts against Ethiopia and his lack of solidarity in Somalia. Internal conflict continued afterward.

The Somali state collapsed in 1991, followed by the 1994 “Battle of Mogadishu” (more commonly known as the “Black Hawk Down” incident). It was this series of events that led to the withdrawal of nearly all international actors. Somalia had been off the grid essentially for nearly two decades since 1995, with only small occasional engagements over the last decade. This near complete disengagement left the nation open to whoever had the bigger gun, with Somalia viewed as the most dangerous country in the world.


However, it was 2006 that really began to bring the Somalia conversation to the table. The international community acknowledged that Somalia was a moment away from becoming the next Afghanistan—a geographical security vacuum where the likes of al-Qaeda or any negative influencer or violent actor could base itself and conduct operations with international reach.

The assessment was too accurate. In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a collection of Islamic law businessmen with militias, decided to take governance into their own hands and push out the chaos-causing warlords, intent on establishing an Islamic rule of law—and they were successful in securing Mogadishu.

The great irony was that Mogadishu, for the first time in 15 years, was actually stable. There was a rule of law—albeit mostly Islamic law—and certain basic services began to trickle in, and Mogadishu’s air and seaports reopened after remaining closed for over a decade. It seemed there was a fighting chance for at least the capital city to stabilize.

This situation was far from ideal in the international community’s eyes, specifically the US and Europe, having just spent half a decade battling Islamist extremism and with two counterinsurgencies waging away in Iraq and Afghanistan. To the credit of Ethiopia and its Western backers, the ICU was far from a liberal organization—the rule of law was existent, but it was violently strict.

Also, the ICU was believed to be harboring a known terrorist responsible for his involvement in the US Embassy bombings in Sub-Saharan Africa. This was enough to convince the US and its allies that the ICU was not an option. This same year, Ethiopian troops began to engage the ICU to evict them from the capital in December 2006.

For all of 2007 and 2008, Ethiopian troops combined with African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), “a peace keeping mission operated by the African Union in Somalia with approval by the United Nations,” secured the bulk of Mogadishu and surrounding southern Somalia. There was resistance, however, from the ICU and warlord remnants.

In January 2009, Ethiopia withdrew its forces as planned. Immediately after their withdrawal, a new organization arrived to replace them: al-Shabab. Al-Shabab was essentially a more violent, extremist splinter organization from the ICU. It believed forfeiting its power and territory was sacrosanct, and it was willing to engage in all means necessary to reclaim it. In late 2009, the world watched painfully as al-Shabab captured town after town, re-instilling its version of Islamic law to include executing a full attack on Mogadishu.

As 2010 arrived, a famine had struck Somalia that would last for two years, killing over a quarter million people. Simultaneously, al-Shabab was wreaking havoc on any international organization still present, and the United Nations’ World Food Program had to withdraw from al-Shabab- controlled territory, leaving little to no assistance to those starving.

In February 2010, in a not-so-surprising move, al-Shabab declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda. This moment was arguably the lowest point in recent Somali history from the perspective of the international community. All the gains made by the African Union (AU) and Ethiopian forces were not only reversed back to essentially the ICU, but also territorially, an al-Qaeda franchise took over the entire southern part of the country to include the capital. The situation stayed unchanged for all of 2010 and most of 2011, as onlookers watched to decide what to do next.


One important thing did change, however, though not on land. From 2009 through 2011, a piracy epidemic took hold. For three years, off the coast of Somalia, piracy incidents to include hijacking and hostage for ransom skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. Considering the vital importance of the Gulf of Aden to global maritime transportation of all nations, this was a dire scenario.

The international community immediately moved to act by deploying naval ships from several countries to the Gulf of Aden region and further out into the Indian Ocean to protect the shipping lanes. This was a watershed moment of global relations, where the world saw actors as diverse as the US, Iran, Russia, India and China come together to neutralize the threat.

What has been seen so far is a change in strategy and tactics by al-Shabab. It shifted from a rebel group holding territory to somewhere between insurgents and terrorists.

This maritime international intervention was a stellar success, and in 2012, Somali piracy was virtually nonexistent. This was for good reason, considering the World Bank calculated that Somali piracy was costing the global economy $18 billion a year. To summarize the outcome of how Somali piracy brought the world together to solve for it, there is no better way to say it than: “This is the irony of International Security Dynamics … ‘Piracy may be unique in international affairs for its ability to bring enemies together. Pakistan has saved Indian sailors from Somali pirates. China and Taiwan, same thing. The U.S. Navy saved Iranian sailors practically every weekend in January. Cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria, etc.’”

The result of Somali piracy was and still is a global collaborative effort to stabilize the country and its waters. The world’s navies came together to solve maritime threats, and global military, political and aid organizations came together to solve land issues. AMISOM countered al-Shabab threats on land, in order to neutralize the factors that led to piracy and the connection between piracy and al-Shabab.

Back on land, however, al-Shabab was excelling, partially due to funds from piracy. Reports that al-Shabab was even executing small-scale attacks in northern Kenya led to that country’s deployment of military forces into southern Somalia in order to carve out a buffer zone.

The year 2012 saw dramatic progress for Somalia. Al-Shabab began to lose ground by a combination of Kenyan forces from the south; African Union and Somali government forces from Mogadishu; US unmanned aerial vehicles from above; and contingents of Ethiopian forces from the west. In August 2012, Somalia swore in its first parliament in over 20 years. In September, the first presidential election since 1967 occurred.

The following year continued on a trajectory of rapid progress for Somalia. It began in January 2013 when the US recognized the government of Somalia for the first time since the state’s collapse in 1991. Having a formal government with a relatively al-Shabab-free zone, the international community now had a formidable entity to support.

What has been seen so far is a change in strategy and tactics by al-Shabab. It shifted from a rebel group holding territory to somewhere between insurgents and terrorists. Its urban tactics resemble that of terrorism—dispersed high profile attacks. However, the organization’s forfeiting of urban space to avoid direct force-on-force conflict in order to flee for the countryside and launch attacks from there is a shift to insurgency.

The likely approach will be the combination of the two, and will have a lasting impact. Al-Shabab is never going to be a conventional existential threat to the Somali state again. However, it will continue to pose a threat via terrorist methods bordering on insurgency. In April 2014, it was announced that Somalia would be deploying troops to assist with stability in South Sudan. This was a rather large step in Somalia’s security paradigm as it was able to export security.

In April 2013, the US successfully petitioned the United Nations Security Council to lift the arms embargo on Somalia, making it now legal to provide weapons to the new Somali military in order to retain their ground and defend against al-Shabab forces. In March 2014, AMISOM began an extensive clearing operation that forced al-Shabab to flee into the countryside, while al-Shabab simultaneously started executing high profile attacks in Mogadishu.

With chaos in Somalia as the backdrop, it is easy to understand how and why piracy reared its ugly eye-patch.

Piracy existed notably off the coast of Somalia since the state collapsed in 1991. However, it was not until 2006 when the International Maritime Bureau reported a significant rise in piracy incidents—ten in total—that the situation escalated. This was the first increase in three years. By the end of 2007, the bureau reported that piracy incidents had tripled in just one year.

The beginning of 2008 brought another significant increase in the first quarter alone, leading the European Union to call for “international efforts to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.” A month later, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to permit naval vessels from nations affected into the waters of Somalia.

In August of the same year, the Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) was established by a coalition of navies belonging to Combined Task Force 150. Subsequently, in October 2008, NATO deployed a naval force charged with patrolling Somali waters.

On April 8, 2009, the renowned “Maersk Alabama” was hijacked by Somali pirates. This was the first American vessel to be subject to piracy in over 200 years. The US responded swiftly by sending in a Navy SEAL team to solve the problem. This event was later turned into the movie Captain Phillips, released in 2013.

The year 2009 proved to be a savage boon for piracy, with the number of piracy incidents more than doubling to 181. It was this year that Somali piracy became regularly reported by US media. The following two years, 2010 and 2011, showed no end in sight for the piracy problem.

Incident numbers staying about the same for 2010 and 2011 illustrated a small win: While successful hijacking almost cut in half, incidents overall only dropped by about 15 incidents. This change in successful hijackings was likely due to increased onboard anti-piracy security measures, though the attempted hijacking still continued at an alarming rate.

Then something happened: In 2012, there were only 32 incidents and only seven successful hijackings. As 2013 rolled into 2014, the final annual count only listed two incidents and no hijackings. Four months into 2014, there were no hijackings and no incidents.

The reasoning behind this dramatic change, and arguably the death of Somali piracy as seen over the last half a decade, was a collaborative effort by the international community. What happened was rather remarkable in the sense that countries who were historical enemies began helping each other and working together to counter Somali piracy—and it worked.

Despite the three-year epidemic of piracy, it is critical to understand the two unintentional positive effects of piracy.

Effects: Somali Economy

First, the dramatic transfer of wealth into Somali communities was immense. In the absence of significant foreign aid to Somalia, and with little to no traditional means of income, Somalis turned to the one opportunity available to them: piracy. Despite the risk of death or imprisonment, “the 0.01 percent they might make — $30,000 on average — is 54 times the country’s average annual salary of about $550.”

This cost-benefit analysis was basic economics, according to Scott Carney of Wired Magazine, who created an astonishing analysis of Somali pirate economic analysis, titled “Cutthroat Capitalism: An Economic Analysis of the Somalia Pirate Business Model.” In an extensive graphic breakdown of economic formulas and calculations made easy for the layman, Carney clarified how piracy was the best decision a pirate could make. Looking at the societal impact, it is also no wonder that piracy was supported during the peak years.

As piracy increased, so did the wealth transfer that moved millions of dollars from ransom payers to the pirates. As ransom money poured into Somalia, “it [went] into the local economy, creating jobs and wealth and fueling micro economies along the coast.” This significant transfer of wealth affected real estate development, sent basic wages through the roof, employed thousands and even created its own investment market.

As these micro-economies developed, so did the number of those employed by piracy. Despite a United Nations (UN) study that claimed 50% of the revenue went to financiers outside of Somalia, the amount of revenue that poured into traditionally impoverished pirate villages was staggering in comparison to their traditional income levels.

Out of the estimated $400 million that was paid to pirates, “about 30% of a ransom payment goes to pirates, 10% to their shore-based helpers, 10% in gifts and bribes to the local community and 50% to financiers and sponsors, who are generally based abroad.” The same report “estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people are employed by the pirates indirectly in related industries such as boat repair, security, and food provision. (Other enterprising Somalis have set up special restaurants to cater to the hostages.)”

With increased revenue entering Somali pirate towns, wages began to skyrocket. In one particular village, “the daily wage increased from 40,000 Somali shillings in 2005 to 120,000 in 2011 … this is likely to reflect both direct employment opportunities and investments into local businesses.”

Aside from wage increases, piracy revenue had such an impact on Somali pirate town economies that a rather robust stock exchange of sorts was set up for investment into the industry. As one wealthy former pirate stated: “[W]e decided to set up this stock exchange. We started with 15 ‘maritime companies’ and now we are hosting 72 … the shares are open to all and everybody can take part, whether personally at sea or on land by providing cash, weapons or useful materials … we’ve made piracy a community activity.”

A town official even added that “piracy-related business has become the main profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend on their output … the district gets a percentage of every ransom from ships that have been released, and that goes on public infrastructure, including our hospital and our public schools.” The outcome is that “[p]iracy has changed [the town of] Harardheere from a small fishing village to a town crowded with luxury cars.”

The visual signs of growth were apparent too. Community real estate development increased. In January 2012, the BBC ran an article summarizing a Chatham House report published in the same month, titled “Treasure Mapped: Using Satellite Imagery to Track the Developmental Effects of Somali Piracy.” Chronological comparisons of pirate towns illustrated the growth over the years. Daytime satellite imagery analysis illustrated that the pirate town of Garowe, for example, almost doubled in size from 2002 to 2009.

The benefit was not limited to pirates. In an odd turn of events, piracy benefited the local fishing industry. Before, large oversized foreign fishing vessels would troll through their fishing waters catching the fish faster than they could be replenished. Now, with the fear of piracy in the nearby shore waters, rarely does anyone come through anymore.

This left a significant increase in the supply of fish for the local fishermen and their communities. Fishermen can now catch upward of £200 a day, whereas before they averaged under £5. Even the sizes of the fish have been reported to be the largest catches in 40 years. The significant alteration in the Somali economy was the immediate positive effect. It was not, however, the only positive effect; another more global and lasting consequence was just beginning.

Effects: International Cooperation

As the international community began to focus on solutions to Somali piracy, it first began with counterpiracy and maritime security methods. Security contractors who historically worked in Iraq and Afghanistan began offering solutions to Somali piracy. According to the British Parliament, “the proportion of successful attacks has fallen dramatically, due to a combination of self-defense measures and the effects of the naval patrols.” There is no question that increased offshore security measures decreased the number of successful pirate attacks as seen in this graphic.

Somali piracy, executed by some of the most marginalized people on the planet, managed to affect the entire global economy and alter international foreign policy for the better.

However, the number of attempts did not decrease as fast, leaving the international community to require a solution to causes of piracy as a whole—onshore. Despite “military vessels from NATO, the European Union, Russia, China and dozens of other countries patrol[ling] the Indian Ocean waters,” the consensus for an onshore solution continued to build as analysis clarified that all “the experts agree that the only long-term solution to the problem of piracy is to restore law and order on land.”

For three years, offshore piracy incidents, including hijacking and hostage for ransom, skyrocketed to unprecedented levels. Considering the vital importance of the Gulf of Aden to global maritime transportation of all nations, this was a dire scenario. The international community immediately moved to act by deploying naval ships from several countries to the Gulf of Aden region and further out into the Indian Ocean to protect the shipping lanes.

It is no coincidence that the peak years of Somali piracy coincided with the beginning of an integrated, international intervention by the global community. The last great year of Somali piracy was 2011, which concluded three years of hyper-inflated piracy attack numbers and an increased number for the few years before that. The international aid response became highly apparent in 2011, which corresponded with foreign aid to Somalia to be roughly double of the average aid amounts for the half a decade prior.

Beginning in March 2014, AMISOM initiated a sweeping campaign to oust al-Shabab. Al-Shabab has been effectively expelled to the countryside. However, it continues with high profile terrorist attacks in the capital of Mogadishu, albeit this is far better than an active insurgency or full-scale territorial control. The international community has planned what it calls Vision 2016. This plan is to have fully democratic elections by 2016 with the security environment relatively stable.

The Somali piracy boom is over, and the numbers are the lowest they have been in several years even prior to the explosion of hijackings. As of February 2014, “1,435 suspected Somali pirates or their financiers are now in custody or jail in 21 countries.” With Somali piracy in the rear-view mirror, it is now possible to assess the ramifications from it, exposing the irony of it all.

Somali piracy, executed by some of the most marginalized people on the planet, managed to affect the entire global economy and alter international foreign policy for the better. It illustrates how even negative events in history often can bring about positive change. Somalia is developing and stabilizing at a rapid rate due to the extensive aid and assistance from the international community. When popular hotel resorts return to Somalia, the global community will be vindicated in all its sacrifices—but don’t forget to thank the pirates.

Author’s note 

This article was originally written in mid-2014. A couple key foci must be addressed, however, the thesis holds true. The “one person-one vote” elections scheduled for 2016 under the Vision 2016 plan reportedly will not happen.

Somalia is still planning for an election—albeit a representative one. The development of Somalia continues and, despite the occasional pirate attack, piracy as a trend has moved elsewhere, while many Somali pirates have refurbished their expertise. In fact, until the November 2015 attacks, the International Maritime Bureau reported a three-year lull.

*[Note: The author would like to thank Stephanie Burchard for her guidance and input on the article.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Defence Images / Flickr

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