Somali-based pirates were organized based on clan structure, with no single strategy or chain of command. This independent and decentralized structure makes pirate organizations extremely difficult to dismantle. Reports suggest that there are approximately 10 of these organizations with complex financing and operational frameworks. Pirate stock markets are functioning where pirate groups seek investors to bankroll their operations in exchange for a cut of the ransom. Additionally, pirate networks are starting to adopt a military organizational structure to improve their efficiency. In fact, the pirates are becoming more efficient, and have extended their range to more than 1,500 nautical miles from the Somali coast.
Pirates based in Somalia have made the waters off east Africa some of the most dangerous in the world. There were 15 attacks on ships in or near Somali waters from January to July 2007 - two of these on World Food Programme (WFP) contracted vessels, wherein a security guard was killed - compared to 10 such attacks in 2006. By June 2008 there had been 23 attacks off Somalia of which 8 had been vessels which were successfully hijacked by gangs of Somali pirates. Of these, 18 attacks took place in the Gulf of Aden and 5 off the Eastern coast of Somalia. All the attacks off Somalia were aimed at seizing vessels and holding the vessel and the crew to ransom. When a ransom is paid the vessel and crew are usually released.
The attacks often take place well outside the 12 mile territorial limit of Somalia by gangs operating from mother ships. The pirates use automatic weapons and /or rocket propelled grenade launchers. Grenades fired by the pirates have damaged the hull and accommodation of vessels. Vessels attacked have included two Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) and Product and Chemical tankers. In one case a VLCC's bunker tank was breached causing bunker fuel to leak.
Crews and ships have been held by the pirate gangs for periods ranging from ten days to one case in 2007 of six months. In 2007 there were 2 crew members killed while in captivity. Somali pirates have been operating with impunity once the seized vessel was brought inside the 12 mile territorial limit of Somalia ( a notable exception to this is the case of the seized French passenger vessel Le Ponant on 04 April 2008 where French Special Forces seized 6 persons and transported them to Paris where they are to be tried). Maritime officials say the pirates have hijacked more than 30 ships duing 2008. Most were released after ransom payments often exceeding $1 million. As of November 2008 the pirates were currently holding at least 11 ships, including a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 tanks.
As of 2008 the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) identified four main piracy gangs operating in the trade route, which links the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal, where commodities like oil, grain, iron ore and timber are shipped. The gangs are armed with rocket-propelled grenades and high-powered boats. The four main pirate groups operating along the Somali coast are:
- The National Volunteer Coast Guard (NVCG), commanded by Garaad Mohamed, is said to specialize in intercepting small boats and fishing vessels around Kismayu on the southern coast.
- The Marka group, under the command of Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad (also known as Yusuf Indha'adde), is made up of several scattered and less organized groups operating around the town of Marka.
- The third significant pirate group is composed of traditional Somali fishermen operating around Puntland and referred to as the Puntland Group.
- The Somali Marines are the most powerful and sophisticated of the pirate groups. Led by warlord Abdi Mohamed Afweyne, the Somali Marines has a military structure, with a fleet admiral, admiral, vice admiral and a head of financial operations.
The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, says he was "stunned" at how far the pirates are able to reach. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said Tuesday, the hijacking is an "outrageous act." He compared piracy to terrorism, calling it a "disease" that must be fought by everyone.The U.S. Navy spokesman for the Navy's Fifth Fleet said the ship was heading toward an anchorage point off the Somali port of Eyl. The port is known as a haven for pirates who have seized dozens of ships off Somalia this year. A company official of the Dubai-based Vela International which owns the ship says the 25-member crew is safe.
On 09 October 2008 NATO announced that it would send its Standing Naval Maritime Group to the waters off Somalia. The decision came out of the defense ministerial conference. NATO would have its Standing Naval Maritime Group, which is composed of seven ships, in the region within two weeks. Piracy off Somalia's coast has become an increasing concern, highlighted by the recent taking of the Ukrainian cargo vessel Faina. The ship is carrying tanks and other military supplies.
The pirates, who operate from small boats launched from the beach, also have endangered food shipments to the country. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said 3 million Somalis are in danger of not receiving the supplies they need via the World Food Program. The United Nations asked for NATO's help to address this problem. The NATO force will ensure World Food Program ships have the escort they need to deliver their essential food supplies and patrol the waters around Somalia to help to stop acts of piracy. Well in excess of 40 percent of Somalis are dependent on food aid delivered by World Food Program ships, and the increased danger of piracy requires that the aid ships have escorts. A Canadian warship is performing that mission now.
Minus the eyeliner of Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow, pirates were colorful characters, and the scourge of the sea. During the centuries of Spanish exploration and colonization, "treasure fleets" made regular trips to the Americas to deliver merchandise and collect treasures and precious metals. As these cargos increased in size and value, so did the risk of capture and theft. Foreign navies, privateers (commissioned agents sent out against the enemies of states), and pirates threatened, attacked, and plundered the ships of the treasure fleets.
Attacks by pirates and privateers were a major problem in the Americas between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Privateers were licensed by a government to raid the ships of declared enemies and shared their gains with the licensor. Pirates were not loyal to any country and attacked indiscriminately for their own gain. Governments with American colonies attempted to suppress privateering and piracy.
Gone are the days when the pirates had eye patches, swords, and were the masters of fast cutters; now it's Raybans, cellular phones and high-speed boats. Today's ships, with their high-value cargos and small crews to man the ships that carry them, are highly vulnerable to criminal predators in high-speed boats, armed with modern assault weapons, and operating in sea lanes that international carriers must traverse. Pirates are thus able to make surprise attacks on unarmed merchantmen and get away with money and loot. The end of both colonial controls and latter the cold war has reduced naval presence and capability in regions where piracy has historically flourished. Modern day pirates, well armed and well equipped, are becoming more active in the Pacific and along the coasts of Africa and South America.
Piracy in the 1990s against commercial shipping revealed increasing violence and professioal organization. A dangerous trend was the emergence of organized pirate gangs, which may conduct multi-ship operations, and/or use tactics of a quasi-military nature. These gangs may acquire the capability to target ships on the open ocean thus increasing the potential number of piracy victims. Of greater concern to the shipping industry is the level of violence used during attacks. The criminals carrying out pirate attacks often display a complete lack of concern for the victimized crews, who are at risk of being severely wounded, killed, or set adrift.
Today's piracy is more than a nuisance to commercial shipping. It affects maritime traffic in vital shipping lanes, particularly in Southeast Asia. Attacks on oil supertankers hold the potential to ignite environmental disasters. Attacks by pirate craft may invite military reprisals, and there is a continuing problem off the coast of China with what amounts to state-sponsored piracy by some official Chinese craft.
Piracy is an international crime consisting of illegal acts of violence, detention, or depredation committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft in or over international waters against another ship or aircraft or persons and property on board. (Depredation is the act of plundering, robbing, or pillaging.)
In international law piracy is a crime that can be committed only on or over international waters (including the high seas, exclusive economic zone, and the contiguous zone), in international airspace, and in other places beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any nation. The same acts committed in the internal waters, territorial sea, archipelagic waters, or national airspace of a nation do not constitute piracy in international law but are, instead, crimes within the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the littoral nation.
Sea robbery is a term used to describe attacks upon commercial vessels in ports and territorial waters. Such attacks are, according to international law, not true acts of piracy but rather armed robberies. They are criminal assaults on vessels and vessel crews, just as may occur to truck drivers within a port area. Such attacks pose a serious threat to trade. The methods of these attacks have varied from direct force using heavy weapons to subterfuge in which the criminals have identified themselves on VHF radio as the national coast guard.
These maritime criminals are inclined to operate in waters where government presence is weak, often lacking in both technical resources and the political will to deal effectively with such attacks. International law permits any warship or government vessel to repress an attack in international waters. In a state's territorial waters, such attacks constitute an act of armed robbery and must be dealt with under the laws of the relevant coastal state. These laws seldom, if ever, permit a vessel or warship from another country to intervene. The most effective countermeasure strategy is to prevent criminals initial access to ports and vessels, and to demonstrate a consistent ability to respond rapidly and effectively to notification of such a security breach.
Acts of piracy can only be committed by private ships or private aircraft. A warship or other public vessel or a military or other state aircraft cannot be treated as a pirate unless it is taken over and operated by pirates or unless the crew mutinies and employs it for piratical purposes. By committing an act of piracy, the pirate ship or aircraft, and the pirates themselves, lose the protection of the nation whose flag they are otherwise entitled to fly.
To constitute the crime of piracy, the illegal acts must be committed for private ends. Consequently, an attack upon a merchant ship at sea for the purpose of achieving some criminal end, e.g., robbery, is an act of piracy as that term is currently defined in international law. Conversely, acts otherwise constituting piracy done for purely political motives, as in the case of insurgents not recognized as belligerents, are not piratical.
International law has long recognized a general duty of all nations to cooperate in the repression of piracy. This traditional obligation is included in the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas and the 1982 LOS Convention, both of which provide: "[A]ll States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State."
It is widely accepted among the government and non-government organizations that track piracy worldwide (including the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), U.K. Defense Intelligence Service (DIS), Australian Defence Intelligence Organization (DIO) and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB)), that the annual number of piracy cases is seriously undercounted. DIS estimates the actual number of piracy cases could be 2,000 percent higher on an annual basis while DIO estimates the underreporting to be 20 to 70 percent.44 Since the establishment of the IMB's Regional Piracy Center in Malaysia in 1992 and its subsequent efforts to publicize the piracy problem, there has been increased reporting on major incidents, but incidents involving fishermen and recreational boaters are still heavily undercounted. Also, the average loss from a piracy incident does not cross the monetary threshold for insurance action, further contributing to underreporting. Most incidents will continue to go unreported except in cases where there is serious loss of property and life or damage to a foreign interest.
The concentration of piracy incidents continues to be located in areas with little or no maritime law enforcement, political and economic stability, and a high volume of commercial activity. Incidents of piracy tend to occur in four regional areas: Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, and Central America. Furthermore, most incidents of maritime crime occur in coastal waters with nearly 80 percent of all reported piracy incidents occurring in territorial waters.
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