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Who are Somalia's pirates?

A Monitor Q&A reveals who's behind the modern-day pirates, how they got so good at taking ships, and what's being done to stop them.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2008

RANSOM: On Nov 20, Somali pirates demanded $25 million for the Saudi-owned MV Sirius Star, a hijacked supertanker now docked in Somalia's semi autonomous Puntland region. Pirates gave ship owners 10 days to comply with the demand.

US Navy, Reuters

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– Today's pirates are mainly fighters for Somalia's many warlord factions, who have fought each other for control of the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991.

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Their motives? A mixture of entrepreneurialism and survival, says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called.

"From the evidence so far, these primarily appear to be fighters looking for predatory opportunities," says Mr. Jhazbhay. They operated "roadblocks in the past, which were fleecing people as a form of taxation. Now they've seen the opportunities on the high seas."

Initially, one of the main motives for taking to the seas – working first with local fishermen, and later buying boats and weapons with the proceeds of every ship they captured – was "pure survival," says Jhazbhay, explaining that armed extortion is one of the few opportunities to make a living in lawless Somalia.

"It's spiked more recently because of a spike in food prices," he says.

Now it has become a highly profitable, sophisticated criminal enterprise hauling in millions of dollars in ransom payments.

Whom do they work for?

The pirates mainly work for themselves.

Much of the piracy seems to be based out of the Puntland, a semiautonomous region on the northern shore of Somalia that broke away from Somalia soon after 1991.

Thousands of pirates now operate off Somalia's coast, although there are no accurate numbers on precisely how many there are.

United Nations monitoring reports on arms smuggling in the Horn of Africa have pointed to evidence that pirate gangs have established relations with corrupt officials of the Puntland government. They bribe port officials to allow the pirates to use Eyl and other ports as their bases of operation, and to bring some of their captured ships in for safekeeping while the pirates negotiate ransoms with the ships' owners.

There is also evidence that expatriate Somalis living in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Persian Gulf may be feeding information to the pirates about ships that have docked in those regions and may be heading toward the Gulf of Aden and other pirate-infested areas.

Who benefits from this piracy?

The money seems to be distributed by warlords to their families and friends, and then further outward toward their fellow clan-members, says Jhazbhay.

There have been charges recently that local Islamist groups may be linked to the pirate gangs, and may have begun to use piracy as a source of funds to buy weapons.

Certainly, Islamist groups such as Al Shabab – an insurgent group formed after the Islamic Courts Union lost control of the country last year in the wake of a US-backed invasion by Somalia's neighbor, Ethiopia – have used pirate gangs to smuggle weapons into Somalia, which is currently under international weapons sanctions. But the evidence is thin, as yet, that Islamist groups are using piracy on the high seas as a funding mechanism.

"The last thing the Islamists want to do is give an unnecessary provocation to the major powers, who might come after them in a big way," says Richard Cornwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane. "What experience tells us is that if the Islamists did take control of Somalia, piracy would stop overnight. They don't want warlords gaining arms and money outside of their control."