When Somali piracy became a threat

15 Dec
Some of the key ports used by Somali pirates


Since 2005, Somali pirates started to move around the Yemeni waters to hijack ships and kidnap crews, asking for millions of dollars as ransoms and causing an ever-increasing problem for Yemen. Somali piracy in the 20th century began with the collapse of the state in 1991. As the security situation deteriorated, the smuggling of illegal immigrants as well as the smuggling weapons began to flourish. The marine forces collapsed and tribal leaders used the lack of security and the spread of their forces over Somali lands to extort tributes from passing ships. Day by day, pirates were threatening ships in the waters off Somalia. The Gulf of Aden became a piracy hotspot with high-profile ships and tankers taken hostage.

By Malak Shaher

Yemen Times
It was 5pm on Mar. 8, 2005 when two sailing yachts, Mahdi and Gandalf were moving 30 miles off the coast of Aden to Oman. Suddenly, two motor-powered boats, about 25 and 30 feet long with four armed men in each “came very fast directly at us,” Rodney Nowlin, a sailor of south Virginia told Noonsite, the global site for cruising sailors.

Before these two boats approached, Nowlin said another two boats were observing them, each with three men on board. These boats just watched as the bigger two approached them.

“The boats separated at about 200 yards, one boat ahead of the other, coming down Mahdi’s port side, and firing into the cockpit. The other boat was firing an automatic weapon at both Gandalf and Mahdi from ahead. These guys were shooting directly at the cockpits, and obviously intended to kill us,” Nowlin told Noonsite in May 2005.

That incident was the first piracy attack in Yemeni waters in 2005, marking the start of a reign of terror against ships and oil tankers in Somalia’s surrounding waters.

Soon after this attempt, the Yemeni Coast Guard Authority and other operational offices in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea increased their efforts in fighting piracy.

“In the beginning, pirates’ operations were confined to stealing small equipment from small ships,” said Shuja’ Al-Deen Al-Mahdi, the head of the Operational Unit at the Yemeni Coast Guard Authority (YCG).

“But in 2005, their operations started to become increasing sophisticated; they were not satisfied with the small things they stole. Their operations were more professional and they started equipping themselves with guns and night vision goggles – not to mention the bigger and stronger boats they now use,” Al-Mahdi said.

When the owners of the hijacked ships fail to pay the ransom, the pirates eventually use the captured vessels as “mother ships” from which to launch further attacks.

According to the YCG records, piracy operations have grown year by year since 2005, with 2010 being their most active year. In 2010, 57 ships were hijacked in the Yemeni waters with 225 failed hijacking attempts.

So far this year, the YCG has arrested 12 Somali pirates in Yemeni waters – though this doesn’t account for those picked up by international fleets more than 12 miles off the coast.

An international problem

Worldwide, piracy began to increase in the early 1990s, peaking at roughly 350 to 450 reported attacks per year during the period 2000-2004, then declining by almost half by 2005. In 2007, almost half of the world’s reported pirate attacks took place in African waters, mainly near Nigeria and Somalia.

However, the number of attacks in Somali waters doubled in 2008, according to a study by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) mentioned in the Congressional Research Services.

In Yemen in 2007, 10 ships were hijacked with 20 failed attempts. 42 ships and boats were hijacked in 2008 and 46 ships and boats were hijacked in 2009.

The IMB study found that at least 219 attacks occurred in the Horn of Africa in 2010, with 49 successful hijackings. Somali pirates have attacked ships in the Gulf of Aden, along Somalia’s eastern coastline, and outwards into the Indian Ocean.

The situation in Somalia, and the piracy threat, was the subject of an open debate at the UN Security Council in March 2011, during which the Council stressed the need for a “comprehensive strategy to encourage the establishment of peace and stability in Somalia.”

According to the IBM study, the increase in pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa is directly linked to continuing insecurity and the absence of the rule of law in war-torn Somalia.

Somalia’s “pirate economy” has also grown substantially in the past two years, with ransoms now averaging more than $5 million. These revenues may further exacerbate the ongoing conflict and undermine regional security. The annual cost of piracy to the global economy ranges between $7 and $12 billion.

Piracy ports

There are four main Somali ports where the country’s pirates receive support and where they can keep hijacked ships and boats, according to Al-Mahdi. The ports are providing pirates with fuel and other required equipment as well as keeping the ships and boats until their owners pay the ransoms.

The main ports are Eyl, Hobye, Caluula and Xaafuun. “From Eyl port in particular come the most dangerous pirates,” said Al-Mahdi. Negotiations between pirates and ships’ owners usually take place in Eyl, making it one of the most dangerous, he added.

Somali pirates in Yemeni

Of the 752 pirates currently facing prosecution in 11 countries, Yemen has arrested 120 pirates since 2005. During 2008 and 2009, Yemen detained 62 pirates.

However, due to the high cost of keeping pirates in detention while they await prosecution, Yemen stopped detaining and trying Somali pirates submitted by international forces since 2009. These pirates were attacking ships in non-Yemeni regional waters, according to the CGA.

Aesh Awwas, from the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Saba’a, says there are no specific laws covering the trial of pirates caught outside of Yemen.

“Piracy in international waters has created a problem for Yemen as the country is not responsible for Somali pirates hijacking ships outside its waters,” said Awwas.

Last month, ten pirates were sentenced to ten years each by the Criminal Court in Al-Mukalla after being in jail and awaiting prosecution for more than 11 months.

And last December, the Penal Court in Al-Mukalla sentenced twelve Somali pirates to thirteen years in jail for conducting piracy attacks in Yemeni and international waters.

Some face even harsher sentences when caught; last year a Yemeni court sentenced six Somali pirates to death and jailed six others for the hijacking of an oil tanker they seized in April 2009. The pirates were captured by the CGA and found guilty of killing two of the oil tanker’s crew.

A growing problem for Yemeni fishermen

As the international navy has been fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Yemeni fishermen have also been caught up in the process. There have been at least three cases where Yemeni fishermen were assumed to be Somali pirates because of their dark-skinned color.

“Some Yemenis are looking to piracy themselves, or even just ‘facilitating’ the piracy of others, be they Yemeni or Somali or of other nationalities,” Michael Frodl, head of US consultancy firm C-Level Maritime Risks, told the Financial Times last month. He blamed the situation on the ongoing political crisis in Yemen.

The Yemeni Coastal Guard Authority denied the accusation against Yemenis becoming involved in piracy, saying that 15 Yemeni fishermen were arrested and beaten after they were accused of piracy. Just a week before the incident in October, seven other men were beaten and their belongings taken, Umar Salim, the head of the Fishermen Association in Hadramout said.

At present, five Yemeni fishermen from Mukala, Hadramout, remain in jail in India after the authorities assumed they were Somali pirates in May. Two months ago another boat in Yemeni waters was attacked by an Indian ship – the fishermen’s belongings, along with their fish, were thrown overboard. The men were also beaten according to Al-Mahdi.

“Piracy has brought us problems that we have no connection with,” said Al-Mahdi, adding that with the passage of time, pirates keep using more sophisticated tactics, making it even harder to tackle the problem.

While the CGA tries to catch the pirates within the allowed Yemeni waters – up to 12 miles off the Yemeni coast – the pirates are using mother ships further out to provide smaller piracy boats with equipment and fuel.

Al-Mahdi concluded: “The more we try to catch them and control piracy, the further away they go, hijacking ships from waters we cannot protect.”


4 Responses to “When Somali piracy became a threat”

  1. Dan December 16, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    I have been checking your stories when I have my morning coffee. I am impressed. Keep up the great work.

    All the best,
    Your friends at the PG

    • malaakshaher December 17, 2011 at 11:23 am #

      thanks Dan 🙂

      I am always thinking of you especially when i see the farwell card you desinged for me.

      i hope you are doing well.

      please say hi to everybody there


  2. Shamim Ashraf December 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    Good research and good story, Malak! Read it with curiosity since we’re also victim of the Somali pirates. Pasting here links of a special feature (http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2011/04/01/special.htm) and another article (http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=178796) I wrote after the pirates released a Bangladesh ship this year (of course in exchange of big ransom).
    Looking forward to seeing more such stories.

    • malaakshaher December 17, 2011 at 11:27 am #

      thanks Shamim for showing interest in the story. and thanks for the links as well.

      really very interesting!

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