Why does Somali piracy appear to be making a comeback? Our Fellow Ian Urbina weighs in

By Safina Center Fellow Ian Urbina

Somali piracy seems to be staging a comeback. After a five year hiatus, there has been at least six piracy incidents there in the past several months. Having just returned from reporting offshore along the coast of Puntland, Somalia, where most of these attacks occurred, I offer a couple small observations.


Is there a connection between illegal fishing and the Somali piracy resurgence?

Some Somali watchers say no. Most of the illegal fishing happening off the coast of Somalia is by foreign fishing boats. If the pirates cared about the matter, they’d target those ships and not the tankers and freighters they more often hit. Others say this misses the point. Pirates target the big cargo vessels because that’s where the money is. The pirates are given political license to do so by clan elders and the public generally because there is a growing anti-foreign (and anti-government) sentiment that foreign fishing boats only worsen. As foreign boats raid local waters, often with complicity from the local Somali government (especially in Puntland), village-level tolerance for piracy will probably increase.  

Reporting on ocean crime in Somalia

What role does the shipping industry play?

Many security analysts say that as piracy attacks declined, insurers softened their requirements. Many ships no longer have armed guards or they have less-equipped and smaller teams. It seems likely that this may reverse. More reading from CNBC here.

What other factors are contributing to the piracy?

What happens offshore tends to have roots onshore. Conditions in Somalia are fast deteriorating.

Somalia, along with several other countries in East Africa, is currently suffering from widespread food insecurity because of a drought that has already causing famine, according to aid agencies. More than 6 million people require humanitarian assistance, with 2.9 million living in areas that are at heightened risk of famine, according to the United Nations. A lack of access to clean water has also contributed to a cholera outbreak of some 13,000 cases.

Meanwhile, villages are routinely being attacked by the terrorist group, al-Shabab, making travel, commerce, and life brutally difficult. Indication of al-Shabab’s growing strength: In May, A U.S. soldier has been killed in a special operations mission with Somali forces against the terrorist group, al-Shabab. It is the first US military casualty in Somalia since “Black Hawk Down”, which is to say within the past 24 years as US forces step up involvement in the country. Al-Shabab controls larges swaths of territory and regularly carries out attacks on the military, civilians and some 20,000 African Union peacekeeping troops in the country supporting the government and help secure the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Somali fishermen

Is this uptick in piracy a distinctly Somali problem?

No. For all that is worrisome about the surge in Somali piracy, the other side of Africa, especially in the waters near Nigeria remains the true hot spot. Pirate attacks off the coast of West Africa almost doubled in 2016 compared to the prior year. There were 95 attacks by pirates in the waters of West Africa in 2016, up from 54 in the previous year, according to a report by anti-piracy NGO Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP). Two-thirds of the attacks were launched off Nigeria, where militants in the oil-rich southern marshlands have been wreaking havoc by attacking pipelines and oil terminals. More reading from Oceans Beyond Piracy, here, and Newsweek, here.

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