Pirates and Insurgency: Reframing the Somali Piracy Problem

By Edward Lucas

Somali piracy is typically viewed simply as criminal activity and thus is seen as requiring a law enforcement-focused approach in order to eliminate it. These measures include tougher anti-piracy laws, more stringent prosecutions and a greater presence of maritime security forces in the affected regions. While these measures are useful, they are far from sufficient for dealing with Somalia’s pirates. Rather than viewing these pirate groups as organized criminals, it is necessary to examine piracy as a form of insurgency. Although these pirates are not driven by ideology, piracy can be viewed as a form of “commercialist” insurgency. As described in Bard O’Neill’s Insurgency & Terrorism, commercialist insurgents use coercive power to amass as much wealth as possible (2005, 28). Describing Somali pirates as insurgents constructs a novel conceptual lens through which to analyze this growing problem. This, in turn, may lead to new methods with which to quell the serious threats pirates pose to merchant shipping worldwide.

The roots of piracy in Somalia stem from the political insecurity that has plagued the country for the past two decades. The lack of a legitimate and effective government throughout most of the former Republic of Somalia over the past twenty years has allowed a plethora of insurgent groups to flourish. While most of these groups, like al Shabaab, have fought more conventional insurgent campaigns on land, some groups have turned their attention to the Gulf of Aden, where thousands of multimillion dollar merchant vessels transit each year.

Why Pirates are Insurgents

The principal argument against viewing Somalia’s pirate organizations as insurgent groups is that they do not make any political claims within Somalia. Instead, pirates seek only financial gain through hijackings and ransom. Although it is true that pirate organizations do not seek legitimate political control throughout the Somali state, they do exercise de facto control of key ports, such as Eyl in Puntland. This political power has occasionally brought them into armed conflict with the Puntland government, as well as other insurgent groups. Somali pirates also attempt to legitimize their actions through claims that they serve as a Somali coast guard. With no government force to protect Somalia’s 3025 km coastline for more than two decades, foreign fishing vessels had a veritable open season on the region’s fish stocks prior to the increase in pirate activity. Some countries have also purportedly used Somali waters as a dumping ground for toxic waste (‘“Toxic waste” behind Somali piracy’ Al Jazeera 2008).

While claims to be protecting Somalia’s coastline do have some legitimacy, most pirate attacks are now carried out against merchant vessels hundreds of nautical miles from shore. As a result, it is difficult to justify claims that Somali pirates are simply poor fishermen who wish to protect their livelihood against unscrupulous foreign corporations. Rather than these noble motivations, Somali pirates are primarily driven by the opportunity for financial gain. In a desperately poor country the opportunity to earn $20,000 or more from a few weeks of work could prove too enticing for many young men to pass up.

The fact that Somalia pirates only use more noble claims to mask their ulterior motives does not necessarily contradict the notion that they constitute a true insurgent movement. Although insurgent groups can often point to high-minded motivations for their actions, many are driven primarily by a desire for monetary gain. Scholars, such as Paul Collier, demonstrate a correlation between natural resources and armed conflict. Collier further points out that easily “lootable” resources, such as alluvial diamonds and other relatively easily extracted minerals, often spur non-secessionist movements (Collier 2007). Rather than seeking to fundamentally reorder the political structure of a state, these forms of insurgent movements are primarily concerned with maintaining control over resource rich regions in order to extract as much wealth as possible. Some examples of these groups include the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone and the myriad rebel movements in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While most scholarship on the links between resources and insurgencies has focused on natural resources, it is possible to view merchant shipping in the same manner. Each vessel that transits the waters off Somalia represents a highly valuable lootable resource. In Somalia, as in Sierra Leon and the DRC, the desire to control resources can provide ample incentives for the inception of an insurgency.

Somali pirates do not only share motivations with more conventional insurgent groups, they also employ similar tactics. In her book New and Old Wars, Mary Kaldor describes the common use of roadblocks by armed factions in contemporary war (2007). While these roadblocks can serve to limit access to an insurgent-controlled region, their primary purpose is often to extract toll payments from the local populace. Although the revenue generated from this activity sometimes goes to funding insurgent military actions, it can also become a means in itself, as armed factions often grow rich from these roadblocks. Piracy can be viewed as a maritime version of an insurgent roadblock. While the risks for a pirate in a skiff are far higher than for a rebel soldier manning a roadblock, the ransom garnered from one supertanker likely surpasses months, if not years, of tolls from a roadblock on shore.

Why it is Necessary to View Pirates as Insurgents

In the past several years the international community has deployed a significant amount of resources to curtailing pirate activity off the coast of Somalia. These efforts have included sending dozens of foreign warships to the region and establishing special courts to try suspected pirates in Kenya. Despite these efforts, the number of pirate attacks carried out off of Somalia has increased dramatically since 2006. This steady increase in attacks demonstrates the failure of international efforts thus far. While a strong naval presence in the Gulf of Aden is still necessary, the roots of piracy are found on land. Rather than simply treating anti-piracy operations as a policing mission, the international community must incorporate lessons learned from successful counter-insurgency operations. These lessons include the need to confront economic and societal aspects of an insurgency.

Without a viable alternative, the young men of Somalia’s coastal regions have little incentive to abandon piracy. Furthermore, as piracy constitutes the major economic activity in a number of Somali port cities, much of the local populace has come to rely on the wealth brought by pirates. Although Somalia is still plagued by immense political problems, the international community needs to develop the region’s economy. While this is a considerable challenge in southern Somalia, foreign governments could begin by engaging more closely with Somaliland, which enjoys relative political stability. While improving the economic conditions in Somaliland will not directly effect the pirate strongholds – most of which are located in Puntland – a more prosperous Somaliland could prove beneficial to the wider region. The international community should also engage with local and regional forces to establish a regional coast guard. This force would not only combat pirates directly, but also protect Somalia’s coast from illegal foreign fishing vessels. By adequately protecting Somalia’s natural resources this would both provide an economic alternative to piracy and remove one of the pirates’ principal claims to legitimacy.

Like most counter-insurgency operations, the efforts to quell Somalia-based piracy will be lengthy and difficult. Although the international community has already invested significant resources toward ending piracy, it has thus far failed to reduce the threats to merchant vessels. In order to substantially improve maritime security off the Somali coast, piracy should first be viewed as a form of insurgency, rather than simply a criminal matter. Examining piracy as an insurgency allows for the importation of certain applicable policies that have proven effective in counter-insurgency operations. Successful counter-insurgency campaigns require capable local security forces. The international community needs to do more to develop Somalia’s maritime and land security forces. While the political situation in southern Somalia makes this practically impossible, Puntland, where many of the pirate organizations are located, has some semblance of a central government. If the government of Puntland were able to exercise a “monopoly of legitimate physical violence within” its territorial boundaries – including its maritime boundaries – this would significantly hamper the Puntland-based pirates’ ability to continue hijacking ships (Weber 2004, 33). A successful counter-insurgency also requires that the local populace believe that economic development will allow for a better life in the future. Currently, perhaps the best chance many young Somalis have for a better life – other than emigration – involves hijacking ships. If piracy is to become unappealing for Somalis, there needs to be other economic opportunities available. While establishing a functioning economy in Somalia will undoubtedly be a long and uncertain process, the current levels of piracy off Somalia should act as a reminder to the international community of the broader risks associated with abandoning entire regions of the globe to perpetual deprivation. Finally, counter-insurgency operations must be perceived as maintaining the moral high-ground. Currently, pirate organizations use claims of protecting Somalia’s waters from illegal fishing and dumping to legitimate their actions. In order to deny pirates these moral arguments, the international community needs to ensure that Somali waters are not being exploited. While protecting a 2,000 mile coastline is a daunting challenge, this task could be made simpler if countries with large seafood industries better regulated the activities of their fishing fleets.

References and Further Reading ‘

“Toxic waste” behind Somali piracy.’ 2008. Al Jazeera English. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2008/10/2008109174223218644.html (Accessed November 3, 2011).

Collier, Paul. 2007. The Divergence of the Bottom Billion. http://richmedia.lse.ac.uk/publicLecturesAndEvents/20071018_1830_theDivergenceOfTheBottomBillion.mp3 (Accessed October 26, 2011).

Kaldor, Mary. 2007. New & Old Wars. Stanford University Press.

Kilcullen, David 2010. Counterinsurgency. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nagl, John A. 2002. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Neill, Bard E. 2005. Insurgency & Terrorism. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books.

Weber, Max. 2004. The Vocation Lectures. eds. Tracy B Strong and David S Owen. Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett.

The Author

Edward Lucas is a research fellow at the Center on Nontraditional Threats and Corruption (CONTAC) and a PhD candidate at the School of International Service, American University. His research focuses on maritime security and contemporary piracy. Edward is a member of the Counter-Piracy Task Force at the Atlantic Council and has published articles on security issues, including piracy, in Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Navy International.  He received his MA from the department of war studies, King’s College London and his BA from the Royal Military College of Canada. Prior to pursuing an academic career Edward served for ten years as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy.

This commentary was originally published on Piracy Studies