Sea Transportation: Somalia Again Hosts Hijacked Ships


February 1, 2024: After an absence of five years, it appears piracy has returned to Somalia. This time the pirates had a difficult time of it because of all the foreign warships in the area dealing with Shia rebels in nearby Yemen who are attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea with UAVs and missiles provided by the rebels’ Iranian patrons. The Shia rebels use Iranian UAVs equipped with reconnaissance capability to locate targets off the coast and accurately fire missiles at ships passing through the narrow, 26 kilometers wide, Bab-el-Mandeb straits off southwestern Yemen. This forces ships, almost all of which are trying to use the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal, to take the longer and more expensive and time consuming route around the southern tip of Africa.

Some ships avoid or ignore the missiles and continue north to the Suez Canal. These ships discovered they faced another threat and the Yemen rebels sent armed men in small boats to board these large cargo ships and force the crews to take them to towns on the nearby Somali coast known to be pirate friendly in the past. The warships off the Yemen coast have been more aggressive to deal with this, often launching a helicopter with armed men to land on the captured and deal with the pirates. Sometimes the pirates are warned and leave the hijacked ship before the helicopter arrives.

Worldwide, attacks on cargo ships, and an occasional tanker, are still a problem. In 2023 there were 120 attacks on ships compared to 115 in 2022. In 2023 105 ships were boarded, four ships were hijacked and two were fired on. When ships are boarded, there are attempts to kidnap crew members and hold them for ransom. In 2022 two crewmen were taken hostage while 14 were kidnapped. In 2023 there were 41 hostages and 73 kidnapped.

The hostages are used for taking control of the ship and moving it to a different location. Pirates rarely have any knowledge or experience operating these ships. Kidnapped crew are taken ashore and held until a ransom is paid. In December 2023 a large cargo ship was hijacked and taken to Somalia. This was the first hijacking since 2017.

Normally, not of the boardings and hijackings take place off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. There were also incidents or threats of attempts in the Singapore Straits, the Malacca Straits, and the Indonesian archipelago.

As recently as 2018 piracy was still a problem off the Somali coast, just not the kind that creates headlines in the international mass media. The pirates adapted and in 2017 there were nine pirate attacks off the Somali coast, up from two in 2016. This was notable because worldwide pirate activity hit a 22 year low 188 attacks in 2017 and most of it was far away from Somalia in places like the west coast of Africa and Southeast Asia. Those 188 attacks created damage worth $7 billion, with 80 percent of it absorbed by the ships and their owners. Higher insurance rates and operating costs were the major additional costs. That is an issue off Somalia where higher insurance costs are still a problem and getting worse because of the ineffectiveness of defending warships this time.

Back in 2011 there were 327 attacks off the Somali coast. The solution was an international anti-piracy effort that continues. But shipping companies still have to pay higher insurance rates for their ships that operate in the danger zone extending far out into the Indian Ocean. At the end of 2017 the maritime insurance companies had real reason to be worried. In November 2017, for the first time since 2014, the international anti-piracy patrol arrested six Somali pirates who were caught firing on and trying to board ships off the Somali coast. The accused Somalis were then sent to the nearby Seychelles Islands for incarceration and prosecution. In 2010 the EU (European Union) made a deal with the tiny, 85,000 people, nation of Seychelles Islands, which are 1,500 kilometers east of Somalia, to prosecute pirates captured by the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. The European nations that bring in pirates for prosecution agreed to pick up the expenses, as well as imprison convicted pirates back in Europe.

The Seychelles had to spend half a million dollars, and several months, to build a jail for up to 40 pirates who were being tried. Seychelles has an economy dependent on fishing and tourists and doesn't have much crime, so it never needed many jail cells. The EU contract, and a small American military presence to maintain UAVs and other American military aircraft operating from the main Seychelles airport, helped the local economy as did the near total absence of Somali pirates that had been common in Seychelles coastal waters until 2012. For a while Somali pirates operated off the Seychelles, sometimes attacking local fishing boats, and that hurt the local economy. The certainty of being prosecuted if caught proved to be a major deterrent but the pirates are still there, just in smaller numbers and most of them eager to avoid any encounters with the anti-piracy patrol. Instead, the pirates prey on fishing boats and small coastal freighters. The trick is to pick a target lucrative enough to make it worthwhile yet minor enough to avoid or delay attracting the anti-piracy patrol.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close