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How the World Overpowered Piracy in the Horn of Africa

Between 2007-2008, the rates of piracy in the Horn of Africa skyrocketed. Civilian mariners were increasingly targeted, hostages were taken, and ransoms paid. Countries around the world were threatened. This phenomenon was created by the weak state of Somalia and fueled by the inherent lawlessness that combined to sow vast instability in the region. Piracy grew exponentially and after several high-profile attacks and hijackings it was clear that something had to be done. But just how did the world tackle one of the most challenging and dangerous threats in the region? The answer is that the world utilized effective collaboration; together, nations from around the world, in conjunction with the private sector, devoted the necessary resources to combat this multinational threat.

This was not an easy task. There seemed to be nothing that could stop piracy from flourishing in the Horn of Africa. The payment of ransom money was an incredible incentive that stimulated piracy to levels never before seen. As the rates of piracy increased so did the ransom payments. In 2005 a $350,000 ransom was paid for the Hong King ship Feisty Gas and ransoms continually increased over the next several years, peaking at $9,500,000 paid for the Greek tanker Smyrni and her crew of 26 in 2013.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves; the problem back in 2008 was that pirates were wreaking havoc in one of the most travelled sea transit corridors in the world, and the lack of a standing presence enabled them to operate with impunity. In 2008, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) documented 111 attacks in the waters off the Horn of Africa, almost twice the number in 2007 at the beginning of the surge. The Center for Strategic Studies noted that attacks became increasingly more violent and between 2004-2008 there was a 244 percent increase in ship hijacks and a 212 percent increase in hostage-taking over the same period. Around this time, the UN produced several resolutions that gave nations the authorization to combat the threat of piracy.

UN Resolution 1816 of June 2008 was significant because it gave permission for foreign vessels to enter Somalia’s territorial waters and to use “all necessary means to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery.”

A few months later in October 2008, Resolution 1838 called for all nations with vessels in the region to use military force to repress piracy.

And by the end of the year in December, Resolution 1851 called upon all, “States, regional and international organizations that have the capacity to do so, to take part actively in the fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia…by deploying naval vessels and military aircraft and through seizure and disposition of boats, vessels, arms and other related equipment used in the commission of piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia.”

Resolution 1851 also was an integral building block for an international response as it endorsed the idea of an international cooperation mechanism to serve as a “common point of contact between and among states, regional and international organizations on all aspects of combating piracy and armed robbery at sea off Somalia’s coast.” This laid the groundwork for such international partnerships as the Contact Group, which has proven instrumental in the fight against piracy.

One of the successful responses to the UN resolutions of 2008 (1816, 1838, 1846, and 1851) was the establishment of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151). CTF-151 is a multinational naval task force with more than twenty countries that have contributed ships to the effort including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States among others. CTF-151 is focused specifically on counter-piracy operations and operates under a UN Security Council Resolution counter-piracy mandate.

Their mission is to disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea and to engage with regional and other partners to build capacity and improve relevant capabilities in order to protect global maritime commerce and secure freedom of navigation. CTF-151 also operates in conjunction with other counter-piracy missions including NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the EU’s Operation Atalanta. As of February 2015, many EU nations have pledged ships to Operation Atalanta that have served or will serve including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Romania, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. The depth of support that came from all over the globe illustrated the premium that the international community placed on defeating this threat from the world.

In addition to these coalition-led efforts, there have also been several countries that have committed ships and resources to parallel but independent counter-piracy missions. They include nations like China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, and South Korea. Some of these countries are not typical partners with the United States yet they are united in their resolve to defeat piracy and restore maritime security. Beginning in 2008, Iran has deployed ships in the region and, according to their data, have foiled over 150 pirate attacks since then. In the fall of 2014, China even sent a submarine, a first for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), to support their ships in the region engaged in counter-piracy. In December 2014, in a great example of the cooperative effort required for threats of this nature, China and the United States conducted counter-piracy training between their two navies. The exercise included over 700 personnel, the USS STERETT (DDG-104), and at least two PLAN ships. Since 2008, there have been countless counter-piracy military-military engagements. These training exercises have great after effects as they enable the militaries of different countries to work more effectively together on real-world missions towards a common goal.

The world dedicated a significant amount of assets to combat piracy in the Horn of Africa. So what were the results of this massive collaboration of nations? Piracy in waters surrounding the Horn of Africa has been virtually expunged. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published several reports on piracy. The data assembled by the GAO shows that the rates of piracy climbed significantly from 2007-2009 and remained high until 2011. As the GAO graph below depicts, beginning in 2011, once the full weight of the international community came to bear, the rates of piracy began its precipitous decline.

Rates of piracy. (GAO)
Rates of piracy. (GAO)

Data from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) corroborates this graph as well. The IMB notes that in 2011 there were 237 total attacks attributed to piracy in the region which dropped to only 79 in 2013, with the total successful attacks even less. In the last few years, counter-piracy has been even more successful as there has not been a successful attack in the region against a large civilian merchant vessel since May 2012.

The sustained international naval presence in the region surely has played an integral role in combating piracy off of the Horn of Africa but other advancements in the private sector have greatly enhanced overall maritime security as well. Some of these developments include shipboard security measures such as razor wire, acoustic weapons, anti-piracy curtains, boat traps, lubricant foam, high-pressure hoses, and the implementation of secure spaces or citadels. However, the most substantial development in maritime security since the peak of piracy attacks is the increase in armed security guards onboard ships.

The importance of armed guards is best illustrated by the case of the M/V Maersk Alabama. You may remember the vessel was attacked and successfully hijacked by pirates in 2009 and was immortalized in the film Captain Phillips. At the time of the attack, the vessel did not have an armed security team on board, and the results were devastating. What you may not know is that in the next two years, the Maersk Alabama was subject to four more pirate attacks. The difference was that this time, the Maersk Alabama had an embarked security team. Here were the results of the attacks:

November 2009: attack repelled by ship guards who fired small arms and acoustic weapons
September 2010: attack repelled by armed security team
March 2011: attack repelled by security team after they fired warning shots
May 2011: attack repelled by security team after they fired shots into the skiff

The example of the Maersk Alabama is a microcosm of what armed security teams have been able to prevent throughout the region. Armed security teams are now carried on over 60 percent of all vessels. To date, there has not been a successful pirate hijacking of a ship with a privately contracted armed security team onboard.

All of the gains that have been made combating piracy are still on tenuous ground. The international community must stay committed and maintain a joint military coalition force in the region to deter piracy. Convincing governments to keep assets and forces in the region will be a difficult sell in the future given the several recent years of relative stability and considering the challenging economic situations facing most nations today, yet it is critical to maintain. At the same time, merchant shipping companies must remain vigilant, continue to analyze important trends, and uphold tested and successful security procedures. Somalia is still a failed state with many violent actors. Pirates are resourceful and have proven their ability to improvise and adapt. The Horn of Africa remains one of the most volatile and fragile expanses in the world. If the world does not remain committed to freedom of navigation, to regional stability, to economic prosperity, and to maritime security, then the region could quickly devolve to the violence and lawlessness that the world saw in the past.

While the Horn of Africa was the epicenter of piracy in the world, there are other areas of concern where piracy is still a very real and growing threat. The Indian Ocean, the Straits of Malacca, and in Western Africa along the Gulf of Guinea (GOG) are particularly troubling. As you can see from the GAO chart below, between 2012-2013, the number of piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea actually surpassed the attacks in the HOA. The International Maritime Bureau noted that in 2013 attacks in the GOG accounted for 19% of attacks worldwide, a dramatic change from only 7% roughly five years earlier. Most of the attacks in the GOG occur in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, however, there have been attacks in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo, among others.

Incidents of piracy. (GAO)
Incidents of piracy. (GAO)

So while stability in the HOA is still a priority, there are other regions that need counter-piracy assets and resources directed to them. Piracy is a transnational threat that will be an issue for years to come. The only way to contain and defeat piracy is for the world to rally to the cause like they did in the HOA and to encourage their civilian maritime merchants and companies to continue to invest in proven security advancements.

Piracy is a threat that transcends national borders. In a world where ninety percent of commerce travels by sea, anything that threatens maritime stability and security will have global ramifications. For too long, piracy in the Horn of Africa threatened countries throughout the world. To combat this threat, the international community chose action over procrastination, they chose deeds over words, they chose cooperation over obstruction, and they chose multilateralism over unilateralism. Naval ships and military forces from every corner of the globe descended upon this region. At the same time, civilian merchants significantly increased their private security. As a result, piracy declined in the Horn of Africa because it became too risky for the reward.

Ultimately, transnational threats require a multinational response. The ubiquitous nature of these threats demand collaboration. How the world responded to piracy in the Horn of Africa presents a roadmap for how to handle future threats in a complex world. From piracy, to disease, to unpredictable world actors, to terrorism, we are stronger when we act together. When the world devotes the preponderance of its resources to defeating a threat, there is little that cannot be accomplished.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the Department of Defense or Department of State.