New Internationalist

How the war on piracy became big business

September 2013

Pirate hijackings off the coast of Africa have spawned a lucrative protection industry. With private security guards taking to the oceans in ever increasing numbers, Hazel Healy asks whether this is really the way to ‘safer seas’.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
Pirate patrol: German troops in Djibouti prepare to join Europe’s anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia. The fight against pirates has been a handy way for countries like Germany and Japan to shrug off postwar constitutional constraints. Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

On a blustery day last May, a sailor stands on the deck of HMS Illustrious, docked on the River Thames.

Almost a year has passed since the last major hijacking by Somali pirates. Their parting-shot prize, the crude-oil tanker MV Smyrni, fetched a record-breaking ransom of $13.5 million.

The able seaman recalls his counter-piracy voyage to the Gulf of Aden, ceremonial blue collar flapping in the wind. He confides it was ‘a bit of a wild goose chase’. He never in fact saw any pirates.

Below deck, through a warren of ladders, oval doors and acronyms, the pirate nemesis ‘maritime security’ sector is gathered for a seminar.1 Gavin Simmons, from the UK Chamber of Shipping, takes the floor at a lightly bobbing lectern. He does not doubt the value of counter-piracy missions to the Gulf of Aden: ‘Shipping was important in the days of free trade and Empire and it’s equally important today,’ he says, and praises the navy’s ‘defence of the realm’. Warships are credited, in part, with keeping Somali buccaneers at bay. Pirate attacks off the Gulf of Aden have fallen to just six in the first six months of 2013.

But this outlay of military might has engendered its own set of troubles on the high seas, which are now awash with armed men. A pumped private security industry is gearing up for new opportunities off the west coast of Africa.

Return of the buccaneers

Piracy plagued the world’s oceans for thousands of years right through to the mid-19th century. It re-emerged in the 1990s, first with attacks in the Malacca Straits in Southeast Asia, and later exploded off the coasts of Africa.

The sheer volume of Somali pirate hijackings grabbed the world’s attention. In 2011, the International Maritime Organization registered an average of around one hijacking per week. They didn’t come to steal but to extort – holding some 3,700 crew and 149 boats to ransom, they scooped a total of $385 million between 2005 and 2012.

Piracy is a brutal business. But trigger-happy navies have also clocked up a body count

The pirates spoke of fighting back at foreign trawlers that trashed their lobster breeding grounds, and of the damage caused by hazardous waste dumped on their shores. Early pirates were indeed aggrieved fishers, but the high-stakes lark of ‘taxing’ ships tapped into a rich seam. Pirates had struck an artery of global capitalism.

Perched at the exit to the Suez Canal, in the Somali region of Puntland, the pirates soon ranged from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, and beyond to the southern coast of India. They were ruthless and indiscriminate. UN advisor Jack Lang went so far as to warn they were becoming the ‘Masters’ of the Indian Ocean.2 They seized container ships, vast supertankers loaded with crude oil, and even emergency relief for the starving. Pirate operations were run on shareholder lines, with investors keeping half the takings, while the pirate rank-and-file earned middling amounts that were soon leeched by armies of destitute relatives.

Not so much swashbuckling adventure then, as a high-risk survival strategy, among a pretty dismal set of options in stateless Somalia.

Naval heavy hand

World powers hit back with military surveillance, deterrence and criminal prosecutions.

Since 2008, state-of-the-art warships, reaper drones and Special Forces have patrolled the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. NATO, the EU and a US-led task force deployed forces alongside national flotillas from 22 countries, including Pakistan, Iran and China. The UN Security Council authorized attacks at sea, from the air and on land.

Shipping and oil companies lobbied hard for protection. But counter-piracy also chimed with navies seeking a raison d’être in an age of government spending cuts. It also gave nations an opportunity to project national and regional power. The Gulf of Aden is a fine place for a warship: the gateway to Asia, and a chokepoint for energy with 3.4 million barrels of oil per day passing through.3

Despite the harrowing tales of captured crew – 50 of whom remain in pirate hands – world powers are not doing this for the Filipinos, who make up the majority of seafarers worldwide.

Some 98 per cent of hostage victims are from the Majority World, left vulnerable by a cut-throat, globalized shipping business running skeletal crews, who are overstretched and too tired to stand careful guard.

Fatalities related to piracy and counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden & Indian Ocean 2007-13

200-300 pirates killed by navy and private guards or lost at sea
88 crew: half died, or were killed, when held captive by pirates; half died during clashes with navy or during rescue attempts
Source: Compass/ UNODC

Ironically, the naval operations have made this a more deadly business. Since 2008, the number of hostage deaths has actually risen. They die in firefights and rescue attempts. Jumpy Somali pirates got nastier, and reports of torture and killings increased.

Piracy is a brutal business. But trigger-happy navies have also clocked up a body count. While some pirates die in hostage rescues – the South Korean navy shot eight pirates storming a boat last January, while the Dutch and US navies killed another five – there are also allegations of deliberate murders. The Russian navy, for one, is said to have sent 10 pirate prisoners to their deaths.4

Innocent fishers are also dying. The Indian navy wiped out the entire 15-person crew of a Thai fishing vessel in 2008. Since then, at least eight fishers from India and Yemen have died at the hands of soldiers or private guards.

The prosecution of pirates has proved challenging, though over 1,100 are now detained in prisons worldwide. But justice for deaths at the hands of the military is even harder to secure. The only attempt to date is in India, where two Italian marines deployed on a tanker are awaiting trial after killing two fishers last year.

After 2008, pirates simply pushed further out into the Indian Ocean using mother ships. One observer compared it to having ‘a police car trying to patrol an area the size of France’.5

Collateral profits

Back in London, new industries were springing into life. Kidnap and ransom insurance ballooned into a $250-million business from a standing start; shippers spent up to $1.7 billion in 2012 on private armed guards. Soon ransoms accounted for just one per cent of direct costs incurred by piracy, despite average ransoms rising to $4-5 million.

Ships were encouraged to adopt their own defences by adding razor wire and greased, electrified handrails, measures proven to repel three-quarters of attacks.

But shipping companies wanted more.

Private security stepped into the breach. Neptune Maritime Security, for example, offers its battle-hardened armed personnel as a pirate-deterrent for shippers with the line ‘our guards know when NOT to fire!’ It is part of the booming, sometimes over-zealous, private maritime security industry that has blossomed in the Gulf of Aden over the last two years.

Governments used not to be keen on lethal force being deployed on commercial boats. But, despite worries about ‘cowboy outfits’, countries such as Britain, the US and Italy have lifted bans on armed guards aboard vessels that fly their flag, while they traverse distant zones like the Red Sea.

Around 300 Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) – at least 50 per cent of which are British and dominated by ex-service personnel – offer advice and guards in the Gulf of Aden. Last year, firms were taking home around $52 million per month between them.6

Arms embargo violations

For shippers, a $75,000 outlay on private security is worth paying to avoid lengthy hijackings and delays. The cost is generally passed on to clients, and then ultimately to consumers.

But private security presents ethical quandaries. As one piracy expert recounts, ‘you hear reports of skiffs turned over, bodies full of bullet holes’.

Contractors operate in an accountability vacuum. No global treaties cover weapons fire from commercial ships. Technically, a vessel is subject to the laws of its flag state – the country where it is registered – but incidents receive minimal investigation, according to the International Maritime Organization. It has led some to speculate that it is only a matter of time before Somalia gets its own ‘Blackwater moment’, in reference to the occasion when private contractors for the US military killed 17 Iraqi civilians.

Campaigners criticize voluntary codes of conduct for private security contractors as insufficient. They accuse Britain in particular of ushering in a self-policing model for its bevy of firms, one that will not protect human rights.

PMSCs are posing new challenges for arms control. ‘We are seeing a big increase in UK arms exports of things like assault rifles, body armour and pistols to small countries in the Indian Ocean – we don’t know who these firms are or who controls them,’ says Kaye Stearman at Campaign Against Arms Trade.

There are now some 18 floating armouries bobbing around in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and Mozambique Channel. These privately owned ships – old tugs, or research vessels – rent out weapons outside territorial waters so as to sidestep weapons regulations.

Observers worry that opportunities for private actors to obtain military force are higher than ever. ‘Now that the heyday of piracy is over,’ asks one UN investigator, ‘what will happen to this huge capacity that has been built up?’

Special Marine Services, a British anti-piracy outfit, has already branched out on to land to train and equip armed forces in the autonomous Somali region of Galmudug. The UN has recently pulled it up for violating Somalia’s small arms embargo.

The same PMSCs are now looking to establish a foothold in the troubled Niger Delta.

West Africa hotspot?

The Gulf of Guinea, which stretches from Senegal down to Angola, has always been an unruly coastline, with pirate attacks happening since the 1970s. But lately, oil theft and robbery have spread out of Nigeria into neighbouring waters, and further out to sea.

‘Anti-piracy has developed its own momentum, and needs new threats to counter. This is a business that needs a market’

Heavily armed militants seize tankers for long enough to siphon off their oil for resale. Last year’s oil spoils came to $42 million. With four hijackings so far this year and 31 attacks, the intensity is far lower than in the Gulf of Aden when piracy was at its height. But with West African oil now a key energy source – Nigeria alone could supply a quarter of US oil needs by 2015 – it too has become an international concern.

As in Somalia, piracy in Nigeria also grew out of a resource-related rebellion by Niger Delta communities, that later took on a criminal hue.

But, unlike Somalia, the countries around the Gulf of Guinea are functioning nation-states. And Nigeria, for one, is not keen to see foreign armed actors in its territorial waters. International navies, in this case, are limiting themselves to capacity building.

Currently, foreign PMSCs are banned in territorial waters. But they are pushing for a bigger role. Foreign firms already provide unarmed security advisers, equipment, boats and intelligence and are ‘preparing to deploy’ floating armouries.7 An estimated $150 million was spent on private security in the Gulf of Guinea in 2012.

‘This is a business that needs a market,’ reflects social anthropologist and conflict specialist Axel Klein. ‘I think there has been a professionalization of anti-piracy measures that has developed its own momentum and material interest, and needs new threats to counter.’

Protecting fisheries

This militarized response is unsafe, unsustainable and self-perpetuating. Money should be redirected towards a more holistic, sustainable attack on piracy, which addresses its root causes: poverty and grievance.

Naval assets should be protecting West Africa’s rapidly depleting fisheries, not just oil rigs. Illegal Unregulated Unreported (IUU) fishing undermines governance, destroys livelihoods and deepens poverty in coastal communities. The insecurity and conflict that result create a fertile recruiting ground for pirates. Nigeria alone loses $60 million of state revenue to IUU ‘pirate’ fishing, every year; in the region as a whole, the losses climb to $1.6 billion.

Western nations that import fish need to tighten up by imposing proper checks on the origin of catches and prosecuting offenders.

They should also pull the shipping industry into line, and stop shippers registering with shadowy flag states such as Liberia, in order to dodge labour and environmental regulations.

As journalist William Langewiesche notes, pirate tolls are nothing compared to the taxes that shipping – ‘not exactly a criminal industry but an anarchic and amoral one’ – would have to pay, if law and order prevailed.8

If illegal fishing is left unchecked, more piracy fronts may open up. Fishers in Senegal, who have seen catches drop 75 per cent in 10 years, warn they will ‘fight for fish at sea’ with guns, if the plunder is not stopped.9

With piracy in retreat in Somalia, the foreign trawlers have returned. Indian Ocean fisheries workers are frustrated by naval ships that seek piracy tip-offs but do not take action on illegal fishing.

In the long run

Defending the resources of poor nations and boosting livelihood options are just one part of the solution. International relations scholar Christian Bueger says a ‘peace-building methodology’, which recognizes complexity and engages the locals, will be the key to wiping out global piracy in the long run.10

Fragile societies can have their own solutions. In Somalia, local umbrage saw pirates expelled from their coastal lairs for bad behaviour. Somali journalist Jamal Osman reports that diaspora uncles berating hostage-takers by mobile phone from London may have had as big an impact on victim’s welfare as the World War Three-style flotillas.

We need to think outside the hard-security box. This may include recognizing that Nigeria’s militant pirates, as unsavoury as they are, are also powerful political players in fragmented states. There may be ways to marry the interests of different stakeholders. Would shippers consider choosing razor wire over armed guards and putting the money thereby saved into a fund for fishermen? Would insurers drop their fees on seeing evidence of good community relations?

A slowly re-emerging trade in spindly lobsters close to Somali shores, for example, needs cold stores, infrastructure and fishing gear, not high-flying Global Hawks droning overhead.

In the long term, counter-piracy will be best served by a development approach, not by exporting our gunslingers.

  1. ‘The Navy’s role in Resilience and Prosperity’, Battle of the Atlantic Anniversary Seminar, 12 May 2013.
  2. UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee report, 2012.
  3. US Energy Information Administration.
  4. ‘Freed Somali pirates “probably died” – Russian source’, BBC News online, May 2010.
  5. Charlotte Eager, ‘To catch a pirate: The British ex-servicemen battling to protect international shipping from the clutches of Somali pirates’, Daily Mail, 11 Dec 2010.
  6. A Secret Subsidy. Oil Companies, the Navy and the response to piracy, Platform, October 2012.
  7. ‘Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea’. Report of the conference held at Chatham House, London, 6 Dec 2012.
  8. William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea, Granta, 2006.
  9. John Vidal, ‘Will over­­fishing by foreigners drive Senegalese fishermen to piracy?’, The Guardian, 3 April 2012.
  10. Christian Bueger, Jan Stockbruegger and Sacha Werthes, ‘Pirates, Fishermen and Peacebuilding – Options for Counter-Piracy in Somalia’, Contemporary Security Policy, 32:2 356-381, 2011.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 465 This special report appeared in the piracy issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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