Piracy - Somalia and Gulf of Aden

November 2008

The recent upsurge in piracy off the coast of Somalia, and particularly in the Gulf of Aden, is the latest feature of the increasing disorder prevailing in that country. Since the overthrow of its government and civil war in 1991, there has been a succession of failed regimes, and the emergence of semi-autonomous regions. The most significant of these, particularly in the context of piracy, is Puntland which extends along the north eastern coast up to the Horn of Africa.  

The Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, which was established in Kenya, was displaced in 2006 following the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU, which fought with the local warlords who had previously exercised “control”, eventually restored a degree of order in Mogadishu.  The ICU however, over extended itself, particularly in its threats towards the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and this allowed the return of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Since the fall of the ICU, Puntland, which had been relatively orderly during the ICU’s tenure, has become increasingly ungoverned. 

Puntland is an extremely poor and arid region. The average income is around US$650 a year, derived mainly from fishing. However, this source of income has been threatened in recent years by alleged dumping of waste, and alleged illegal fishing by vessels from Europe, Yemen, Kenya and Asia with which the locals from Puntland have been unable to compete. The consequence, fuelled by the easy availability of weaponry in a disorderly region and the easy prey presented by a regular flow of shipping, has been the resurgence of piracy. 

In 2007 the focus of attack was on vessels in the vicinity of Mogadishu port – notably those carrying humanitarian aid cargoes - and ships passing the eastern coastline, but this focus has now shifted to the Gulf of Aden. The pirates now operate at a considerable distance from the coastline – up to 200 nautical miles is not uncommon. Attacks are undertaken using fast skiffs which operate from mother ships, typically captured fishing vessels. The pirates have become more aggressive and ambitious in their attacks and use heavy fire power to stop vessels. All of these attacks have hijacking of the vessel as their objective for the purpose of extracting ransom payments, and the amounts demanded have increased. Recent successes have no doubt emboldened the pirates, who are re-investing their proceeds into more sophisticated equipment such as GPS systems and hand held satellite telephones. 

Captured vessels have generally been taken to the settlement of Eyl on the Puntland coast. Eyl is a very small settlement, and as there is no approach road, it is also extremely remote. This lack of accessibility, coupled with the affinity that the pirates enjoy with the local population because of the benefits they bring to the economy, makes Eyl and other similar locations such as Hobyo, very safe havens from which ransom negotiations can be conducted. Although armed violence is a feature of the attacks that have taken place, fortunately there have only been two deaths of seafarers reported to date. One of these involved an accident whilst pirates were boarding a ship, and the other a heart attack. Nonetheless, the threat of selective killings to enforce ransom demands has occurred, and remains a possibility. 

The latest figures from the International Maritime Bureau on piracy in this region identify 72 attacks, and 28 hijackings, four of which occurred within a period of 48 hours. There are currently 11 vessels and 221 hostages being held. 

The international response to these events has been slow but is gathering pace. On 2nd June 2008 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1816. This was couched in the usual diplomatic language, expressing grave concern about the threats posed by acts of piracy to humanitarian aid to Somalia, and commercial shipping, and deploring recent attacks. It urges states interested in commercial maritime routes off the coast of Somalia to increase and coordinate their efforts to deter piracy in cooperation with the TFG. Most significantly, for a period of six months from the date of the resolution, it permits states cooperating with the TFG to enter Somali territorial waters to suppress acts of piracy. 

Prior to the UN Resolution being adopted, following the hijacking of the luxury yacht “Le Ponant” in April 2008 and the subsequent payment of a ransom reportedly in the region of US$2m, French special forces captured six of the pirates who have since been taken to France to stand trial. However, since the adoption of UN Resolution 1816, the authorisation it provides to states cooperating with the TFG to enter Somali waters and to take action to suppress piracy has not had any such comparable effect to date. Recently, the Danish navy released ten suspected pirates because it was not possible for them to be prosecuted under Danish law. There is also reluctance in British circles for captured pirates to be brought to the UK because of fears that asylum will be sought. Furthermore, a distinction has to be made between action that might be taken to prevent a hijacking taking place, and the options that are available once a vessel has been seized. Notwithstanding the UN Resolution, a naval vessel would not be entitled to attempt to take control of a vessel in the hands of pirates without the permission of the flag state. Such diplomatic considerations seriously hinder the ability of the forces in the region to take robust and effective action. 

Combined Task Force 150 (CTF150) is a coalition naval task force that is operating in the region as part of the global fight against terrorism. The primary focus of CTF150 upon terrorism, coupled with the fact that the taskforce comprises only 12-15 vessels covering over 2.4 million square miles of sea, means that it is unwise to assume that a CTF150 vessel and its resources will necessarily be able to render assistance to a ship which may be threatened or attacked. The lead time for assistance to reach a ship is extremely short, and in practical terms would require a naval vessel to be within 10 miles of a vessel under threat, with a helicopter available for immediate deployment. 

It is understood that NATO forces are to send a further seven ships to the region, and ten EU nations have agreed to send vessels to the region by the end of the year to form a further taskforce. Following the hijacking of two MISC vessels, forces in the region may also be augmented by Malaysian naval ships, although it is not clear if they will provide assistance to non-Malaysian flag ships. Recently two French corvettes have commenced an escort service in the Gulf of Aden. Although described as convoys, these arrangements are not convoys in the naval sense of the word since there is no commanding officer with the authority to change course and speed. 

In August 2008 a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) was established. This created a narrow corridor in the northern sector of the Gulf of Aden in which merchant vessels are recommended to transit the region. CTF150 naval vessels, and presumably others that are eventually deployed, will patrol the corridor, and coalition aircraft will fly in the airspace above it. In the event of an actual or threatened attack, Masters should give notification to the following contacts in order of preference:


United Kingdom Maritime Trade Office (UKMTO)

Cdr David Bancroft



+971 50 552 3215

Combined Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA)

Lt Cdr Brett Morash USN


+253 358 978

Maritime Liaison Office (MARLO) – Bahrain

Capt. Tom Hastings


+973 1785 3927

+973 3944 2117

It is recommended that these contact numbers are displayed prominently in vessels’ wheelhouses for ease of reference, since in attempting to combat piracy, time is of the essence. 

However, as mentioned above, the suppression of piracy is not the primary purpose of CTF150 and its forces are thinly spread. Consequently it remains the responsibility of Masters to make their vessels less vulnerable to attack. The objectives of the pirates are financial gain. They are not driven by ideology and so a vessel which demonstrates vigilance and a willingness to resist attack may prove less attractive to them than one which represents a more passive target. There have been reported incidents where attacks have been deterred by robust action on the part of a vessel’s Master. 

It may seem inherently unlikely that a laden cargo vessel, proceeding relatively slowly, for example at less than 20 knots, can take effective action to prevent seizure. However, the pirates operate on an opportunistic basis and surprise plays a significant part in a successful attack. The element of surprise can be negated through a vigilant lookout, particularly astern and in areas covering radar blind-spots, and through the prompt implementation of avoidance measures to send a clear message that the attackers have been seen. Heavy wheel movements, and the associated effects of bow wave and wash may deter would-be attackers as they approach, by making it difficult for them to attach grappling irons or lines to the ship. In an area where there are plenty of targets from which to choose, attackers who are faced with a vessel that demonstrates an intention to resist capture from the outset may be passed over for one that is less vigilant and more passive. 

The requirement for vigilance is therefore paramount, particularly in relation to lookout, and Masters should take the following into account; 

  •          Take defensive precautions before entering high threat area

–          Rig fire hoses
–          Raise outboard equipment
–          Post contact liaison details in the wheelhouse 

  •          Demonstrate a willingness to defend the vessel
  •          Employ speed and manoeuvre to avoid attack
  •          Maintain full visual and radar watch during transit - provide extra lookouts
  •          Avoid transiting near small boats
  •          Watch for developing close quarters situations and take early action to maximise Closest Points of Approach (CPA).
  •          Manoeuvre aggressively if under attack.
  •          Manoeuvre to avoid any lee on either side of the vessel


The guidance which is contained in the IMO’s Maritime Security Committee circular MSC/Circ.623/Rev3:


remains relevant and outlines in more detail various practical measures that should be adopted.