Pirates: Not Only in the Caribbean

By April 14, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 106

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Maritime piracy has been developing in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali littoral, a major transport route between Asia and Europe, as part of a global piracy problem. Pirates hijack civilian vessels carrying high-value merchandise for purposes of theft or obtaining ransom. There has not yet been a direct connection between piracy and terrorism; however, the world’s ability to cooperate in combating piracy indicates that progress in the worldwide battle against terror is also possible.

Piracy As an Industry

Since the start of the new millennium, maritime robbery has become a common threat to commercial and passengers vessels in international shipping lanes. This new-old phenomenon that began in the 2000s is growing yearly, as well as the economic damage that it causes. At present, a third of the maritime-piracy events occur in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali littoral. This is a region through which a number of maritime trade routes pass between Asia and Europe. In 2008-2009 there were close to 250 reports of pirate attacks in the region. According to an unofficial estimate, in 82 cases the pirates succeeded in seizing the vessels and hauling them to unknown destinations. Thus far, there have been three reported attempts on Israeli vessels.

This pirate industry provides means for carrying out the hijackings, skilled sailors and hijackers, areas for stowage of the hijacked vessels, and equipment for communication between the hijackers and the owners of the ships.

The modern piracy industry is characterized by a number of elements:

  1. A stable organizational infrastructure within a dysfunctional state, such as Somalia.
  2. Proximity to the sea.
  3. A difficult economic situation and, hence, cheap manpower who are prepared to risk their lives for a livelihood.
  4. Technological capability for sailing and maritime surveillance.
  5. Economic profitability.

The process of seizing a cargo ship involves three stages. First, the pirates identify the target of attack and determine, with their intelligence capacities, whether the ship constitutes a suitable target. Identification of a target requires a detection capability (radar) for long ranges and a surveillance capability for short ranges.

Second, the pirates require the means for transport and for seizure of the target. According to reports of crew members of the Tibar, an Indian battleship that was stationed last year in the Gulf of Aden to safeguard cargo ships, and corroboration from a Dutch battleship in April 2009, the pirates move around on a mothership that has advanced surveillance devices. The moment a target is identified, the pirates use speedboats to rapidly advance toward the merchant ship. From inside the boats, the pirates threaten the crew of the ship with antitank and light weapons. In some cases, the speedboats are attached to the side of the ship and the robbers climb onto the deck. The pirates usually outnumber the ship’s crew, and in recent years there have been almost no cases in which the crew members resisted the pirates’ seizure of the ship.

The third and most complicated stage involves transferring the ship to a secure and concealed harbor and making contact with its owners until the ransom is received. To understand the complexity of the third stage it is worth considering the seizure of the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker that disappeared in the Indian Ocean on 18 November 2008 off the shores of East Africa. The ship, whose bulk was 300,000 tons (equivalent to three aircraft carriers), was hidden for months until the ransom of millions of dollars was paid. The ship’s owners’ calculated that it was more economical to pay several million dollars than to lose the cargo of oil worth $100 million, and the ship itself whose value was also great.

Incidents of this kind – evidence of the burgeoning of the phenomena – have brought the International Maritime Organization, the large shipping companies, and the large insurance companies that have been damaged by loss of merchandise to exert pressure on governmental actors and institutions of the international community to do something about the problem.

History of Maritime Trade

To understand the great importance the world ascribes to shipping lanes, it is worth examining the past:

The sea has served as the cardinal transportation artery since mankind learned to sail. Conquest and trade, diplomacy and war, were conducted in the past solely with the help of sailing vessels. Although over time, technology has created additional transportation routes, the sea has continued to serve as a principal medium through which goods are transferred from state to state.

The war against pirates is also a familiar historical phenomenon; for instance, Pompey, conqueror of Judea in the year 63 BC, found himself in the Middle East after receiving a mandate to fight pirates in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean.

Shipping lanes are the easiest way to conduct intercontinental trade. An airplane cannot haul as much freight as the average cargo ship. In addition, the cost of operating a ship, and maintaining and training its crew, makes commerce cheaper even if the process entailed is a slow one. For example, in the Gulf of Aden and in other piracy regions of the world, close to 16,000 ships pass each year.

The significance of the flourishing maritime trade and the growth of piracy is due to the operational ease of locating and seizing ships and the ability to inflict enormous damage on the economy of many countries as a result of the blockage of the trade routes and the loss of revenues in the private and public market. An example is Egypt, which relies, among other things, on profits from the passage of ships through the Suez Canal.

Pirates and Jihad: Worldwide Response

At present, according to assessments of the East African Seafarers Association, the Gulf of Aden-Somalia region contains about five main groups that number close to 1,000 active pirates. So far, no direct connection has been identified between them and the global jihad; however, their religious affiliation – Muslim – and the similar weapons infrastructures raise question marks.

While the pirate groups in the Gulf of Aden-Somalia region have limited power, the damage they cause is measured in millions of dollars annually. However, the ripple effects are even wider. Changes in shipping routes, insurance constraints, and delays in merchandise deliveries – all affect the international community.

This phenomenon has created a rare similarity of interests between countries such as Iran, the United States, Israel, India, and Saudi Arabia. All make use of maritime trade routes and all are threatened by a small group of Muslim maritime robbers – non-state organizations that are motivated by economic interests.

The direct outcome has been agreements and cooperation between most of the threatened countries with the aim of eradicating the phenomenon. For example, in 1992 the World Maritime Office set up the Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in order to create a centralized desk for intelligence on maritime warnings and attacks. This, however, was not sufficient to stop the developing wave of piracy.

At the end of August 2008, NATO, the European Union, Russia, the US, and India began holding renewed talks on ways of dealing with the phenomenon. The countries decided to send battleships to the Gulf of Aden-Somalia region to safeguard the shipping lanes. On 7 October 2008, in Resolution 1383, the UN Security Council called for the establishment of a task force for fighting piracy (Combined Task Force 150). Any country that maintains maritime or aerial vehicles in the region was called upon to help in the fight against piracy.

In September 2008, Russia announced that it would dispatch a military force to the region, and in October 2008 the Indian navy sent battleships there. Iran and Saudi Arabia have also declared that they will send forces.

In some incidents, state forces engaged in combat with the pirates. In November 2008 fighting ensued between an Indian battleship and a pirate mothership. In April 2009, a snipers’ force of US Navy SEALs killed three pirates who had kidnapped an American captain. That same month, a Dutch force succeeded in capturing a pirate mothership and its crew members. Israeli security guards on Israeli ships fended off pirate attacks on two known occasions and three unknown occasions.


This international cooperation is especially notable in light of the tremendous difficulty of the countries of the modern world in forming a unified front to cope with other phenomena that endanger worldwide peace and security, such as international terror. For example, declarations of the CIA on the need to fight the pirates’ infrastructure on land are received with understanding and even support. Yet there is sharp disagreement concerning similar ground invasions for dealing with terror that is carried out and cultivated from this same backdrop.

Remarkably enough, the modern world’s weakness in defining and creating a common denominator for fighting terror, a weakness that is also manifested in United Nations’ institutions and in the rules of international law – changes 180 degrees when it comes to a similar phenomenon, piracy, behind which stand economic interests. Cooperation is easier when politics are not involved. Yet, the world’s ability to forge far-reaching agreement on combating piracy indicates that progress in the worldwide battle against terror is also possible.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Yoaz Hendel

Yoaz Hendel is the defense correspondent for Makor Rishon and a former research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.