Pirates of Puntland, Somalia

A 17th-century map depicting the locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean

While piracy off the Horn of Africa has recently gained significant press, it is not a new phenomenon. From the beginning of the Common Era, travelers have consistently warned of the dangers of pirates in the region. Recent political unrest and a demographic explosion in Somalia have breathed new life into this long history of maritime piracy.

Editor's Note

In the first week of April, Somali pirates raided an American-flagged ship in the Indian Ocean and took the captain hostage. It was only one of several raids along the Somali coast in a 48 hour period. In recent months and years, pirates have made the Horn of Africa the most dangerous place to navigate in the world. This month, historian Andy Carlson examines the very long history of piracy in the region, and explores how the political problems of Somalia as a 'failed state' have contributed to the current wave of maritime brigandage.

For more on recent Somali history, see this 1993 Origins article. For more on current events in Africa, please read this 2008 Origins article on violence and politics in Kenya and this 2009 article on the Darfur conflict.

Readers may also be interested in Andrew Carlson's review of the Oscar-winning film Captain Phillips.

In April 2009, Somali pirates attempted to capture an American-flagged ship, taking its captain hostage. U.S. military sharpshooters brought the incident to a relatively quick end, killing three of the four hostage takers.

While this dramatic event may have been the first time that many Americans had heard of Somali pirates, their activity and audacity has been growing for some years.

By 2008--after decades in which the Straits of Malacca, the Caribbean, and the Nigerian coast consistently witnessed the most incidents of maritime piracy--a full 111 out of the total 293 pirate attacks worldwide happened off the coast of Somalia alone.

Perhaps the most spectacular attack came on November 15, 2008 when pirates boarded the Saudi owned Sirius Star, a 330-meter tanker (318,000 deadweight tons) carrying over $100 million of oil. Attacked 833 kilometers off the coast of Kenya, the pirates used a mother ship, disguised as a fishing trawler, to launch small boats that overtook the Sirius Star.

"This is unprecedented," a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet said. "It is the largest ship that we've seen pirated." The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, said: "I'm stunned by the range of it. The pirates are very good at what they do. They're very well armed. Tactically, they are very good."

Cyrus Mody of the International Maritime Bureau characterized the event as historic: "It is the first attack of its kind in which such a big vessel has been hijacked so far away from the coast. It shows that the pirates now have the capability and capacity to sustain themselves in deep sea until the vessel actually comes by."

Under the pirates' command, the Sirius Star sailed to a mooring off the coast of an area known as the Puntland region where it joined a dozen other hijacked ships.

The autonomous state of Puntland is located at the very tip of the Horn of Africa, between Somalia to the south and the Somaliland Republic (formerly British Somaliland) to the west. [click here for a map] Unlike Somaliland, which has for years been seeking international recognition as an independent state, Puntland envisions itself as a federal but self-governing division of Somalia.

In the case of the Sirius Star, ransom negotiations took about two months—the original $25 million demand settled for $3 million. The negotiations for the Ukrainian ship Faina, which was transporting 33 T-72 tanks, 150 grenade launchers, 6 antiaircraft guns, and ammunition to Kenya and Southern Sudan, took five months. The crews survived their ordeal, the exception being the captain of the Faina, who died of a stroke soon after his capture.

Ancient Traditions, Modern Pirates

The Horn of Africa has long had its pirates. For thousands of years, the weather patterns and currents of the Indian Ocean have transported watercraft from Africa to Arabia, Arabia into the Persian Gulf, then off to the west coast of India, and back again. Trade with the Mediterranean world sailed south on the Red Sea, through the Bab el Mandeb, into the Indian Ocean and beyond. [ Indian Ocean Map ]

An early travel guide, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written in Greek in the first century AD by an anonymous merchant, noted the richness of the maritime trade. He also warned that along the coast of Azania (what is now Somalia) "live men of piratical habits…."

Claudius Ptolemy, in Geographia, first published in 150 AD, identified the Horn region south of Cape Guardafui as "the Gulf of Barbaria." "Men of the greatest stature, who are pirates, inhabit the whole coast and at place have set up chiefs."

One-thousand seven hundred years later, in 1854, when the great British explorer Richard Burton embarked on a Royal Geographic Society trip to the port of Berbera, the British officials in Aden worried. Attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden were common. Major Gordon Laing had been murdered leaving Harar in 1826.

As Burton himself noted, in First Footsteps in East Africa, "the more adventurous Abyssinian travelers, Salt and Stuart, Krapf and Isenberg, Barker and Rochet—not to mention divers[e] Roman Catholic Missioners—attempted Harar, but attempted it in vain." With a well armed retinue and dressed as an Arab trader, Burton and his caravan succeeded in getting to Harar and back. But in April of 1855, as they prepared to leave Berbera, their party was attacked by a group of "Bedouin brigands." Lieutenant Stoyan was killed. John Speke and Burton suffered severe injuries, the latter a spear wound to his face that penetrated both cheeks and took out two molars.

Pirates and the International State System

While current incidents of piracy off the Horn of Africa are part of a long tradition, they must also be understood in the context of modern history and modern notions of borders, state sovereignty, and territorial waters.

In accordance with the doctrine of national sovereignty, some 200 internationally recognized states claim virtually all of the earth's land and coastal water. Moreover, the international community assumes that each state polices its own territorial land and waters. [For more on how the international community regulates the seas, see Mansel Blackford's Origins article on ocean Fishing].

When states fail, however, as in the case of Somalia and Puntland—neither of which has done much to control or confront the pirates on their shores—the international state system has a problem.

The case of the Sirius Star is a particularly vexatious example of the global repercussions of one state's unwillingness to fully police its territory. The price of oil on the global market rose for one or two days after the hijacking. There was fear that an oil spill—with 2 million barrels, a greater volume than the Exxon Valdez—would damage Indian Ocean ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them.

The Egyptians became alarmed that this and other incidents would discourage traffic through the Suez—especially when Europe's largest shipping company announced it was rerouting some ships to the Cape of Good Hope. Finally, there were 25 hostages from Britain, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Croatia, and the Philippines.

In the fall of 2008, the U.N., the European Union, the African Union, and the Arab League gathered to discuss various courses of action. How would they counter pirates on international waters, and deal with Somalia's failure to carry out its territorial responsibilities?

A strong consensus emerged around the principle of freedom of the seas, checked by nearly as strong opposition to the violation of state sovereignty. On the issues of negotiating with the pirates (that is paying ransom), the prosecution of pirates, and whether to arm merchant ships, there was no consensus.

Ultimately, the United Nations Security Council found a middle ground, calling on states using the Indian Ocean to provide naval escorts in non-territorial waters. On December 8 the EU launched Operation Atalanta, deploying six warships and aircraft to patrol the Gulf of Aden—despite considerable skepticism in home governments. China, the United States, Russia, India, and Pakistan joined together in Combined Task Force-150 to deploy more warships and airplanes, thus maintaining a presence in the area.

Piracy, Population, and State Failure in Somalia

Somali pirate operations on the high seas are a result of what has happened to the nation of Somalia, both politically and in terms of rapid population growth. According to political scientist Kenneth J. Menkhaus, Somalia now is "by far the longest-running instance of state collapse in the post-colonial era."

Other analysts agree. In the respected journal Foreign Policy (March/April 2009), the historian Niall Ferguson placed Somalia (as well as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Russia and Mexico) in the "axis of upheaval." These states, he argued, are beset by the historical equivalent of a perfect storm: ethnic competition, economic difficulties, and empire collapse.

Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, pronounced Somalia "the most dangerous place in the world." "The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamist insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets."

How, we should ask, has Somalia come to this?

By at least some reckoning, Somalia should not be a failed state. In marked contrast to Ethiopia or Nigeria or Sudan [On Sudan and the Darfur Conflict, see this February 2009 Origins article], where conflict and state difficulties are explained in terms of differences of religion and language and physical type, virtually everyone in Somalia speaks some version of Somali—a Cushitic language related to Afar and Oromo. In addition, an overwhelming majority of the country's estimated 8 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims.

Somalia's history goes a long way towards explaining the challenge that post-Cold War Somalia has confronted in state formation. As the anthropologist Ioan Lewis has noted, while Somalis have a strong sense of nationalism, external factors have repeatedly obstructed their efforts to build a stable state. [For more on the history of Somalia, see this 1993 Origins article]

A central theme in the regional history of the Horn is the conflict between Islam and Christianity, which fractured the region. Christianity took hold in the Ethiopian highlands in the 4th century AD; Islam followed in the desert littoral along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the 10th century.

The best ports such as Adulis, Zeila, and Mogadishu became thriving city states with distinctive architecture, funerary traditions, and Islamic schools. The Somali fishermen and Arab traders who lived in these villages participated in the maritime culture of the Indian Ocean. Over time—as they traded with and fought their highland neighbors—they developed a cultural identity distinct from that of the Ethiopian Christians.

One of the most famous incidents of Christian-Muslim conflict happened in the mid-sixteenth century, when the Orthodox Christian Ethiopian monarch called on the Catholic Portuguese Crown for help in evicting an invasion from the Afar Muslim champion, Ahmed Gurey, who lived in the southern walled city of Harar, at the edge of the Ogaden desert. The Portuguese succeeded in helping the Ethiopians remove Gurey, with the aid of their superior weapons, but they didn't last too long in the region and were expelled in 1604.

In the 1880s the Europeans returned to the Horn for a century-long competition for influence and territory that would tear apart the region, then dominated by many Somali clans: France in French Somaliland (which became the independent state of Djibouti in 1977); Italy in Eritrea and Italian Somaliland (which became independent in 1960 as Somalia); and England in British Somaliland (where independence also came in 1960, and is now the Somaliland Republic) and in Kenya, the northeastern coast of which was ethnic Somali.

In addition, Ethiopia, because of its defeat of the Italians at Adwa in 1896, negotiated control of the Ogaden. In the 1920s, Sayyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan (also known as the "Mad Mullah") led a movement to evict the colonizers and restore Greater Somaliland. But the colonial power structure—which had divided the Somali nation between states—could not be undone.

In 1960, the newly independent states of Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland joined together to form what is now recognized as Somalia. But the other Somali regions (the Ogaden, northern Kenya, and Djibouti) remained separate—part of the Greater Somali nation but not part of a unified state.

The current crisis—in which Somalia has had a staggering fourteen failed attempts at state restoration—started in 1991. For the previous 30 years the union of British and Italian Somaliland endured, primarily under the government of Mohamed Siyad Barre. But continued conflict with Ethiopia over the Ogaden and shifting alliances, first with the Soviet Union, then with the United States, undermined Somalia's government.

One legacy of the U.S. and Soviet Cold-War competition for influence in the Horn is an abundance of weapons. When the United Nations and the United States launched operation Restore Hope in 1992—sending 30,000 international peacekeepers into Somalia to bring some order and protect the civilian population—they met resistance from well-armed Somali gangs who killed scores of soldiers, most famously those of the U.S. helicopter crew whose story is told in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.

In 1994 the United States unceremoniously left Somalia. The United Nations soon followed suit, packing their bags in 1995. While there have been subsequent efforts to restore peace, including a major Ethiopian effort from 2006-2008 that employed thousands of well-equipped soldiers, none have succeeded.

In the midst of this state chaos, Somalia has experienced a demographic explosion of remarkable intensity—and this may be the most important destabilizing phenomenon in recent decades that helps to explain the rise of piracy. From 1950 until 2000, Somalia was the only state in sub-Saharan Africa with an annual rate of population growth of 7%. Subsequently the rate slowed to 3% per annum, still extremely high.

The cumulative effect is that over the past 57 years Somalia's population has increased from some 2 million people to more than 8 million—including the exodus of more than two million Somalis to the Middle East, North America, and Europe. The result is a serious economic crisis that makes state formation even more difficult.

Finally, Somali culture (even without population pressures and the weapons glut) does not lend itself easily to state formation and civic engagement. Lewis put it this way: "In the harsh struggle for survival which is the nomad's lot, suspicion is the natural attitude towards those with whom one competes for access to scarce pasture and water. This defense mechanism is extended to all contexts of social interaction and hence becomes a national characteristic."

The Pirates of Puntland

Ironically, the most chaotic and dangerous place in Somalia—Mogadishu and the southern border region with Kenya—is not the nexus of the recent incidents of piracy. Neither is the Somaliland Republic, despite its coast bordering the Gulf of Aden, a most advantageous geographical position for piracy.

The homeland of most of the pirates is the autonomous region now known as Puntland—from Cape Guardafui on the tip of the Horn down from the Gulf of Aden along the Indian Ocean coast past the town of Eyl. Here, in the midst of a faltering and unstable economy, piracy has become an industry.

Reporters from Puntland note that the millions of ransom dollars have resulted in the creation of secondary businesses in the region. Negotiations require radio and cell phone communication and technology. Feeding hostages requires restaurants and shops with western foods. The pirates' consumer interests (fancy automobiles and speedboats) require salesmen and mechanics. Building beachfront mansions requires carpenters, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, and suppliers. Financing of pirate operations require venture capitalists—many of them local people.

Profiles of the pirates indicate that these young men do not fall into the mold of murderous Blackbeard or William Kidd or Barbarossa. They are males between the ages of 20 and 35 with few employment options. They are motivated by the profitability of pirate operations, particularly the ransom money.

They are often from the same clan or related clans and are remarkably organized: maritime knowledge and abilities are provided by fishermen; military expertise is the domain of former soldiers, often pastoral nomads; and the communications and financial expertise comes from international Somalis who have traveled overseas and in the process learned the language and the technologies of modern commerce.

Despite the obvious threat of violence that they employ to collect ransoms, they usually do not kill their hostages.

Some even see their work as nationalistic. One of the Pirates of Puntland, Mr. Sugule Ali, noted: "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits….We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard."


It will be impossible for the international community to protect all the 20,000 commercial ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden every year, given the millions of square miles of water and the fact that many of the fishing boats that sail these waters are in fact crewed by fishermen, not pirates in disguise.

Operation Atalanta is very limited and does not have strong domestic support in the European Union. Operation Task Force-150 deploys more ships but offers protection only to ships that do not venture off protected channels. The arrests of pirates will take a few men out of the business. But the problem of Somali piracy will not be solved by international military involvement.

The solutions must come from within. Arms control is an obvious solution, one that has been employed successfully in the independent Somaliland Republic.

Aid from the international community matters less, but one obvious step would be to move beyond the existing international prohibitions on recognizing the formation of new states. The international community should also stop its current advocacy for the establishment of a Greater Somalia.

The relative stability of Djibouti and the success of the Somaliland Republic suggest the merit of this multi-state approach. The Republic of Puntland might follow, providing the international community with new incentives for the Somalis to restrain their pirates. After that, perhaps even Mogadishu and southern Somalia may find a path to order.

Most controversially, the multiple Somali states need to confront the demographic explosion. Family planning is unpopular with the Somali peoples, and it has been a low-priority with American policy-makers in recent years. But given the strain population growth has put on Somali society, the economy and the environment, it would provide a longer term solution to imbalances in the physical and human environment. That, in turn, might help create the stability necessary to turn a failed state into a successful one.

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Suggested Reading

Sebastian Berger, "Navies consider their response to hijacking of Sirius Star off Somalia," Telegraph.co.uk, November 19, 2008, retrieved February 23, 2009 at www.telegraph.co.uk.

"Calaudius Ptolemy's Geography: The Knowledge of Fourth-Century Byzantium," in G.S.P. Freeman-Greenville, The East African Coast Select Documents from the first to the nineteenth century( Oxford, 1962).

Niall Ferguson, "The Axis of Upheaval," Foreign Policy (March/April 2009).

Jeffrey Gettleman, "Hijacked Arms Ship Limps Into Port," The New York Times, February 13, 2009.

Jeffrey Gettleman, "The Most Dangerous Place in the World," Foreign Policy (March/April 2009).

Jeffrey Gettleman and Mohammed Ibrahim, "Somali Pirates Get Ransom and Leave Arms Freighter," The New York Times, February 6, 2009.

Jeffrey Gettleman, "Somalia's Pirates Flourish in a Lawless Nation," The New York Times, October 31, 2008.

Jeffrey Gettleman, "Pirates Tell Their Side," The New York Times, October 1, 2008.

Robin Hunter, "Somali pirates living the high life," BBC News, retrieved February 23 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7650415.stm.

ICC Commercial Crime Services, "IMB reports unprecedented rise in maritime hijackings," January 6, 2009, retrieved February 23, 2009 at http://icc-ccs.org/news/344-imb-reports-unprecedented-rise-in-maritime-hijackings.

Ioan Lewis, Understanding Somalia and Somaliland (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Neil MacFarquhar, "U.N. Council Shows Support for U.S. Plan Against Piracy," The New York Times, December, 17, 2008.

Kenneth J. Menkhaus, "The Somali Catastrophe, Bigger than the Horn—and Not Over Yet," Current History (March 2007).

Sharon Otterman and Mark McDonald, "Hijacked Supertanker Anchors Off Somalia," The New York Times, November 19, 2008.

Wilfred H. Schoff, trans, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century (New Delhi, 1974).

Robert F. Worth, "Pirates Seize Saudi Tanker Off Kenya, The New York Times, November 18, 2008.