SOC341: International Criminology
Professor Jana Arsovska
Student Irina Bronshteyn
PIRACY OFF THE SHORE
Piracy is a very old phenomenon. Many of us would associate piracy with the adventure movies
like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. In reality, there is
nothing romantic about piracy. It is a crime committed with an intent, mostly against foreign
vessels, which makes it an international crime. The United Nations Convention on the Law of
the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982 in its Article 101 defines “maritime piracy” as:
a. any illegal act of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private
ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
1. on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property
on board such ship or aircraft;
2. against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside of jurisdiction of
b. any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with
knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
c. any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraphs a.
and b. (The United Nations, 1982).
This definition, however, is very vague. The definition of piracy by the International
Maritime Bureau (IMB), used for the purpose of this paper, is more precise and to the point,
especially, considering the trends in piracy off the Somalia shore. It states that piracy is “the act
of boarding any vessel with an intent to commit theft or any other crime, and with an intent or
capacity to use force in furtherance of that act (ICC IMB, 2009; Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.,
This paper will review the root causes, nature and trends of piracy off the coast of
Somalia. It will also apply several criminological theories in an effort to analyze and explain the
phenomenon. Furthermore, it will offer prevention and/or resolution recommendations for
dealing with the surge of piracy off the shore of Somalia on local, national, and international
Root Causes of Piracy
Somalia is a complex puzzle where tribes, clans, ethnic cleavages and religion overlap to
form an explosive combination. Adding to this complexity, Somalia experienced, as most
of the African countries, colonization, seeing its territory divided between France
(Djibouti), the United Kingdom (Somaliland) and Italy (Somalia), leaving behind fault
lines still existing today, as is the case in Somaliland, a territory keeping a de facto
independence from the rest of the country. From the very beginning relations with the
neighboring countries have been tense, in particular with Ethiopia, whose territory
encompasses the region of Ogaden, ethnically Somali (Sauvageot, 2009).
Somalia is currently broken down into the number of regions: Somaliland in the northwest and
Puntland in the northeast of the country have established their own administrations; in the central
and southern parts, warlords have imposed their authority. “The collapse of the state in Somalia
has led the country to gradually become not only a safe haven for groups or individuals linked to
terrorists’ organisations, but also a place for private individuals and organisations to transact
illegal activities” (Mpondo-Epo, 2009).
At this point, the major problem in the country is poverty that followed the decades of
civil unrest. Lack of employment opportunities, violence and warlordism are the direct outcome
for the country that has been existing without a functioning central government for 18 years. And
piracy is, therefore, considered an imminent result of the situation in Somalia. “The only period
during which piracy virtually vanished around Somalia was during the six months of rule by the
Islamic Courts Union in the second half of 2006. This indicates that a functioning government in
Somalia is capable of controlling piracy. After the removal of the courts piracy re-emerged”
Most of the pirates originate from Puntland, where the level of corruption among the
authority is hitting the sky. The story of “Mr. Boyah”, who is considered a pioneer of piracy in
the region, is a good example. “Mr. Boyah, 43, was born in Eyl, a pirate den on the coast. He
said he dropped out of school in third grade, became a fisherman and took up hijacking after
illegal fishing by foreign trawlers destroyed his livelihood in the mid-1990s” (Gettlemen, 2009).
Currently, he is a respected authority in the eyes of members of the community. He has ties
among high ranking police chiefs, and one of them happens to be his relative. Also, “Puntland’s
last president, Mohamud Muse Hirsi, was a former warlord widely suspected of collaborating
with pirates and voted out of office in January” (Gettlemen, 2009). Last Somalian president,
Abdullahi Yusuf also comes from Puntland. As one expert said, “money will go to Yusuf as a
gesture of goodwill to a regional leader – so even if the higher echelons of Somali government
and clan structure are not directly involved in organizing piracy, they probably do benefit”
(Middleton, 2008). Thus, the officials in Puntland are reluctant to do much about pirate kings in
the area. One of the reasons for this may be the fear of provocation of a war with crime lords
(Gettlemen, 2009). Also, in attempt to analyze possible reasons for the surge of piracy off the
shore of Somalia, Hornad Knaup came up with the following chart, regarding the distribution of
profits from piracy in Somalia. The chart clearly illustrates that government officials in this
region are highly involved in piracy and they receive around 30 percent of the profits made from
this illegal activity.
Figure 1: Somali pirates
Source: Knaup (2008)
Nature and Trends
According to research done by Middleton (2008), “[p]irates operate using small skiffs with
powerful outboard engines that can be pulled up onto the beach. These boats are fast and
maneuverable but they lack the range necessary for richer pickings. Pirates now regularly use
‘mother ships’ to increase their range”. Middelton (2008) further argues that “the IMB recently
put out a warning identifying potential mother ships. These are generally fishing trawlers that the
pirates capture closer to shore and then use as staging posts for attacks further out to sea”. These
“mother ships” are used to transport the skiffs further from the coast in search for those vessels
not closing on the distance with the land. The “mother ships” may also be easily confused with
fishing ships, which makes their identification even more difficult (Nizza, 2007). The chart
below shows the modus operandi of the pirates as well as the process of obtaining manpower and
bribing officials in order to be able to commit the crimes.
Figure 2: The modus operandi of Somali pirates
Source: MarineBuzz.com (2008)
The pirates are also advancing their technological means – nowadays they are using satellite
phones and GPS systems used to locate their prospect targets from extended distance. It is also
possible that they can connect into the international network that transmits information between
ports in various regions. All previously mentioned put together gives the pirates an ability to
expand their operations. According to Middleton (2008):
Pirates are no longer simply opportunists; their operations are becoming increasingly
sophisticated and are likely to continue developing in this direction if responses do not
change. Establishing how organized the piracy gangs are is difficult but the growth in
activity in 2008 seems to indicate that this is becoming an increasingly professional
operation. Some reports say numbers of pirates have increased from the hundreds to the
Moreover, pirates off the shore of Somalia are equipped with increasingly sophisticated
weapons. They are using MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System), along with grenade
launchers (RPGs), which are much more effective than the automatic guns used to target victims
at short firing distance (Sauvageot, 2009).
The amount of ransoms received by pirates in 2008 is estimated anywhere between $0.5
million and $2 million. However, unofficial data suggests numbers rounding in the range of $18-
30 million (Middleton, 2008). A condition contributing to this increase is set up by the victims
themselves: shipping companies and governments are willing to pay that money because they are
relatively small considering the value of ship alone, not considering the lives of the crew
members. It may, however, get to the point when the ransom offers will be rejected by the
shippers because of their excessiveness (Middleton, 2008).
What Do Criminologists Have to Offer?
From a criminological perspective, the phenomenon of piracy in Somalia region can be
explained by several theories. First, Marcus Felson’s Routine Activity Theory (RAT), offers the
most detailed explanation of the crime in question. This theory, developed by Felson in
cooperation with Lawrence Cohen, is designed to analyze the crime itself, precisely ‘…what is
occurring in the present situation’ (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). The main emphasis placed by
Felson in the context of the theory is that individuals will not commit crimes unless there is an
opportunity to violate the law. Moreover, ‘…the nature of opportunity affects what, where, how,
and against whom crimes are committed’ (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). Thus, reducing
opportunities, according to Felson and Cohen, who have been working for a number of years on
crime prevention theory, will lead to a decrease in crime rates. In other words, this theory also
reflects on crime prevention methods, especially specific environmental settings.
This theory closely links to J. Eck’s Routine Activity Crime Triangle (see also Clarke and
Eck 2003). Both Felson&Cohen’s Crime Traingle and the adjusted Ecks’ Crime Triangle discuss
the roles of capable guardians, suitable targets and likely offenders in the commission of crimes.
Figure 3: Eck’s Routine Activity Crime Triangle
Source: Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (2004)
According to Cohen & Felson, successfully committed crime would require an offender
with intent to commit crime and ability to carry out the act. Thus, an offender has to have a
motive to commit the violation and opportunity to fulfill the plan. The opportunity, at its turn,
consists of two elements. First, must be the target, meaning not only individual may become a
victim, but a property as well. Second is “…an absence of guardians capable of preventing
violations” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). Therefore, pirates off the shore of Somalia act with the
motive to hijack the ships, which in this case become targets of the crime, with intent to receive
ransom for the ship and its crew. Limit of crew members on board and the absence of more or
less sophisticated means of defense, such as weapons, makes the targets vulnerable and suitable
for the offence. High seas, where piracy usually occurs are the property of no-State, therefore,
unpatrolled and predisposed for the crime.
For instance, the first and the most influential cause of the surge of piracy off the shore of
Somalia is the lawlessness of the State. The bedlam in the country leads to an increase of crime
with general population prone to commit offences in order to make the living; especially, since
there is no regulatory authority that is capable of safeguarding the society from victimization. On
the other hand, the piracy in Somalia had almost ended under the six months rule of the Islamic
Courts in the second half of 2006 (Middleton, 2008). Most of the pirates in Somalia are former
fishermen that nowadays have turned to piracy because of lack of employment opportunities,
political and economical instability in the country, and most of all, chronic poverty. Therefore,
the individuals have the motive to commit the offense. After several successful attacks, they also
have obtained the more sophisticated means to commit the offense, hence, gained the ability to
carry out the act. Finally, they are constantly searching for the opportunity to attack a suitable for
offence target – a ship that would be traded off for a ransom payment.
For example, it has to be taken into consideration that oil tankers travelling through the
Gulf of Aden, for example, have very limited crews and a minimum security because any
weaponry on board would present a potential danger of explosion and/or polluting the
environment. Moreover, they are very big in size and slow in speed, which makes them the ideal
targets for the pirates. At the same time, the financial costs of the loss of an oil tanker may add
up to millions and millions of dollars, which would immediately reflect on merchandise prices
all around the globe.
The pirates also understand the math behind the problem and aim to gain as much profit
as possible. The link behind it is the ratio between the “quick pleasure” and “imminent pain” that
may follow the commission of an offence, in other words, the more obstacles are in criminal’s
way, the less likely he is to violate the law (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). Reflecting onto the
problem of piracy off the shore of Somalia, the presence of international naval military convoys
escorting the merchant ships makes it much more dangerous for the pirates to attack their targets.
They risk of being injured or killed during the attack or captured and prosecuted afterwards
(Leveque, 2008). Therefore, the criminal’s decision to commit the offence, according to the
routine activity theory, “…will be influenced by the ease or difficulty with which the offender’s
search for gratification can be satisfied” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007).
Being called “Routine Activity Theory”, this theory is also known as “the opportunity
theory”. This means that the policy implications are fundamentally seen in reducing
opportunities for crime. Felson suggested three strategies to tackle the opportunities. First are the
natural strategies, which mean that space is designed in a way where no one and nothing can
harm or be harmed (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). However, these strategies cannot be applied in
high seas where no special design is possible.
Second are the “organized strategies, where security guards are hired for express purpose of
making crime difficult” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). The response of that sort has been initiated
by several international actors in an effort to provide additional protection in confronting the
threat while political measures for dealing with the surge of piracy off the shore of Somalia are
still being developed. Moreover, according to Sauvageot, (2009),
The Security Council has been relevant in clarifying and reminding states of the rights and
obligations under International Law that pertain to every state in fighting piracy (article
100 of the UNCLOS establishes the repression of piracy as a collective duty for every state
in non-jurisdictional waters) and has served as an actor that admonished them to assume
responsibilities. It has also added new provisions such as allowing pursuit of pirates into
Somali jurisdictional waters and lately into their own territory too.
Also, NATO and EU have been trying very actively to limit or suppress piracy in the region
of Somalia. The EU has established a mission under the ESDP (European Security and Defense
Policy) to provide a coordination cell (EU NAVCO) for the fight against piracy. According to
Coordination of the different naval and air assets in the region could help to improve the
efficacy of the fight against piracy. However, at present this cell consists of Commander
Andres Breijo-Claur, seconded from the Spanish navy, and only four others, who will
receive only €60,000 to facilitate their work. While it is to be welcomed that the EU is
taking some action, and the difficulty in organizing common defense action is recognized,
this effort may well turn out to be more symbolic than practical. The area of coordination is
one in which the EU could provide very useful assistance if the cell is properly staffed and
In October 2008, NATO, on the other hand, began to provide escorts to the WFP food
delivery ships destined to hunger-stricken Somalia. “More than 2 million Somalis could go
hungry without this protection,” said representatives of WPD (UN News Centre, 2008).
Third are the “mechanical strategies, where ‘alarms, cameras, and other hardware are
employed to control access and provide surveillance’” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). These
strategies are also inappropriate in solving the problem of piracy in Somalia region. In fact,
implementation of such methods would be nearly impossible to implement and are very costly.
Bearing in mind that each criminological theory is aimed to explain various kinds of crimes,
the Routine Activity Theory unfortunately ignores the role of poverty and inequality in creating
crime opportunities and criminal motivations. “To be fair, Felson (1998) suggested that ‘poverty
areas’ may increase ‘temptations’ and decrease ‘controls’” (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). Thus, as
criminologists we must consider also other, relevant theories to understand better the
commission of the crime of piracy in Somalia.
The phenomenon of outburst of piracy in Somalia region can also be explained through
Grisham Sykes and David Matza’s Neutralization and Drift Theory. This is a perspective that
explains why some offenders either change their lifestyle into “picture perfect” or while being
normal conforming individuals tend to violate laws on certain occasions (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball,
2007). Even though, Sykes and Matza focused on the youth potential of crime committing, this
theory may be well applied to all individuals involved in piracy rings in Somalia. Here, some
cultural traditions still remain in effect, keeping a certain degree of social control intact. The
individuals, on the other hand, manage to suspend and neutralize these controlling effects by
applying any one or several at the same time of five techniques of social control neutralization
developed by Sykes and Matza:
denial of responsibility – many men are lured into the rings because of necessity to support
denial of injury – pirates realize that the ransoms demanded for hijacked ships are
significantly less than the value of the ships, merchandise on board, and the lives of the
crew members. Therefore, shipping companies can afford and will handle the payments;
denial of the victim – pirates, in fact, see themselves as “sea militia” protecting the state
property in the absence of central government. Waters near Somalia are rich with from
tuna to sardines, dorado to perch, shark to lobster that are being fished out by fishing boats
from different countries (Gettlemen, 2009). Moreover, Somali fishermen had long
complained that ships from other countries were casting their nets along Somalia's roughly
3,300 kilometers (2,050 miles) of coastline, using practices that show little consideration
for the fish stocks or local fishermen. None of the trawlers, the Somali fishermen claimed,
had a license or an agreement with the government in Mogadishu (Knaup, 2008);
condemnation of condemners – ''Sad but true,'' said Farah Dala, Puntland's minister of
planning and international cooperation. ''After all the suffering and war, the world is
finally paying attention to our pain because they're getting a tiny taste of it'' (Gettlemen,
appeal to higher loyalties – same reasoning as for ‘denial of responsibility’ can be applied.
Placed under the restraint of social control on land, Somali pirates get total freedom at seas,
which is explained by the concept of drift.
Moreover, another theory that may be used in attempt to explain the individuals’ choice to
commit piracy is Edwin Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Associations. This theory can give
additional explanations with regards to the phenomenon under study. The main concept the
theory is built on states that the crime is learned through social interactions. In case of Somalia,
many young boys join the pirates’ rings following their relatives – fathers, brothers, etc. While
being around the elders, youths learn about delinquent act through the interaction. Hence, boys
are getting themselves familiar with the concept of the act, techniques used for execution, and,
most importantly, they are taught about the necessity of committing the crime, e.g. motivated.
Moreover, the boys tend to lean towards committing the crime because of “…an excess of
definitions favorable to violation of law over the definitions unfavorable to violation of law”
(Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2007). While presenting a relatively solid ground in explaining the
reasoning for committing a crime, the Theory of Differential Associations lacks explanation as to
why doesn’t every male in Somalia join the criminal network.
What to Do?
As far as solutions are concerned, as Middleton (2008) rightly argues, “Although the
international community must recognize that only a political solution in Somalia offers a long-
term solution to the issue of piracy, it is also crucial to understand that measures can be taken to
improve the situation while efforts continue towards a political settlement”. The issue must be
addressed at all levels: local, national, as well as international. Local level should be mainly
focused on job creation. That way, youths and other citizens will be diverted from the streets,
where they easily become targets for recruitment by armed groups and those perpetrating piracy.
On the national level attention should be concentrated on the security situation. As recent events
unfolded, it is clear that neither the Transitional government nor the coalition forces have the
control over the situation in the country (Mpondo-Epo, 2009). However, “…the reconciliation
should be accomplished inside of Somalia itself”, said Mr. Ould-Abdallah, Special
Representative of the Secretary General and Head of UNPOS at the UN Security Council (Africa
International response to the problems related to piracy in Somalia should be multi-
dimensional. While it is necessary to take every step to prevent and protect the international
shipping from Somali pirates, the root causes of crime within the state also need to be addressed.
Special Representative of Somalia informed the UN Security Council that in attempt to combat
piracy the Transnational Federal Government had established a coastguard body, where 1,000
officers had been already trained. Yet, there is a need for deployment of 10,000 officers, but the
state lacks funding and equipment to continue with the program (Africa News, 2009). Another
option to consider is the establishment of an internationally sanctioned and administered
coastguard for Somalia, run by the UN or African Union with external funds. The costs can be
covered from the collecting fishing dues and import revenue and held in trust for Somalia
There is another concern that money received as ransom payment is used to support “Al-
Shahaab”, a network tied to Al Qaeda. However, “leading expert on piracy, Charles N.
Dragonette, minimizes the threat of such a fateful link, stating that many of the assertions are
inflated or based on barely realistic assumptions. Indeed in the case of Somalia, seeing pirates
either financing or turning into terrorists does not seem very likely: the current surge comes after
the Islamist regime which took over in Somalia in the second half of 2006 fought piracy.
Unfortunately, that rule could not last long enough to put an end to piracy” (Sauvageot, 2009).
Nevertheless, it is a fact that the large part of Somali society relies on the money earned by
pirates, and cracking down on it may cause unforeseen results. For example, when asked about
money, Mr. Boyah, the renowned pioneer of piracy in Somalia, said: “Don’t be surprised when I
tell you all the money has disappeared. When someone who never had the money suddenly gets
the money, it just goes”. Also, because of the extended network of relatives and clansmen, “it’s
not like three people split a million bucks, it’s more like three hundred” (Gettlemen, 2009).
While some may perceive piracy in part as a romance, in reality it is a heinous crime that causes
suffering to millions of people around the globe. Precisely in the case of Somalia, not only the
merchant ships are being targeted by the pirates, but the Somali people themselves also suffer
from hunger, since the World Food Programme deliveries are being delayed because of attacks.
As a result of hijackings of ships, the costs of merchandise have also significantly increased due
to the rise of insurance expenses for the transportation period. It is clear that in order to eliminate
the problem, attention should be drawn to the causes of this crime. Somalia has been dealing
with the consequences of nearly two decades of civil unrest, destroyed economy and
confrontations among coalition forces. It is also obvious that the state requires assistance in
dealing with its internal and external problems, piracy being one of them. While trying to protect
itself from Somali insurgents, the international community is willing to contribute in solving
Somali problems, like providing additional funding for job creation programs. However, the
most important and probably the hardest step that needs to be accomplished internally, is
achieving a consensus and deciding on how to re-build the state of Somalia.
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