Piracy Off the Horn of Africa

Andrew J. Shapiro
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
Remarks to the Center for American Progress
Washington, DC
March 27, 2012

Thank you for inviting me here today. I want to thank the Center for American Progress [CAP] for having me here to speak on the important subject of piracy off the Horn of Africa. CAP is a tremendous leader in developing new ideas and in approaching issues in new ways. I come here before you today to talk about an issue that the Obama administration has also had to approach in new and innovative ways.

Despite the romantic notions surrounding piracy of previous centuries, modern day piracy represents a new and complex threat to the international community. While piracy at sea is certainly not a new problem, its modern re-incarnation has an impact of a different magnitude. Piracy off the coast of Somalia threatens one of the principal foundations of today’s modern interconnected global economic system – and that is freedom of navigation on the high seas. In a globalized world, the impact of piracy in one area of the world can cause a ripple effect greater in magnitude than ever before. We live in an era of complex, integrated, and on-demand global supply chains. People in countries around the world depend on secure and reliable shipping lanes for their food, their medicine, their energy, and consumer goods. By preying on commercial ships in one of the world’s most traversed shipping lanes, pirates off the Horn of Africa threaten more than just individual ships. They threaten a central artery of the global economy, and therefore global security and stability.

When the Obama administration came to office the problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia was snowballing out of control. In 2007 and 2008 pirate attacks began to escalate dramatically. A vicious and reinforcing cycle was forming. Motivated by escalating ransom payments – which grew into the millions of dollars – and a lack of other employment opportunities, more and more Somali men took to the waters. Piracy, as a result, went from a fairly ad hoc, disorganized endeavor to a highly developed transnational criminal enterprise. Flush with money, pirates were also able to improve their capabilities and expand their operations further and further away from shore.

To make matters worse, Somalia offered pirates near ideal conditions. Piracy is a prime example of the dangers and problems that can arise from the presence of ungoverned spaces in our globalized world. In places where pirates operate – through the coastal areas in Puntland and parts of central Somalia – the lack of governance and weak institutions provide them with a safe haven. Additionally, with more than two thousand miles of coast line and with the Gulf of Aden to its north, Somalia sits along one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. International seaborne trade traversing through the Suez Canal to get from the United States or Europe to Asia must also travel through the Gulf of Aden and therefore along Somalia’s coast. This high volume of trade means that there is virtually an endless supply of ships for Somali pirates to target.

Piracy emanating from Somalia therefore represented a perfect storm for the international community – a weak state in a strategically essential location that harbors a rapidly growing transnational criminal enterprise and which threatens a vital artery of the global economy. Action had to be taken.

While there seemed to be no limit to the growth of piracy, through the collective effort of the United States, the international community, and the private sector, we are now seeing signs of clear progress. The numbers clearly demonstrate this. In 2011, the number of successful pirate attacks fell by nearly half. As a result, there has been a significant drop in the numbers of ships and crew held hostage. In January 2011, pirates held 31 ships and 710 hostages. In early March of 2012 pirates held eight ships and 213 hostages – a roughly 70 percent decline. This is still way too many, but it is clear advances are being made.

Today, I want to talk to you about the U.S. response to Somali piracy and why I think our efforts, and the efforts of the international community and the private sector are having an impact. In combating piracy, the Obama administration has pursued a strategy that seeks to leverage all elements of U.S. power. We have developed and pursued an integrated multi-dimensional approach toward combating piracy that focuses on:

  • diplomatic engagement to spur collective international action;
  • expanding security on the high seas through the use of naval assets to defend private vessels and to disrupt pirate attacks;
  • preventing attacks by encouraging industry to take steps to protect itself;
  • deterring piracy through effective legal prosecution and incarceration;
  • and finally debilitating the networks that support piracy operations.

Let me now turn to talk about our diplomatic response. The international community has adopted innovative steps to address the problem of piracy. For our part, the United States has helped lead the international response and galvanize international action. As the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review concluded, “solving foreign policy problems today requires us to… bring countries and peoples together as only America can.” This is exactly what the United States has done when addressing the problem of piracy.

From the beginning, the United States has adopted a multilateral approach focused on addressing this issue as a shared challenge. Piracy affects the international community as a whole and can only be effectively addressed through broad, coordinated, and comprehensive international efforts. In January 2009, the United States helped establish the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia to both prompt action and coordinate the efforts to suppress Somali piracy. The Contact Group is based on a voluntary membership and was established concurrent with the UN Security Council’s passage of Resolution 1851. It now includes over 70 nations as well as international and maritime industry organizations, to help coordinate national and international counter-piracy policies and actions.

The Contact Group serves as an essential forum for interaction between states and regional and international organizations. A number of specialized working groups were established within the Contact Group to address a variety of subjects, including, naval coordination at sea, judicial and legal issues concerning captured pirates; and public diplomacy programs in Somalia to discourage piracy. Through these working groups, the Contact Group adopts a problem solving approach toward addressing piracy. While we don’t always agree on everything, we agree on a lot and this coordinated international engagement has spawned action. In this regard, the Contact Group helps synchronize the international efforts underway to prevent duplication and to maximize the impact of international efforts.

The issue of piracy has also become a significant component of our diplomatic engagement with countries. This is something we see at the State Department in our dealings with countries across the globe. When I engage in diplomatic talks with countries as varied as Indonesia and Brazil, piracy is on the agenda. It is a shared challenge that many countries have an interest in seeing addressed. The issue of piracy therefore has an ancillary diplomatic benefit, as it often proves to be a useful subject for us to discuss with countries with which we are looking to expand our security relationship.

Our response to piracy is an example of how we are seeking to lead in new ways, by reaching out to new actors, building new kinds of partnerships and coalitions. American diplomatic engagement and leadership on piracy has helped catalyze the action of others so that the burden of maintaining global stability is shared.

Now let me turn to talk about how we are increasing security at sea. As pirate attacks increased, the United States, NATO, the EU, and many other national navies took action.

The United States established Combined Task Force 151 – a multinational task force charged with conducting counter-piracy naval patrols in the region. It operates in the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Somalia, covering an area of over one million square miles. In addition, there are a number of coordinated multinational naval patrols off the Horn of Africa. NATO is engaging in Operation Ocean Shield, the European Union has Operation ATALANTA, and other national navies in the area conduct counter-piracy patrols as well. On any given day up to 30 vessels from as many as 20 nations are engaged in counter-piracy operations in the region, including countries new to these kinds of effort like China, India, and Japan. U.S. and international naval forces have thwarted pirate attacks in progress, engaged pirate skiffs, and successfully taken back hijacked ships during opposed boardings.

We have also sought to create a safe transit corridor for commercial shipping vessels. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command or NAVCENT has worked with partners to set up a nearly 500-mile long transit corridor through the Gulf of Aden. This transit zone is heavily patrolled by naval forces and used by some countries for convoy operations. The corridor has helped reduce the number of attacks within the transit zone but it also has had the unfortunate side effect of pushing pirate activities further out to sea.

This demonstrates how pirates are constantly adapting their tactics in response to international efforts. One example of this is their expanded use of mother-ships – which are themselves pirated ships with hostage crews aboard. These ships launch and re-supply groups of pirates who use smaller, faster boats for attacks. They can carry dozens of pirates and tow many skiffs for multiple simultaneous attacks. This has made pirates more difficult to interdict and more effective at operating during monsoon season, which previously restricted their activities. Mother-ships have extended the pirates’ reach far beyond the Somali Basin. Somali pirates now operate in a total sea space of approximately 2.5 million square nautical miles – an area equivalent to the size of the continental United States. Pirate activity has even extended as far as the waters off the coast of India. This increase makes it difficult for naval or law enforcement ships and other assets to reach the scene of a pirate attack quickly enough to disrupt an ongoing attack. There is just too much water to patrol.

But in the cat and mouse game that is modern day piracy, we have responded as well. Since discovering the use of mother-ships, international navies now seek to identify and interdict mother-ships when possible. These are very delicate engagements however. With hostages on board and with mother-ships sometimes capable of traveling thousands of miles, interdictions and contested boardings of mother-ships by international navies are at times not possible. Yet we are making progress in isolating these vessels when discovered and boarding when necessary.

An example of this occurred in January of this year, when the U.S. Navy rescued an Iranian fishing vessel that had been hijacked and was being used as a mother-ship. The mother-ship was discovered when its skiffs launched an attack on another commercial vessel travelling nearby. Under attack, the commercial vessel contacted the US Navy, which was able to respond in time, forcing the pirates to break off their attack and head back to their mother-ship. While the pirates thought that was the end of the engagement, U.S. forces were on their tail and tracked the pirate skiffs undetected back to the Iranian vessel. When U.S. warships approached, all 15 pirates surrendered and the Iranian crew held hostage aboard was freed. The pirates were arrested by U.S. forces and were transported to the Seychelles for prosecution. This case demonstrated our principled commitment to freedom of navigation no matter the country impacted.

The American public should also know that this administration will do everything it can to ensure the safety and security of American citizens threatened by pirates. The Obama administration has made clear that it will act aggressively to rescue and protect American citizens threatened by piracy and that it will act diligently against those who perpetuate these crimes. Just months into office, President Obama was confronted with the hostage taking of the American captain of the MAERSK Alabama. The President authorized the use of force to rescue the captured captain and after a long standoff, U.S. Navy Seals successfully freed the captain by force. And this year, just hours before the State of the Union address, President Obama ordered U.S. special forces to rescue an American and a Danish aid worker being held hostage on the ground in Somalia. The health of the American hostage Jessica Buchanan was deemed to be in jeopardy and President Obama ordered U.S. forces to attempt a rescue mission. This dangerous mission clearly demonstrated our resolve. If you attack or capture an American citizen, we will act vigilantly and aggressively to make sure you face justice.

Private Sector

Another integral part of the response to piracy has been the critical role played by the private sector in taking measures to prevent and deter attacks. Perhaps the most significant factor in the decline of successful pirate attacks has been the steps taken by commercial vessels to prevent and deter attacks from happening in the first place. We have found that the best defense against piracy is often simply vigilance on the part of the maritime industry.

In response to the growing threat, we worked with the shipping industry to expand and develop its implementation of industry-developed “best management practices” to prevent pirate boardings before they take place. These include practical measures, such as:

  • proceeding at full speed through high risk areas;
  • employing physical barriers such as razor wire;
  • posting additional look-out;
  • reporting positions to military authorities; and
  • mustering the crew inside a “citadel” or safe-room in the vessel when under attack.

These steps, when properly implemented, remain some of the most effective measures to protect against, and repel, pirate attacks. Recognizing the value of these measures, the U.S. government has required U.S.-flagged vessels sailing in designated high-risk waters to take additional security measures. Nevertheless, we remain troubled that there are still commercial ships travelling through pirate-infested waters that have yet to implement proper security measures. Approximately 20 percent of all ships off the Horn of Africa are not taking proper security precautions. Unsurprisingly, these account for the overwhelming number of successfully pirated ships.

However, we must also recognize that even when fully implemented best management practices do not guarantee security from pirates. As a result, we have also supported the maritime industry’s use of additional measures to enhance their security – such as having armed security teams on board. To date, not a single ship with Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel aboard has been pirated. Not one.

These teams serve as a potential game-changer in the effort to counter-piracy. While many expected these teams to be made up of undisciplined “cowboys” that would cause an increase in the violence at sea, from what we have seen so far this has not been the case. We have not seen cases of pitched battles at sea between pirates and armed security personnel. In fact, in most engagements, the situation ends as soon as pirates are aware an armed security team is on board. In most cases, as pirates approach a ship the armed security teams will use flares or loudspeakers to warn the pirates. If the pirates keep coming, they will fire warning shots. That is usually when the interaction ends. Pirates break off the attack and turn their skiffs around and wait for another less protected ship to come by. These teams therefore have served as an effective deterrent.

However, when a vessel is successfully hijacked our foremost concern is always about the safety of the crew, regardless of nationality. The U.S. government is acutely aware of the dilemma that ship owners face when ships and sailors are taken hostage. While the safety of the crew is critical, we must all acknowledge that submitting to pirate ransom demands only ensures that future crews will be taken hostage. The United States has a long tradition of opposing the payment of ransom, and we have worked diligently to discourage or minimize ransom payments. While some may consider this the cost of doing business, every ransom paid further institutionalizes the practice of hostage-taking for profit and promotes its expansion as a criminal enterprise. We strongly encourage flag States, shipowners and private parties involved in hostage crises to seek assistance from appropriate U.S. government sources in their crisis management procedures.

The enormous ransoms that are paid out make the kidnapping-for-ransom industry incredibly lucrative. The average ransom is now at $4.5 million per incident and has reached as much as $12 million. We also know that lucrative industries fight hard to stay in business. Indeed, despite the decline in successful attacks, the overall number of attempted attacks actually increased slightly in 2011 compared to 2010. In light of the pirates growing difficulties at sea, we have seen pirates shift to targeting hostages on land, such as with the captured American and Danish aid workers. Pirates’ ability to adapt means that the maritime industry and the international community must be constantly vigilant in assessing the effectiveness of self-protection measures.

Prosecution, Incarceration, and Pirate Networks

Now let me turn to another aspect of our response – our efforts to deter piracy through effective apprehension, prosecution and incarceration of pirates and their supporters and financiers. Today, over 1,000 pirates are in custody in 20 countries around the world, most are or will be convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

An important element of our counter-piracy approach involves renewed emphasis on enhancing the capacity of states – particularly those in the region – to prosecute and incarcerate suspected pirates. The United States is currently supporting efforts to:

  • increase prison capacity in Somalia;
  • develop a framework for prisoner transfers so convicted pirates serve their sentence back in their home country of Somalia;
  • and to establish a specialized piracy chamber in the national courts of one or more regional states.

We are seeing progress in this area. Last year a new maximum security prison opened in northern Somalia to hold convicted pirates. And just this past month the government of the Seychelles once again demonstrated its tremendous commitment to combating piracy by accepting the 15 pirates captured from the Iranian fishing vessel for prosecution.

Nevertheless, the capacity and willingness to prosecute and incarcerate pirates is limited. Countries in the region that might be able and otherwise willing to prosecute Somali pirates in their national courts often decline to do so because they do not want to take dozens of Somali pirates into their already overburdened prison systems. In this regard, we are in some ways a victim of our own success. We are apprehending more pirates at sea, leading to more crowded prisons. Expanding the capacity to prosecute and incarcerate pirates is a real challenge and is one that the international community, including the governments of flag states and ship owners, will have to work hard to address.

As piracy has evolved into an organized transnational criminal enterprise, it is increasingly clear that the arrest and prosecution of pirates captured at sea is insufficient on its own to meet our longer term counter-piracy goals. Most pirates captured at sea are often low-level operatives. The sad fact is that prosecution is often a limited deterrent for men lacking employment opportunities onshore and who are willing to embark hundreds of miles out to sea in nothing more than a small boat – exposed to the elements and often with limited fuel. Sometimes pirates fail to carry enough fuel to get back from a voyage, which forces them to take remarkable risks in attempting to hijack vessels. An untold number of pirates are lost at sea every year. Part of what makes piracy seem so intractable is that despite these dangers, the lack of other economic opportunities in coastal communities means there is no shortage of willing recruits for pirate organizers to choose from.

After an intensive review of our strategy last year, Secretary Clinton approved a series of recommendations which, taken together, constitute a new strategic approach. A focus on pirate networks is now at the heart of our strategy.

We are using all of the tools at our disposal in order to disrupt pirate networks and their financial flows. We are focused on identifying and apprehending the criminal conspirators who lead, manage, and finance the pirate enterprise, with the objective of bringing them to trial and disrupting pirate business processes. Often, the best way to attack organized crime is to follow the money. Pirate organizers receive income both from investors and ransom payments, and disburse a portion of the proceeds of ransoms back to these investors. Already, the United States has indicted and is prosecuting two alleged Somali pirate negotiators.

The Contact Group recently validated the importance of this approach and formed a new working group to assist in multilateral coordination to disrupt the pirate enterprise ashore. We are working to connect law enforcement communities, intelligence agencies, financial experts, and our international partners to promote information sharing and develop actionable information against pirate conspirators. This effort will include tracking pirate sources of financing and supplies, such as fuel, outboard motors, and weapons.

Situation on the Ground in Somalia

Lastly, the only long-term solution to piracy is the re-establishment of stability, responsive law enforcement, and adequate governance in Somalia. This will require concentrated and coordinated assistance to states in the region – including those parts of Somali society with which we can work – to build their capacity to deal with the social, legal, economic and operational challenges to governance, effective law enforcement and economic development. To that end, the United States continues to support the Djibouti Peace Process, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and other regional authorities working toward these same goals. Last month Secretary Clinton attended the London Conference on Somalia, which the United Kingdom convened to galvanize high-level international support for Somalia’s political transition.

As the Secretary noted, Somalia is at a critical juncture, with less than five months left to complete the Roadmap to End the Transition. The United States and its partners are working to help the TFG and other Somali leaders seize this opportunity to make progress toward greater security and political stability. We also welcome the expansion of the troop level, mandate, and logistical support package for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM has made impressive security gains over the past several months, and we believe this positive trend will continue and will provide additional space for political progress and humanitarian access. 

However, acknowledging the difficult situation on shore does not preclude progress at sea. While there is no simple solution to modern-day piracy, we are making advances to address what was seemingly an intractable transnational problem. The effective and coordinated international response to piracy also provides an example of how – with U.S. leadership – the international community can respond to other transnational threats and challenges that emerge. The U.S. response to piracy is also a prime example of how we as a government can address new and emergent transnational challenges. Addressing these threats requires us to be flexible and innovative in how we respond. It also requires agencies across the U.S. government to work together so that we bring every tool that we have to bear – including our diplomatic, military, law enforcement, economic, and intelligence tools. There isn’t just one thing we can do, or just one policy we can implement, that will simply solve piracy. Reducing and mitigating the threat posed by piracy will be long, hard work. But it is clear that the multi-faceted nature of our response is having an impact. While pirates will continue to adapt and evolve, it is vital that we stay vigilant and continue our efforts – the security of the region and the global economy depend on it.

With that I will be glad to take your questions.