The U.S. Government's Approach to Countering Somali Piracy

Thomas Kelly
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
Remarks at Combating Piracy Week
London, United Kingdom
October 25, 2012

Thank you. It’s my great pleasure to be here at Combating Piracy Week.

Today, I want to talk to you about the progress that has been made in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia – and the task that remains.

I am pleased to say that we have made remarkable progress. In 2007 and 2008, pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia 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 able to improve their capabilities and expand their operations further and further away from shore.

Since that time, Somali pirates have hijacked more than 175 vessels and attacked more than 400 vessels that we know of, likely many others. They have kidnapped thousands of crewmembers from over 40 countries. Pirates still hold hostages from at least 20 countries.

In a globalized world, the impact of piracy in one area can ripple across the globe. People in countries around the world depend on secure and reliable shipping lanes for their food, their energy, and their consumer goods brought by cargo ships and tankers. By preying on commercial ships in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, pirates off the Horn of Africa threaten more than just individual ships. They threaten a central artery of the global economy -- and that means that they threaten global security and exact a painful toll.

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 UK, NATO, the EU, the broader international community, and the private sector, we are now seeing signs of dramatic progress.

Today, I can report that, according to figures from the U.S. Navy, we are on track to experience a 75 percent decline in pirate attacks this year compared with 2011. We are seeing fewer attempted attacks in no small measure because pirates were less successful at hijacking ships. In 2011, the number of successful pirate attacks fell by half. This year, in 2012, the number of successful attacks has continued to decline. To date, pirates have captured ten vessels this year, compared to 34 in 2011 and 68 in 2010. The last successful Somali pirate attack on a major commercial vessel was more than five months ago on May 10, 2012. The lack of success at sea means that pirates are holding fewer and fewer hostages. In January 2011, pirates held 31 ships and 710 hostages. Today, pirates hold five ships and 143 hostages. That is roughly a 75 percent reduction in ships and hostages held by pirates since January 2011. While this is still unacceptably high, the trend is clear. We are making significant progress.

Today, I want to talk about the U.S. government response to piracy. In combating piracy, the United States has pursued an integrated multi-dimensional approach that is rooted in what Secretary Clinton described as “smart power.” This approach has involved utilizing every tool in our tool kit. It has focused on:

  • Diplomatic engagement: by diplomatically engaging the international community to spur collective international action;
  • Military power: by expanding security at sea through the use of naval assets to defend private vessels and to disrupt pirate attacks;
  • Collaboration with the private sector: by encouraging and empowering industry to take steps to protect itself;
  • Legal enforcement: by using our legal tools to deter piracy through effective legal prosecution and incarceration;
  • Targeting networks: by utilizing our investigative and financial tracking capabilities to target pirate networks, their financing and their ringleaders ashore;
  • And lastly development and governance: by working with our Somali partners to build responsive and credible governing institutions as well as effective law enforcement in Somalia.

I would like to talk about each of these areas in a bit more detail.


First, our diplomatic efforts.

While the problem of piracy of the Horn of Africa was a problem that affected the United States, piracy affects the whole international community. It could only be effectively addressed through broad, coordinated, and comprehensive international action.

From the beginning, the United States adopted a multilateral approach focused on addressing this issue as a shared challenge. For our part, the United States has helped lead the international response and galvanize international action. 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 voluntary membership and was established concurrent with the UN Security Council’s passage of Resolution 1851 in 2008. 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 helps galvanize action and coordinate the counter-piracy efforts of states, as well as 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 related to anti-piracy efforts, and the disposition of captured pirates; and public diplomacy programs in Somalia to discourage piracy. While we don’t always agree on everything, we agree on a lot, and this coordinated international engagement has spawned action.

Additionally, to utilize resources effectively and prevent duplication, a UN- managed Trust Fund to support counter-piracy initiatives was established. Through contributions from states and the private sector, the Trust Fund has funded a range of initiatives designed to counter-piracy and build capacity ashore. This includes the construction of prisons, the training of judicial officials, and the purchase of equipment for law enforcement in Somalia. It has also helped underwrite the cost of piracy trials for countries in the region.


A second area of emphasis was to expand the naval forces in the region.

Critical to the decline in piracy has been the deployment of naval forces. At sea the United States and others have responded by deploying naval assets to conduct counter-piracy operations. The United States established Combined Task Force 151 – a multinational task force charged with conducting counter-piracy naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden and in Indian Ocean waters 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 engaged with Operation OCEAN SHIELD and the European Union has Operation ATALANTA. Other national navies, including several from Asia and the Middle East conduct counter-piracy patrols and escort operations as well. These are independent from the multinational efforts but are coordinated through participation in Shared Awareness and Deconfliction meetings known as SHADE to ensure the independent and multinational efforts don’t work at cross purposes.

On any given day, up to 30 vessels from as many as 22 nations are engaged in counter-piracy operations in the region. This includes countries that are relatively new to this kind of effort, like China and Japan. International naval forces have thwarted pirate attacks in progress, engaged pirate skiffs, and successfully taken back hijacked ships during opposed boardings. We have worked together to create safer shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden for commercial shipping vessels by establishing the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor or IRTC. 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.

Pirates adapted to these efforts. The expanded use of mother-ships enabled pirates to expand their area of operations toward the west coast of India. Mother-ships have also made pirates more difficult to interdict and more effective at operating during the monsoon seasons. 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. This 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. Naval patrols are a required component of an effective counter-piracy strategy but will not succeed alone. Military power, while necessary, is not sufficient.


This leads me to a third area of emphasis for the U.S. government – and that is working with, and empowering the maritime industry so that they can better protect themselves from attack.

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.

The widespread adoption of Best Management Practices (BMPs) has clearly had a significant positive effect. These include practical measures, such as proceeding at full speed through high-risk areas and employing physical barriers such as razor wire to make it more difficult for pirates to come aboard. The overall effect of the BMPs is to the extent practicable harden merchant ships against pirate attack.

You all probably know the BMPs better than I do. Some of you helped develop them. We know they will change and evolve as pirates adapt their tactics and the industry’s best practices evolve. The point is that ship owners and operators can and should continue to implement measures designed to make their vessels harder targets. Adherence to the BMPs is not a guarantee against hijacking, but all available evidence indicates they considerably mitigate the risks.

Recognizing the value of these measures, the U.S. government has required U.S.-flagged vessels sailing in designated high-risk waters to fully implement the BMPs. We remain troubled that there are still commercial ships travelling through pirate-infested waters that have yet to implement appropriate security measures. Some 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. We urge flag states to strive for 100 percent implementation of BMPs among their vessels operating in high risk waters.

But perhaps the ultimate security measure a ship owner can adopt is the use of armed security personnel, either provided by their government as Vessel Protection Details (VPDs) or through employing Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP), where Flag state rules allow. The latter are often made up of former members of various armed forces, who embark on merchant ships and guard them during transits through high risk waters. To date, not a single ship with armed security personnel aboard has been successfully hijacked. These teams have served as a game-changer in the effort to combat piracy.

For our part, the U.S. government has mandated that U.S.-flagged merchant vessels transiting the high risk area conduct a risk assessment with specific consideration given to supplementing onboard security with armed personnel.

When PCASP emerged on the scene a few years back, there were reservations. Many feared that armed security personnel would escalate the level of violence during pirate encounters, further endangering mariners. The opposite appears to have happened. From the evidence that we have seen, in most engagements, the attack ends as soon as pirates realize an armed security team is on board. Pirates often break off their boarding attempt and turn their skiffs around to wait for another less protected ship. These teams therefore have served as an effective deterrent.

However, PCASP teams come in varying sizes and, to be frank, in varying degrees of quality. Their emergence as a security option has brought with it complications. Varying national legal regimes complicate the movement of these teams and their weapons from ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore. Some flag states do not have clear legal guidelines for addressing armed security personnel and are struggling to formulate positions vis-à-vis armed security personnel at sea.

Untangling legal and policy issues related to armed security will take time. But the U.S. government is hoping to make progress. Last month, the U.S. Department of State hosted a working level meeting of policy specialists from 23 nations and international organizations. The intent of the meeting was to give participants an opportunity to share information about their national or organizational law and policy on PCASP, thereby allowing all involved to gain a more complete picture of the overlaps and gaps in legal regimes and policies from country to country. This is a crucial step in figuring out a way forward that addresses the thorniest differences.

As a legal matter, authority over the use of privately contracted armed-security personnel beyond territorial sea limits (12 nautical miles from land) falls to the flag State. Once a vessel with armed personnel embarked enters territorial seas it may carry such personnel provided it is engaged in innocent passage or transit passage. If a vessel with an armed team embarked intends to enter a port, the port State may exercise authority for regulating the personnel or their arms.

While we are finding ways to deter pirates and better protect vessels at sea, some vessels still do not take all available security precautions. Piracy and armed robbery at sea will therefore remain a danger for the foreseeable future. In a hostage situation 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 shipowners face when ships and mariners are taken hostage. While the safety of the crew is critical, it is also a fact that submitting to pirate ransom demands guarantees that future crews will face similar threats. The United States has a long tradition of opposing the payment of ransoms, and we have worked to discourage or minimize ransom payments. While some may consider ransoms a cost of doing business, every ransom paid further institutionalizes the practice of hostage-taking for profit and promotes its expansion as a criminal enterprise. In order to guard against such dangers, as well as to ensure that all available expertise is brought to bear to achieve the return of hostages, we strongly encourage flag states, shipowners, and private parties involved in hostage crises to seek assistance from appropriate government authorities.


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, and most are or will be convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

An important element of our counter-piracy approach has involved a 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; and to
  • develop a framework for prisoner transfers so pirates convicted abroad serve their sentence back in their home country of Somalia;

Prosecution is crucial to counter-piracy efforts. A few regional nations have been bearing the lion’s share of the burden in this area. Notably, Kenya and the Seychelles have each accepted for prosecution dozens of pirates captured by naval forces patrolling off the Horn of Africa. They have also agreed to incarcerate convicted prisoners until more durable solutions are found. They deserve both commendation from the international community and support for their judicial systems.

Going forward, however, we can’t expect Somalia’s neighbors to host trial after trial and continue to absorb large numbers of imprisoned pirates. Many nations have laws that allow them to prosecute piracy as a crime of universal jurisdiction. Whenever possible, nations affected by piracy, even if only tangentially, should exercise that jurisdiction and help ease the burden. Additionally, flag states should consider their counter-piracy responsibilities - including by prosecuting the pirates that attack their ships. The economic stakes for flag states are significant. Ship registrations earn millions of dollars a year for flags states, tens of millions of dollars in some cases. Those financial rewards come with responsibilities, including the defense of their ships through prosecution of suspected pirates.

It is also imperative that the maritime industry do everything it can to support prosecutors trying to bring cases against pirates. Too often prosecutors decline cases because they do not believe the required witnesses will be available when a case goes to trial. With pirates from one country; prosecution in a second; a shipping company from a third country; and a merchant mariner witness from a fourth -- prosecutors often have little ability to compel testimony. Instead, they must rely on voluntary cooperation. Merchant mariners should be able to participate in the trials of their tormentors secure in the knowledge that their employers support their decision and will hold their job for them. Ideally, employers should help with travel costs and other expenses associated with testifying, either directly or through donations to the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS). I realize the costs are not negligible and that back-filling positions is a logistical challenge. I maintain, however, that the cost to industry of suspected pirates being released without trial will be higher in the long run.

Ultimately, the majority of Somali pirates belong in Somali prisons. That is the most durable and cost-effective outcome for most piracy cases. To the extent we in the international community can help build the capacity of Somali judicial institutions, including courts, prisons, and law enforcement agencies, we are helping ourselves while also making a contribution toward a more peaceful and stable Somalia. The ultimate goal is a Somalia where a legitimate, functioning maritime defense force apprehends suspected pirates and turns them over to an independent and fair judiciary who tries them and remands those convicted to the custody of a functioning prison system. In the near term, perhaps the most realistic approach is to start with the prisons and develop them to ensure they are capable of safely and humanely incarcerating Somali pirates tried and convicted elsewhere.


As piracy has evolved into an organized transnational criminal enterprise, it is increasingly clear that the arrest and prosecution of rank and file pirates captured at sea is insufficient on its own to meet our longer term counter-piracy goals. Most pirates captured at sea are low-level operatives. The harsh reality of life in Somalia ensures there are willing replacements for pirates apprehended at sea. Prosecutions is one key to deterrence, but this must include the prosecution of the masterminds and funders along with the gunmen. After an intensive review of our strategy last year, Secretary Clinton approved a series of recommendations that constitute a new approach. A focus on pirate networks onshore is now at the heart of our campaign.

We are using all of the tools at our disposal 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. We are making progress in this effort. For instance, on August 13, 2012, Pirate negotiator Mohammad Saaili Shibin received ten concurrent and two consecutive life sentences from a U.S. federal court for his role in the attack that ended in the deaths of four U.S. citizens aboard the S/V Quest. This kind of trial and sentence is exactly what is needed to create strong disincentives to piracy. Moreover, it represents prosecution of someone other than the pirate rank and file. It is as an important step against the upper tiers of the pirate hierarchy and demonstrates that individuals beyond the gunmen in skiffs are culpable and prosecutable.

The Contact Group recently endorsed the focus on pirate networks and formed a new working group - Working Group 5, under Italy’s leadership, 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.

We have made significant progress over the last year. Under the aegis of Working Group 5, the U.S. Government has worked closely with INTERPOL’s National Central Bureau in Washington to develop a customized database on Somali piracy, that is now available to all INTERPOL member states. By making information accessible the database is designed to facilitate law enforcement investigations worldwide. In addition to advancing the work by INTERPOL through their piracy database, Working Group 5 is also improving cooperation between law enforcement and the maritime industry for the purpose of identifying and prosecuting Somali pirates. A sub-group of officials from Working Group 5 met here in London in January and again in March in Washington, DC with shippers, insurers, and attorneys, to encourage them to more systematically share information about piracy collected during and after hijackings. We hope to have future meetings with these groups to further the cause of information sharing and to bring pirate leaders and facilitators one step closer to prison cells.

Another recent and promising multilateral effort I would like to highlight is RAPPICC (RAP – pick) which stands for the Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecutions Intelligence Coordination Centre in the Seychelles. In August of this year, the UK and the Seychelles broke ground on the Centre’s new facility, which will be located on an old Seychellois Coast Guard base. RAPPICC will be an information fusion center that facilitates the capture and prosecution of the financiers, investors, and ringleaders of Somali piracy. Its headquarters will be part of a larger “Crime Campus” with a 20-person holding facility for use in conducting interviews. We are confident that if interested parties commit to participating and sharing information, RAPPICC can produce the kind of results we want to see -- prosecutors around the world equipped with the evidentiary packages they need to win convictions against not just rank and file pirates, but the middle and top tier actors in these criminal enterprises.


Lastly, the most durable long-term solution to piracy, the strategic solution, is the re-establishment of stability in Somalia. Once Somalia has a viable government capable of policing its own territory, piracy will fade away. We are encouraged that the end of Somalia's eight-year political transition occurred in September, culminating in a new provisional constitution, parliament, and president. Supporting the emergence of more effective and responsible governance in Somalia will require continued, accountable assistance to build the new government's capacity to deal with the social, legal, economic, security, and operational challenges it faces. To that end, the United States continues to work with our international partners to build a durable and responsive central government in Mogadishu while also supporting other regional Somali authorities working toward these same goals, a “dual-track” policy we have pursued for the better part of two years now.

In closing: this is a challenge where deliberate and concerted action by governments, international organizations, and the private sector resulted in a truly multilateral campaign that has suppressed piracy off the coast of Somali to levels that seemed impossible only 18 months ago.

While we have made great gains against piracy, piracy remains an ever-present threat. A ship or vessel could be pirated tomorrow. More hostages could be taken and brutalized. Somali pirates have shown it does not take much to prey on ships at sea. Should the vigilance of mariners at sea wane, should governments and navies turn their attention and resources elsewhere, pirates are certain to get back in their skiffs. Piracy is a crime of opportunity and will flourish again if we open up the space before the Government of Somali is ready to police its shores.

The efforts we have all made thus far have brought success. But it is a fragile success -- one that requires a great deal more work to make permanent. Working together, we have made great strides. We now need to ensure that those gains are not carelessly discarded, leaving us to fight for them once again. Let’s continue to work together to close the door on Somali piracy. Let’s stay vigilant.

Thank you very much and I would be happy to take your questions.