Somali Pirates: Taking Hostages for Ransom on the High Seas


Hundreds of Somali pirate vessels of all sizes and descriptions presently patrol the waters off the Somalia coast in search of ocean-going ships and hostages. These terrorists hold the captives for ransom, and if no one pays up, they simply kill them and move on in search of more profitable prey. This ploy has been successful for the last 20 years, and the pirates have collected at least 30 million dollars for their efforts.

The International Maritime Bureau

The IMB is a non-profit division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) which has been following pirate activity for the last 25 years. Its primary mission is to protect the integrity of international trade by exposing fraud and suppressing piracy.

In recent years, crimes involving piracy have steadily increased. According to the IMB, pirates took 1,811 hostages in 2010 and collected millions of dollars in return. As a result, IMB has declared the waters along Somali coast to be the most dangerous stretch of water on the high seas. At any time, Somali pirates might be holding a dozen or more civilian and commercial vessels captive.

In 2008, Pottengal Mukundan, the Director of the IMB, released the following statement: “The situation in this region is extremely serious. We have not seen such a surge in pirate activity in this area previously. These pirates are not afraid to use significant fire-power in attempts to bring vessels under their control. Over 260 seafarers have been taken hostage in Somalia this year. Unless further action is taken, seafarers remain in serious danger.”

Statistics For Piracy Crimes

The IMB released the current crime figures for the first quarter of 2011 as follows:

Total Incidents: 83,
Total Hijackings: 14,
Total Hostages: 250,
Total Killed: 7.

As of the spring of 2011, the Somali pirates have captured 28 vessels with 587 captives held hostage.

Somalia has a very weak government and cannot round up and prosecute the pirates, and the neighboring countries along the sea-way have shown little interest in pursuing the perpetrators.

But unexpected help sometimes materializes from strange sources. From time to time, huge pods containing thousands of dolphins appear in the Gulf of Aden. Recently several pirate ships had to back off and turn away from Chinese shipping vessels because they could not navigate through the dolphins to get to their ships.

Somalia’s Geography

Somalia lies on the east side of Africa with Ethiopia directly to its north, and Kenya flanks its southern boundary. The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean lie off its coast to the east.

This third-world country has direct proximity to a major trade route used by commercial vessels. Shipping traffic travels south following a sea lane through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea before sailing directly east through the Gulf of Aden and then turning out into the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

If the merchant vessels head north from a point of entry in the Gulf of Aden, they will come out of the Suez Canal on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Somali pirates form base stations in Somalia where they will be safe from authorities. Sometimes they’ll hide out along the coast until they are fed and rested before heading out to intercept vulnerable quarry.

American Hostages

Recently four American tourists aboard their yacht, the Quest, were enjoying a round-the-world traveling adventure. It was to be their once in a lifetime vacation.

A group of 19 Somali pirates hijacked the yacht and came on board in the Indian Ocean. Usually the pirates take their hostages to Somalia to negotiate with their relatives for the ransom money. In this case, the US Navy was attempting to intercept the pirates before they could make it to the Somali coast, and they were in pursuit when they suddenly heard gunfire.

The Navy personnel found the four Americans dead along with two of the pirates. No one knows what went wrong here. This marks the first time Americans have been taken hostage and killed in a pirate attack while traveling through those waters.

In 2009, pirates attacked and boarded a US cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. A five-day standoff ensued, and the captain, Richard Phillips, offered himself up as a hostage in return for the safety of his crew. Four US Navy warships and one aircraft carrier responded. The SEALs watched until the time was right and their sniper opened fire, killing three of the captors. The captain and the crew were not harmed.
International Trade Route

Egypt is interested in getting their neighboring countries to cooperate in working out a strategy to shut the pirates down. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Jordan are also concerned in securing this trade route through the Suez Canal. Much of their revenue comes from merchant ships traveling back and forth through these waters.

They all agree Somalia must first develop an effective government. The country must not be a safe-haven or a hide-away for pirates. This is the main key to a viable solution for the problem.