The Rise and Fall of Somali Piracy: Reflection on Logic of Global Supply Chains, Security, and Imperialism

Stella Lee, Editor

Situated near the major maritime choke point at Bab el Mandeb and along the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is strategically placed in the global maritime navigation and trade network. Under this backdrop came the golden age of Somali piracy (2007-2012), which is almost exclusively predicated on a method of hijack-and-ransom, constraining the seamless flow of goods in the global supply chain network. The rise of piracy was rooted in foreign maritime predation and the state response, but also sustained by the anchoring of pirates to their local communities and their distinct approach to hijacking at sea. Through these interlinking mechanisms, both piracy and counter-piracy measures reflect and challenge logics of supply chains, security, and imperialism. Beyond illuminating those neglected from the global network, they highlight the interconnectedness of security and trade, the prevailing discourse around piracy and violence, and the naturalization of racial hierarchy in ransom negotiations.

At the root of the emergence of piracy are the disruptions in the local fishing industry caused by the rise of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and international crimes of toxic waste dumping, which excluded the local population from livelihood operations. The absence of maritime authorities led to widespread toxic waste dumping near the Somalian coast, most of which originated in the West. This issue remained unnoticed since its emergence in 1992 until 2011, making Somalia the victim of global governance loopholes and corporate greed. This is further confounded by the concept of maximum sustainable yield that contributed to the establishment of a licensing regime.

Beginning in the 1970s, the licensing system gave third states access to Somali coastal waters in exchange for a licensing fee, which gave rise to the coast guard initiatives that intercepted foreign fishing trawlers to ensure eligibility. While the arrival of coastguards contracted from international private security companies prevented IUU to some extent, it also affected the informal licensing systems in coastal communities that led to violent confrontations between local protection groups and foreign fishing vessels as well as contestations between competing coastguards, official and unofficial, over jurisdiction. After the disappearance of the official coast guard initiatives, the plummeting fish stocks from the damaged marine environment and a surplus of well-trained and armed, but unemployed, labor force gradually transpired into the rise of piracy.

While state failure is commonly cited as the main contributor to the emergence of piracy, it is also the degree of stability offered by the clan-based communities that made viable the recruitment and redistribution of resources. Contrary to the common imperial postulation of piracy as hostis humani generis, pirates are socialized figures embedded in spheres of responsibilities within diya groups. The absence of a functioning state-run banking and commerce system led to the emergence of diya groups, an infrastructure that enabled trade and business transactions to expand across Somalia. Organized in a patrilineal manner, diya groups enshrine obligations of kinship and collective responsibilities. In addition to facilitating restitution and other retrospective measures, the diya payment group acts as a prospective investment vehicle that directs capital to finance piracy expeditions and provide for hostages, playing a crucial role in the hijack-and-ransom process. Meanwhile, profits derived from piracy are redirected into the local economy, creating possibilities of employment for Somali and benefitting the larger community (Dua 2019, 67-76). Beyond grounding piracy within economies of land, local communities also offer protection for pirates during monsoonal churns, which limited piracy activities in the Indian Ocean to a six-month window of calm waters and anchored them back to the land (Dua 2019, 66-67). Thus, pirates are both inside and outside the global network, wherein their profits derived from illicit means in the shadow economy via hijacking and ransom are re-channeled into the formal economy and re-invested in the diya network.

Beyond obligations of diya, intermediaries and profiteers also played a role in prolonging and sustaining the piracy empires, especially the khat market. Khat, a stimulant drug widely chewed across Somalia, has slipped in and out of legality and shaped the economy of piracy. Piracy expeditions are structured around the consumption of khat and their supplies are mostly acquired on credits, creating moments of profits for local businesses but also indebting pirates if expeditions fail (Dua 2019, 78-80). These intermediary businesses, the middlemen that connect pirates to khat supplies, can utilize the intimate relations between piracy and khat to generate super-profits, all the while emphasizing kinship obligations towards the diya group to excuse themselves from accusations of unjust profiteering (Dua 2019, 88-90). The ephemeral possibility of profits from hijacking-and-ransom, compounded by khat addictions, could give pirates illusions of mega-profits but also create ruins through the accumulation of debts within the network. Therefore, piracy is sustained by the prospect of quick money and the debt spiral.

Furthermore, Somali pirates’ distinct approach of hijack-and-ransom also enabled their mobility in the West Indian Ocean and contributed to successful hijackings. Specifically, instead of directing hijacking oil tankers, Somali pirates often hijacked dhows as motherships to navigate the open ocean, chase oil tankers, and evade naval control in the Red Sea region. The Dhow is a type of traditional sailing vessel which has gradually gone obsolete with the rise of steamers in global trade after colonial times, but which promised stability in the monsoonal open waters and became an unwilling ally to piracy. The commonplace use of dhow for maritime activities in the Indian Ocean also helped pirates blend into maritime traffic and provide camouflage (Dua 2019, 151-156).

To counter this vulnerability inherent in the global circulation, supply chain security emerged under the influence of military art and security logic. The primary goal of supply-chain oriented capitalism is to ensure the seamless and frictionless flow of trade to maximize profits. Therefore, counter-piracy measures emerged as backup systems and preemptions to minimize risks that would threaten the perseverance of the system, then evolved to become profit-making empires. First, maritime insurance transformed from a contract that compensates for loss retroactively to one that is protective, defending ships against a future setback, such as pirate hijacking. The logic of insurance and emphasis on risk management signifies the wider shift in the organization of society – the creation of a risk society built around discourses of future safety. This is key to the neoliberal governmentality that reorients obligations from communities to the individual. Second, insurance companies, as well as other stakeholders in maritime trade started licensing private security companies (PSCs) to provide armed guards. Despite PSCs’ notoriety from their irresponsible military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the surplus population of armed guards have transferable military skills that could police Somalia waters. While contracting PSCs is more efficient than traditional counter-piracy measures, it also opens possibilities for power abuse, from PSCs firing on fishermen to engaging in bribery and illegal weapon purchases. However, to uphold supply chain logic, PSCs became integrated into the bureaucracies and profit-making mechanisms of counter-piracy and actively sought legal regulations to build recognition and reputation as a legitimate intermediary (Dua 2019, 141-147). Third, as Dua noted, “logistical support is a world of payment” (Dua 2019, 125). Other intermediaries of shipping such as entrepreneurs and security companies who claim special technologies and knowledge also entered this system of maritime circulation and interruption, ranging from companies that market nonlethal fixes to security consultants that advise clients. Overall, the realm of supply chain security has been internationalized and privatized, challenging the older territorial forms of security and rehabilitating the mercenary.

All these discussions tie back to the logic of imperialism. Excluded from the global network with histories of extraction and exploitation, piracy sought to intrude on the network to make a claim on circulation, profits, and power via violent means. However, counterpiracy, or the management of violence, is also crucial to contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Even though the emergence of piracy was largely fueled by exploitations of Somalia’s maritime resources via IUU fishing and global disregard of international crimes, the framing of counter-piracy as defending against hostis humani generis recognizes the US and other advanced economies as the global policemen. Thus, it validates these countries to ensure global security and exercise control. Another instance in which the logic of imperialism emerges is its legacies in ransom negotiations, where the racial hierarchy of labor at sea is reinforced. Beyond the distinct pay scales between European and non-European crew, the value of piracy ransom largely depends on the crew’s life, with ‘European hostages often worth twice or three times as non-European hostages’ (Dua 2019, 139). Thus, these racial differences, which echo a long history of racial capitalism and imperialism, become inscribed and naturalized into the payout structure, which then justify racial hierarchies.

In conclusion, the emergence of the golden age of piracy was marked by a multitude of factors, ranging from 1) foreign maritime predation, 2) local conditions that sustained expeditions but also anchored pirates to the land, to 3) Somali pirate’s distinct method of hijacking-and-ransom. The development of piracy and counter-piracy both reflects supply chain logic, which prioritizes efficiency and profit maximization in the network while marginalizing others in the process, and challenges it by emphasizing its susceptibility to disruptions from external influences. It also reflects the logic of security, in which retrospective compensations transformed into preemptive risk management and cost minimization in the form of maritime insurance, PSCs, and other intermediaries. Finally, it sheds light on imperialism, evident from the framing of counter-piracy and the legacies of imperialism, specifically in ransom negotiations.

[1] Weldemichael, Awet Tewelde. “Global Root Causes and Local Circumstances of Early Piracy in Somalia.” Chapter. In Piracy in Somalia: Violence and Development in the Horn of Africa, 22–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. doi:10.1017/9781108683425.003.

[2] Dua, Jatin. Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.

[3] Cowen, Deborah. The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

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