Captain Phillips and the Drivers of Piracy in East Africa and Somalia

For those headed to the theaters this weekend, you should check out “Captain Phillips” (which was rated highly by Rotten Tomatoes in case you need more than our opinions and take on the film).  “Captain Phillips” is a Hollywood portrayal of the 2009 hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates off of the coast of Somalia.  While some media outlets have reported that the movie unfairly left out the background of the Somalis who are drawn into piracy, there are several allusions to a widely discussed Somali piracy narrative within the film.

The gist of the Somali pirate narrative alluded to in the movie is that the pirates are fisherman who got their start combating overfishing and polluting in their waters.  These fishermen originally demanded fines, working as the unofficial “Somali Coast Guard” (also referenced in the movie), from exploitative foreign commercial fishing vessels. However, this narrative of fishermen turning to piracy because their waters are overexploited is often overstated and oversimplified.  In fact, according to the 2013 U.N. Transnational Organized Crime East Africa Threat Assessment, the focus on commercial fishing vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin is actually on the decline, rather the focus is on commercial vessels from countries willing to pay out ransom.  In a United Nations survey of 56 pirates, only 14 of them listed their former occupation as fisherman.  A bulk of respondents listed themselves as unemployed or employed in informal business activities, such as khat sales and transportation. In the movie, Muse also bemoans his lack of opportunities, and the pirates come across as young and desperate to succeed in getting a large ransom payment.

Idealistic as the Somali pirates may have been initially, it becomes clear in the movie that by 2009 the original piracy motivations no longer applied.  At the beginning of the film, the pirates are roused from their village by men with guns who work for a kingpin.  A sleepy eyed Muse, the captain of the pirates who board the Maersk Alabama (played by Somalia born actor Barkhad Abdi), is forced at gun point to assemble his pirate crew.  In another instance, when asked by the titular Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, the pirates respond rather sarcastically that of course they are all just fishermen. Thus, the movie presents a rather subtle and nuanced view of the current scenario for piracy in East Africa.

Indeed, ransom payments are the main venture of real-life Somali pirates, unlike the small-scale robberies of the initial Somali piracy narrative.  Ransoms have increased in value from under a million dollars on average per year in 2005 to an average payment of $5 million in 2011 (although the average dropped in 2012 to $4 million).  As mentioned repeatedly in the film, the hijackers are rarely the sole profiteers from a hostage taking scenario.  A band of pirates is usually headed by a kingpin who organizes the mother ship and negotiators, who have higher education and can command up to 5 percent of the payout. Pirate crews need to be nearly proportionate to crew members on the commercial vessels being hijacked so the split generally has to be divided between a lot of people.  According to the United Nations, financiers of planned hijackings can buy shares of attempts, and the typical cost of an attempt is about $50,000 dollars.  Thus, the payout needs to cover pirate crew, the kingpin’s costs, and the original outlay, as well a high return to investors (investors typically claim at minimum 30 percent of the payout).  The U.N. argues that piracy in Somalia in the past garnered public support because of the perception of its redistributive nature. However, this support has recently waned, hinting at the fact that communities are not really seeing the benefits of piracy.  As Somalia reconstructs and attracts more legitimate business investors, there may be less support for an activity that increases risk and negative perceptions of the business environment.

What Can Be Done about Piracy in Somalia and East Africa?

The number of successful pirate hijackings has dropped since November 2011 when over 40 successful attacks were recorded for that month alone.  In comparison, in 2012 there were only 15 successful attacks off the East African coast, according to UN figures.  The drop has been attributed to increased private armed security on the part of commercial vessels and anti-piracy taskforces from foreign governments, which have been supported by enforced prosecution of hijackers.  Maritime law before 2011 did not allow armed security on commercial vessels, but the International Maritime Organization has since added it to its guidance on best management practices for piracy for high risk areas.  Although the situation has seen improvement, some pirate groups have turned to inland hostage taking and hijacking attempts still continue. 

There are three main potential methods to prevent piracy:

• Increase the costs of hijacking for pirate networks.
• Provide the people involved with alternative employment.
• Remove the kingpin and increase security to raise the costs of attempted hijackings for the pirates, i.e. loss of life and imprisonment.

In terms of finding alternative employment, it may be tough to replace hijacking with a lucrative option. As far as fishing goes, it is difficult to determine if it is still a viable option for the Somalis.  According to a UN FAO report from 2005, their fish stocks may be overexploited even though there may be some opportunities for increased fishing of large, high-value fish, such as tuna and mackerel.  The UN Security Council reported in 2011 that fishery programs in Somalia are generally neglected by NGOs and assistance programs. Thus, this is a largely untested prevention mechanism.

Our Brookings colleague, Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on conflict, has pointed out that piracy will continue unless the financiers and kingpin networks on land are dismantled.  She has studied piracy in the Strait of Malacca, which stretches between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra (and carries about 40 percent of global trade).  The Malacca Strait area reduced piracy by nearly 75 percent from the beginning of the 2000 to the end of the decade.  Unfortunately, the lessons learned from the experience in the Strait of Malacca might not be helpful for the East African context.  Felbab-Brown attributes this reduction to a concerted effort between Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia to increase security in their waters.  

Somalia on the other hand has a very weak government compared to the countries that border the Malacca Strait. The interdiction effort by the commercial vessels and their foreign governments currently underway in the waters of East Africa seems to be working.  However, this may actually increase the threat of greater violence for hostages and patrol units because of the use of armed guards on ships and the intensified counter response from pirates.  Thus, East Africa is faced with the long-term and difficult obstacles of strengthening governance in Somalia as well as finding alternative livelihoods for pirates.  

Perhaps the onus will be on the foreign governments and transport industry for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Belgian authorities have had some success in tearing apart the Somali kingpin network this week with the capture of Mohamed Abdi Hassan; a kingpin similar to the boss of the pirate captain Muse in “Captain Phillips.”  The notorious kingpin was lured to Belgium with a fake offer to serve as adviser to an upcoming documentary on Somali piracy, and was then arrested by authorities when he showed up to the meeting.  With such drama and continued obstacles in preventing piracy in Somalia and East Africa, we may see another Hollywood movie about piracy in the near future.