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Defense and Foreign Affairs

Defense and Foreign Affairs

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Piracy In The Puntland Region of Somalia

The Puntland region of Somalia has, in recent years, been increasingly seen as the springboard for piracy against commercial vessels operating in and through the Gulf of Aden at the foot of the Red Sea, and in the region to the East of the Horn of Africa. This activity has spurred the biggest influx of out-of-region naval forces into the Indian Ocean since World War II, and yet international and regional forces have been reluctant to intervene against the pirate groups on land, in their villages in Puntland, for fear of creating even worse strategic consequences in the delicate security framework of the rump of Somalia: the region of former Italian Somaliland.

Pirates from the Puntland region were believed responsible for 35 incidents of piracy in the first quarter of 2010, including nine hijackings. Attacks by Somali pirates were reported off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea, and have extended as far south as the Mozambique Channel, approximately 775 NM from Mogadishu. Somali pirates were also operating in the Indian Ocean proper, where a bulk carrier was hijacked some 670 NM east of Socotra during the first quarter of 2010.

International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Director Capt. Pottengal Mukundan noted, in a statement issued on April 21, 2010: “The diverse location of the attacks demonstrates the increased range and capabilities of the Somali pirates. Attacks so distant from the Somali coast can only be facilitated with the use of mother ships. There have been a number of recent examples where the navies in the Indian Ocean have disrupted suspected pirates, destroyed their boats and confiscated equipment. Such positive and robust action by the navies against mother ships, pirate skiffs and pirate action groups has been vital to keeping the attacks under control and must be sustained.”

The east and south coasts of Somalia recorded 18 incidents during the first quarter of 2010, including five vessels hijacked and 11 fired-upon, compared with 21 incidents including four vessels hijacked and 11 fired-upon for the corresponding period in 2009. There was a reduction in the number of attacks compared to the last quarter of 2009, during which 33 attacks and 13 hijackings were reported. This decrease in attacks was possibly attributable to the specific naval targeting in addition to the NE monsoons in the area, which weakened towards the end of February and beginning of March 2010.

In the first quarter of 2010, specifically within the zone of the Gulf of Aden and the adjacent sea areas of Red Sea and Arabian Sea, 17 incidents were reported including four vessels being hijacked. This represented a significant decline when compared to the 41 incidents, including five hijacked vessels, in the first quarter of 2009. The IMB specifically attributed this marked reduction in pirate activities to the continued presence of the navies in the Gulf of Aden along with the robust anti-piracy measures adopted by the merchant navy fleet.

The fluctuation in maritime piracy, however, did not translate to major changes within Somalia, or within the Puntland region. Indeed, the decline in piracy contributed to a reduction in income for many of the clans engaged, in Puntland, in the activity, and also represented a decline in revenues available to Islamist armed groups which had benefited from joint activities — including weapons purchasing — with the pirates. This in turn increased the likelihood of a revival of Puntland-based guerilla or military activities against the stable neighboring Republic of Somaliland, as that state prepares for Presidential elections later in 2010.

Maritime Piracy Based Out of Puntland

Piracy was not a major issue off the coast of Somalia before 1990; however, there were some reported irregular incidences of armed robbery against small fishing or leisure craft. A structured form of piracy developed in the mid- 1990s in which armed groups claimed that they were authorized coast guards and were present to protect Somalia’s fishing resources, claiming that vessels were fishing illegally in territorial waters, and thus holding the boats and individuals for ransom or penalties.

In 1992, no reported incidents of piracy occurred in Somalia waters, and through 1993 few incidents were recorded. In 1994, piracy increased dramatically in the waters off Puntland. Even though piracy increased in 1994-1995, statistically the incidents compared similarly to piracy originating from other states in the region, such as Kenya, Eritrea, and Yemen. Puntland, including the contested Sanaag region, held 90 percent of captured ships and also 70 percent of the recorded attacks during 1995-2000 took place in its adjacent waters. The Sanaag and Sool regions fall within the geographical borders of colonial British Somaliland, and when Somaliland succeeded from the rest of Somalia in 1991, it claimed that Sool and Sanaag regions were part of its territory.

However, Puntland established its regional administration in 1998, and claimed both regions fell under its jurisdiction on the basis of ethnicity. Most clans in Sool and Sanaag are associated with Puntland, including the Warasngeli and Dulbahante, and the Marjerrten, the majority clan, are all from the Harti sub-group of the Daarod. It had been estimated that 60 percent of the ships captured are taken into ports in the Puntland region, the rest going to Mudug in the Harardhere-Hobyo area. 

With the exception of the eastern part of the disputed Sanagg province, Somaliland ports has never been used to host hijacked ships, research shows that early on in Somaliland, local law enforcement was used to combat piracy. Puntland, however took a different approach to protecting against piracy instead they hired private group, the British Hart group in 1991 to provide coast guard duties and training. It was known that several minister and parliamentarians within Pres. of Puntland, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed’s, the first President of Puntland, cabinet opposed the agreement between Hart and Puntland. The agreement allowed Hart finance itself by means of fishing licenses in the region, which was known to have alienated local fisherman in the region.

Later, Hart pulled out of the agreement after Pres. Yusuf attempted to extend his Presidency which caused conflict within the area and in 2001-2002 former Somali colonel, Jama Ali Jama fought for control of the region; however Pres. Yusuf emerged victorious and served his second term as President until October 2004. Pres. Yusuf assumed office as the interim President of Somalia on October 14, 2004, to the new Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Mohamed Abdi Hashi, took over the Presidency of Puntland January 2005, when he lost a re-election bid in parliament to General Mohamud Muse Hersi. Due to various financial strains by April 2008, the government of Puntland stopped paying its police forces. A month later in May 2008 piracy increased significantly.

Puntland-based pirates have a strong history of links to Yemen, and the pirates have often used Yemeni ports, particularly al-Mukalla, for re-supply. However, Yemeni vessels are often victims of Puntland-based pirates. The presence in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, of former Puntland leader, Col. Abdullahi Yussuf, following his removal as the nominal President of Somalia, and the friendship between Col. Yussuf and Yemen Pres. ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh, has been a factor in Puntland-based piracy, with the pirates often responsive to Col. Yussuf or Pres. Saleh.

Piracy and its Relationship with the Clan Structure:

Clan considerations are an important underlying factor among the dynamics of piracy groups. Clan laws, the xeer, also govern the pirate groups. “The customary law (xeer) of the clan was the main political and legal instrument by which inter-clan and intra-clan issues addressed, conflicts resolved, and resources managed.”1 Typically, most pirate groups are multi-clan groups, dominated by a majority clan. The non-majority clan members are included for a purpose, for example to have access to resources or to specialist knowledge in an area; or they may have matrilineal clan ties to Puntland.

Typically, the pirate group majority clan is closely tied with the predominate clan base in the area in which the pirates initiate their attacks; ie their launching points. Also a group of pirates originated from one clan would not be entangled in clan conflicts in Somalia. It is also assumed that pirates show loyalty to their sub-clans in conflicts, and therefore would avoid capturing ships which belong to clan members or their supporters.

Thus, ships captured by the territory of one clan rarely are led to other territories of other clans. Puntland is a clan-based administration, primarily based on the Majerteen sub-clan which is derived from Harti confederation of the Daarood clan. The Daarood is divided into three major groups referred commonly as the Ogaden, Marehan, and Harti, The Harti are composed of the Majerteen sub-clan which dominates Puntland, and the Dulbahante and Warsangeli who mainly live within the borders of the Somaliland. 
Puntland is known to almost entirely overlap with the Majerteen clan family, which is what has caused disputed territory inhabited by the Dhulbahante and the Warsangeli inside Somaliland. This is why the Sanaag regions is a disputed territory between Puntland and the Republic of Somaliland. The Ogaden can be found in Southern Somalia, as well as Ethiopia and Kenya, since the Darood are present in the North and South-Central Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya they are considered by some as the strongest pan-Somali nationalists. Puntland piracy is mainly dominated by Majerteen sub-clan, which is dominated in turn by sub-sub clans Isa Mahmod, Osman Mahmod, and Omar Mahmod.


Mohamed Abdi Hassan “Afweyne” is known to be the leader of the Hararadhere-Hoybo group, an area outside of Puntland. However, the Hararadhere-Hoybo group is based on clan alliance mainly between the Suleiman clan of Mudug and the Marjerteen clan of Puntland, other local clans like the Saad clan was introduced later. Afweyne was known to recruit for veteran pirates from the Puntland area in order to establish piracy in the southern region of Somalia. Afweyne, former civil servant, born in Mudug city of Harardhere, which later on became a stronghold of piracy.

Farah Hirsi Kulan, nickname “Boyah” born in Eyl known to act as key organizer, recruiter and finance to the missions of over 500 pirates who operate in the Eyl area.

Pirate Group Dynamics:

Pirate groups vary in complexity from a small group consisting of a father, son, and a single skiff to larger groups up to 200 individuals. However, the average group size tends to be around 12 to 35 individuals who work strictly on commission. Typically groups recruit individuals with previous family or village ties. It is known that the Warsangeli group in Sanagg invests heavily in the local community. There are three ways in which pirate groups are structured, however all pirates are loosely based around a leader who usually is a veteran pirate.

The first mode of organization is if the whole operation is owned by one man who funds the whole mission, and then the owner agrees to people involved to percentages of payment if a ship is captured. In this structure the one man is the owner of the boat, guns, food and communication equipment, and thus the investor of the mission functions as leader.

The second mode of organization would be if a number of people came together bringing food, guns, however the sole leader becomes the owner of the boat. In this structure each member becomes a shareholder in which each pirate invests to meet current running expenses of the group.

The third way of organization is a fund raiser who collects money from local investors that funds the pirate missions.

In all three structures the leader of the group must be well established and connected in the local community, which is where directly the importance of the leader’s clan and clan allegiance becomes a vital connection to acts of piracy, as well as an indication where acts of piracy originate. However, it is important to emphasize that most pirate groups are multi-clan, so that the there are pirates that represent different clans in order to have connections with a wide range of clans in the areas.

Local researchers have identified in Puntland a total of 51 investors, mid-level businessmen mostly from the clans of the respective pirate groups who join in a structure which resembles a shareholding company.  If a ship is taken out of the clan area, it is typically brought to another shareholder area from another clan. Often pirate groups are split into two groups those who attack and those who keep the ship after it is attacked. Some pirate groups would even outsource the keeping of a hijacked ship to another pirate group.


The main areas where pirates exist are in four regions in Puntland: Sanaag (an area contested between the two entities Somaliland and Puntland), Bari, Nugal, and Mudug.

Ports which have dominated by piracy in Puntland include: Eyl, Garad, Bosasso, Ras Alula, Haifun.

Weapons: AK-47 Kalashnikov and M-16, assault rifles, pistols, PK machineguns, DShK machineguns and RPG-2/7 rocket-propelled grenades.

Other technical resources used: GPS systems, night-vision goggles, often use skiffs and boats without ship identification systems in conjunction with larger “mother ships”.

Connections with Insurgent and Terrorist Groups:

Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen: It has been reported that various elements in the Somali piracy community have been liked with members of the insurgency group. al-Shabaab. The links between the two groups appear to have been mainly in relation to arms trafficking. Reports have suggested that al-Shabaab had been supplying weapons, ammunition, and training to pirates, in return for shares in the ransoms of hijacked ships going to al-Shabaab. However, there is no evidence of a direct connection to the act of piracy being performed by al-Shabaab.

International Counter-Piracy Security Structures in the Region

The international community has established structures and naval presence to deal with the issue of piracy surrounding Somalia. In 2008, the international community reacted after the obstruction by Puntland-based pirates of food deliveries from ships chartered by the World Food Program (WFP).  Canada, Norway, and the UK began to provide naval guard vessels for the ships carrying humanitarian supplies to the region.

These countries did not, however, provide consistent protection or permanent security for all international shipping in the area. There were already a significant number of international naval patrol operations underway, in part as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and these formed the initial core of counter-piracy operations from 2008 onwards. The international maritime and anti-piracy air and special operations capabilities geared primarily toward the Puntland piracy increased substantially in the period following the WFP ship attack of 2008 [see below].

The international counter-piracy operations have, since 2008, essentially afforded many maritime trading nations outside the Indian Ocean with the opportunity to project naval power into the northern Indian Ocean. As a result, the region had, by 2009, begun to see the greatest influx of external naval force since World War II. However, the ongoing presence, and capability, of regional naval forces should not be discounted, including the capabilities of Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, as well as those of Kenya, Australia, and Singapore, all of which project maritime power in the Gulf of Aden/Horn of Africa region.

International responses to piracy off the coast of Somalia include:

The United Nations, acting through the International Maritime Organization (IMO): The UN Security Council on August 20, 2007, adopted resolution 1772 on the situation in Somalia which stressed the concern of piracy off the coast. On June 2, 2008, the UN Security Council passed the US/France sponsored resolution 1816 which gave foreign warships the right to enter Somali waters for the purposes of repressing piracy and armed robbery at sea by any means necessary. The UN later adopted unanimously on October 7, 2008, Resolution 1838 which allowed for a period of six months for naval vessels to use any mean necessary to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea with the consent with the Somalia’s interim government.


The International Maritime Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations with 169 Member States and three Associate Members. The IMO is based in the United Kingdom with an estimated 300 international staff. The IMO was adopted in Geneva in 1948 and the IMO first met in 1959. Its main functions are to maintain a framework for shipping including, safety, environmental concerns, legal matters, technical cooperation and maritime security. In reference to maritime security in 2005, a number of reported attacks on ships off the coast of Somalia reported the IMO to adopt a resolution that was brought to the attention of the UN Security Council.

The UN Security Council Presidential Statement issued on March 15, 2006, encourages naval vessels and military aircraft operation in international on waters an airspace adjacent to the coast of Somalia to be aware of piracy incidents. In July 2007, both the IMO and the World Food Program (WFP) in a joint communiqué expressed their concern over the humanitarian aid that was being hampered by pirates and armed robbers, who jeopardized bringing relief to thousands of Somalis.

The Maritime Security Patrol Area: The Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) was established in the Gulf of Aden and off the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia, on August 22, 2008. The Maritime Security Patrol Area is an operational area of multinational naval support in which the IMO has called for international assistance to discourage attacks on vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden.

The principal response mechanism has been the multinational naval Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150), based in Djibouti, and originally formed to support the US Operation Enduring Freedom. CTF-150 also patrols Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and includes naval support from: Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States. There has also been participation from these countries: Australia, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, and Turkey. Combined Task Force 151 was established on January 8, 2009, by the Coalition Maritime Forces to act as a separate maritime command from the CTF150, focusing solely on counter-piracy operations, because the navies of some participating naval elements of CTF-150 did not have legal authority from their governments to conduct counter-piracy operations.

CTF-151 essentially replaces US Task Force 151 which operated in the region in counter-terrorism ops from 2002 to 2004. CTF-151 has rotated command among some of the participating navies, and some 20 countries were contributing to the force by 2010, including the Republic of Korea, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Singapore, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Maritime Security Center, Horn of Africa (MSCHOA): The MSCHOA provides a service to mariners in the Gulf of Aden, the Somali Basin, and off the Horn of Africa. The center works in support of the UN Security Council’s Resolutions 1814, 1816, and 1838. The Center is manned by military and merchant navy personnel from several countries in coordination with a range of military forces that operated in the region most notably European Union (EU) NAVFOR.

MSCHOA was set up by the EU as part of the European Security and Defense Policy initiative to combat piracy in the Horn of Africa, which commenced with the establishment of the EU NAVCO in September 2008. In November 2008, the Council of European Union set up a naval mission known as EU NAVFOR operation Atlanta to improve maritime security off the Somalia coast, and thus setting up naval and maritime patrol aircraft to operate in the region.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): In late 2008, NATO began to escort the UN WFP vessels transiting through Somalian waters under Operation Allied Provider (October-December 2008). Operation Allied Provider was then succeeded by Operation Allied Protector from March 2009 to August 2009. The 2010 Operation Ocean Shield was to provide protection to vessels but also offered training to regional countries in developing capacity to combat piracy activities. This operation was approved by the North Atlantic Council on August 17, 2009, and was extended until the end of 2012. It was implemented by the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG 2).

International Chamber of Commerce, International Maritime Bureau: The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) was established in 1981 to act against all types of maritime crime and malpractice. The IMB in 1992 created a Piracy Reporting Center, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The IMB maintains a 24 hour watch of shipping lanes and reported pirate attacks. The IMB also issues warnings on piracy hotspots.

Private Security Firms: Private security firms also provide protection for merchant ships transiting waters off the Somalia coast and the Gulf of Aden. Most of the private security firms are UK- or US-based, however there are private security firms which also exist in Somalia.

Other Naval Presence:

India: The Indian Navy responded to piracy off the coast of Somalia by deploying frigate INS Tabar into the Gulf of Aden in October 2008. On November 21, 2008, India was granted permission to enter Somalian territorial waters and has successfully intercepted numerous pirate vessels.

The People’s Republic of China: PRC authorities on December 18, 2008, deployed People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels to escort PRC shipping through the Gulf of Aden. It marked the first time that PLAN warships were deployed outside of the Asia-Pacific region for military operations. On December 26, 2008, three PLAN warships — Haikou 171, Wuhan 169 and the supply ship Weishanhu — were sent to the Gulf of Aden. Since their deployment, PLAN has sustained three-ship flotillas — two warships and one supply ship — in the Gulf of Aden, assigning ships from the South Sea Fleet and/or East Sea Fleet, to the Gulf of Aden. These vessels stay in the Gulf of Aden on a three-monthly rotation.

Japan: Japan in April 2010 announced that its first overseas naval base would be completed by 2011, in Djibouti, at the southern end of the Red Sea, on the Gulf of Aden. The estimated $40-million naval base would support Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) ships which counter maritime piracy in the region. Japan had been maintaining a naval support presence in the Indian Ocean to assist Coalition forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom, but this capability was, in 2010, being expanded to protect shipping — critical to Japanese trade — through the Red Sea/Suez sea line of communication (SLOC),

Russia: Russian Navy beginning on September 24, 2008, sent a vessel in order to counter piracy operations on the Somali coast.  By November 2008, the Russian Navy stated that they sent an addition vessel to the area. The Russian Navy has maintained a near-permanent presence off the Horn of Africa, with warships operating on a rotation basis.

Many of the Coalition states deploying naval forces with CTF-150 and CTF-151 maintain the capability for independent operations for their forces in the region. Such states as Pakistan and France, for example, maintain strong military (naval, air, and special forces) capabilities in the Indian Ocean region, particularly in the Arabian Sea and Red Sea extremities, just as the US Navy itself has strong elements based around its Bahrain command facility in the Persian Gulf. 

By Kerin Backhaus, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.

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Leave a comment
  • Anonymous on May 12 2010 said:
    A formal recognition to the Repbulic of Somaliland can minimize the pirate activities in major parts of the Somaliland waters and Red sea corridor as a result Nato Forces could focus else where in these waters. more iportantaly Somaliland could be a role model to the failed state of Somalia and Puntland.Israel is the onlky brave country who is willing to recognize Somaliland as it once did in 1960.Jasom Wiliams
  • Anonymous on May 12 2010 said:
    Great overview of a complex situation. Would be nice to see an in depth analysis of the legal impediments to bringing these brigands to justice; and also a critique of the posturing and hand-wringing by certain governments, operating companies and the IMO over arming the crew (with the active discouragement by the underwriters and security firms I'm sure). Before the 20th century no ship ever put to sea unarmed. I've had rifles, shotguns and pistols aboard my ship for 25 years. We vet those assigned to the reaction team with a background check and conduct annual live-fire training. No one has ever been shot or even winged!
  • Anonymous on May 14 2010 said:
    Brett, somaliland is involved in the piracy however it is done using "other means" for example read the story of captain weerewansa a sri lankan captain who's vessel was caught outside somaliland waters and then was jailed for months and terrorised by government officials who demanded he pay "$2.5 million" fine for not having shipping certifications.you can read the ordeal of this poor man herehttp://www.dailynews.lk/2010/04/09/fea20.aspRecognizing somaliland doesn't stop piracy, even the navies of the world can't stop it!!! the only thing that can stop piracy is to help people on the ground who venture off to piracy. By creating jobs for these people would seriously reduce piracy and to install coastguard that can effectively patrol Puntland sea would end it!!! The whole issue arose because foreign vessels steal fish from their ocean, they counter-act by stealing from ships. Both forms of piracy needs to stop for any viable solution.
  • Anonymous on May 16 2010 said:
    Very interesting topic. There are many things that were raised in this article which were very interesting.I wonder how exactly the author of this article knows how the hierarchy of the pirates is structured, just out of curiosity because without talking to them or observing them it would be very difficult to say.Moving on, the author completely fails to even mention the cause or how piracy originated. It is not as if the people woke up and said today we are going to hijack some ships.Basically, what happended was thta after the government of SOmalia fell, the waters of the country were fished in illigally, nuclear, toxic and industrial waste was dumped in the waters. The consequences were that people living around the cost became very ill, children were born dead or with severe defects, there was no fish or livelyhoods left for the domestic people. These original actions and consequences are completely ignored.
  • Anonymous on May 16 2010 said:
    Whats worse, is that it hasn't stopped. There was recently a taiwanese fishing boat captures, my question not how or why, by for what reason was a TAIWANESE FISHING boat in SOMALI waters, ill leave the maths to you. All these chemical and 'oil' tankers, for all we know they are still dumping the toxic waste.Now thirdly, randsoms paid for the realease of boats amounts to millions of dollars a year. The question is where does the money go. there are no banks in somalia, ther is nothing woth that much in the local area and we haven't seen deliriously high inflation in the country so who really does get the money. Are the Somalis just foot soldiers?, who are the masterminds of this operation. Why are the worlds greatest armies and navy's unable to apprehend a few futile, scarcily armed nomads. A significant amount of money has been shows to go to Kenya and is invested there.

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