On the Ebb and Flow of 21st-Century Maritime Piracy
Bruce Jones Traces the Recent History of Lawlessnes on the High Seas
The Indian Ocean is smaller than the Pacific or the Atlantic, and yet even its scale is hard to envisage. At its narrowest point, it’s just over six thousand miles wide, more than twice the entire width of the United States. It covers 27 million square miles of the Earth’s surface and laps out at the edges of four continents: Asia in the north, Africa in the west, Australia in the east, and the Antarctic in the south (after it blends into the littoral Southern Ocean). Two billion people live along its coasts. Even a modern, high-speed ship takes nearly five and a half days to cross to the African or Middle Eastern coasts. During that period of time, it’s exceedingly unlikely that it will encounter a single other ship or spot any form of human activity other than the people on the ship itself.
That changes when ships get within a thousand miles of the coast of Zanzibar. And then, mile by mile, the odds of encountering another ship start to climb. And that is not a good thing.
To stand on Zanzibar’s Indian Ocean coast is to be transported back to an earlier time. Zanzibar’s soft white sand and its temperate waters, turquoise bleeding into aquamarine, rival the most spectacular of the Caribbean islands. Everywhere the scent of clove permeates the air. Clove trees were planted in Zanzibar in 1818 by the sultan of Oman, seeking to break the Indonesian monopoly on that most lucrative part of the spice trade. And the vibrant red of peppercorns covers field after field of inland farms.
The east coast of Africa has been the locus of fights between empires for control of trade. The most successful empire in the history of East Africa is perhaps the least well known—the Omani Empire, which from the early 17th century held sway over a swath of territory that stretched more than one thousand miles north and a similar distance south from its base in Muscat, Oman. From the Arabian Peninsula, the Omanis developed advanced seafaring technologies that allowed them to impose their presence and expand their trade in spices and slaves as far north as modern-day Iran, Gwadar port in Pakistan, and south across modern-day Somalia down through Kenya and Zanzibar (in modern-day Tanzania). So significant was the Omani Empire in the 19th century that the private secretary of the sultan of Oman, Ahmad bin Na’aman Al Kaabi, became the first Arab emissary to visit the United States, sailing from Zanzibar to New York in 1840, where he met with Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson.
Having defeated the Portuguese in Mombasa (then East Africa’s major port city) in 1698, the Omanis established a new capital in the fabled city of Zanzibar in 1832, and moved the center of their operations from Muscat to Stone Town, on Zanzibar Island. To this day, Stone Town still largely reflects the architectural and cultural legacy of the Omani occupation. A maze of narrow, high-walled streets are enclosed by the three-story graystone houses that dominate the inner byways of the city. Anchoring the center of town is the Palace of Wonders, home of the second Sultan of Zanzibar, with its high clock tower—best viewed from the rooftop of the nearby Emerson Hotel, a favorite of western tourists in the early days of Zanzibar’s development. Huge mahogany doors, intricately carved, mark the entrances to the city’s more important civic buildings. Its markets are festooned with kikoys woven in every color under the tropical sun, imports from India, as well as cheap plastic and polyester trade goods imported from China of the kind that now dominate every market in the Middle East. The ruins of Omani fortifications are still to be found on Zanzibar’s east coast, from where dhows, still built on Omani designs, ply the fishing trade off East Africa’s productive waters.
The German East African colony of Tanganyika gained independence in 1961, and in 1964 joined with Zanzibar to form the modern nation of Tanzania. It’s been largely at peace ever since. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, though, and for decades labored under a socialist government that married equal parts corruption and inefficiency. It gained a form of democracy in the 1990s, and by the mid-2000s had begun to develop economically. Its mainland port of Dar es Salaam (House of Peace) is now the second-largest on Africa’s eastern coast.
But anyone navigating a large container ship past the island of Zanzibar into the Dar es Salaam port is not focused on Tanzania’s growth. From the mid-2000s onward, the Zanzibari coast became famous once again, for a different kind of danger. This time, it was not a distant empire threatening the fishing dhows, but modern-day pirates threatening ocean liners and container ships.
One of the more dramatic and consequential attacks off the Zanzibari coast came in 2011 when seven pirates in a small skiff attacked an oil and gas exploration ship, Ocean Rig Poseidon, owned by Brazil’s Petrobras. It was part of a major Brazilian joint venture with Tanzania to explore new gas fields in Tanzania’s territorial waters in the Indian Ocean. The attack, which injured several, was eventually repulsed by security guards on the ship and a Tanzanian rescue crew was quickly dispatched to the scene, 82 nautical miles off the coast from Dar es Salaam. In total, authorities had arrested 18 pirates for attacks in Zanzibari waters that year—all of them Somali.
The Malacca pirates may have long tradition on their side, but today’s most sophisticated pirates are Somali. They ply that ancient craft along a route that has almost exactly the same reach as the Omani Empire. From towns on the Somali coast, often using the ruins of Omani fortresses as their hub of operations, they sail in small dhows fitted with outboard motors, up and down the white-sand coasts of Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, and Oman, and as far across as the waters off the coast of Pakistan. Since 2008, they’ve conducted thousands of documented attacks.
For Western audiences, Somali pirates made their popular debut in the 2013 movie Captain Phillips, based on a real incident. On the morning of April 8, 2009, the Maersk Alabama was en route to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked by pirates off the Somali coast. What this crew had going for it that the pirates’ previous targets did not was that its captain, Richard Phillips, was American. This was the first time in one hundred years that the US needed to rescue an American aboard a ship seized by pirates. The pirate crew that tackled the Alabama had to deal with the world’s largest and most powerful naval force, the modern US Navy. On April 9, the USS Bainbridge intercepted the ship. Shortly thereafter, the Bainbridge crew boarded the Alabama, capturing most of the pirates and rescuing the crew. The captain escaped on a lifeboat, only to be tracked down and boarded by pirates again. On April 12, US Navy SEALS raided the lifeboat, freeing the captain, killing three pirates, and capturing the fourth, Abduwali Abdukadir Muse. Muse became the first pirate in a century to be tried in an American court. Seen through a historical lens, this was a remarkable act by the United States—projecting naval power and protecting nationals from pirates half a world away from home shores.
Still, although the largest navy in the world by a substantial measure, even the US Navy cannot single-handedly patrol the entire breadth of the Indian Ocean. And so, just as the Royal Navy in its heyday had sought the help of the Dutch to tackle Malacca piracy, so the US Navy sought the help of its allies. And of some interesting partners.Richard Phillips, was American; it was the first time in one hundred years that the US needed to rescue an American aboard a ship seized by pirates.
In 2005, the UN’s International Maritime Organization, from its headquarters in London on the banks of the Thames, started warning of an increase in piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden, which opens out into the Indian Ocean. There had been a handful of attacks in the previous decade, but then there was a sharp rise in 2005, to more than ten. That year, and in each of the subsequent two years, there were roughly a dozen attacks. Concern about them was amplified by the fact that Yemen, on the northern shore of the Gulf of Aden, was home to an Al Qaeda affiliate. A second Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabab, was gaining a foothold on Somali’s anarchic soil.
From 2007 to ’08, the situation got worse. The number of attacks spiked to 51 in 2007 and then to 111 in 2008. The attacks spread from the Gulf of Aden out into the Indian Ocean. And in 2007, Somali pirates attacked a ship that was part of a World Food Programme convoy bringing food to relieve the crisis in Somalia—where an estimated 2 million to 3 million Somalis were facing starvation.
Governments moved to respond, starting at the UN Security Council, where they issued a collective call to take swift action to protect the World Food Programme’s ships and to tackle the mounting problem of piracy. This had international lawyers scrambling to figure out one of the oldest domains of international law, the law of piracy—largely a series of legal arrangements between the European powers from the 18th century, barely updated since the 19th.
To update the rule book for 21st-century piracy, the lawyers took two consequential steps. One of the bedrock principles of contemporary international law is that state sovereignty extends into the seas—that is to say, every state with a coastline is granted a 12-mile zone of exclusive sovereignty into what are called its “territorial waters.” Other countries can sail through those waters through a provision known as “innocent passage,” which (unusually for an international legal concept) actually explains the principle at stake: other states’ vessels can pass through a sovereign state’s exclusive waters if their presence in no way threatens or harms the state in question. What this meant, though, is that foreign navies couldn’t legally sail into the territorial waters of Somalia to tackle the pirates because their actions weren’t “innocent.” So all the pirates had to do was retreat to that outer band of territorial waters twelve miles off the coast to be free from chase. For the fight against the Somali pirates, the UN Security Council waived that provision, giving any state willing to participate in the fight against piracy the right to enter Somali territorial waters to tackle the pirates. And it gave those states the right to use “any and all means” to repress the pirates—that is, the right to use force.
As it happened, there was already a set of ships patrolling in the Gulf of Aden. In the wake of 9/11, the United States had established what was known as the Combined Task Force 150 to guard against terrorist activity in the gulf. It drew together navies from core NATO allies like Germany and the UK, with other American security partners. Part of this unit was repurposed into Combined Task Force 151, with a counter-piracy mission focused on the Gulf of Aden.
The Somali pirates’ response was agile. Far from retreating from attacks in the Gulf of Aden, where CTF 151 was patrolling, they simply spread out their range of threat, moving farther into the Indian Ocean, south to Zanzibar, and north toward Oman and Pakistan. Pirate attacks continued to climb, as did the economic costs.
The European Union stepped into the breach, deploying its own naval task force, Operation Atalanta (or Combined Task Force 465). Twenty-six European nations participated in Operation Atalanta. And then, to further extend the reach of patrols, NATO created a third task force, Operation Ocean Shield. Five NATO allies made up the core of Operation Ocean Shield: the United States, Denmark, Italy, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Other countries—Ukraine, for example—participated in the force through alliance partnership arrangements. But what really made the maritime operations off the coast of Somalia interesting is that several unusual partners joined in: the Republic of Korea and Turkey in Operation Ocean Shield; the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Pakistan in Combined Task Force 151. And the navies of China and Russia started to patrol alongside NATO forces. It was a striking display. During the Cold War, the Western powers patrolled together and shared intelligence among themselves, but not beyond. And in the first period after the end of the Cold War, the Western powers took on a broader, global role. Now a series of non-Western powers were growing in influence—gaining power for the first time, or regaining it. What relationship they would have to the West, and to the established international system, was a key question. Here, they seemed poised to cooperate with the West.
At first, there were problems in coordination, and debates about what to do with the pirates once they were captured. These details were ironed out, however, and combined with on-land efforts— including the UN and African Union helping to maintain security in Mogadishu’s port, and EU naval patrols on Somali rivers—piracy began to drop off. The counter-piracy effort began to work. Attacks fell slightly in 2010, and then dramatically in 2011.
This was more than an economic success. It seemed to hint at a world in which the shared interests of the United States, Europe, and the “rising powers”—China, Russia, Turkey, India, Brazil, and others— would trump the historic instinct for competition among them. All these actors were participants in a single, integrated global economy forged by sea-based trade. It presaged a world where the major military powers could put aside older patterns of rivalry and cooperate for mutual economic gain.
Or was it too good to be true?
Excerpted from To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers by Bruce Jones. Excerpted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Bruce Jones.