The economics of declining Somali piracy

by on October 23, 2013 at 12:26 am in Current Affairs, Film, Law | Permalink

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 task forces 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 itsguidance 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 is much more here.  By the way, I enjoyed Captain Phillips, which I took to be quite critical of the U.S. military and which is best understood as seeing the two stories as running parallel commentary on each other.

The markets in everything angle is this:

Not all of the crew cooperated with the movie, and those who did were paid as little as $5,000 for their life rights by Sony and made to sign nondisclosure agreements — meaning they can never speak publicly about what really happened on that ship.

It’s the film’s version of events — and Hanks’ version of Phillips — that will be immortalized.

There is more here.

Ray Lopez October 23, 2013 at 12:48 am

Here in the Philippines they have various groups, including MILF (Moro rebels, not the sexist term) and NPA (New People’s Army, a Maoist group) that still kidnaps for money. Why? Perhaps because the central government turns a blind eye, being weak. At the local level, these groups can buy off or intimidate local government. Similarly, in the USA, the Al Capone gangsters ruled until national government under E.J. Hoover cracked down, or so the story goes. The solution: private guards, which is what has happened, but it’s a sub-optimal solution to eradicating these violent groups.

The Capt. Philipps NY Post story was good, and I bet Philipps is no hero, nor any of the other people save perhaps the Chief Engineer Mike Perry, though I bet all of them are embellishing for a chance to win money in litigation.

Vernunft October 23, 2013 at 1:08 am


NK October 26, 2013 at 4:48 am


MILF leadership should be held responsible for the poor choice of name.
The organization simply isn’t taken seriously enough.

FE October 23, 2013 at 11:19 am

Homer’s version of Achilles was immortalized. Tom Hanks’ version of Captain Philips, not so much.

Isn’t the real economic story here that the shipping companies found it profitable for awhile to run these enormous ships with skeleton crews while letting national navies pick up 100% of the security costs? If there were impediments to armed security (I am skeptical), it was likely with the acquiescence of the shipping companies.

Rahul October 23, 2013 at 11:21 am

You make the skeletal crews sound like a bug than a feature. A modern container ship is a beautiful, efficiently run operation where automation has reduced crewing levels to what they are.

Far October 23, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I totally agree they are marvels of efficiency, and that the model had a good run in a world without pirates. But moving multi-million dollar cargoes around the world while spending less on security than a typical shopping mall was not a model that could endure.

Rahul October 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Fair enough.

Jan October 23, 2013 at 6:24 am


Colin October 23, 2013 at 7:08 am

This article, meanwhile, makes the case that the decline of piracy is in large part due to al Shabab:

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 8:08 am

“Maritime law before 2011 did not allow armed security on commercial vessels”


This, 10 years after 9/11 where similar policies precipitated those attacks.

One 12 gauge. $250.

mewe October 23, 2013 at 8:26 am

Because the merchant marine is still relevant to military conflicts. Britain relied on its merchant navy as recently as the Falklands War, using even cruise liners as troop transports.

It is impossible to distinguish between a civilian ship carrying fifty ex-soldiers pursuing a cushy retirement in private security, and a civilian ship carrying fifty special forces disguised as ex-soldiers.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 8:28 am


The $250 Mossberg 500 (I can score you one for a hundy) that would completely eliminate any piraty attempts…
“No ship carrying armed guards has so far been hijacked.”

…would be completely irrelevant to anything you could be referring to. Why does the NPR crowd have to complicate everything. Are they just bored with life?

And, btw, now it’s legal, so suddenly it’s fine…10 years late.

david October 23, 2013 at 8:33 am

Yes, it would eliminate any piracy attempts! But that is irrelevant to the fact that armed civilian ships are also a threat to actual states, and a world where states used their navies to deny civilian naval shipping, out of a fear that they could be hiding tanks in those containers, is not a happy one.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 8:38 am

Except that’s silly.

1. It’s now legal, so suddenly THEY think you are wrong.
2. I’m talking about a level of defense that means NOTHING to actual states.

Here is what it is. You give a big guy rule-making authority and it costs him nothing to make dumbass rules that hurt you until it hurts enough of you and your peers that the big guy looks ridiculous and has to cover their ass.

david October 23, 2013 at 8:41 am

It’s still illegal, save in specific areas at high risk of piracy.

david October 23, 2013 at 8:51 am

And as for ‘means nothing to actual states’: most states do not have seven nuclear-powered carrier-backed fleets. Many coastal states have some corvettes, and that’s it.

Rahul October 23, 2013 at 8:58 am

In addition to @david’s very valid arguments, I suspect the other reason is the same reason most nations are loathe to have indiscriminate gun access among civilians.

As compared to the number of piracy attempts the number of ships sailing the high seas is much larger. Having guns lying around just raises too many collateral issues of accidental use, crime, assault etc. In a cost benefit analysis the utility of guns on board may not be a very clear situation. Especially on board ships with hazardous cargoes.

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:16 am

No, David’s comments aren’t really valid.

For example…why do you think they are magically allowed in areas of piracy? NOW.

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:17 am

So, on one side I have Rahul claiming my shotgun is insufficient. On my other is David claiming my shotgun is relevant to national defense considerations.

Which one of you is wrong?

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 9:48 am

How does a shotgun, or even if Rahul gets his way an RPG or two, have anything to do with someone hiding tanks in shipping containers?

I’m seriously intrigued because I feel like conversations go this way a lot.

Chris S October 23, 2013 at 10:34 am

One participant in this discussion is being willfully obtuse. His name ends in ‘

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 10:43 am

I’m certainly not the one being obtuse.

Explain how the now accepted 4 man security teams:

1. don’t prove my point in full, even if you don’t really need 4 man ex-special forces teams.
2. how these teams mean we will also be sneaking tanks in containers when we already sending warships

Now your non-sequitur. I am baffled by the debate, but it is bafflement at the obtuseness of others.

Chris S October 23, 2013 at 11:31 am

Prior to the surge in (attention to) piracy, there was concern that armed guards on cargo ships could be cover for military invasion or supply missions. “What’s this case of AK47s for?” “Security.”

Rather than negotiate along a range of what was needed to secure cargo ships – a single 12-gauge to a team of 40 trained mercenaries – they dominant strategy was, no armed guards whatsoever. Especially stable if preventing piracy isn’t part of the decision.

Enter piracy, and negotiation. A new equilibrium is established or attempted to be established because of a new condition in the decision matrix.

You’re saying that there’s a level of ship armament that is above what’s needed to secure against pirates, but below a threat to some (tiny, impoverished) nation. And why wasn’t it in place before.

1. There was no point in negotiating to that level because piracy wasn’t considered. That should be obvious, and indignantly pushing back on the zero-armament rule as some sort of a dumbass rule willfully ignores the clarifications david is trying to make.

2. Your straw-man proposal of “a single 12-gauge secures a container ship” is also willfully ignorant. Sure, if you could magically have the 12 gauge in the right place at the right time and hit with total accuracy with each shot while the AK47-armed pirates miss with every shot, and not be scared away by the RPGs flying at you, then I dub thee Chuck Norris. An actual consideration of what it takes to secure a cargo ship against a speculative threat from lightly armed raiders results in a force similar to that needed to cause some serious issues for some podunk african warlord, which is why the equilibrium in 1.

prior_approval October 23, 2013 at 10:39 am

‘“No ship carrying armed guards has so far been hijacked.”’

This because the Somali pirates are not state backed, and the states the ships belong to have demonstrated a willingness to use force to guard general maritime interests. (No ship with armed guards has saved any other ship from piracy either, it seems – unlike several navies.)

There is a reason why privateering has not recognized as being distinct from piracy for than a hundred and fifty years –

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 10:48 am

Holy fuck.

Rahul October 23, 2013 at 8:33 am

What I’m dying to know is how you were going to stop 9/11 with “one 12 gauge”…..

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 8:38 am

Dude. Seriously?

1. the 12 gauge is for the ship
2. 12 gauge would be WAYYYYYY overkill to stop 9/11.

Am I really this difficult to understand?

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 8:39 am

I’d use a 22 short. But flight 93 stopped one of the attacks with bear hands.

Don’t go over to the dark side, Rahul.

Jordan B October 23, 2013 at 8:44 am

“with bear hands.”


Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 8:44 am

Now that guns are suddenly fine, there will be a couple more attacks because pirates are dumb, then no more forever. It’s that simple. There will be plenty of bullshit and NPR stories with lots of interviews of women because lots of bureaucracies are involved. But we now know why this was allowed to invade our consciousness and now it’s over.

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:13 am

Jordan B,

Please elaborate.

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:16 am

Oh, gotcha. Bare hands.

Bear hands would be overkill.

Chris S October 23, 2013 at 10:36 am

Properly situated, one 12 gauge would have won WWII.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

Talk about being willfully obtuse.

A rule of thumb is it takes 3 times the attackers to dislodge 1 defender. Now you are on a castle in the middle of the ocean. Do your own math.

And by all means, take MORE than 1 shotgun. But I’ll raise you one. 1 FAKE shotgun would deter the majority of attacks.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 11:29 am

The vice president, whose name escapes me at the moment, said you don’t even need an AR-15, just a shotgun.

Game over. I win. Try again later.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 11:29 am

And my BJ policy is officially back in effect as per maritime memo 1335.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 11:30 am

Your plan:

Mine is better.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 11:32 am

For those not aware of the inside baseball, the reason I cap off these discussions with “you owe me a blow job” is because that is funnier and less rude than saying “Fuck. Off.”

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 11:38 am

To paraphrase Louis CK, are you willing to confuse your opponent and yourself sexually for your argument?

Until we have working betting markets, blow jobs it is.

Sigivald October 23, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Maritime law before 2011 did not allow armed security on commercial vessels, but the International Maritime Organization has since added it to itsguidance on best management practices for piracy for high risk areas.

What I want to know is how “IMO ‘guidance’” relates to “maritime law”…

(Indeed, one of their guidance documents says “The Organization, whilst not endorsing the use of privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP), understands that shipping companies may find it difficult to identify reliable, professional private providers of armed security. ” … so its “guidance” is that it “doesn’t endorse” having guards.

What is the controlling law here? I have the suspicion that there is no real “maritime law” at all that controls this, other than the laws of whatever nation the vessels are flagged under; the rest looks like it’s all “guidance” and “practices” – nothing binding.

I’d half suspect Brookings wouldn’t understand the difference between IMO “guidance” and “maritime law”, being the sort of people that confuse a big international time-waste with “international law”, but that’s too snarky, and Brookings does have some smart people who ought to know better…)

Rahul October 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm

IMO may be advisory, yes, but what about something like UNCLOS and it’s Convention on the High Seas?

Many signatory states, so might come close to what you are looking for?

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 8:52 am

“A four-man team can charge $45,000 for safe passage through the high-risk area.”

This is way overkill- probably resulting from bureaucracy. You don’t need Seal Team Six to be plenty of deterrent. One shotgun and enough guys to provide 24 hour coverage on a ship is plenty. And while that really is plenty, you could in fact use 2 shotguns if you feel I exaggerate.

Rahul October 23, 2013 at 9:04 am

One Shotgun?! Really?

Have you seen the amount and nature of firepower in a typical Somali pirate speedboat? Have you any idea of the size of a ship? What if pirates using two or three speedboats try boarding you at once?

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:12 am

I like my chances.

Okay, your plan is no shotgun?

Now I’m intrigued Rahul. The 9/11 attackers took the planes with the king of shaves. How exactly would me and a shotgun not suffice?

I’m really curious.

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:14 am

(again, if you think I exaggerate for effect, feel free to use 2 shotguns)

Sigivald October 23, 2013 at 2:18 pm

No, my plan would be “a couple of medium machineguns”.

A shotgun isn’t real useful against a man on a boat 100 yards away with an RPG or a machinegun – note that the guy with the RPG isn’t trying to shoot “the guy with the shotgun”. He can credibly threaten to hole the ship at the waterline, since commercial vessels aren’t armored.

Likewise a machinegun can kill some crew quite handily, without having to be able to snipe the guy with a shotgun… and it can do a lot of damage to the bridge and electronics.

Reach is important in this kind of defense. A shotgun is not a very good solution; it’s a last ditch weapon for killing pirates who’ve already boarded, which is far riskier to the crew than anyone wants.

A few medium machineguns, on the other hand, is a real deterrent.

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

Have you seen the amount and nature of firepower in a typical Somali pirate speedboat?
They can’t have anything that matters, really. I’m serious. RPGs? What is that going to do against a guy with a shotgun? You can’t hit me from a speedboate.

Have you any idea of the size of a ship? This is marginally relevant, but you need early warning whether or not I have a shotgun, and if he gets early warning there is no boarding.

What if pirates using two or three speedboats try boarding you at once?

If now it requires 3 speedboats to coordinate, what have we done? Reduced the attacks by 99+%?

Andrew October 23, 2013 at 9:33 am
Slugs have about a 400 yard max range
Longest boats are about 400 meters

You can do the conversion.

Again, and you can write this down, I want a .308 in every scenario. What I’m saying is one 12 gauge is fine.

NK October 26, 2013 at 4:56 am

These arguments are silly.
Private owners – free of state *mafia) intervention – are perfectly capable of taking care of their own business.
One, two, 50 shotguns. Whatever. Your ship, your business.
Stop pontificating as if any of you has a clue.

mavery October 23, 2013 at 9:46 am

Shotguns on planes are all well and good the one time in ever people try to hijack it with exacto knives. But the other tens of thousands of flights? You’re introducing a ton of security problems such as where to store it in such a way that a random crazy passenger (who crop up much more often than hijackers) doesn’t do something random and crazy. People get mad on planes. People throw punches. Introducing a shotgun to that environment brings a host of problems.Do all of the flight attendants have to be certified to use a shotgun now? What about the pilots? The things have to be easily accessible in the case of a hijacking but impossible for potential hijackers to get to.

You blithely ignore this stuff the same way people ignore the unintended consequences of liberal gun ownership and gun ownership laws.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 10:46 am

Holy shit.

I give up.

msgkings October 23, 2013 at 2:16 pm

“I give up”

Please don’t tease us.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 10:56 am

And this is why we need libertiarianism.

Now imagine getting your solar panels approved through the county beautification board.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 11:40 am

Rahul, since I like you, I’ll let you off with a handy.

Richard October 23, 2013 at 9:03 am

“I enjoyed Captain Phillips, which I took to be quite critical of the U.S. military…”

Really? Spoiler alert: the SEALs save the day without a single good guy (hostage or US sailor) getting killed. The Navy looked both surgical and overpowering, smart and brawny. Which part was critical? Tyler, are you saying the response time was too slow?

Norman Pfyster October 23, 2013 at 9:18 am

It was not clear from the movie that the pirates were the “bad guys,” so the criticism would be that the military is a hammer that sees all the world as a nail, rather than reaching out to help the poor Somali pirates through, oh, nation-building.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 10:14 am

“Piracy has impeded the delivery of shipments and increased shipping expenses, costing an estimated $6.6 to $6.9 billion a year in global trade according to Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP).”

I thought I had a cold, but maybe my headache is from MR. Is Paul Greengrass making an imperial exploitation statement?

Larry October 23, 2013 at 1:04 pm

I would agree that the US Navy eventually produced an overwhelming and truly terrifying amount of firepower on scene. I was actually thinking that the carrier might just lift the lifeboat onto the carrier with a crane and politely offer to trade the Somalis some more khat for Phillips, but it didn’t go that way.

I’m sure the Navy part wasn’t as perfected as the movie portrayed it, but it left me stunned.

John Schilling October 23, 2013 at 10:49 am

I believe it is generally incorrect to state that “Maritime law before 2011 did not allow armed security on commercial vessels”. Some individual nations, e.g. the UK, made relevant changes to their statutes in that period, but international maritime law and the laws of most major seafaring nations have always allowed for private ships to have security guards equipped with small arms. International maritime law and practice frown on armed *ships*, those with permanently emplaced heavy ordnance, nobody much cares whether the Captain keeps a shotgun locked in his office.

What made armed security impractical before roughly 2010, is that international law does not grant private ships exterritoriality – that shotgun in the captain’s office has to be properly and separately licensed in every port the ship enters. Which is perhaps marginally practical for a shotgun, and not at all for the automatic rifles that are actually necessary to deter serious pirates. When the threat of piracy became sufficiently severe, it became cost-effective to buy half a dozen automatic rifles for each trip and throw them overboard before entering a gun-unfriendly port. And eventually, to set up “arsenal ships” flagged in suitably gun-friendly states, which park just outside the territorial limit at the major ports in the region, and rent guns to private security teams on a per-voyage basis. A logistical change to accomodate the law, not a change in law.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 11:45 am

Fine, but what is this fetish for automatic weapons? Optimum is probably a Barrett which nearly the opposite of an automatic weapon.

And I’ll take the shotgun over peeing on them.

Strip off all the legalese bullshit (which yes I understand you must deal with, but is not really the argument I’m having with anyone) and if you want what is effective you are left with something between 4 guys and ARs and peeing on them. Again, feel free to overpay for the 4 ex special forces. That’s fine. Overkill, but fine.

John Schilling October 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

The people who actually do this for a living would seem to disagree with you; they sometimes bring a .50 BMG sniper rifle, but they always back it up with a few more conventional assault rifles or battle rifles. And the point is largely moot because a Barrett, an M-16, or an AR-15 will all land you in an equally deep oubliette if you carry them into most civilized ports, whereas the shotgun that you probably can negotiate with the local cops genuinely is not adequate against serious pirates.

David N October 23, 2013 at 11:37 am

I didn’t see Captain Phillips yet, but the recent Danish film “A Hijacking” is very good and is largely about the economics of hijacking and negotiations.

Rahul October 23, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Off topic, but I’m truly amazed how the Danes keep coming up with great films quite consistently.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Then you have the US Navy way overkill response and typical Russian way overblown response at the end of this video contrasted with the measured response of 2 (although it sounds like it might be 3) mercenaries with ARs.

I’m curious if the reason governments have to way overdo things is related to the reason commenters come at me with nonsense.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm

And I’m serious. It seems like because you see Russians and Americans using gatling guns questionably at range you assume that’s the way it has to be. Just because Russians have to be jackoffs, and Americans have to follow suit, that doesn’t mean a couple ARs (and yes, shotguns) wouldn’t get the job done. Now, do whatever legal bullshit and palm greasing and glad handing you have to so that you can keep the guns onboard. That’s not my job.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Note also that the Russian and American government jackoffs are killing pirates when they pose zero threat.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Not to mention, with Russians’ penchant for shooting the hostages, I’ll take my chances with a shotgun, thank you very much.

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm

(The reason I call them jackoffs is because I don’t think jacksoff is correct.)

Andrew' October 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm
Charlie October 23, 2013 at 10:52 pm

I find that in Andrew’s indifference to being likeable, he is generally correct.

3M October 24, 2013 at 8:05 am

John’s comments make much more sense than Andrew”s do. I’m wondering if Andrew’ is as wrong on all the other threads he comments on.

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