The Roots of Somalia’s Slow Piracy Resurgence
The Roots of Somalia’s Slow Piracy Resurgence
Police officers are pictured alongside a group of women and children on a beach in Eyl, Somalia. February 2024.
Police officers are pictured alongside a group of women and children on a beach in Eyl, Somalia. February 2024. CRISIS GROUP / Omar Mahmood
Our Journeys / Africa 11 minutes

The Roots of Somalia’s Slow Piracy Resurgence

After a decade-long lull, Somali pirates have hijacked a handful of vessels in recent months. Crisis Group expert Omar Mahmood reports on the burning anger over illegal trawling that is driving some local fishermen to sympathise with this dangerous – and profitable – activity.   

The historic town of Eyl, located on the coast of Somalia’s north-eastern Puntland state, sits astride rock-strewn mountains. It was here that Sayid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a legendary Somali figure who waged a twenty-year struggle against British colonialism at the turn of the last century, based himself for a period in the early 1900s. But Eyl is famous for more than that. In the mid-2000s, Eyl vaulted into the headlines as the epicentre of a wave of piracy that emerged after members of local fishing communities, angered by foreign trawlers’ predation, turned to buccaneering. There were as many as 200 piracy incidents reported annually between 2009 and 2011. Shippers were forced to hire guards and take longer routes to avoid the Horn of Africa waters. Fuel bills soared, as did insurance premiums and labour costs. A World Bank estimate indicated piracy in 2010 cost the global economy $18 billion. The U.S., European Union, and NATO deployed ships to patrol the waters off the Somali coast as part of a coordinated international response, while local Somali administrations also mobilised to root out the pirates.

(L) Fort used in the early 1900s by Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a renowned Somali figure who fought British colonialism for twenty years. (R) The centre of the upper area of Eyl in the village of Dawaad. Eyl, Somalia. February 2024. CRISIS GROUP / Omar Mahmood

Over time, these measures appeared to be working, with incidents off the Somali coast plummeting to zero in 2020. Now, however, piracy is on the upswing again, if not in Eyl then elsewhere up and down the coast. Somali pirates have been implicated in more than 30 buccaneering incidents since November 2023. 

This surge can be attributed to both international and domestic factors. Over-fishing by foreign trawlers has frustrated local fishermen. They say the practice is on the rise, and not purely because of actors operating completely outside of the law: they also fault the government for handing out more licenses while failing to simultaneously step up regulation to ensure compliance with government restrictions. As locals’ frustration mounts, pirates may garner more sympathy (and potentially support and recruits) in communities that dot the Somali coast.

Meanwhile, the security arrangements that served as an impediment to piracy have deteriorated. Combined with a gradual downturn in the number of international naval forces patrolling off the Somali coast in recent years as the incidents of piracy eased, the attention of some remaining forces has been diverted to deterring attacks by Yemen’s Houthi forces further north in the Red Sea. Local Somali security forces in Puntland also have been distracted as of late. Their attention has focused on supporting an uprising by clan brethren in Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991; fending off branches of militant jihadist groups Al-Shabaab and the Islamic State; and dealing with a tense election cycle that concluded in January 2024.

This resurgence has yet to reach Eyl. Pirates have not to date set up base on the town’s natural bay and overall attacks remain low. As I discovered on a recent trip to Eyl, however, burning local anger regarding foreign fishing means the risk of a full-fledged pirate resurgence persists. 

Rising Anger in Eyl

Late in the morning at the end of February, I met fishermen Yusuf and Mohamed at a makeshift restaurant just metres from the beach in Eyl. The restaurant, situated in a shaded courtyard in the middle of a family compound, had just enough space for two tables and was adorned with decorated turtle shells and leather jugs for holding camel milk. Yusuf wore a yellow dress shirt with a macawis or a traditional Somali sarong from the waist down, and held a keffiyeh (Middle Eastern head dress) in his lap. Mohamed, a taller man, sported a crisp goatee and also wore a macawis. Initially quiet, his voice rose with anger the more we talked.   

Local fisherman Yusuf shares his experience regarding fishing in Somalia’s waters. Eyl, Somalia. February 2024. CRISIS GROUP / Omar Mahmood

Both Yusuf and Mohamed have been earning their keep in Eyl for over two decades. Undertaking nightly expeditions to avoid the daytime heat, the fishermen noted that two years ago they used to garner a decent living, more than enough to cover the needs of their families. This has changed amid an upsurge in the number of foreign boats. As the UN has documented, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing off the Somali coast costs the country up to $300 million annually. While some of these foreign vessels are fishing without authorisation, others have valid licenses issued either by the Puntland regional or Somali national governments. (Disputes over power and resource sharing in Somalia’s federal system mean both hand out licenses.) Even with licenses, foreign vessels are prohibited from trawling within 24 nautical miles of the coastline in order to reserve this area for the local fishing community. Yusuf and Mohamed, however, say the foreign vessels – most of which they claim come from countries like Iran, India, Pakistan or as far away as Thailand – are not respecting the limitations. 

Run-ins with these vessels have left local fishermen discouraged. Yusuf complained: “they cut my nets [while traversing waters near the shore reserved for local fishermen] and the government is not doing anything. If I take a weapon to defend myself, they call me a pirate – but who is the real pirate?” Mohamed became animated the more he described the challenges he faced amid the current surge of pirate attacks off the Somali coast. Visibly upset, his deep voice rising in a tone tinged by both anger and frustration, he exclaimed: “We hate piracy, but the foreign navies and the government are creating it!”

The encroachment of foreign vessels inflicts considerable economic hardship on local fishermen.

The encroachment of foreign vessels inflicts considerable economic hardship on local fishermen. Mohamed confided that two years ago, he personally earned between $25-30 per outing during his nightly fishing excursions. The day before I spoke with him, however, his three-member crew took home $33 total – or only $11 each. He complained there was little benefit to being a fisherman at this point. But since he isn’t trained for much else and sees no other opportunities, he is resigned to continuing. It could become even tougher in the future: the bigger vessels in the region destroy the coral underneath, which in turn diminishes fish stocks.

The growing presence of foreign vessels seems to affect everyone in the fishing business in Eyl. Asha, the dynamic businesswoman who owns the restaurant and also styles herself as a local historian, documenting the town’s history in her journal, murmured that her husband used to fish but gave it up after his nets were destroyed three times. 

Local businesswoman Asha recounts the history of Eyl from her journal. Eyl, Somalia. February 2024. CRISIS GROUP / Omar Mahmood

Government inaction is a particular source of ire in Eyl. “The government is just a company”, asserts a businessman I meet who is involved in the exportation of fish. He complains about how the government issues licenses without following up to ensure ships abide by their terms. (The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime documented a network of actors who, it alleged, benefit financially from the distribution of permits.) After returning from Eyl to Garowe, the capital of Puntland, a minister told me past administrations issued several hundred fishing licenses, on top of what the federal government in Mogadishu also issued. Of course, there are also boats fishing without any licenses at all. 

There is a widespread sense in Eyl that the government is doing little to protect their livelihoods. In a recent case, fishermen complained to the Puntland Maritime Police Force – which is tasked with protecting Puntland’s coastal waters – after a foreign vessel intruded on the area. The force managed to detain the vessel with its Iranian crew. But officials in Garowe later authorised their release, stating they had a valid license. They also indicated they did not want to stir up trouble with a powerful external actor. Such incidents cause the local community to lose hope in the government’s ability to stem foreign trawling. Instead, they see it as playing an abetting role. 

Eyl – The Birthplace of Somali Piracy

The town of Eyl is divided into two. The upper area, Daawad, hosts government offices and a primary school whose claim to fame is its illustrious alumni: both International Court of Justice Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf and former Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole attended the institution. The lower portion, Badey, lies three kilometres along a dramatic descent to the coast, passing picturesque flat-top cliff faces opposite a ravine occupied by an inland stream that flows directly into the Indian Ocean. 

Stream flowing alongside the path from Dawaad, the upper area of Eyl to Badey, the lower portion of the town and into the Indian Ocean. Eyl, Somalia. February 2024. CRISIS GROUP / Omar Mahmood

Eyl has a complicated history with piracy. Some of the area’s first 21st century pirates, or burcad badeed (sea bandits) as they are known in Somali, based themselves here in the 2000s, using its natural bay as a hub from which to conduct raids and dock vessels. Initially they drew community support. Many saw them as serving local interests when they pushed back against foreign ships’ intrusions, protecting livelihoods in the process. The pirates’ pursuit of financial gain and hedonistic lifestyle, however, did not sit well with Eyl’s devout Muslim mores, and the local community turned on them.

As Asha juggled a crying toddler, she enumerated the pirates’ peccadillos. They consumed drugs and alcohol. They married young women in town and then quickly divorced them. Their generally disrespectful behaviour toward the wider community became more pronounced as the pirates’ profits surged. Community leaders were also concerned about the influence the pirates had on the town’s young men, who began to see them as role models and questioned the value of continuing their education when they could instead make a profit on the high seas.

This led Eyl to become the first community to stand up to the pirates: in 2011 they chased them out with the support of President Farole’s administration in Puntland. Farole had made fighting the pirates a pillar of his agenda, seeing them as a stain on Puntland’s reputation and, with their bountiful funds, a challenge to his government. 

As the former Puntland leader told me during an evening discussion at his house in Garowe, he adopted a community-centred approach to countering piracy, which included mobilising religious sheikhs to assert piracy was haram (forbidden by Islam). He also importuned clan elders to convince locals not to permit their daughters to marry the pirates. Getting the hint, the pirates left Eyl. But rather than stopping their activities, they relocated to other coastal locations, including the Mudug region beyond Puntland’s territorial remit. Farole’s administration continued to pursue them beyond his hometown, across Puntland’s vast coast from Garacad to Alula, contributing to the decline in pirate attacks from 2012 onwards.

The lull may have been deceiving. Some networks appear to have gone dormant, waiting for a better day. In some places, that day may have come. While today’s piracy resurgence largely bypasses Eyl, local residents say one hotspot has emerged near the neighbouring district of Godobjiraan, directly south. Another is over 400 kilometres north around Bargaal. But while Eyl is calm and not eager to revisit its previous history, illegal and unregulated fishing, coupled with government inaction, draws local anger, which in turn begins to blur with support for piracy itself.

Halima, a young shop owner I met in Eyl, summed up local attitudes when she expressed her opposition to piracy, but also praised them for serving as a check on foreign trawlers: “We hate the pirates because they are doing something contrary to humanity – but when they destroy a foreign ship, then we are happy!” Yusuf echoed the message. “The world talks about fighting piracy, but never talks about the cause of piracy”. 

Approaching the lower area of Eyl in the vicinity of the village of Badey. Eyl, Somalia. February 2024. CRISIS GROUP / Omar Mahmood

Local Anger, Global Implications

Although Eyl has thus far been largely spared, piracy has been slowly re-emerging off of Puntland’s coast over the past six months. And while pirates claim to be standing up for local fishing communities, the reality is they operate in a profit-driven industry, embedded in a vast multi-layered criminal network that belies the notion that the pirates are simply protecting local livelihoods. According to residents in Eyl who lived through the previous wave of piracy, businessmen cover the pirates’ fuel and food expenses with the expectation that they will be handsomely compensated out of ransom payments. There are also regional brokers who serve as intermediaries between the pirates and the shipping or insurance companies, negotiating on the pirates’ behalf. These networks tend to materialise whenever there is a successful hijacking. 

The return of piracy has triggered concerns well beyond Somalia. The new attacks are already driving up insurance premiums while shipping companies plying the Indian Ocean waters adjacent to Somalia scramble to employ additional security. This all comes at a time when the maritime passageway in the Red Sea – through which about 15 per cent of global trade passes – is newly perilous. Houthi militia attacks have threatened traffic since November 2023.

The overall rate of piracy incidents originating from the Somali coast ... is concerning but remains relatively low.

For now, the overall rate of piracy incidents originating from the Somali coast not all of which result in a successful hijacking is concerning but remains relatively low compared to the previous surge around fifteen years ago. Yet March 2024 brought the biggest Somalia-linked pirate attack on a commercial vessel in recent years, over 1,000 kilometres from Somalia deep into the Indian Ocean. Pirates from Somalia boarded the MV Abdullah, a cargo ship travelling from Mozambique to the UAE. After seizing it, the pirates directed it to dock off the Somali coast, north of the town of Garacad (approximately 100 kilometres south of Eyl). The perpetrators proceeded to contact the ship’s owners via intermediaries to negotiate the fate of its 23-member Bangladeshi crew. A month later they reached a deal and the pirates released both the ship and its crew in mid-April, reportedly after receiving a $5 million payout. 

Uncertain Future

It remains to be seen if the current flareup in piracy remains just that or morphs into something bigger. One thing, however, seems clear in Eyl. That is, if local livelihoods on the Somali coast continue to suffer as a result of encroaching foreign fishing vessels and community members see little recourse to address their grievances, no one should be surprised if the scourge of piracy increasingly starts to menace the adjacent waters. As local grievances grow, so could a propensity to welcome back the pirates – offering them quiet support and even potential recruits – if the past is any guide. 

A boat sits on a beach in Eyl. Local fishermen have been enduring economic hardship from the presence of foreign vessels in Somalia’s waters. Eyl, Somalia. February 2024. CRISIS GROUP / Omar Mahmood

The Somali government and its member states, notwithstanding their admittedly limited means, can and should do more to tackle such grievances. They must coordinate among themselves to regulate and limit the number of licenses issued to foreign ships. They also, with partners, should work to increase their capabilities to monitor and ensure compliance from foreign ships operating with valid licenses. An early April warning from the federal Ministry of Fisheries and Blue Economy against trawling – or using heavily-weighted fishing nets which do environmental damage – was a good start. But stronger policies and better enforcement will be needed to make an appreciable difference in the lives of fishermen from Eyl, like Yusuf or Mohamed, and to position Somalia to nip the unwelcome piracy resurgence in the bud. 

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