Still A Present Danger, Crackdown On Somali Piracy Continues

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This week, three Somali men go on trial here in the U.S. for the slaying of four Americans in a pirate hijacking. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel checks in with J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, on the status of piracy off the east coast of Africa.


Three accused pirates go on trial this week in a federal court in Norfolk, Virginia. The men are from Somalia. They pleaded not guilty to charges of killing four Americans aboard a yacht in the Indian Ocean back in 2011.

They're among the hundreds of Somali pirates who've been arrested and detained in various countries since international naval forces cracked down on piracy off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.

And we're going to hear now about how that crackdown has been going. From 2009 to 2011, that area was a hotspot for hijackings at sea, but that has changed. And Dr. J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, joins us now. Welcome...

DR. J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.

SIEGEL: the program. First, how did piracy become such a problem off the coast of Somalia?

PHAM: Well, we're now more than two decades after the last entity that could be reasonably called the government of Somalia collapsed. And in that vacuum, opportunities arose for warlords and entrepreneurs to take to sea - and this is a very busy shipping area, somewhere between 20- and 30,000 vessels travel through this area every year, and seize the vessels, hold them for ransom, ransoms which were a fabulous amount in a war-torn country like Somalia.

And so it was a perfect storm of lack of governance, lack of security on many of the vessels and opportunity to easily get unemployed young men willing to risk their lives in search of fortune.

SIEGEL: At its peak - when piracy off in Somalia was as its peak, how many attacks were happening each year?

PHAM: We're getting well over 100 - in some cases, almost nearly 200 at the height of it. And of these, a dozen or more would be successful at any given time. So at any moment, you would have a dozen vessels and maybe up to 500 hostages being held.

SIEGEL: Nowadays, how frequent are the same kind of attacks?

PHAM: Well, last year, there were 75 attacks on vessels that could be attributed to Somali pirates, and only one was successful. And so far this year - knock on wood - there have been no successful hijackings off Somalia.

SIEGEL: Back in 2009, you pointed out to me that so many of the pirates who were arrested were, in effect, catch-and-release cases, that a Somali pirate could calculate, you know, the odds of actually ending up in prison were pretty slim, so there was no disincentive to do what they were doing. What accounts for this decline?

PHAM: Well, there's been a difference in the calculus. Now, you do stand a greater chance of being caught because of the international naval deployment off Somalia, involving not just U.S. and European forces but Russian, Chinese and even a Japanese aircraft patrolling the areas. And then once you're caught, the international forces are taking you into custody, to Kenya or the Seychelles or, in some cases, far away such as the gentlemen that are about to be tried in Norfolk, Virginia.

SIEGEL: What effectively has happened is, here, the world's navies have - to use a sports metaphor - flooded the zone off Somalia. Can they keep on doing that? This is a long-range strategy for coping with the problem?

PHAM: No. The reason piracy, Robert, has decreased is, one, the naval presence, which is not sustainable over the long haul. We estimate that $2 billion is spent altogether on this effort every year, and in these times of sequester in the United States, various fiscal challenges in the European Union, this isn't sustainable. Secondly, another reason piracy has declined has been the use by many shipping companies of armed security force on board.

Now, no armed shipping vessel has been successfully hijacked, but there are all sorts of legal issues that arise in this. And again, that's an added cost in a very difficult economy.

SIEGEL: Dr. Pham, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

PHAM: Thank you.

SIEGEL: It's Dr. J. Peter Pham, who is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.


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