Frequently Asked Questions on Naval Piracy

01 June 2009

Q: How is the international community fighting piracy?

A: The international community has sent naval patrols to escort commercial ships and prevent pirate attacks, it is adopting legal-system tactics to prosecute suspected pirates, and it discourages anyone from offering concessions to pirates, including the payment of ransoms.

Q: Why has it been so difficult to deter or capture pirates off the coast of Africa?

A: It is inherently difficult to patrol, or even monitor, such a huge expanse of open sea off the coast of Africa.

Q: What has the United States done to combat piracy?

A: The U.S. Navy created Combined Task Force 151 in January 2009 to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia. The multinational task force includes a special Navy team to conduct ship boarding and the seizure of evidence, a Coast Guard law enforcement unit, and a variety of helicopters, and it is supported, now, by 20 countries. The U.S. government, its international partners and private industry are also working to help the commercial shipping industry find better ways to protect vessels.

Q: What is the U.S. response when pirates demand concessions from a seized U.S.-flagged vessel?

A: The United States government does not make concessions or ransom payments to pirates.

Q: Which international organizations have escorted World Food Progamme ships carrying humanitarian aid destined for Africa?

A: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union have conducted escort missions for ships contracted by the WFP.

Q: What is the “Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia” and who belongs to it?

A: The group, called for by the United Nations, formed as a cooperative international mechanism to fight piracy and met for the first time in January 2009. The following international organizations participate: the African Union, the Arab League, the European Union, the International Maritime Organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations Secretariat. Participating nations include Australia, Belgium, China, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States and Yemen.

Q: How does the international community fund the prosecution of pirates? What does the International Trust Fund have to do with combating pirates?

A: On May 29, the Contact Group endorsed the creation of an international trust fund at the United Nations to help defray expenses associated with the prosecution of suspected pirates. The voluntary fund is open to government and industry contributions as well as any other party interested in combating piracy.

Q: How does the Contact Group combat piracy?

A: The Contact Group approaches the problem from four different directions: the legal aspects of suppressing piracy; military coordination off Somalia; diplomatic outreach; and the best practices for outwitting pirates.

Q: Why has Somalia become a pirates’ nest?

A: In the view of Chatham House author Roger Middleton, Somalia is hampered by a poorly functioning government; its coast lies along lucrative, busy trade routes; and the country has no maritime patrol force.

Q: What has the United Nations done to thwart Somalia-based piracy?

A: The Security Council passed four key resolutions, including Resolution 1851 in December 2008. Sponsored by the United States, France, Liberia, Greece and Belgium, the resolution authorizes “all necessary measures” to prevent Somali territory from being used for pirate operations or planning.

Q: How many ships transit the Gulf of Aden annually?

A: Each year, more than 33,000 vessels pass through this body of water, but pirates attack less than one-half of 1 percent of shipping there, and pirate attacks have succeeded only about one-third of the time.

Q: If commercial ships avoided the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden in favor of a longer route, how would transportation costs be affected?

A: Sailing around the Cape of South Africa to avoid pirates could lengthen the trip by a week to 10 days and add another $250,000 per trip in fuel costs.

Q: What are the commercial maritime academies doing to equip future sailors to deter pirates?

A: The academies are teaching courses on security and anti-piracy; some are even offering marksmanship courses, although mariners are not allowed to carry guns at sea at this time.

Q: Can pirates be detained and prosecuted even if they are not caught in the act of attacking a ship?

A: Yes, pirates can be apprehended if they are sailing with weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades or are holding hostages.

Q: How quickly must naval patrols respond to calls for help when pirates attack merchant ships?

A: The Congressional Research Service reports that most ships have less than 15 to 30 minutes between the first sighting of pirates and the onset of an attack. This means that naval patrols have that amount of time to reach the scene and disrupt the attack; anything over 15 to 30 minutes will be too late.

Learn more: “Piracy off the Horn of Africa” (PDF, 574 K, via U.S. Congressional Research Service)