Security At Sea: Piracy

Armed robbery. Hostages in captivity. Hundreds of millions of pounds in ransom demands. A constant threat to international trade, maritime security and humanitarian relief. This is what the EU Naval Force has been dealing with off the coast of Somalia since Operation Atalanta launched in 2008. Here’s how it’s successfully scuppering piracy off the Horn of Africa.









The perfect storm

As an island nation, 95% of our economic activity depends on the oceans that surround us. So it’s highly likely the shoes on your feet, the shirt on your back and the device you’re reading this on arrived here on a boat. 

Being the gateway to the Suez Canal – and the goods that come from the Orient to Europe through it – the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden offer Somali pirates something of a perfect storm. But these vulnerable vessels, and their crews, aren’t just following trade routes. They’re also delivering vital humanitarian aid on behalf of the World Food Programme. For the Somalis still feeling the fallout of being ravaged by a 15-year civil war, not getting the aid they need could mean the difference between life and death. 

Yet vast amounts of money were flowing into Somalia. Just into the wrong hands. Somalia’s communities were wrecked by drugs and prostitution; food prices soared. The Wild West of the high seas was taking its toll.  

turning the tide

Piracy in the region reached its pinnacle in January 2011. With 736 hostages held by pirates, from the 32 merchant vessels that littered Somalia’s 3,000km coastline, Operation Atalanta faced its biggest challenge since its inception in December 2008. 

Down to the tireless commitment of the EU Naval Force, and its collaboration with the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, piracy in the region is thankfully at bay: in January 2015, just 30 hostages were being held by pirates, and not one merchant ship was in their hands. That the pirates have been suppressed to this extent is testament to the strength of the international partnerships that shape the counter-piracy operation.

facts about piracy

736hostages in january 2011

30 hostages in january 2015

0merchant ships held in January 2015

151pirates convicted

100% success rate in protecting wfp vessels

0piracy incidents since august 2014

12-20 years in prison

2million nautical square miles patrolled

Mission impossible

With 2 million nautical square miles to cover, locating pirates can seem akin to needles and haystacks, particularly when their skiffs and dhows can appear so innocuous. 

Operation Atalanta currently has five warships patrolling the seas around the Horn of Africa. While this maritime military might is a force to be reckoned with, the success of counter-piracy measures also depends on the airborne agility of the warships’ helicopters and Operation Atalanta’s three Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft (MPRAs). 

The mere presence of a military helicopter can and does act as a deterrent. The pirates know that if a military helicopter is flying overhead, its warship isn’t far behind. But this is the deterrent the pirates can see.

The counter-piracy trump card is the MPRA. The ‘eyes in the skies’ fly so high that they’re undetectable at sea level. They photograph suspect vessels and relay the information to ITS Andrea Doria, so the operational team can determine the best and most appropriate course of action to thwart the pirates.  

As the boarding team approaches a suspect vessel, they find out as much information about it as possible: its crew, size and layout, along with any information about the pirates themselves. Before the boarding team can do their job, however, they need permission from the ship’s owner. 

The safety of the crew is priority number one. If they have had the time to secure themselves in the on-board citadel or strongroom – depriving the pirates of their bounty – the boarding party can re-take the vessel. But if that’s not the case, the boarding party use their expertise and experience to defuse hostage situations and safeguard crew and cargo, before dealing with the pirates.

Knowledge is power

Aggressive. Armed. Unpredictable. Chewing khat. Despite best-laid plans, highly trained counter-piracy teams don’t always know what they’re going to get.

Preparation is paramount.


Royal Marines Commando Officer

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Communications and Information Systems Specialist

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