Definition of a Pirate

Names and Definitions

It is always best to call things by their proper name.

A pirate is someone engaged in the act of piracy. That seems obvious.  Nonetheless, not every report of piracy is legitimate.  Some acts labeled as piracy are merely acts of territorial protection.  Not every act committed recently off the coast of Somalia constitutes an act of piracy.  As with any term, there are limitations to how broadly we may apply this to people.  Not every person engaged in these particular actions is necessarily a “pirate.”

Technically, piracy is:

(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:

(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

The definition is spatial.  Piracy is explicitly defined as acts which occur on the high seas.  Territorial waters are not classified as “the high seas.”  Therefore, in discussing presumed acts of piracy, it is critical to know exactly where the act is alleged to have taken place.  Most media reports tend to exclude this critical piece of information.  Identifying locations undermines the larger effort to paint all practitioners with the same broad strokes.

Pirates and Americana

Americans used to harbor romantic notions about pirates.  I grew up in an era where rebroadcasts of Errol Flynn movies were commonplace.  That Flynn was gay was of no moment to the studios and Hollywood’s film tradition is richer for it.  Pirates, then, have occupied a special place in the American psyche since the era of film.


The fascination has even crept into popular culture through the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

America Loves PiratesAmerica Loves Pirates

Pirate costumes are a staple of the American Halloween celebration.

Americans aren’t afraid of pirates because none of us can remember the Barbary Coast pirates.  None of us remember those North African pirates seizing Europeans and Americans and selling them off in slave markets in Cairo and Constantinople.  It was a long, long time ago.  Pirates have had their image rehabilitated.  The Marines, certainly, have had a lot to do with the restoration of this image.  The Corps thrived in part based on their response to the predations of African pirates.

That the first incident involving an American did occur on the high seas has not permitted much context to the conversation.  The MV Maersk Alabama was boarded roughly 240 nautical miles from Somalia.  Still, the release of Captain Phillips and the murder of his captors will do little to stem the tide.  The genie has been released — and its a mature 20-year old genie.  Somalia and the West, because of the engagement by the US public, are at a crossroads.  It is time for hard choices.  There are many operable solutions that do not call for more bloodshed.  The power, though, is not really in the hands of the Somalis.  It is in the hands of the architects of their economic hardship.  Using a shotgun to kill an elephant is an easy choice.  It’s the wrong choice.

Nation States and a Colonial Legacy

You’ll notice that the definition of the United Nations makes reference to the actions of private actors.  This distinction is critical to understanding the importance of the demise of Said Barre as head of state in Somalia.  European firms engaged in criminal dumping and fishing largely began their engagements as the Barre regime fell away.  As such, the conflicts in the Gulf of Aden have been percolating for more than 20 years.

It is part of the colonial legacy that the 5 nations in the Horn of Africa operate as largely separate entities.  The indigenous peoples of these regions have not either not been sufficiently willing or able to cobble together a coherent, unified approach to many of their shared challenges.  The British and the Italians played unique roles in the region — but both were sure to extract the most valuable resources for themselves.  That’s what colonizers do.  Similarly, they criminalized independence and development throughout the region for decades.  Not so long ago, it was illegal for Eritreans to be educated beyond the 5th grade.

There is an inherent bias in criminalizing the actions of private citizens compelled to action in the absence of a recognized government body.  The citizens of the United States of America (perhaps more than most other nations) should prize the valor and commitment of those Somali sailors working within their territorial waters and their Exclusive Economic Zones to protect the integrity of their primary source of food and wealth, such as it is.

The Economics of Piracy

The US media has made clear, consistent, and calculated efforts to ensure that its primary audience knows pirates have seized more than $100 million in ransom.  Those same organizations, however, have made an equally clear effort to ensure its audience DOES NOT KNOW the economic impact of toxic waste dumped along the coastline OR the value of revenue lost due to illegal and destructive fishing (PDF link – see Page 2 for definition of destructive fishing) off the coast of Somalia.  Some independent reports have estimated that as much as $300 million has been lost.

No matter the calculus, the Somalis are losing out.  Moreover, the actions of persons operating outside of the Exclusive Economic Zone has been used to demonize each person working to mitigate the impacts of concerted action engaged in by Western firms.

Actions taken within the territorial waters do not constitute piracy, even though they may be considered illegal in an international court – depending on the circumstances.  In addition, sovereign states retain the right to operate within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).  The Somalis are a sovereign people who are dealing with fundamental challenges that were a long time in the making.  For now, the quantity and cleanliness of water trump the establishment of a government that will be whole-heartedly endorsed by the West (including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund).

Clearing a Path Toward Solutions

As stated above, all solutions to problems of this nature do not require a military resolution.  Given the complex nature of conditions on the ground in Somalia, it should be obvious to most of those concerned that the majority of Somalis would be adversely impacted by this approach for several reasons:

  1. A military solution will be aimed at the persons most able to expend productive economic labor: young men.
  2. Innocent persons will inevitably be killed in any type of military engagement.  55% of Somalis live along the coast.  Young men engaged in fishing and other exercises within the EEZ do not live wholly apart from their families.  Elders and children will be attacked as well.
  3. A one-sided engagement against private citizens in Somalia will further destabilize the region.
  4. If the US is serious about building a Security Command structure in Africa which does not impose its will on member states of the African Union, Western leaders will need to engage African leaders on a viable resolution.
  5. Western nations have not made a good faith effort to clean up waste dumped in Somali waters, nor have they made a good faith effort to compensate fishermen for lost waves or the impacts of destructive fishing.  The economic impact of these actions has a considerable impact on the capacity of Somalia to stabilize operations.

Consider the following from a professor at the US Navy War College:

What insights can be gleaned from this situation? A cynical view suggests that the powerful still prefer military approaches to problems rather than measures requiring broader, multifaceted solutions. A more charitable assessment would suggest that, intent and rhetoric to the contrary, the capacity and will to tackle every problem comprehensively does not yet exist.  Reality undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle. Three points stand-out.

First, it is now assumed axiomatic that un- or under-governed spaces have become breeding grounds for rogue groups threatening the international community and global economic system. However, this assumption is incomplete. Weakly governed and failed states are often themselves victimized by foreigners.

Second, the nature of warfare has changed is another accepted truth. War is no longer characterized primarily by conventional clashes between states, but fought “amongst the people” by combatants including not only states but hybrid networks of, criminal gangs, insurgents and international terrorists. In this situation military force alone is not sufficient to combat such threats; it should be employed to support political solutions and human security. This, however, requires non-military capabilities, resources, patience, and political and public will that are often lacking.

Third, despite the prevalence of rhetoric about preventing threats through human security states often resort to application of force—in pursuit of short-term, self-interests. Ultimately, the will and capacity to pursue comprehensive strategies that protect both the “winners” and “losers” of globalization appear insufficient. This begs the question of whether the global commons really can be secured for the common good. Yet such a question must be answered soon as global inequalities, economic recession, degradation of and competition over natural resources, climate change, and demographic pressures threaten not just the weak but all humanity.



  1. Thanks for the info. Definitely a more complex situation than is being presented — especially around issues of “territory” and a 21st century definition of “war”.

    As for the definition of “pirates”, I always adheted strictly to the eye-patch criteria.

  2. Very well done. One wonders whether the solutions that you’ve proposed will still bring out the trolls. probably not because they, of course, won’t be able to argue the facts. Once again, good work putting some paint where there ain’t(to borrow from Bilal).

  3. Thanks.

    There was a report today of the French seizing upon a “pirate” ship (a 30-footer) in the Indian Ocean. Allegedly, this all occurred about 400+ nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. That’s a long way away from home.

    On a side note: Boats may have changed, but knowledge of the sea and sailing are time-honored traditions. What I find compelling about these voyages from Somalia onto the open seas is that for as long as I can remember, I’ve been told that Africans were afraid of the ocean and certainly never ventured farther than a stone’s throw away from the continent. Of course, the genetic, linguistic and cultural record of the Indian Ocean rim suggests otherwise, but this has been illuminating nonetheless.

  4. Being a Somali pirate looks like a profitable business from the outside and it is. The margins are as attractive as those in the software industry. Microsoft still makes 60% or better margins on its core Windows, business, and server operations. With the risks that the pirates take, they ought to do as well as that.

    The New York Times did a piece last year in which it estimated that the pirates would bring in $50 million in 2008. That number will be higher this year, by as much as four times.

    Most information on hijacked ships is that the ransom paid to get them back is about $2 million per vessel and crew. In some cases, the pirates actually charge an additional fee for the ships which has been estimated as being as high as $5 million.

    Based on 24/7 Wall St.’s evaluation of news reports, the Somali pirates are seizing near one ship per day now. This week, on a single day, they took over four vessels. Even though several large national navies including the US are policing the shipping channels to cut down piracy, the rate at which the pirates can grab prey is picked up fairly fast. The Somali pirates could take over between 80 and 120 vessels this year, and the figure is conservative. That would put their gross revenue as high as $200 million.

    The pirates almost certainly pay protection to the head of the Puntland, Mohamud Muse Hirsi. Puntland is the region where most of the large “mother ships” that take the small pirate raiders out to sea, are located. For protection from international intervention on land, senior Puntland officials are probably getting a third of the take, or about $65 million.

    The next largest expense is buying and keeping “mother ships” in good working order. The boats are usually trawlers which are, based on photos, about 100 feet long. One or two of these have been sunk by foreign navies, but they do not have to be replaced often. A large trawler built in the 1970s costs about $1 million. A trawler that is ten years old costs closer to $3 million. Some of the trawlers the pirates use were probably seized during their raids. Most research indicates that one out of three attempts by the pirates to hijack a ship succeeds. Covering enough ground to seize 120 vessels a year based on 400 attempts means that the pirates are probably running a dozen mother ships at any one time. The costs to “buy” and maintain those ships is about $3 million each per year, because a trawler that is seized for use and not ransomed is $3 million in revenue not taken in. Mother ship costs are at least $30 million, maybe $36 million. These are not annual costs. For each one sunk, the cost of replacement is $3 million. On a pro forma basis for operations, the cost of mother ships is $6 million.

    Each mother ship works with four or five attack vessels, which are not unlike WWII PT boats, but are made of light-weight metal or composite instead of wood. Each of these has to run on two or more turbo diesels which put out 480 HP at 3,000 PRM. These are not engines which are likely to be used on any of the hijacked ships so they are probably one of the largest direct costs the pirates have. If the pirates operate 50 raiding boat it requires 100 engines. These cost as much as $15,000 each, so the cost of these is about $1.5 million. In most cases, they will not need to be replaced every year. The boat themselves are probably less than $50,000 for the 50 shells the total $2.5 million. Once again this is a one-time cost for those that are not sunk or abandoned.

    Fuel for these diesels is probably very expensive but a lot of that can be taken from captured ships.
    The pirates have to work with crews of mechanics, but their wages are probably modest.

    Each mother ship and raider requires high-end GPS, radar and sonar. The best radars available for small ships run about $4,000. High end GPS systems cost about $1,500, and sonar systems a little less than $1,000. All of the equipment runs about $400,000 for 12 trawlers and 50 raiders before installation costs. Once again, this is not an annual cost because most of the hardware can be used for several years.

    The cost of what are called “extreme weather and marine” satellite phones from one of the two premier global providers, Iridium and GlobalStar, is $1,200 per unit. The cost of calls per minute is $5. Total cost for phones comes to $60,000 based on each team of pirates having two phones, and all of these probably get replaced each year due to damage. Assuming 100 minutes a month per phone and the total cost of airtime is $600,000.

    Weapons are one of the largest single costs that Somali pirates have. According to a book on AK-47s from Amazon, the guns cost about $345. That is a total of $173,000 because each of 500 men is armed. The price for 9MM pistols on the black market runs about $200, for a total of $100,000. Browning 50 caliber machine guns are $14,000 each, with at least one per raider and two per mother ship for a total cost of just over $1 million. Rocket propelled grenades which are used in most raids run $3,000 and one is used in each of the 400 hijacking attempts for a total of $1.2 million. Total ammunition costs at $1 per bullet are $250,000.

    Food and housing for 500 men and an average of 200 hostages has to be $10 a day, or $2.5 million a year.

    Based on annual costs with pro forma calculations for things that have a life of more than a year, the expenses of operating the Somali pirate operation are $79 million. That puts the profit of the operation at over $120 million. It is worth contrasting that to the average income per capita in Somalia which is only about $600.

    The pirate business is not going away. It is too profitable.

  5. This is great stuff to add a financial context.

    I will say, though, that after looking at some of those tired ass guns they’ve been toting, they didn’t pay anywhere near $345 for those AK’s. In fact, the sellers may have paid the Somalis to take the inventory off their hands. Further — I doubt these folks have 400 separate grenade launchers. I’m sure there is some sharing of precious resources going on…still I get and appreciate the larger point. Illuminating stuff.

    Some of these prices are just out of line — they need a price negotiator.

    Quick Question for you:

    What is the fatality rate? (Persons held hostage: Persons killed by Somalis)

  6. I’m not aware of any hostage fatalities here-to-date, though the Indian Navy blew up a mis-identified Thai fishing boat and killed its entire crew if I recall correctly. Here’s additional dope from the only truly nautical brother I know;

    Yup – Life is way too good for the Somali Pirate operators to give up right now. As long as they can keep the violence level down – they are in fat city. They currently hold about 300 sailors and 20 or so ships. As long as those sailors are returned unharmed – the companies will continue to pay the ransoms, and the Navies of the world will likely not do anything drastic.

    The Merchant Marine will likely start arming their ships with non-lethal defenses. While Blackwater has offered to put guards on each ship for a cost of $60k a trip, but I don’t think the Merchant Marine wants to invite the sort of shooting war that entails. Non-lethal systems might include things like armored crew safe rooms with controls which could shut down the ship. Better, more powerful water cannons to ward off attacks, tangle mats, and even laser dazzlers are also being considered.

    The biggest effort will be in law enforcement going after the people in the originating port cities who are telling the pirates when to expect the ships, and what cargo they are carrying. If they can shut that down, then they take away one of the pirate’s advantages. There are so many guns in Africa – going after gun dealers is a joke. Most of what I’ve seen the pirates carry, at least in the pictures published is left over Soviet or Chinese junk, which is cheaply purchasable in a hundred arms bazaars in the region.

    But the simple fact is, as long as the pirates keep the take under about $150 million – it’s way too costly for anyone to go in a really shut them down.

  7. With relatively low barriers of entry into the trade, it appears that the economies of scale should further tilt in the favor of the Somalis.

  8. Dig:

    I asked about the fatalities because it seemed painfully obvious to me that they have NO INTENTION of killing people. According to media reports, the unarmed crew of the Maersk Alabama was able to wrest control of that particular ship from armed pirates without the loss of a single life. Simply amazing. It seems to me that either independent youth or the Council of Elders or both have advised that murder is not an option. There appears to be some strict discipline in the ranks given what has transpired over the last few years. I am certain that the Elders envision themselves as acting on behalf of the whole, especially with respect to their role in negotiations. I’ll have to do more research on this, though. Truly deep waters.

  9. Temple3:

    Come out and plainly state your position on this. Is the practice of seizing ships and demanding ransom illegal and morally wrong, or is it legal and morally right?

    “Actions taken within the territorial waters do not constitute piracy”

    You are correct. However, 240 miles is not in Somali territorial waters. It is the open sea. The internationally recognized standard is 12 nautical miles. Even as for the exclusive economic trade zone, it is only 212 nautical miles. The Maersk Alabama was clearly not in international waters, period. And then when you speak of the ship that abducted a vessel 400 miles, you speak of how Africans are destroying stereotypes and mastering the seas, while completely ignoring that you were attempting to imply that it is not “piracy” if it happens in Somali waterspace, because there is no way that you can claim that 400 miles is international water space and in any way justify what these people are doing. As it is, even your claim that the Maersk Alabama was in Somali space was wrong.

    Ultimately, you are, in a very elliptical way, resorting to the same argument that because Europeans have mistreated and are mistreating Africans, that gives Africans the right to seize European ships. But that breaks down when by your own admission you acknowledge that the root cause of the problem is the failure of Somalia to build a functioning government, and the failure of various African states in that region to combine to build a state.

    And the main reasons why these African states have failed to combine and build a state is religious, racial, and tribal. Of those, tribalism was probably the most prominent until recently, but in the last 20 years there have been major problems (an understatement) between blacks and Arabs, Africans and Muslims: genocide, slavery, you name it. Even in Somalia, you had a bunch of folks from Arab countries come into certain sections, set up shop, declare huge portions of the country under their control, and oh yes declare war on neighboring Ethiopia, as they cannot abide the fact that a majority Muslim country like Ethiopia is ruled by a Christian government (never mind the fact that the Ethiopia’s Christian government gives Ethiopia’s Muslims equal rights and treats them fine, and Ethiopia’s Muslims don’t want to be ruled by the Somali Islamic Courts or the imposition of shari’a law in their country any more than the Christian minority in Ethiopia does).

    Look, Africans can go only so long blaming colonialism for their refusal to build stable societies with functioning governments, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, factories, power plants etc. Look at India … was held by colonial powers until 50 years ago, and now they’re the world’s 3rd largest economy. And India is just as diverse as Africa: three major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam) and tons of tribes and languages.

    It is all about who you put in charge. Instead of letting a class of highly educated and skilled people build factories, roads, power plants, large scale farming operations etc. Africans often follow (or fail to oppose) military dictators, Marxist “revolutionaries”, plus whoever is willing to play up tribal or religious grievances.

    Even the Arab world, again which was ruled by colonies until World War II just as was Africa, is moving forward. Look at the United Arab Emirates, for instance. Some of them are switching their energy from relying mostly on oil to natural gas, others are trying to get nuclear power, others still are looking into building oil refineries. Iraq would have had a nuclear power plant 20 years ago (built with the help of the French) had Israel not blown it up.

    Look, it isn’t hard to start a farming/ranching operation, and then build a factory to turn the cotton and wool that the farming/ranching operation produces into shirts, pants, blankets, pillows etc. and find someplace to sell them. Two guys could learn the entire agricultural side of the operation, and two more could learn the entire manufacturing side within 5 years. Turning mineral ore into pots, pans, and other finished products is a bit harder, so let’s say 10 years. Building more complex items like small engines (think electric generators to provide basic power to schools, villages, hospitals) and radios … let’s say 15. Even if you can’t figure it out yourself, you can pay another government to come teach you.

    Name for me a single African nation, government, or leader that has even proposed such a thing. It isn’t that they don’t have the money, and it certainly isn’t the lack of know how, which again could be easily obtained. It is a lack of will. You have eastern European and tiny Asian countries building automobiles! Hyundai was considered a joke, a laughing stock, when they first started selling cars in America in the 1980s. Now they make better cars than Detroit, and there is even a second Korean company selling cars in America, Daewoo. So the Koreans are able to sell cars over here (and the Yugoslavians tried in the 1980s, and what remains of that country still sells cars in Europe!) but I can’t even get a linen set (let alone the bed that the linen set sits on, or a curtain rod, or an alarm clock) that says “made in Africa” on it? Even kente cloth (does anybody still buy that stuff, it was all the rage in the 1980s, in the 90s less so) was often made in CHINA.

    Hey look, if these Somali pirates, hi – jackers, thieves, or whatever you want to call them were going to use their loot as capital for constructing a textile plant or to send Somali teens to school to learn how to build small engines, then I MIGHT be forced to sit back and scratch my head and say “now wow, this is mighty compelling.” But as it is, there is actually more evidence that the money that these pirates are getting is going to fund jihad; to buy weapons and fund paramilitary camps, and such. Ever hear of Al Shabaab, for instance? There are even reports that these pirates were TOLD to do so.

    You can continue to blame colonialism if you like, but it is precisely things such as this piracy episode – bad leadership and a populace that is willing to follow it – that prevents Africans from being able to achieve effective self – governance.

  10. Patience of:

    First off…don’t look at this article in isolation. It is related to a number of other posts — and there is a link to a page (side bar) so that you can get caught up if you choose.

    With that said, we have some disagreements about numbers that are minor. Send your sources next you post and we can settle that one.

    “Is the practice of seizing ships and demanding ransom illegal and morally wrong, or is it legal and morally right?”

    This question that you’ve posed if largely irrelvant – but its not neutral. The question belies a specific frame of reference and on its face doesn’t merit an answer. Your desire to ask it transmits no requirement that I play your game — especially since you do not come clean about your position. My position, at least, is crystal clear…that so-called acts of piracy have a context, that there is a legal definition, that Somalia does not exist in a vacuum. Your question speaks to an Arrogance of Identification. You clearly identify with those owners of ships and payers of ransom. Why is that? Do you own a fleet? Are you in the insurance business? Are you ex-military? Current? What’s your basis for embracing the concerns of those at risk for loss of property? Speak to that, then we can go all Crazy Q & A.

    Speak and confess. It’s good for the soul. 🙂

    If you decide to respond, we can go point by point — including the root causes of nation-state instability in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. I believe you misread my points — perhaps unintentionally — but misread, nonetheless. I think you make some great points, but may need some information to fill in the blanks. I’ll be only too happy to comply after we establish why you identify with those facing the prospect of property loss. I look forward to your disclosure. Thanks.

  11. Nice article, however, I see while you may be a strong researcher of pirate history and its effect on culture, you are another too casual researcher of icons like Errol Flynn, whom you mention as being gay with no justification and no aside to say that that “fact” you throw out is in dispute. As a longtime researcher of Flynn and golden era Hollywood, I do not believe Errol Flynn was gay, and neither do most serious researchers of him. Nor did his children and wives (the third of which, he nearly ruined his relationship with and risked charges of statutory rape by dating a 15-year old girl on the side – a very gay thing to do?). The only people who push that Flynn was gay are hack biographers like Boze Hadleigh and others who use tabloids from the time period as their sources and a few members of the gay hollywood community who wish he was gay (but not all of them). Flynn’s biggest problems were drugs and women – he slept with numerous women, some of whom were married to other men and he risked his Hollywood reputation (and was reprimanded by his publicists) by dating some women much younger than him and visiting many high class brothels. But his publicists and advisors had little effect on him. Flynn was also accused in the tabloids and by a hack writer of being a Nazi spy, but this was also shown to be myth – read the book “Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was.”
    Also watch Turner Classic’s biography: The Adventures of Errol Flynn. The bio does not pull it’s punches in showing the dark side of Flynn, but it is a great bio – the best video one made.

  12. yes, just to agree with Alan J Feldman, you’re being very causal about labeling Flynn as gay. Whether he was gay or straight is not the issue, but getting facts straight are, and another source you might want to check out if you want some evidence of his heterosexuality is his autobiography, in which he discusses his numerous love affairs, marriages, and trips to brothels. It’s titled “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.” If after extensive research you discover proof that he did indeed participate in gay sex, which I don’t believe is known to exist, then perhaps it might be better if you referred to him as bisexual. It is important to have evidence of anything you state as fact.

  13. Hi Alan J Feldman you are right – so very right and I am glad you are saying!
    If there ever was a straight man in Hollywood it was Errol Flynn!
    He was a “Men’s Man” all the way. He did all the carousing, his fun, his drinking, his pranks, his gambling, his fighting with his male friends, but when it came to have sex that was reserved for the ladies only and he had plenty of them. Although he always used to say:”to each his own” or “judge not – lest yel be judged!”, but when it came to sex with the same gender he had a definite aversion to put it mildly.
    A Man’s Man is the class act – an alpha male and Errol was it all the way!
    For all these reasons, women wanted him and men wanted to be him!

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