NATO’s fight against Somali pirates: the end of an unsung success story

Christian Bueger, Cardiff University

Last week operation ‘Ocean Shield’ terminated ending NATO’s six year mission to protect the sea lanes of Western Indian Ocean. Will the world miss the operation? Most likely not. Ocean Shields was one of the so-called “big three” missions fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia. Working hand in hand with the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces and the European Union’s EUNAVFOR Atalanta, the operation was a vital part of the fight against Somali piracy, with more than successful results. Since 2012 no ships or hostages were taken by the Somali pirates and no major incident has been reported. With more than four years without a major piracy incident, it is logical to wrap up.

But this unique and very successful experiment should teach us a lesson. Operation Ocean Shields stands for nothing less than a revolution in how NATO carries out operations in collaboration with others. The alliance worked, for the first time, closely not only with the European Union and the navies of Russia, China and Japan, but also the private sector. Substantial synergies were reached through this collaboration. Moreover, Ocean Shields, reminds us that NATO is in its essence a maritime organization. It is an invaluable mechanism ready to respond to any crises at sea. As NATO leaves the Western Indian Ocean theatre, and becomes more active in tackling the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, it is important to capture the core lessons of Ocean Shields. How did it succeed?

The Piracy Mission
NATO was ready when others were not. In 2008 the international community faced an escalation of attacks off the coast of Somalia. The UN Security Council declared piracy to be a threat to international peace and security. Resolution 1816 called upon states to protect international shipping from piracy. Very soon after NATO rolled out its first operation ‘Allied Provider’. The operation was meant to be temporary. The European Union announced its willingness to organize a naval operation to replace the force. Soon, it became clear that it took the European longer to become operational. In consequence, NATO launched its second mission, ‘Allied Protector’. Once EUNAVFOR was in place NATO decided to continue its work in counter-piracy. Operation Ocean Shields was born because it became obvious that EUNAVFOR forces were insufficient to deal with the ongoing crisis. Piracy attacks continued to escalate and hundreds of seafarers were held hostage. The alliance is an invaluable crisis response force at sea. Maintaining this capacity will continue to be vital.

Cooperation in fighting pirates
NATO achieved synergies by working with others. The big three naval operations started to work on common operational plans to maximize the effect of each operations. Ocean Shields was crucial in introducing a series of coordination mechanisms. Those were informal and did not imply a common command structure. The first one was the so-called Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) meetings held in Bahrain. SHADE offered a mechanism not only to deconflict, but also to improve and share tactics. It was the key catalyst for introducing a transit corridor for shipping in the Gulf of Aden and minimizing the response time to incident reports. Through the informality of SHADE common operational planning across organizations and mandates became possible. Soon after, other states operating independently, such as China, Indian, Japan, Russia, India and South Korea, joined SHADE and cooperated closely with NATO. SHADE was also the basis for launching an electronic information sharing platform. The so-called Mercury system –known as the “Facebook of counter-piracy” – allowed the real-time exchange of the positions of assets and the speedy dissemination of incident reports. Informality and new information sharing technology provided the basis for achieving synergies across mandates and organizations.

Working with the Private Sector
NATO also learns how to work with private actors. A close everyday coordination of navies was one of the core success factors in containing piracy. The story would be incomplete without considering the role of the private sector. For the first time in history, the alliance cooperated closely with industry actors and the core vehicle was NATO’s Shipping Centre. The centre was vital in informing the shipping industry about the evolving nature of the piracy threat and the consequences for business. It was also instrumental in working towards a common set of measures known as the best management practices to deter Somali piracy. That allowed reducing the response time to piracy attacks, but also improving the monitoring of piracy activity. Seeing the private sector as a partner and communicating closely was vital factor of success.

NATO’ Maritime Future
If some risk of piracy off the coast of Somalia will remain, pirate gangs unlikely go back to big business. Ocean Shields is not needed any more. NATO will not send out a counter-piracy operation in the near future. The 2014 Wales Summit declaration clearly emphasized that efforts should focus at the high end spectrum of tasks. The ongoing discussion how the alliance will support the fight against human trafficking in the Mediterranean however signals the opposite: NATO will continue to contribute to the fight against organized crime at sea. In the Mediterranean we see an evolving architecture that takes core lessons from counter-piracy on board. Recently a mechanism similar to SHADE was created for the region. NATO has also announced that it will continue some of the counter-piracy activities. The Shipping Centre will continue its vital work in institutionalizing the dialogue with the shipping community and the organization will continue to participate in counter-piracy meetings such as SHADE.

The lessons from Ocean Shields, however, go well beyond maritime operations. They concern how the alliance can contribute to an international coalition, how it can advance its goals through informal mechanisms, and how it can collaborate better with the industry. These lessons will not only be important in emerging areas of security, such as cyber security, but also in more conventional operations that require military collaboration beyond immediate alliance members. The success in beating piracy moreover sends us an optimistic reminder that the alliance is not only a deterrent, but one of the cornerstones of the global common security architecture.

References and Further Reading

Bueger, Christian. 2015. Learning from Piracy: Future Challenges of Maritime Security Governance, Global Affairs 1(1), 33-42, 2015, doi: 10.1080/23340460.2015.960170,

Gebhard, Carmen, and Simon J Smith. 2015. “The Two Faces of EU-NATO Cooperation: Counter-Piracy Operations off the Somali Coast.” Cooperation and Conflict 50(1): 107–27.

Gebhard, Carmen, And Simon J. Smith. 2014. Beyond Rivalry: EU-NATO Cooperation in Counter-Piracy Operations,

Houben, Marcus. 2014. Operational coordination of naval operations and capacity building, in “The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS). A Lessons Learnt Compendium”, edited by Thierry Tardy, Paris: EU Institute for Security Studies.

Percy, Sarah. 2016. Counter-Piracy in the Indian Ocean: A New Form of Military Cooperation, Journal of Global Security Studies,

Riddervold, Marianne. 2014. Who needs NATO to fight Pirates? Why Europe launched EU Counter-Piracy Mission Atalanta,

Knowing the Sea: The Prospects and Perils of Maritime Domain Awareness

Christian Bueger & Amaha Senu, Cardiff University

DSC_5286How do we know the sea? How can we understand the activities and the dangers and opportunities that the sea presents? Addressing these questions is important for enhancing the public understanding of the sea. But it is also vital for securing, governing and utilizing the maritime, whether it is the littorals, Exclusive Economic Zones or the global oceans. Knowing the sea was the subject of a one day ideaslab held in May 2016 at Cardiff University in conjunction with the European Maritime Day 2016. The event drew together academics from various fields such as computer science, political science and maritime law and practitioners dealing with the sea. The aim was to cross-fertilize ideas on how we can know the sea, how electronic infrastructure and surveillance technology can provide decision support and how organisational hurdles for sharing information can be overcome. Read more →

Maritime Crime in Nigeria and Waters Beyond: A New Dataset, 2009 to 2013

Lisa Otto, Coventry University

In a recent article published in Africa Insight, Lisa Otto puts forward the findings from her analysis of a five-year dataset for maritime crime that she collected and collated for the period 2009 to 2013. Analysis of this data, which was collected by cross-referencing reports from the International Maritime Bureau and the International Maritime Organisation, supplemented by information from other sources where possible, has allowed her to determine the contours of maritime criminal activities in Nigeria, and the Gulf of Guinea beyond.  Read more →

What Future for the Contact Group on Somali Piracy? Options for Reform

Christian Bueger, Cardiff University

panel2016 marks the beginning of the transition of the counter-piracy response in the Horn of Africa. Many states have already significantly reduced their involvement in counter-piracy. Recently, the High Risk Area has been revised, which documents that international stakeholders are altering the approach they take to contain piracy. While the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) have announced in July 2015 to continue their operation, the mandates of the two other missions, NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the EU’s EUNAVFOR Atalanta, are under review. There are clear expectations that the EU will continue the mission in one form or another and maintain the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa, important for situational awareness in the area. These developments need to be seen against the backdrop of the assessment that no large scale piracy attack was successful since 2012. Notwithstanding, the threat of piracy in the region persists. This is clearly highlighted by the 2015 threat assessment of the military missions and further evidenced by recent reports of low scale hijackings and hostage taking attempts.
The revisions of the counter-piracy architecture raise the question of what the future holds for the main coordination body, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS). Read more →

From Military Vessel Protection to Private Security Companies: The Italian Anti-piracy Approach

Eugenio Cusumano, Leiden University

Armed-guards4The rise of piracy has informed major transformations in Italian maritime security policies. In a recent article in Ocean Development & International Law, Stefano Ruzza and I analyse Italy’s approach to deploy armed vessel protection teams on board of ships. Here I draw attention to a recent shift in Italy’s maritime security policy that allows private security contractors to take on a greater role in protecting Italian flagged ships against pirate attacks.

Italian vessels repeatedly suffered from pirate attacks. Between 2009 and 2013, 35 ships were attacked. Five attacks, four of which occurred in 2011, resulted in the hijacking of the vessel. In some cases, such as the rescue of the Montecristo in October 2011, the crew was freed by a British Navy operation, while in others large ransoms were paid. The Savina Caylin, for example, was released in February 2011 after the payment of no less than 10 million USD. Besides threatening the Italian shipping industry, piracy has been conceptualized as a threat to the national interest at large, as the attacks could potentially result in a shift of maritime routes away from Suez and the Mediterranean, and therefore lead to a marginalization of Italian ports. Due to these reasons, Italy has played a prominent role in the major international initiatives launched to counter maitime piracy. In 2005, Italy was the first country to deploy a frigate off the Somali shores in an antipiracy mission called Mare Sicuro [Safe Sea]. Since then, Italy has participated in various other naval operations such as NATO’s Ocean Shield, EUNAVFOR Atalanta, EUCAP Nestor and the Combined Task Force 151.

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The Effective Maritime Security Management Model and its Impact on the Organizational Performance of Shipping Companies

Elena Sadovaya and Vinh Thai, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

To enhance maritime security in shipping companies, a number of compulsory and voluntary regulations have been introduced at the beginning of the 21st century. However, besides benefits expected from the implementation of these regulations, they have also had negative impacts. Nevertheless, industry participants had no other choice, but to comply with these regulations in order to participate in national and international trades. For some companies, additional cost related to security implementation resulted in bankruptcy while others managed to sustain under the burden of necessary financial investments, paper work, additional manpower and time requirements. Specifically, an effective management of maritime security in those companies helped them to achieve benefits beyond security improvements, such as improved competitive position, better data management and document processing, improved cooperation with partners and government, etc.

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What Future for the Contact Group on Somali Piracy? Options for Reform

Christian Bueger, Cardiff University

panel2016 marks the beginning of the transition of the counter-piracy response in the Horn of Africa. Many states have already significantly reduced their involvement in counter-piracy. Recently, the High Risk Area has been revised, which documents that international stakeholders are altering the approach they take to contain piracy. While the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) have announced in July 2015 to continue their operation, the mandates of the two other missions, NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the EU’s EUNAVFOR Atalanta, are under review. There are clear expectations that the EU will continue the mission in one form or another and maintain the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa, important for situational awareness in the area. These developments need to be seen against the backdrop of the assessment that no large scale piracy attack was successful since 2012. Notwithstanding, the threat of piracy in the region persists. This is clearly highlighted by the 2015 threat assessment of the military missions and further evidenced by recent reports of low scale hijackings and hostage taking attempts.
The revisions of the counter-piracy architecture raise the question of what the future holds for the main coordination body, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS). Read more →

Contemporary Piracy as an Issue of Academic Inquiry: A Bibliography

Jan Stockbruegger, Brown University, & Christian Bueger, Cardiff University

We have compiled a new version of the Piracy Studies Bibliography, which you can access as PDF here.

The aim of this bibliography is to gather a comprehensive collection of academic works on contemporary (post WWII) maritime piracy, with a focus on academic books, journals and working paper. In addition the bibliography includes some titles on the history of piracy, and some general interest literature on piracy. The present version includes almost 600 entries. It documents the extent to which piracy has become a serious issue of academic inquiry, and how investigations of piracy contribute to general discourse and debates in International Relations, Area Studies, Maritime Studies, International Law, Criminology, and other disciplines. We hope that this bibliography helps you a little bit to find your way through the piracy studies literature. Please access the bibliography here.

Economic Factors for Piracy: The Effect of Commodity Price Shocks

Alexander Knorr, University of Colorado

The_Battle_of_Trafalgar_by_William_Clarkson_StanfieldModern maritime piracy has become a significant issue which costs the global economy $24.5 billion per year. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) reports that attacks in major waterways have increased over the past decades. Extensive research has been done with regard to countering piracy and understanding the resurgence of attacks since the early ‘90s. What are the mechanisms which drive different people in different countries across the globe to all participate in such illegal activities? One of these mechanisms is addressed in a research notes article recently published in the journal Studies in Conflicts and Terrorism.

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Norm Subsidiarity in Maritime Security: Why East Asian States Cooperate in Counter-Piracy

Terrence Lee and Kevin McGahan, National University of Singapore

Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are the three key littoral countries that border the Straits of Malacca, a major waterway and transit area in Southeast Asia which has traditionally witnessed a fair amount of maritime piracy through the ages.  While these countries generally hold many things in common, such as historical, linguistic and cultural ties, they are also differ significantly in terms of strategic and economic interests.  Despite these important differences, why have Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia been able to cooperate in implementing and enforcing an anti-piracy regime that has been relatively effective? In a recently published article in the Pacific Review, we seek to engage this research question. We initially draw on theories in international relations that are informed by rational choice to explain international cooperation, namely neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism. We argue that key developments of the anti-piracy regime are not fully explained by such rationalist theories, which often stress strategic and material interests of states. In fact, despite rising levels of piracy in the Straits that threatened commercial and strategic goals, for many years the littoral states demonstrated only modest cooperative initiatives.

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