Why be a pirate? Understanding motivations for piracy

Zamzam Tatu, M&C Saatchi World Services, Kenya

Following primary research recently conducted at Montagne Posse Prison, Seychelles, little has changed behind the drivers to commit maritime crime. To prevent piracy, a more nuanced approach to understanding the behaviour might be key to a solution.

Maritime crime, piracy and Somalia have become seen as synonymous in East Africa’s geopolitical narrative following years of prolific and highly profitable hijack for ransom activity of vessels in the Indian Ocean. Attacks have abated over the recent past, but the motivators to attack and seize a vessel remain unchanged. Arguably the intervention of international navies, the adoption of vessel protection measures and some resumption of the rule of law ashore have created an environment of prevention, but not necessarily a cure.

With special access to the Montagne Posse Prison, Seychelles in March 2017, courtesy of the Seychelles Minister for Home Affairs, M&C Saatchi World Services determined to find out why young Somalis commit Maritime Crime. M&C Saatchi World Services, like its parent company, is in the ‘persuasion business’; one that adapts established advertising communication principles into behavioural change programmes within fragile and conflict-affected states. In commercial advertising, understanding the audience is crucial; therefore gaining an appreciation of the factors that motivate young Somali men to put to sea, and motivate Somali societies to tolerate such behaviour, is critical in our opinion, to changing attitudes and behaviours towards maritime crime in the very communities that nurture it.

Understanding the motivations to engage in piracy

In a series of Focus Group Discussions and In-depth Interviews it was discovered that piracy is driven by a series of ‘push’ factors: a lack of opportunity on-shore, lack of faith in Government and Security Forces to protect the Somali fishing industry and ‘pull’ factors, such as unparalleled economic possibilities, active role in fighting against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and an active role in defending Somali territorial waters. None of these factors are unexpected, or indeed revelatory since they are in line with previous research conducted by UNODC and OBP and academics.

In a society that has little faith in central government and its ability to impose a rule of law, a locally acceptable narrative has been built. While Somalis polled by M&C Saatchi in 2015 confirmed that they understood that piracy was wrong, illegal and haram, a vast majority noted that their community tolerated piracy. The justification given, and repeated by the imprisoned pirates in 2017, was that young men put to sea armed as a means of defending Somali waters and ‘fighting’ foreigners engaged in illegal fishing. The internal narrative for the Somalis involved in piracy is that they only board ships that are either stealing fish or dumping waste. Other vessels boarded are a form of ‘collateral damage’. There are deep flaws in this philosophy that show up under the slightest scrutiny, but without an external push to consider them, the Somalis remain within a locally generated understanding of the situation that casts them as the victims with little alternative.

The potential for enormous reward is undoubtedly the major draw for young pirates. Consideration of the potential risks is fleeting and ill-informed. Our research found that while family separation, brought about by imprisonment, weighs heavily on the imprisoned pirates, they made it clear that, upon release, they would be willing to return to sea as soon as an opportunity presented itself. The potential rewards still outweigh the many risks.The narrative amongst the pirates (and their families and communities) appears at odds to the broader understanding of the international community. For the imprisoned Somali pirates, their Government has failed to secure the waters in which the Somalis have traditionally fished, IUU fishing is seen as an area of direct physical combat, and the prisoners believe that Foreign Naval Forces have taken the opposing side. In their view, the hijacking of vessels is entirely justified.

The narrative amongst the pirates (and their families and communities) appears at odds to the broader understanding of the international community. For the imprisoned Somali pirates, their Government has failed to secure the waters in which the Somalis have traditionally fished, IUU fishing is seen as an area of direct physical combat, and the prisoners believe that Foreign Naval Forces have taken the opposing side. In their view, the hijacking of vessels is entirely justified.

Why experience from violent extremism can help

M&C Saatchi’s experience of changing attitudes and behaviours in the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) domain transfers across to the counter piracy challenge seamlessly. Using culturally appropriate media channels to reach in to local communities and affect change is an irreplaceable requirement if a long-term ‘cure’ is sought for the piracy problem. Communities need to reject pirates in the same manner that they are currently being persuaded to reject extremism.

Some CVE practitioners propose interventions to Violent Extremism across three key areas: understanding the Structural Motivators: repression, corruption, unemployment, inequality, discrimination, and the history of friction between stakeholders, identifying Individual Incentives, where a sense of purpose, adventure, belonging, acceptance, status and material enticements are challenged. And lastly knowing the Enabling Factors, to challenge narratives and ideologies on social networks, the access to hardware and weaponry, a comparative lack of state presence, an absence of familial support, and so on.

It is suggested that communications change programmes (interventions), based on established Target Audience Analysis research could be applied to the motivators, incentives and factors surrounding Maritime Crime and Piracy. In the absence of challenging the current misaligned perceptions, young Somali men will continue to believe that piracy is not only a valid risk/reward sum, but also akin to a moral duty to protect their communities from outsiders; it should be our moral duty to persuade them otherwise.

About the Author

Zamzam Tatu is a Senior Analyst at M&C Saatchi World Services, Nairobi, Kenya

References and further reading

Bueger, Christian. 2013. Practice, Pirates and Coastguards: The Grand Narrative of Somali Piracy, Third World Quarterly 34(10), 1811-1827.

Bueger, Christian. 2012. Drops in the Bucket: A Review of Onshore Responses to Somali Piracy, WMU Journal of Maritime Affairs 15(1) Special Issue on ‘Piracy at Sea’, edited by Sam P. Menefee and Max Meija, 15-31.

Dua, Jatin. 2013. A sea of trade and a sea of fish: piracy and protection in the Western Indian Ocean, Journal of Eastern African Studies 7(3),353-370.

Tatu, Zamzam. 2017. Independent Qualitative Research on Somali Piracy. MCSaatchi: Nairobi.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime and Ocean Beyond Piracy. 2014. Somali Prison Survey Report: Piracy Motivations & Deterrents, UNODC: Nairobi.