by David Axe
In the 15 years since armed Somali fishermen began forcing their way onto commercial ships, pirates have turned East Africa’s seas into the world’s most dangerous waters. In 2008 alone, Somalia’s lawless seamen captured more than 40 large vessels in the Gulf of Aden, a shortcut between Asia and Europe that’s vital to the global economy. Wiping out today’s pirates won’t be easy; they’re smarter, better organized, and, frankly, better loved abroad than the swashbucklers of yesteryear. In a special dispatch from Mombasa, Kenya, mental_floss correspondent David Axe explains.
Many Somali pirates see themselves as good guys. And at one point, they were. After the government in Mogadishu collapsed in 1991, neighboring countries began illegally fishing in Somali waters. The first pirates were simply angry fishermen who boarded these foreign vessels and demanded a “fee.” But as the illegal fishing persisted, some early pirates banded together and called themselves “coast guards.” They claimed to be looking after Somalia’s territorial integrity until the government could pull itself back together.
These weren’t the only vigilantes on the scene, however. Other pirates made their debut robbing U.N. ships that were carrying food to refugee camps in Somalia. These bandits argued that if they hadn’t taken the food, warlords would have seized it on land. And they had a good point. Warlords gobbled down at lot of Somalia’s relief food during the 1990s.
But from these perhaps defensible beginnings, piracy spread farther from Somalia’s shores and evolved into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Today, pirates are blunt about their motives. In late 2008, after a band of pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter full of weapons and demanded $25 million for its release, Sugule Ali, a member of the pirate crew, told a reporter, “We only want the money.”
According to some estimates, pirates in 2008 pulled in as much as $150 million, indicating that piracy is now Somalia’s biggest industry. In fact, successful pirates are the country’s most eligible bachelors. While small-time swashbucklers earn in the low five figures, bosses can pull in $2 million a year—this, in a country where you can buy dinner for less than $1. But as their wallets fatten, many pirates are heading for greener pastures, and the real money is flowing out of the country with them. Many are buying properties on the seashore of Mombasa, Kenya, where new condos are being built every day. If a condo is selling for a few million dollars, there’s a good chance the bosses will throw in an extra half-million, just to make sure the Kenyans don’t ask too many questions.
Piracy is so simple that anyone can do it. All you need is a gun, an aluminum ladder (for scaling other ships), and a motorboat. Then you just have to wait for commercial ships to pass by. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about your targets shooting back. By international agreement, civilian vessels aren’t allowed to carry guns because governments don’t want armed ships moving from port to port. “Once pirates are on board, they’ve got the upper hand,” says Martin Murphy, a piracy expert with the Corbett Center for Maritime Policy Studies. The best defense against piracy is speed, but because most commercial ships aren’t designed to go fast, pirates don’t have any trouble chasing them down. The most sophisticated marauders use machine guns and GPS systems, but many pirates are still low-tech fisherman. After they board a ship, all they have to do is steal or ransom the goods and prisoners. The cargo of a typical commercial ship ransoms for about $1 million.
Everybody knows piracy is wrong, but is it illegal? The truth is that the places where pirates operate are actually lawless. In Somali territory, there’s no functional government to make or enforce regulations. And because nations don’t control much of the ocean, there are no laws on the high seas, either. Throughout history, governments have patched together legal frameworks to bring pirates to justice, but it’s never fast or easy. Pirates—even those caught in the act by one navy or another—are often simply released on the nearest Somali beach, without so much as a slap on the wrist.
With Somali piracy on the rise, the world is playing legal catch-up. In November 2008, the United Kingdom signed an agreement to try pirates captured by the Royal Navy in Kenya. And other countries are following Britain’s lead, with nations including the United States, Singapore, and Turkey signing similar agreements. But Kenya, despite having the most powerful democracy in East Africa, doesn’t appear to have an effective court system. When Britain’s first batch of eight captured pirates went on trial in Mombasa in December, the defense argued that Kenya shouldn’t have jurisdiction and succeeded in persuading the judge to defer the trial. The long-term solution to piracy is a stable Somali government with a functional judiciary, but that requires peace between the country’s warring clans. Somalia’s new president, elected in February 2009, is just starting to get groups to talk.
It’s difficult to tell pirates from fishermen, until they climb aboard another ship and pull out their AK-47s. So, there’s not much the U.S. Navy and other military forces can do as a deterrent except sail around and look menacing. After pirates have seized a ship, navies rarely attempt to retake it, because hostages could be hurt in the process. In the absence of an effective defense, there were more than 100 documented pirate attacks in 2008 that resulted in more than 40 ships being hijacked. But for all their aggression, the body count is low. One ship’s captain died of natural causes while being held hostage, and a few militia men have died in shoot-outs as they tried to rescue prisoners, but in general, little blood has been spilled.
Pirates also prefer to keep their prisoners in good health. Not only are civilians worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece in ransom, but the pirates’ reputation for not harming their hostages has made governments reluctant to strike back on behalf of shipping companies. While the pirates’ hands remain mostly blood-free, the navies patrolling East African waters have taken lives. The Indian navy, for example, destroyed one pirate boat only to discover that the pirates had Thai hostages on board. At least a dozen innocent victims died.
Pirates prowl about 2 million square miles of the ocean. That’s a lot of water, and even with thousands of ships on the high seas, it’s possible to sail for days without seeing another vessel. So how do pirates know where to look and which ships to attack? Spies. The biggest gangs have informants in Mombasa, the major port in the region, where ships have to file paperwork stating what they’re carrying and where they’re going. According to one Mombasa business leader, spies inside the Kenyan maritime agencies pass along this information to pirate bosses—for a price. Pirates are also in cahoots with local big-wigs in northern Somalia. In exchange for a cut of pirates’ hauls, officials in the Puntland region of Somalia turn a blind eye to the international crime flourishing under their noses.
Sailors know what they’re getting into when they steer toward East African waters. And because their crews can’t carry guns, they’ve found other ways to fight off pirates. Last year, one Chinese ship used tactics borrowed straight from a medieval castle siege.
Four hundred cocktails later, the pirates retreated. One pirate, who wasn’t wearing any shoes, saw he was about to walk across a deck paved with shattered glass to get back to his ship. He called up to the ship’s stalwart defenders and begged for something to cover his feet.
Somali pirates are getting bolder. For years, they’ve chased small fry, such as Kenyan fishermen, small coastal freighters, and U.N. food ships. Today, with faster boats, better weapons, and more accurate information from their spies, they’re going after massive cargo ships, super-tankers, and even passenger liners. Nobody’s safe. In September, pirates grabbed a Ukrainian ship called the Faina, which was carrying armored vehicles, rockets, and other weapons. They followed up that dramatic heist by overtaking the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, which had crude oil aboard valued at $100 million. (Both ships were released earlier this year after ransoms were paid.) Recent attacks on cruise-liners have been unsuccessful, but maritime officials are increasingly worried. Pirates usually attack in groups of about 10 and capture ships with 20 or so passengers. That ratio of captors to captives lets the pirates stay in control. But with cruise ships carrying as many as 2,000 people, there’s no way pirates would be able to conduct an orderly capture. Things might get out of hand; and that, officials say, is when people get hurt.
The biggest victims of Somali piracy are the Somalis themselves. Nearly 4 million people there (half the population) depend on food donations to survive. But pirate attacks on food ships have made it difficult for the United Nations to keep sending provisions. In a desperate bid to keep the supplies flowing, the U.N. issued a plea to the world’s navies in 2007. As of March 2009, no food ship sets sail from Mombasa without a Dutch, Canadian, French, German, Italian, or Greek warship riding shotgun. “If you don’t have an escort, you cannot move food there,” says U.N. official Lemma Jembere. But naval deployments are expensive, and warships might not be available forever. This could mean death by starvation for millions, all due to a few thousand opportunistic pirates.
Even with the world’s navies rushing to protect East African shipping, the sheer size of the ocean and the huge numbers of ships involved mean warships are rarely in the right place at the right time. The mood in Mombasa, where so many ship owners and seafarers are based, is bleak. Karim Kudrati, a shipping director whose four ships have all been hijacked at least once, says it’s time for the world to mobilize an army and invade Somalia. “Everybody knows where captured vessels are being taken, and on that aspect of things, nothing is being done.”
The United Nations recently passed a resolution allowing an invasion, but the United States military has put the brakes on participating in any operation. Perhaps they’re hesitant because of their last experience sending troops to Somalia. In 1993, 18 Americans were killed during a commando raid to capture a few, low-ranking warlords. And yet, it’s becoming more and more clear that without major, international intervention, piracy will continue to grow. With the benefits far outweighing the risks, pirates have no incentive to stop pillaging.
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