Arrgggg, no, this isn’t about the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m talking real pirates. It appears that Somalian pirates are out there, snagging up cargo ships, including oil tankers. In the past few weeks, Somalia's pirates have grabbed eight ships, including that oil supertanker which was carrying $100 million worth of crude oil. Crew members are held hostage and ransom demands have been made.
Now there is word that Islamic fighters are threatening to attack in order to get the Sirius Star back, which is — a 1,080-foot tanker owned by Saudi Aramco.
According to a September article in the New York Times:
“ The Somali pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition said in an interview on Tuesday that they had no idea the ship was carrying arms when they seized it on the high seas. “We just saw a big ship,” the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, said in a telephone interview. “So we stopped it.” In a 45-minute interview, Mr. Sugule spoke on everything from what the pirates wanted (“just money”) to why they were doing this (“to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters”) to what they had to eat on board (rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, “you know, normal human-being food”)…. The piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response to illegal fishing. Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax.
“From there, they got greedy,” said Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya. “They starting attacking everyone.”
By the early 2000s, many of the fishermen had traded in their nets for machine guns and were hijacking any vessel they could catch: sailboat, oil tanker, United Nations-chartered food ship.
What amazes me is that every picture I’ve seen of these pirates, there are in tiny boats that are dwarfed by these huge ships. Maybe I don’t understand how these boats get taken over, but it would seem to me that it wouldn’t be too easy just to climb aboard these large cargo ships. Part of the problem is that many ships are reluctant to carry weapons – and to me, that’s almost asking for trouble. PBS published an interview with Peter Pham and Andre Le Sage, as they discuss the problem, and it may answer some of these questions:
Somalia has not had a fully functioning government since 1991 and is currently dealing with an Islamist insurgency.
And one further development today: The Guardian newspaper reported that the British will lead a fleet of European Union warships to Gulf of Aden next month to combat piracy.
For more on all of this, we turn to Andre Le Sage, assistant professor and chief of counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
And Peter Pham, associate professor and director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.
Well, Peter Pham, who are these pirates? And why has there been a rise in piracy?
PETER PHAM, James Madison University: Well, the pirates are armed criminal gangs, more or less operating on a clan basis, led by essentially warlords who have taken to the waters.
The crimes are occurring because it's a crime of opportunity. There's no government to speak of in Somalia to stop them. The area is very wide and poorly patrolled, so the opportunity is there. And, unfortunately, the shippers are willing to pay the ransom, so there's an economic motive, as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: Andre Le Sage, what would you add to that, in terms of why there's been this uptick?
ANDRE LE SAGE, National Defense University: Well, I think that the uncontrolled situation in Somalia is really at the heart of the problem. And also, a small number of pirate interests that started off in 2003 became more sophisticated over the years, have generated a substantial amount of ransom money that they can then reinvest in new piracy operations.
Other copycat outfits have also started to get into the game, and it's multiplied the number of pirates that are out there.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the capture of the supertanker this weekend really grabbed the world's attention. What did it tell us -- stay with you, Andre -- about the range, the boldness of these pirates?
ANDRE LE SAGE: Well, these are obviously very brazen attacks, to be able to get out to 450 nautical miles off of the east African coast is just something that people didn't think was possible in the past.
Originally, the International Maritime Bureau was advocating that ships stay maybe 50 nautical miles up to 200 nautical miles outside of Somali waters so they could avoid problems. But now we're seeing much more sophisticated attacks.
We're also witnessing the fact that the international maritime presence, the naval presence that has been sent to the area, is just not sufficient to deter the pirates from continuing.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Pham, how sophisticated? Do they know, for example, what their targets are, what the cargoes are in particular targets?
PETER PHAM: I think we've seen a progression. Originally, it was whatever came by and could be seized.
Now we're seeing these criminal networks of pirates engaging in intelligence-gathering, rationally choosing their targets, and also reacting to where the increased patrols have come.
So as patrols have moved into the Gulf of Aden, we've seen, like the attack on the Saudi tanker, in waters where the patrols aren't operating.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Andre Le Sage, how sophisticated in terms of how it's actually done? They have a mother ship, I hear, in many cases, a number of speedboats, but what actually happens when they take over a ship?
ANDRE LE SAGE: Although these ships are being attacked hundreds of nautical miles off-shore, these are relatively low-tech operations that the pirates are running.
They bring a small number of speedboats -- maybe three or five -- off the Somali coast. Maybe they capture a slightly larger fishing trawler that they can use as a base of operations for days or weeks. They can lay in wait for ships to come by. They might maneuver themselves into high-density shipping areas.
Once they see a boat that might be a little bit slow, a little bit low in the water, with sides that aren't too high off the seas, they then use grappling hooks and ladders to board the ship.
JEFFREY BROWN: Just like pirates of old, huh?
ANDRE LE SAGE: Exactly. And some people report that attack from beginning to end, it might take only 15 minutes until a crew is actually seized and put under pirate guard, and then the vessel steams back to the Somali coast for the ransoming process to begin.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the cargo ship being attacked, these are generally unarmed? Are they always unarmed? Are they unarmed sometimes?
ANDRE LE SAGE: They're not always unarmed, but there is some debate about whether weapons should be brought on board ships.
In 2005, the Seabourn Spirit, a Western cruise ship that was rounding the Horn of Africa, was attacked. They were able to deter the pirates by using an LRAD, a long-range acoustic device, sort of a sonic weapon that directed high-intensity sounds at the pirates and scared them away.
Others have encouraged using water cannons or some form of non-lethal weapons that could be used against pirates.
There is a reluctance by the private shipping industry to have actual guns on board ships.
I’m not one to advocate violence and I don’t particularly care for guns. But I also live in the real world, and I know that sometimes guns may be the only thing that helps keep the peace or protect one’s life or property. I hope that anyone shipping in this area arms themselves, or as suggested above, obtain something non-lethal like water cannons. If they don’t want to handle the guns themselves, have them hire a private security company that will do it for them. And where exactly is the U.N. while all this is going on? Doing nothing, I am sure, which is what they seem to do best. It seems that this problem would all be solved with a little show of weaponry. I would think that those shipping in that area should pony up and start protecting their own ships.
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