Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | March 23, 2011

Piracy in Somalia: The Real Thing Is So Much Scarier


Piracy:  It’s not just for reenactors.

As much as I enjoy imagining the era of “Calico” Jack Rackham and Howell Davis, I also follow piracy in modern times.  Very recently, piracy had a media burst as the privately-owned sailboat Quest was captured off of Africa and, in spite of–or because of–being tailed by the U.S. Navy, all four crew were killed, including two people from Seattle.

The center for modern piracy is Somalia.  By all accounts, this is not a place anyone would really want to be.  It is almost completely arid, it is phenomenally poor, and it has been in a state of civil war since 1991, a war fueled by territoriality and, naturally, religion in the form of Islamic fundamentalism.  Anyone who’s seen Black Hawk Down has seen graphically portrayed the madness that was Mogadishu, Somalia’s “capitol,” when United States troops as part of a United Nations operation ended up very much in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1993.  I watched this movie after I had started following news about the Somali pirates.  While I was left undecided on whether this was a boys-with-guns war movie or an interesting modern-events film, one thing was made clear to me:  Piracy in Somalia is the direct result of a country in chaos.

The pirates of Somalia started getting international attention about 2005.  Their existence was initially chalked up to Somali fishing grounds being overrun by international poaching and toxic dumping; fishermen were turning pirate because their livelihood had been taken away.  It was never that simple, and it certainly isn’t now.  The Somalis have gotten more organized and more bold.  Once they went out on small skiffs to attack vessels offshore.  Now “motherships” way out in blue water are used as staging grounds for attacks that range through much of the Indian Ocean.  They have been brave and stupid enough to attack a United-States-registered container ship, the Maersk Alabama, holding the captain hostage.  This eventually resulted in the first United States conviction of piracy since the 1800’s.  They have been brave and stupid enough to attack a Saudi supertanker, the Sirius Star, and although the ransom was paid very few of the pirates made it back to shore alive, supposedly caught in a storm but to my mind quite possibly the victim of Saudi retribution.  The latest article I read put an estimate of 28 vessels and 576 seafarers currently being held by Somali pirates.

The chaos in Somalia is being matched by chaos in the international reaction to it.  Money is being thrown around–the UK just threw six million Pounds at the problem.  The pirates are getting tried and jailed in nearly as many countries as there are registries that they have attacked…assuming they reach trial much less get convicted.  Hillary Clinton has called for a response, and the United Nations has called for international law to come into play.  The biggest response has been naval.  Multinational task forces now patrol the waters around the Gulf of Aden, including Combined Task Force 151, spearheaded by the United States Navy; Operation Atalanta, organized by the European Union; and NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield.  Somali pirates are increasingly heading towards India, largely to avoid the international fleet.  The Indian Navy, however, has taken a decidedly more aggressive stance.  As recently as March 14th, for example, the Indian Navy attacked a Mozambican fishing boat that had been turned into a mothership; 61 pirates were captured.  Meanwhile, as the pirates become not only more daring but also more violent, the international shipping community is starting to favor having merchant ships have armed guards to defend themselves.

I cannot pretend to have any actual stake in this, other than a general concern for the safety of my fellow sailors and an odd desire to keep gas prices down.  That was enough to inspire me to send a letter to President Obama via the maritime industry campaign website Save Our Seafarers.  I don’t actually agree with all of the central tenets of the campaign.  For one, I don’t think stepping up naval presence is going to deter the pirates much.  Bringing more warships into the area is likely to only escalate the situation.  This in my opinion was one of the lessons learned from the Quest incident–corner someone with violence, and violence is likely to ensue.  (That and if you’re foolhardy enough to take your yacht into pirate waters, guess what, you are very likely to get hijacked.)  On the other hand, the final key action the Save Our Seafarers campaign proposes is “tracing and criminalising the organisers and financiers behind the criminal networks.” There is more than ample evidence that the Somali pirates, far from being the dispossessed fishermen they might have once been, are now organized criminals with international funding and connections, including Dubai.  The pirates themselves aren’t even necessarily from Somalia any more.  Some of the pirates who attacked the Quest were from Yemen, a country about as poor as Somalia itself.  It may sound like old hat that the solution to piracy in Somalia should be legal not military, but in this case it’s a question of practicality, not pacifism.

These are not the pirates of three hundred years ago.  The buccaneers of the old Spanish Main like Morgan and the Golden Era pirates like Blackbeard were a hungry and frequently bloodthirsty lot whose actions straddled the line between open theft and colonial warfare.  The distinction between pirate, a thief of the sea, and privateer, a thief of the sea with supposed governmental backing, was always gray.  But in Somalia, there is no government.  The Transitional Federal Government barely controls an area in and around Mogadishu and certainly doesn’t reach towards strongholds like Haradhere where the pirates have created what is essentially gangsta paradise.  Modern piracy is a fluid and flammable mix of age-old clan rivalries and international crime fueled by poverty, religion and greed.  The old pirates have, rightfully or unrightfully, been romanticized.  There is nothing romantic here–only one of the most desperate and dangerous areas of current events.  Stay tuned…

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