On Point: The Pirates of Puntland


by Austin Bay
November 26, 2008

Somalia's pirates have a big problem on their hands -- in the form oftheir greatest prize, the Saudi-owned oil tanker the Sirius Star.

The Sirius Star has 2 million barrels of oil on board and is one of atleast 15 "prize" ships now anchored off the Somali coast. According to thepirates, the ship's crew of 25 is well-fed and well-treated. They have joinedanother 300 captive sailors taken from other hijacked vessels.

And add $30 million to these impressive numbers. That's an unofficialfigure for the ransoms paid over the last year by shipping companies to Somalipirates to free crews, cargoes and vessels

From a sea crook's perspective, a freighter fleet and $30 million in cashisn't a problem, it's success. The cash roll may seem small by Wall Streetbailout stands, but $30 million goes a long way in Puntland.

Remember the Land of Punt? Egyptian Queen Hapshetsut sent an expeditionto Punt in the 15th century B.C. This A.D. 21st century "Puntland" is north ofMogadishu on the "elbow" of the Horn of Africa. Puntland claimed independencefrom "Mogadishu control" in 1998 -- which makes Puntland a separatist"state-let" of a sort.

Puntland, however, like most of anarchy-plagued Somalia, has no realgovernment except gangsters with guns, making the miserable place a near-perfectcriminal haven. The Puntland port of Eyl brags about its "piracy industry."

That may seem a bit media deaf, bragging about piratical success, butEyl's residents have a sympathetic cover story incorporating an environmentalisttouch with a pitch reminiscent of Cold War-era "Third World solidarity"propaganda. Their local fishing catch has diminished, and they blame the bigships. Ships shouldn't pass through their waters for free. Thus pirates are justheavily armed toll-booth operators.

The pirates shrug at media attention. Media interest has spiked before,then Oprah and Geraldo lost interest. For example, in fall 2005, Somali piratesattacked the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit. They failed when the liner's crewfought back. The crew maneuvered the ship and used its huge wake as a weaponagainst the pirates' speedboats. The crew also employed a non-lethal"directional parabolic audio boom-box," a "sonic weapon" that emits aneardrum-shattering sound. The pirates retreated. The headlines came and went.

So why do the pirates now have a big problem? They have had, quitesimply, too much success -- and have moved from nuisance to noxious. Hijackingan oil tanker is an economic assault on the industrial world that the generalpublic understands. Don't discount the global economic downturn's soberingeffect. Shippers estimate that rerouting tankers and freighters around SouthAfrica's Cape of Good Hope (in order to avoid pirate waters) increases shippingcosts 20 percent to 30 percent,

Pirates and terrorists thrive in anarchic territory. Though Somalipirates may not directly connect with al-Qaida-affiliated terror groups,indirect ties exist -- and certainly so do short-lived alliances of convenience.Intelligence agencies scrutinize criminal organizations for many reasons.Smugglers and rebels share clandestine lives. Terrorists worldwide (e.g.,Colombia) run "mafia-style" extortion rackets. The Filipino Islamist terrorgroup Abu Sayyaf is a pirate gang.

Trading powers are responding to the Somali pirates' violent bravado.Last week, an Indian Navy ship sank a Somali pirate vessel off East Africa.StrategyPage.com reported Russia is sending more ships and a commando grouptrained in hostage rescue. Though it risks the lives of hostages, a punitivestrike on the Pirates of Puntland could be next month's news.

Modern piracy won't be stopped by naval action alone. In "Jolly RogerWith an Uzi" (published in 2000), authors Jack Gottschalk and Brian Flanagananalyze the piracy problem as a complex challenge to the international politicalsystem. Ineffective governments are part of the predicament. Corrupt shippingagents even play a role, providing intel to criminals. Placing armed guards onships isn't a new idea, but it creates legal tangles. However, Gottschalk andFlanagan note that "lethal force to prevent pirate attacks" against ships on thehigh seas "may well be necessary to bring piracy under effective control."

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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