by Austin Bay
November 26, 2008
Somalia's pirates have a big problem on their hands -- in the form of
their 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 at
least 15 "prize" ships now anchored off the Somali coast. According to the
pirates, the ship's crew of 25 is well-fed and well-treated. They have joined
another 300 captive sailors taken from other hijacked vessels.
And add $30 million to these impressive numbers. That's an unofficial
figure for the ransoms paid over the last year by shipping companies to Somali
pirates to free crews, cargoes and vessels
From a sea crook's perspective, a freighter fleet and $30 million in cash
isn't a problem, it's success. The cash roll may seem small by Wall Street
bailout stands, but $30 million goes a long way in Puntland.
Remember the Land of Punt? Egyptian Queen Hapshetsut sent an expedition
to Punt in the 15th century B.C. This A.D. 21st century "Puntland" is north of
Mogadishu on the "elbow" of the Horn of Africa. Puntland claimed independence
from "Mogadishu control" in 1998 -- which makes Puntland a separatist
"state-let" of a sort.
Puntland, however, like most of anarchy-plagued Somalia, has no real
government except gangsters with guns, making the miserable place a near-perfect
criminal haven. The Puntland port of Eyl brags about its "piracy industry."
That may seem a bit media deaf, bragging about piratical success, but
Eyl's residents have a sympathetic cover story incorporating an environmentalist
touch with a pitch reminiscent of Cold War-era "Third World solidarity"
propaganda. Their local fishing catch has diminished, and they blame the big
ships. Ships shouldn't pass through their waters for free. Thus pirates are just
heavily 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 pirates
attacked the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit. They failed when the liner's crew
fought back. The crew maneuvered the ship and used its huge wake as a weapon
against the pirates' speedboats. The crew also employed a non-lethal
"directional parabolic audio boom-box," a "sonic weapon" that emits an
eardrum-shattering sound. The pirates retreated. The headlines came and went.
So why do the pirates now have a big problem? They have had, quite
simply, too much success -- and have moved from nuisance to noxious. Hijacking
an oil tanker is an economic assault on the industrial world that the general
public understands. Don't discount the global economic downturn's sobering
effect. Shippers estimate that rerouting tankers and freighters around South
Africa's Cape of Good Hope (in order to avoid pirate waters) increases shipping
costs 20 percent to 30 percent,
Pirates and terrorists thrive in anarchic territory. Though Somali
pirates 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 terror
group 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 group
trained in hostage rescue. Though it risks the lives of hostages, a punitive
strike on the Pirates of Puntland could be next month's news.
Modern piracy won't be stopped by naval action alone. In "Jolly Roger
With an Uzi" (published in 2000), authors Jack Gottschalk and Brian Flanagan
analyze the piracy problem as a complex challenge to the international political
system. Ineffective governments are part of the predicament. Corrupt shipping
agents even play a role, providing intel to criminals. Placing armed guards on
ships isn't a new idea, but it creates legal tangles. However, Gottschalk and
Flanagan note that "lethal force to prevent pirate attacks" against ships on the
high seas "may well be necessary to bring piracy under effective control."