Somalia: Pirates Reach the High Seas And The Big Time



November 18, 2008: So far this year, the Somali pirates have attacked about 90 ships, and captured 35. They get a ransom of up to $2 million per ship (depending on size and cargo.) The pirates are expected to get over $40 million in ransoms for the year. This has caused an economic boom in northern Somalia (mainly the self-declared statelet of Puntland). Foreign warships have established a corridor through the 1,500 kilometer long Gulf of Aden, and filled it with warships and patrol aircraft. Some 90 percent of merchant ships are sticking to the corridor, and none of these ships has been taken by pirates. All the recent ship hijackings have been outside the corridor. This could lead to controlling piracy in the Gulf of Aden. If the "pirate free" corridor can be maintained, insurance companies will reduce the $10,000 in additional fees they are charging for ships transiting the Gulf, at least for ships that stay in the corridor, and increase the rates sharply for those who do not use the corridor.

In southern Somalia, attacks against aid workers (usually kidnappings, but also murder) have increased this year. About three dozen of them have been killed or kidnapped this year, which is more than double the number for last year. Foreign aid is major source of income for warlords and bandits, and these fellows are being more aggressive going after it. While the UN has European warships to escort the aid ships (mainly carrying food for the third of Somalis who are in danger of starving), once the aid supplies are ashore, the aid groups must try and bribe the local gunmen to get the food to the starving Somalis. That is becoming increasingly expensive, and donors don't like seeing so much of their money going to bandits, rather than starving women and children.

Violence continues in Mogadishu, where Islamic radical militias keep shooting at AU (African Union) peacekeepers and Ethiopian troops. For most Somalis, it's embarrassing to have foreign troops around, even if they are peacekeepers. The radical groups are also split, and have been fighting each other as well.

The Islamic radical militias continue to organize and advance on Mogadishu. But these groups, that began as vigilantes (the Islamic Courts) nearly a decade ago, are not strong enough to take on the Ethiopian infantry brigade in Mogadishu. There are a few thousand of these Islamic radical marauders roaming around southern Somalia, living off plunder. They are careful to extort money, food and other goods from merchants and aid groups, and not ordinary people. This makes them popular with the majority of Somalis. Many of these religious gunmen now belong to the al Shabab group, which considers al Qaeda an ally. Al Shabab also has an image problem, in that they use force, wherever they go, to impose Sharia (Islamic) law. This means no music, videos, schools for girls, shaves for men, and so on. Recently this led to the murder (by stoning) of a 13 year old girl. She was raped, but the al Shabab men decided it was her fault, and the penalty for fornication is death by stoning. This has hurt al Shabab fund raising overseas, where they portray themselves as freedom fighters to expatriate Somalis (who are asked to donate cash for the cause).

November 15, 2008: Somali pirates seized a 300,000 ton oil tanker, some 700 kilometers off the east coast of Somalia. Until this attack, most of the pirate activity had moved to the north coast (the Gulf of Aden). But over twenty foreign warships and patrol aircraft have made it more difficult to grab ships there. The pirates have access to stolen fishing boats that they can take long distances. Anywhere in the world, as a matter of fact. Seizing the large oil tanker (carrying over $100 million worth of crude oil from the Persian Gulf), could bring a huge ransom. The pirates have been very clever in not harming any of the sailors on the hijacked ships. This makes it difficult for foreign countries to justify the use of force to take back the ships (not to mention the risk of the rescuers killing some of the hostages). This media/political logic also makes it difficult to authorize attacks on the half dozen Somali port towns and villages that serve as bases for the pirates. That may change, as more pirates realize that they can grab an ocean going fishing boat, and go hunting for commercial vessels anywhere. There are thousands of these fishing boats out there, and policing them would be difficult (but not impossible).

November 14, 2008:  A Chinese fishing boat, and its crew of 24, was seized by pirates off the coast of southern Somalia. This is prime fishing area, and there is no Somali coast guard to enforce catch limits (to prevent species from being wiped out). Many Somali pirates say these poachers are the real pirates (which they are, after a fashion), and that armed Somalis off the coast are "coast guard" not pirates. They are pirates, and foreign fishing boats have to fish with caution.

November 10, 2008: Somali gunmen raided a refugee camp in northern Kenya, and kidnapped two Italian nuns (as well as stealing two trucks and much other loot.) These raids are increasingly common. Somalis have been raiding, into what is now Kenya, for centuries. The number of Somalis fleeing to Kenya has more than tripled (to nearly 70,000) over last year. Many are fleeing starvation, as a drought has been sitting on the region for over a year, and bandits steal much of the food aid in Somalia. But many Somalis are fleeing Islamic radicals and their brutal imposition of Islamic law on any area they control. There are over 200,000 Somali refugees living in Kenya, and Somali bandits come across the border to raid the camps, or just stay and rest for a while. Kenya has mobilized a military/police task force to go looking for the nuns, if local tribal elders cannot arrange for the freedom of the women.


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