Piracy in Somalia - The Intrepid

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Piracy in Somalia

Piracy in Somalia
The Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker, captured on Saturday, 450 miles off the coast of Kenya, is the largest vessel ever seized by Somali pirates. In fact, it’s the largest vessel ever seized by anyone.

Although piracy on the high seas may seem like a crime from another era, it’s still a big problem. Forget the romantic images of tall ships, parrots, eye patches, and everything else you’ve seen in the Pirates of the Caribbean, today’s pirates use machetes, machine guns, and motorboats. They also aren’t nearly as amusing as Johnny Depp. These men are as heavily armed as they are ruthless. But for many, piracy is less a criminal activity than a way of life.

Many young Somali men simply don’t know any better, says Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Kenyan Seafarers' Association in Mombasa. They have no education, money, or understanding of the rule of law, “someone gives [them] a gun and tells [them] to go and make a living…”

In Somalia, piracy and poverty are interlinked. Since 1991, Somalia hasn’t had a working central government and the resulting warfare and strife has left the region impoverished.

Commercial fisherman, particularly hard hit by illegal trawling operations off the coast, turned to piracy to support themselves and their families.

Today, piracy is one of the best paying jobs in Somalia.

“They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day,” says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in the Somali city of Garowe. “They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns. Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.”

In Eyl, the nexus of pirate activity in country, everyone wants a cut of the profits. According to BBC news, the average going rate for kidnapped sailors is anywhere between $300,000 and $1.5 million. This kind of cash means that hostages as usually well treated. But, more importantly, huge paydays hold the pirate gangs together.

In 2005, Somali pirates made over $30 million from ransom payments. This year profits are expected to be much higher.

These gangs aren’t just two bit operations either. The number of people who take part in the actual attack is small, but the operation itself can employ hundreds of people. The initial attack usually only requires 7-10 people. But afterward, upwards of 50 pirates stay on board the vessel.

According to BBC Somalia analyst Mohamed Mohamed, these are sophisticated operations. Ex-fishermen provide the brains. They know waters and how to pilot vessels once they’re captured. Ex-militiamen are the brawn. They know how to use weapons after years of training under tribal warlords. Ex-businessmen and technical experts work the logistics. They operate the satellite phones and GPS systems that coordinate gangs and locate targets. They also know how to wire money and can insure smooth ransom payments so that everyone gets paid.

As long as piracy remains more lucrative than work on land, Somali men are going to continue to take to the high seas in droves.