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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

10 Things You Didn't Know About Somali Pirates

By David Axe

Posted to the Web Apr 28, 02:42

In the 15 years since armed Somali fishermen began forcing their wayonto commercial ships, pirates have turned East Africa's seas into theworld's most dangerous waters.

In 2008 alone, Somalia's lawless seamencaptured more than 40 large vessels in the Gulf of Aden, a shortcutbetween Asia and Europe that's vital to the global economy. Wiping out today's pirates won't be easy; they're smarter, better organized, and,frankly, better loved abroad than the swashbucklers of yesteryear.

In aspecial dispatch from Mombasa, Kenya, Mental Floss correspondent DavidAxe explains.

1. They Have a Robin Hood Complex
Many Somali pirates see themselves as good guys. And at one point, they were.
  • After the government in Mogadishu collapsed in 1991, neighboringcountries began illegally fishing in Somali waters.
  • The first pirates were simply angry fishermen who boarded these foreign vessels anddemanded a "fee." But as the illegal fishing persisted, some early pirates banded together and called themselves "coast guards."
  • Theyclaimed to be looking after Somalia's territorial integrity until thegovernment could pull itself back together.

These weren't the only vigilantes on the scene, however. Other pirates made their debut robbing U.N. ships that were carrying food to refugee camps in Somalia. These bandits argued that if they hadn't taken the food, warlords would have seized it on land. And they had a good point.

  • Warlords gobbled down at lot of Somalia's relief foodduring the 1990s.
    But from these perhaps defensible beginnings, piracy spread farther from Somalia's shores and evolved into a multimillion-dollarenterprise.

Today, pirates are blunt about their motives. In late 2008,after a band of pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter full of weaponsand demanded $25 million for its release, Sugule Ali, a member of the pirate crew, told a reporter, "We only want the money."

2. Nobody Brings Home the Bacon Like a Pirate

According to some estimates, pirates in 2008 pulled in as much as $150 million,indicating that piracy is now Somalia's biggest industry. In fact,successful pirates are the country's most eligible bachelors. Whilesmall-time swashbucklers earn in the low five figures, bosses can pullin $2 million a year—this, in a country where you can buy dinner forless than $1.

But as their wallets fatten, many pirates are heading forgreener pastures, and the real money is flowing out of the country with them. Many are buying properties on the seashore of Mombasa, Kenya,where new condos are being built every day.

If a condo is selling for a few million dollars, there's a good chance the bosses will throw in an extra half-million, just to make sure the Kenyans don't ask too manyquestions.

3. Being a Pirate Is Easy!

Piracy is so simple that anyone can do it. All you need is a gun, an aluminum ladder (for scaling otherships), and a motorboat. Then you just have to wait for commercialships to pass by. Best of all, you don't have to worry about your targets shooting back. By international agreement, civilian vessels aren't allowed to carry guns because governments don't want armed shipsmoving from port to port.

"Once pirates are on board, they've got theupper hand," says Martin Murphy, a piracy expert with the Corbett Center for Maritime Policy Studies.

The best defense against piracy isspeed, but because most commercial ships aren't designed to go fast, pirates don't have any trouble chasing them down.

The most sophisticated marauders use machine guns and GPS systems, but many pirates are still low-tech fisherman. After they board a ship, all they have to do is steal or ransom the goods and prisoners. The cargo of a typical commercial ship ransoms for about $1 million.

4. The Law Can't Touch Them

Everybody knows piracy is wrong, but is it illegal? The truth is that the places where pirates operateare actually lawless. In Somali territory, there's no functional government to make or enforce regulations. And because nations don't control much of the ocean, there are no laws on the high seas, either.

Throughout history, governments have patched together legal frameworksto bring pirates to justice, but it's never fast or easy. Pirates—eventhose caught in the act by one navy or another—are often simply released on the nearest Somali beach, without so much as a slap on thewrist.

  • With Somali piracy on the rise, the world is playing legal catch-up.In November 2008, the United Kingdom signed an agreement to try piratescaptured by the Royal Navy in Kenya.
  • And other countries are followingBritain's lead, with nations including the United States, Singapore,and Turkey signing similar agreements.
  • But Kenya, despite having themost powerful democracy in East Africa, doesn't appear to have an effective court system. When Britain's first batch of eight captured pirates went on trial in Mombasa in December, the defense argued that Kenya shouldn't have jurisdiction and succeeded in persuading the judgeto defer the trial.

The long-term solution to piracy is a stable Somali government with a functional judiciary, but that requires peace between the country's warring clans. Somalia's new president, elected inFebruary 2009, is just starting to get groups to talk.

5. Pirates Rarely Kill People (Which is Why They're So Dangerous)

It'sdifficult to tell pirates from fishermen, until they climb aboard another ship and pull out their AK-47s. So, there's not much the U.S.Navy and other military forces can do as a deterrent except sail aroundand look menacing.

  • After pirates have seized a ship, navies rarely attempt to retake it, because hostages could be hurt in the process.
  • In the absence of an effective defense, there were more than 100documented pirate attacks in 2008 that resulted in more than 40 shipsbeing hijacked. But for all their aggression, the body count is low.
  • One ship's captain died of natural causes while being held hostage, and a few militia men have died in shoot-outs as they tried to rescue prisoners, but in general, little blood has been spilled.
  • Pirates also prefer to keep their prisoners in good health. Not only are civilians worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece in ransom,but the pirates' reputation for not harming their hostages has madegovernments reluctant to strike back on behalf of shipping companies.

While the pirates' hands remain mostly blood-free, the navies patrolling East African waters have taken lives.

  • The Indian navy, forexample, destroyed one pirate boat only to discover that the pirates had Thai hostages on board. At least a dozen innocent victims died.

6. Pirates Have Friends in High Places
Pirates prowl about 2 million square miles of the ocean. That's a lot of water,and even with thousands of ships on the high seas, it's possible to sail for days without seeing another vessel. So how do pirates knowwhere to look and which ships to attack? Spies.

  • The biggest gangs have informants in Mombasa, the major port in the region, where ships haveto file paperwork stating what they're carrying and where they're going. According to one Mombasa business leader, spies inside theKenyan maritime agencies pass along this information to pirate bosses—for a price.
  • Pirates are also in cahoots with local big-wigs in northern Somalia. In exchange for a cut of pirates' hauls, officials inthe Puntland region of Somalia turn a blind eye to the international crime flourishing under their noses.

7. Sailors Are Fighting Back (And It's Working)
Sailors know what they're getting into when they steer toward East African waters.And because their crews can't carry guns, they've found other ways tofight off pirates. Last year, one Chinese ship used tactics borrowed straight from a medieval castle siege.

  • When pirates clambered up the side of the Zhenhua 4, the crew climbed onto a higher deck and pulled up the ladder.
  • Then they turned on high-pressure fire hoses and knocked the pirates off their feet.
  • But the crew didn't stop there. Once in better position, the Chinese sailors started hurling down Molotov cocktails, made from beer bottles filled with gasoline.
  • Four hundred cocktails later, the pirates retreated. One pirate, who wasn't wearing any shoes, saw he was about to walk across a deck paved with shattered glass to get back to his ship. He called up to the ship's stalwart defenders and begged for something to cover his feet.

8. Bigger Ships Mean Bigger Paychecks
Somali pirates are getting bolder. For years, they've chased small fry, such as Kenyan fishermen, small coastal freighters, and U.N. food ships. Today, withfaster boats, better weapons, and more accurate information from theirspies, they're going after massive cargo ships, super-tankers, and evenpassenger liners. Nobody's safe.

In September, pirates grabbed a Ukrainian ship called the Faina, which was carrying armored vehicles, rockets, and other weapons. They followed up that dramatic heist byovertaking the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, which had crude oil aboardvalued at $100 million. (Both ships were released earlier this year after ransoms were paid.)

Recent attacks on cruise-liners have beenunsuccessful, but maritime officials are increasingly worried. Pirates usually attack in groups of about 10 and capture ships with 20 or sopassengers.

That ratio of captors to captives lets the pirates stay in control. But with cruise ships carrying as many as 2,000 people,there's no way pirates would be able to conduct an orderly capture.Things might get out of hand; and that, officials say, is when peopleget hurt.

9. Pirates Hurt Somalia the Most

The biggest victims ofSomali piracy are the Somalis themselves. Nearly 4 million people there(half the population) depend on food donations to survive. But pirateattacks on food ships have made it difficult for the United Nations tokeep sending provisions. In a desperate bid to keep the supplies flowing, the U.N. issued a plea to the world's navies in 2007.

As ofMarch 2009, no food ship sets sail from Mombasa without a Dutch,Canadian, French, German, Italian, or Greek warship riding shotgun. "If you don't have an escort, you cannot move food there," says U.N.official Lemma Jembere. But naval deployments are expensive, andwarships might not be available forever.

This could mean death by starvation for millions, all due to a few thousand opportunisticpirates.

10. It May Be Time for Desperate Measures

Even with theworld's navies rushing to protect East African shipping, the sheer sizeof the ocean and the huge numbers of ships involved mean warships arerarely in the right place at the right time. The mood in Mombasa, whereso many ship owners and seafarers are based, is bleak. Karim Kudrati, ashipping director whose four ships have all been hijacked at leastonce, says it's time for the world to mobilize an army and invadeSomalia. "Everybody knows where captured vessels are being taken, andon that aspect of things, nothing is being done."

The United Nations recently passed a resolution allowing aninvasion, but the United States military has put the brakes onparticipating in any operation. Perhaps they're hesitant because oftheir last experience sending troops to Somalia. In 1993, 18 Americanswere killed during a commando raid to capture a few, low-rankingwarlords. And yet, it's becoming more and more clear that withoutmajor, international intervention, piracy will continue to grow. Withthe benefits far outweighing the risks, pirates have no incentive tostop pillaging.

The Rest @ The Puntland Post

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