Why are pirates thriving in Somalia?

click to enlarge Why are pirates thriving in Somalia? - Andisheh Nouraee
Andisheh Nouraee
Why are pirates thriving in Somalia?

With the print journalism biz heading down the crapper, many in my profession are pondering a career change.

For a while I thought I might like to open a pub. I like chitchat. I like booze. The only down side is that I also like fresh air.

I've also considered a career in dog-walking. I like dogs. I like walking. I even have a name for my business: What Up, Dog? Unfortunately, I don't think there are enough cooped-up pups near my home to make a living.

This week, however, I discovered a career that, on the surface, seems to combine the best aspects of bar-keeping and dog-walking: sea piracy.

Pirates work in the sun and fresh air. Pirates swill my favorite liquor: rum. Pirates are also social and inclusive. They call each other mate. They participate in group sing-alongs.

As a liberal, I'm also impressed by the progressive hiring practices of many pirate captains. It's not uncommon to see a pirate ship where every member of the crew is missing a hand, an eye or a leg.

To top it all off, piracy is great business.

Last week, Somali pirates operating off the coast of Somalia nabbed their biggest-ever booty: a massive Saudi oil tanker called the Sirius Star, loaded with $100 million worth of Saudi oil. The pirates have reportedly demanded a $25 million ransom.

A pirate's life for me!

The Sirius Star is big, but it's just one of nearly 100 ships attacked by sea pirates off Somalia's coast this year. According to the International Maritime Bureau, 14 ships and 268 crew are being held by pirates off Somalia's coast.

Chatham House, a British international affairs think tank, says Somali piracy has doubled in 2008 — with pirates earning somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million or so this year.

Pirates don't publish annual reports, but I'm guessing most of the $30 million is profit.

Speaking to the BBC, Nick Davis of Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions says that pirating modern cargo or tanker ships is easy. The only equipment required: a couple of boats, some guns, and a rope with a grappling hook.

Somali pirates wait in small boats for target ships to pass. They then give chase. When they pull up alongside, someone tosses a rope with a grappling hook onto the target ship. The pirates climb aboard, walk to the ship's bridge, and order the captain to do as they say. Done and done.

It's easy, Davis says, in part because ships are enormous and crews are tiny. The Sirius Star is as long as the Chrysler building in New York is tall, yet it only has a crew of 25 people. It's possible, he says, that the crew didn't know pirates were aboard until they stormed the ship's control room.

Somalia, and the waters adjacent to it, are a pirate's paradise for three reasons. First, Somalia's coast overlooks the Gulf of Aden, a waterway where 16,000 ships haul manufactured goods and oil from the Middle East and Asia to Europe and North America every year. It's a target-rich environment. Or, as a pirate might put it, tarrrrrrget.

Secondly, it's pretty much the only industry Somalia has. To call Somalia dirt-poor is to risk angry letters to the editor from dirt offended by the comparison. The coastal towns out of which Somali pirates operate now have money for the first time in decades. Shippers pay huge ransoms to get their ships and crews back safely. According to the BBC's Robin Hunter, the wealth generated by piracy has made the industry not just socially acceptable, but fashionable.

However, the biggest factor contributing to the growth of piracy in Somalia is the lack of a central government. The country hasn't had one since 1991.

Chatham House's report notes that Somali piracy "virtually vanished" for six months in 2006. Not coincidentally, it happened to be the same six months that an Islamist government called the Islamic Courts Union had control of much of southern Somalia.

In December 2006, however, U.S. Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia. They drove the Islamists from power, but replaced them with, um, nothing. Somalia fell into anarchy once again, and pirates commenced-a-pillagin'.

Aaaarrggh.

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