How Good-Natured Activism Led To Somalia Pirating

My favourite television shows are documentaries about Greenpeace and other anti-whaling activists as they invent ways to halt indiscriminate maiming of sharks, whales, and the environment. Believe it or not, many current perpetrators of piracy were once environmental activists also. In fact just five years ago Somali-based fishermen were ramming fishing boats in protest—those that fished illegally off the horn of Africa. When the perpetrators retaliated with lethal force, the fishermen fought back. That initial ramming of ships and retaliation of fishing vessels has now grown into full scale Indian Ocean pirating.


In early 2004, confrontations in the Gulf of Eden between local Somali fishermen and commercial fishermen (mostly the illegal ones) were frequent. That remote no-man’s seaway is now a lawless frontier for the bad, brave and brazen. According to former fishermen–many now seasoned pirates–large commercial fishing boats kept stealing their catch and their fish nets. In one instance where two local fishing boats were chasing a vessel they saw stealing fish nets, after the chase began, the crew of the fleeing vessel doused the chasers with boiling water first and then followed up with a hail of gunfire, which split and sank their fishing boat. Even though some managed to swim back to the mainland, one died. Survivors kept trying to contact countless international agencies to no avail. The fact that their country was, and is embroiled in chaos, political and military upheaval, meant that they had no official voice in the United Nations; therefore their cries were unheard.

Today as I write, one of the survivors is still unable to use his hand because of a bullet wound he received during that 2004 incident. He operates a bartering depot and grocery store on the mainland, and is willing to share his ordeal with anyone who has never heard or read his story before. His story (already printed and broadcast so many times worldwide) might have been the first documented in the journals of the International Maritime Bureau: “Every time we went to sea after that original incident, we made sure we armed ourselves with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Our plan was to attack the illegal fishing boats. We took ransoms to cover our wounded people.” In 2004 they seized 16 ships in retaliation.

The pirates’ first forages were clumsy and initially many were unsuccessful. However today, piracy is the biggest business for young Somali men, whose highest educational achievement is that of operating of a semi-automatic weapon. Somalia has been without a functioning central authority since 1991 when warlords took power after ousting Mohamed Siad Barre. Without a legitimate government, the country functions in a political vacuum. The transitional government tries to bolster its ranks by preparing young men for military duty. Funding is provided mainly by militant Islamic countries. Young men are encouraged to go away to foreign military camps for training. When they return as skilled fighters, most have to decide between being part of an Islamist insurgency that sees itself as a potential government in waiting, or to join the lucrative pirating business.

On Saturday April 17th, 2009, at least 10 international news media including B.B.C. and C.N.N. carried this headline: “Somali pirates seized the Belgian vessel Pompeii and its 10 man crew off the east African coast.” Then again there was the much publicized case of the attempted hijacking of the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit. I roared with laughter when I first read how the crew repelled a Somali pirate attack launched with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades by using defensive maneuvers–loud banging of pipes. Can you imagine men trained in terrorist camps (men taught that to die in combat is rewarded by martyrdom) being scared away by a loud bang? Great stuff.

The Price of Inaction: Friends and Foes of Ransom.

Our inability to respond timely to potential trouble spots and troubling situations–unless the matters affect our nuclear-partners or our perceived allies, has, and will continue to cost us dearly. We took less than 60 days to secure billions of dollars to help the Soviet Union when they needed assistance to democratize their country. Most of that money vanished brazenly without even a whimper of protest. On the other side of the coin, when Pakistan asked for assistance against regional insurgents, our assistance package from the same administration was a mere U.S$1 Billion per year, and we approved that grudgingly. As a result, we are playing catch up. The situation in Somalia mirrors our international arrogance and indifference to cultures we consider insignificant to such an extent that nations who feel slighted are open recruiting fields for insurgents. All one has to do is to follow the money trail of assistance funds to trouble spots we ignore, and the dots connect.

Let us get back to Somalia to affirm how our indifference is creating a living “daymare” and nightmare simultaneously. Even the pirates have a clear view of nations considered friends or foes. Nations considered friendly (either by way of facilitating training funds, confidential services, or parallel religious philosophies) appear to be able to call tribal elders and get ships released with no ransom whatsoever. For example: on December 3rd 2008, Somali pirates initially broadcast that they were seeking U.S$2,000,000.00 for the release of a Yemeni cargo ship they had captured. A few phone calls later, tribal elders intervened and the ship was released without a dime in ransom. Then on January 9th, 2009 as if to negate that allegation, 8 pirates negotiated a $3million U.S dollar ransom from the owners of the Saudi Tanker M.S. Sirus Star. The satellite-televised parachute drop of the ransom gave believers of divine retribution much to cheer about as we watched the escaping vessel capsize in rough waters. We learned later that 5 pirates drowned with their loot. Perhaps the alleged ransom was a trap. How much ransom they paid, we do not know.

Those hoping to install a legitimate government in Somalia are appealing to the IMB for assistance. While they are doing that, the IMB is waving flags of desperation. They are hoping the United Nations will take action to secure the waterways and stop piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Let’s be real: how can the U.N police ungovernable nations, when it is having such a hard time policing its own rogue employees? Since 2006, with the much-publicized incident when colleagues almost blew each other off the planet, the U.N has had to send home almost 1000 peacekeepers for allegations ranging from theft of gold and money, small arms trafficking, sexual charges, corruption, rape, and much more. Yes, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced his intentions to set up a U.N. anti-crime squad to handle the many internal allegations from peacekeeping missions abroad. While he can be comforted in that the current U.S Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice has given him a promise to assist in those areas, providing lip service might be much easier than getting logistical and legal support from Washington. Considering the fact that the past administration did not have the best working relationship with the U.N and its agencies, there must be at least a bit of skepticism for any change in attitude with the new administration. As we monitor what may or may not have improved so far, since 2004 the United Nations has been relying mainly on a combination of local law enforcement authorities and member nations to assist them.

Local agencies call the U.N for help and the U.N in turn relies on whatever assistance it can get from neighbouring states and NGO’s. As ironic as that my sound to outsiders, a simple matter like timely transmission of data to and from families and/or shipping agencies can avert life-threatening situations. Even though NATO has managed to assemble an international escort fleet comprising Navy ships from Russia, India, China, the United States, France, the Seychelles and other member countries, what we are looking at is an almost immeasurable expanse of unprotected sea lanes from the Red Sea through to the Arabian Sea, including the Gulf of Eden and parts of Coastal Africa—the main seaway that links Europe and Asia. Since Africa is the closest landmass, its checkered political landscape makes diplomatic access a communications’ nightmare. So far, pirates use all the problematic channels and the challenges they pose to their advantage. Hopefully, the April 16th 2009 successful rescue of the U.S.S Bainbridge could force certain nations to do more than offer verbal assistance. While some nations are fiddling, insurance companies are passing on added costs to their customers, and cargo ships are using longer routes. In short: you and I will pay the additional increases in prices for goods and services.

According to data released from the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau, 20,000 ships per year cross the Gulf of Eden. Since 2004, ships whose release pirates have successfully negotiated, have netted them from U.S$100,000.0 to U.S$1,000,000.00 ransom per vessel—depending on the country of registration, the type of vessel, its cargo, and the size of crew. At the moment, they are negotiating with shipping companies for about 20 vessels and over 400 hostages they are holding. For 2009 so far, Somali pirates have attacked approximately 100 ships–a few unsuccessfully. While the deadly cat and mouse game is played out in the deep daily, we eagerly await the outcome of potential donors to Somali security forces meeting scheduled in Brussels later this month, as they try to assist the Somali’s in forming a legitimate government. It will be their 15th attempt in 18 years. In the meantime, the pirates are complicating matters by using captured cargo ships as mother ships and refueling stations for their smaller and faster speed boats. Luxury sailing yachts should avoid those areas at all costs.

Source by Basil C. Hill

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