Romance and high seas adventure have historically been associated with pirates. Images of handsome, swashbuckling captains of yore swinging on sailcloth and rescuing damsels in distress swarm the imagination. Pirate mythology is as expansive as it is misleading, and contrasts deeply with present-day realities. Until news of recent high-profile acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, most Americans thought piracy was as much a relic of the distant past as X-marks-the-spot buried treasure.
In the last decade, however, acts of piracy have actually tripled. A quick view of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Commercial Crime Services-sponsored International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy maps, spanning 2005 to the present day, shows a shift in acts of piracy from the Straits of Malacca in Indonesia to the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia. Figures as of May 12, 2009 had already surpassed those of 2008, with 29 reported successful hijackings (which included the taking of 815 crew members hostage), out of 114 reported hijack attempts. The surge in attacks was particularly high off the east coast of Somalia, where there have been 43 attacks reported so far this year, with 478 crew members taken hostage, compared to 19 attacks in all of 2008.
Among the biggest headline grabbers was the September 2008 hijacking of a Ukrainian freighter loaded with antiaircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and 33 Russian T-72 tanks reportedly headed for rebels in Southern Sudan. Many feared these weapons would end up in the hands of Islamic jihadists who have turned the capital city of Mogadishu into one of the world’s most dangerous places. Two months later, in November, Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi supertanker off the coast of Kenya carrying $100 million worth of crude oil. The boldest attack—in that an American ship was involved—occurred in April when Somali pirates seized the US-flagged Maersk Alabama. Holding the Maersk Alabama’s crew hostage until its captain surrendered; four days later, he was dramtically rescued when US Navy SEAL snipers killed the pirates.
With no effective government in place since 1991, Somalia is often referred to as the most complete example of a failed state, and the word’s largest humanitarian disaster. Symptomatic of the socio-economic failings occurring within the country, piracy has emerged not only as an economic boon to a small few, but has also drawn the eye of the world to a region otherwise abandoned by both media and humanitarian aid organizations. In an article for GQ earlier this year, NY Times East Africa bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, laid out a scenario where piracy “investors front money for skiffs, guns, binoculars, GPS units, fuel, and cigarettes,” take 20 percent of the ransom for profit, another 20 percent for “future missions, 30 percent to bribe government officials, and the rest split between the pirates and their henchmen, who can number in the hundreds. Strings are pulled by Somali businessmen based in Kenya, Djibouti, Dubai, and even London. They have translators, accountants, money inspectors—an entire white-collar network that manages the operations from afar.” Gettleman estimates “that on any given day, as many as 1,500 gunmen go out in skiffs to hunt down the ships, and thousands more work onshore guarding the captives.”
In an attempt to give readers an overall view of Somali piracy, senior editor Lorna Tychostup speaks with David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and adjunct professor of International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs.
What other countries besides Somalia house pirates?
The Strait of Malacca is by far the most prominent area in recent time, but it’s been pretty much stopped there because the ships take more care. There is no government in the Strait of Malacca that wants to lose the commerce; they are committed to stamping piracy out, which makes it much harder for pirates to operate. Another area is the Gulf of Guinea. It is not really a matter of piracy but rather a group of Nigerians with grievances who kidnap oil-related personnel from offshore facilities.
Somalia’s been called one of the worst cases of a failed state.
Actually, I refer to it not as the worst failed state, but as the most complete failed state. It is important to make a distinction between Somalia and Somaliland. Somaliland is a country that in 1991 declared its independence from Somalia, has a functioning elected government, and is doing fairly well. But the former Italian Somalia, as opposed to the former British Somaliland, is the world’s most complete failed state. There has been no national government that has exercised control over the entire country or even a significant part of the country since 1991 when the previous dictatorship was overthrown.