“Do you know why we are so successful? Because we don’t fear death and you do.”
Taken from “A Captain’s Duty” by Richard Phillips; quote by a Somali pirate during the hostage taking on board of the “Maersk Alabama” in April 2009
This is a story about desperation, rage, greed, brutality and survival. It’s not pretty. It is a story with many perspectives and a lot of grey, a story without easy answers. It is also a story that has been misrepresented and misunderstood. It is the story of a failed state: Somalia
Since the end of the civil war in Somalia in the 1990s, the country has been in shambles. Poverty, hunger and starvation are the norm. Anarchy and lawlessness replaced law and order. It was a perfect opportunity for large fishing trawlers and factory ships from other countries (e.g. Spain, Japan and China) to encroach on the fish-rich territorial waters of Somalia without being penalized. There was no Somali Coast Guard to speak of and access to rich fishing was unhindered. To make money fast, ships used underwater explosives to kill fish. They also started to dump toxic waste into the local seas which destroyed coral reefs and further decimated fish stocks.
When Somali fishermen returned to their villages after the war, they found a hostile environment at sea and their livelihood threatened. Taking matters into their own hands, the fishermen went out to defend their territorial waters. Eventually, they found ways to arm themselves, board foreign vessels, hold the crews hostage and demand ransom from the ships’ owners and shipping companies. Realizing how relatively easy it was to extract money, the fishermen abandoned their profession, increased the ransom amounts from $500,000 to more than $4,000,000 per ship and widened their target group to include oil tankers and freighters.
The primary target area has always been the Gulf of Aden, a body of water surrounding the Horn of Africa between Somalia and Yemen. But all of Somalia’s coast is dangerous. Thousands of ships come through the Suez Canal and must pass through the Gulf on their way to India and East Africa. As the pirates only use skiffs with outboard motors during their attacks und were unable to travel further out to sea, the ships changed their routes, travelling hundreds of miles away from shore. That’s when the pirates also changed their tactic. They hijacked fishing trawlers (owned by their own people – Somalian fishermen!) and used them as mother ships, pulling the skiffs behind the ship. Now, when a suitable target ship is found, the pirates enter the skiffs from the mother ship and pursue the freighter or tanker until they are able to board.
The shipping companies are quite willing to pay. They hire security companies who drop sacks of money onto the ships via helicopter. The pirates let go of the ships and their crews, in most cases unharmed. Pirates usually turn violent and make true of their threats to kill hostages only when their backs are up against the wall. For a while, between 2007 and 2011, the practice appeared to work well. The pirates got rich, the shipping companies got their ships and crews back, the insurance companies paid for damages, the security companies made money delivering the loot and the Somali government did nothing. Insurance companies eventually more than made up for their losses by steeply increasing their policy premiums. Soon, it wasn’t just fishermen who got in on the act. Cartels formed and even a stock exchange was established allowing the average Somali to benefit from the rich ransom harvest. The most prominent groups involved in pirate activity are the National Volunteer Coast Guard, the Marka Group, The Puntland Group and the Somali Marines. Some of these are well organized with an “Admiral of the Fleet” and a “Director of Finance”.
It did not take long until terrorist organizations like al Qeada and Al-Shabaab (the group responsible for the recent attack on the shopping mall in Kenya) saw piracy as a way to fund their insurgency efforts. Some terrorists resort to extorting pirates by employing Mafia methods. Pirates who want to live, are to hand over 20% of their ransom proceeds as “protection money”. Soon, Somali fishing villages turned into boomtown communities where money is spent freely. Not surprisingly, 70% of the local population “strongly support the piracy as a form of national defence of the country’s territorial waters.”
How do the pirates actually board the ships? A common practice is to come alongside the freighter or tanker, throw grapple hooks onto the deck and climb up the rope. Many pirates also use long ladders to board. Once on deck, hostages are taken and the bridge is occupied. Often the pirates shoot their way into the command center of the ship, stripping locks off doors by firing bullets at them.
While few hostages are harmed, they are not treated with a lot of TLC, either. Stuffed into hot engine rooms or made to kneel on deck under the broiling sun, they are abused and threatened at gun point. Ship seizures may last a long time. Hostages may have to live on board of their ships under abhorrent conditions for days, weeks or even months. The Chandlers, a British couple which was taken by pirates off their yacht, were released after 388 days and after a 500,000 GBP were paid to the pirates.
Though slowly, the international community has responded to the piracy threats around the Horn of Africa. While it is extremely difficult to monitor an ocean the size of Western Europe, now more than 20 nations have their navy vessels patrol the area. Shipping companies, reluctant to arm their ships’ crews with weapons, have hired security companies that guard the ships while travelling through the most dangerous areas. The Somali government is also stepping up its efforts to arrest the pirates in their hideouts on shore. The ships’ crews themselves have developed a number of preventative tactics and manoeuvres to avoid capture: fire hoses are laid out on deck, ready to spray huge volumes of sea water at boarding pirates; barbed wire is strung along the deck railings; the targeted ship assumes a zigzag course a full speed, whipping up an enormous wake preventing pirates from reaching the ship’s side; throwing Molotov cocktails at approaching pirates; many merchant ships travel in convoys to avoid capture. On our Ocean Princess we had to participate in a mandatory “piracy drill” almost as soon as we came on board. In case of a pirate attack, the general alarm will be sounded and all passengers are requested to return to their stateroom. While leaving the hallway door open to be able to hear the crew’s instructions, we are to leave the balcony door locked with the curtains drawn. No ship has ever been taken travelling faster than 18 knots. Our ship's max speed is 18.5 knots.
Every year, 30,000 merchant vessels, including 20% of the world’s oil, travel through the Horn of Africa region. Even though only very few ships are attacked and even fewer hijackings are successful (e.g. in 2008 111 ships were attacked and 42 successfully hijacked), it is naïve to think the world will not defend those shipments. Of course they do; and many times with ruthless brutality. Russian ships, when capturing pirates, tie up their prisoners, put them into their skiffs with containers of fuel and set them adrift. Then, from a safe distance, they fire on them. Pirates are also attacked by helicopter gunships and navy vessels, their skiffs punctured and their occupants left to drown. However, the majority of pirates are taken into custody. Some are tried before the court of law but many of them are set free and allowed to go home.
Just as it is wrong to see the pirates purely as desperate fishermen who struggle for survival while their fishing grounds are being decimated, it is as incorrect to label them purely as ruthless bandits. Both statements are true and untrue. What was originally motivated by desperation and poverty, turned into greed that required ruthlessness, thievery and brutality to be satisfied. The more players entered the industry, the less the piracy business in Somalia became about survival.
The best way to deal with piracy is from within. Unless the coastal communities themselves stand up to the bribery, extortion, infiltration by terrorists and hijackings of their own fishing boats, the small fishing villages along the Somali coast will continue to serve as a launching pads for organized crime and a hiding place for pirates.
Somali farmers produce goats - many goats. Traditionally, the goats are sold to Saudi Arabia for the animal sacrifices 3+ million pilgrims have to perform at the Hajj in Mecca. Not long ago, Somali farmers loaded goats on a ship bound for Mecca when pirates hijacked the ship and the crew. When the farmers found out, they were furious. They pleaded with the pirates to let the ship go as the sale of the goats represented precious income for them. The pirates refused. The farmers pleaded some more, pointing out to the pirates that the goats would die within a day or two. Once again, the pirates said “no, we don’t care.” In desperation, the farmers banded together, obtained weapons and approached the ship. Once on board, they killed all the pirates and sent the goats and crew on their way. Lesson: never piss off a goat farmer.
As we pass through the Gulf of Aden and enter the Arabian Sea, I look in all directions, wondering how many naval vessels are out there keeping us safe. I can’t see them but I know they are just beyond the horizon. Their presence has led to a sharp drop in pirate activity lately, and that is good. But the root causes that have led to the acts of piracy and lawlessness (crop failures, war, criminal activity, lack of governmental intervention, overfishing and dumping of toxic waste by developed countries) still exist.
There is a saying: “When the watering hole shrinks, the animals look at each other differently.” As fish stocks decline worldwide, we will see more competition between nations and unlawful activities on the oceans. I fear we have just seen the tip of the iceberg. As I write this, there are reports of increased pirate activity near Nigeria, Togo, Benin and even Singapore.