Although they reportedly lack the charm of Captain Jack Sparrow, vicious pirates operating out of the African country of Somalia have captured the world's attention - along with a substantial quantity of money, oil, and heavy weaponry - in recent years. Somalia was seemingly made for piratin', as the country lacks any sort of domestic law enforcement who might be able to make the pirates walk the plank. Operating with impunity, they are also lucky enough to find themselves sat next to one of the world's busiest shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa. With some 2.5 million square miles of water and 20,000 passing ships a year to choose from, the pirates are not finding it difficult to elude the numerous foreign navies sent to combat them.
The pirates have their origin in Somalia's vicious civil wars, which saw the country fragment into autonomous regions. Most of the pirates come from the region of Puntland in the north, where they reportedly "wed the most beautiful girls" and enjoy all the trappings of wealth, power, and prestige. After over a decade of being failed by the international community and left to rot, it is not surprising that few Somalis feel any pangs of conscience about the harrassment of international shipping off their coast. The pirates claim origins worthy of Robin Hood, saying that they got their start repelling illegal fishing trawlers from Somali territorial waters to maintain the livelihood of the locals; quite how this noble goal legitimizes the seizure of supertankers off the coast of Kenya is unclear.
The pirates run a tight and modern operation. There is even a pirate spokesman, although he is often not available for comment. Eschewing rum, they favour khat, a plant chewed throughout East Africa for its effect as a stimulant. This may explain their remarkable energy, which has seen them capture over 30 ships in 2008 and attack dozens more. They are estimated to have earned some $30 million in ransoms this year alone, and for this reason they rarely hurt their hostages. The pirates are known for their internal organization, and violence between them is relatively unknown; this is remarkable in a country in which effective institutions are almost non-existent and the law of the gun rules. They are quick to promote this image, and when gunfire broke out among pirates on a captured Ukrainian vessel the pirate spokesman was quick to say it had been merely a celebration of the Islamic festival of Eid. Initial signs, however, indicate they do not subscribe to the pirate code.
The two biggest prizes seized by the pirates so far have been a Ukrainian weapons transport ship and a Saudi supertanker carrying two million barrels of oil. In both cases the pirates have little use for the cargo because they cannot unload and sell it effectively, but gain enormous leverage by being able to take such valuable targets. Not only are they able to ask for fantastic ransoms, but they also get to make a mockery of the international community into the bargain. As the piracy problem has got worse, many countries have sent ships to combat them and escort vessels through the area; elements of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and ships from many other countries operate under a United Nations mandate. The U.S. says it has repelled dozens of pirate attacks in the last few months, whereas French commandos have killed and captured pirates in several incidents.
Piracy, then, is not risk-free. But the odds seem remarkably good. Because it is so easy for the pirates to control the environment on the ship, it would be highly risky to attempt to storm the ship while the hostages were still in danger. When the pirates have been effectively repelled, killed, or captured, it has been before or after they controlled ships. But catching them before is difficult because they operate from such small ships, meaning often their targets do not even notice them until it is too late. The formation of United States Africa Command is likely to bode ill for the pirates down the line, but the logistical challenge of resisting them is formidable.
Deterrence is difficult, and with piracy fast becoming a national industry, it does not seem that Somali authorities will have much motivation to tackle the pirates any time soon. A brief gimmer of hope came when the Islamic Courts Union took over the capital of Somalia in 2006; the Islamists were known to disapprove of piracy, had clashed with the buccaneers several times, and seemed like they might actually unite the country under one rule. But later that year, Ethiopian forces backed by American air power and intelligence drove the ICU from power and perpetuated the civil war. Businesslike pirates were bad enough, but the risk of the country's coast being used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on shipping lanes was a much worse prospect.
"Somali pirates living the high life", BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7650415.stm
"Pirates Briefly Rattle Oil Market", The Lede, http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/17/pirates-briefly-rattle-oil-market/?hp
"Somali Pirates Free Ship, Seize Another", Voice of America, http://voanews.com/english/2008-11-16-voa15.cfm
"Somali pirates seize supertanker loaded with crude", Associated Press, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gZeyeAHtrDVQhPXkHEQd_aeCPCWQD94GSET00