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In the Pirates’ Lair
Do Somalia’s buccaneers have legitimate grievances?


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Clifford D. May

For years, Somali pirates have been hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia. For years, the United States and what we credulously call “the international community” have not been able to figure out what to do about it. As a result, more and more vessels are being attacked over a widening expanse of ocean; violence is increasing while ransoms rise.

Jay Bahadur, a resourceful 27-year-old Canadian journalist, found this situation irresistible. He made his way to Somalia and did what good journalists do: ask questions — mostly while sipping sweet tea and chewing khat, an intoxicating plant to which an astonishing number of Somalis are addicted. The result: The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World.

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One of the first things Bahadur learns is not so surprising in this day and age: Somalia’s pirates don’t see themselves as pirates. Displaying admirable public-relations savvy, they call themselves “saviors of the sea” or “coast guards.” They have a legitimate grievance: foreign fishing fleets’ depleting Somali waters and uprooting the coastal reefs with steel-pronged drag-fishing nets. A pirate Bahadur refers to by the nickname Boyah says it is “up to the international community . . . to solve the problem of illegal fishing, the root of our troubles. We are waiting for action.”

Starting in the 1990s, Boyah was among those who began seizing foreign fishing vessels. Before long, as these sea dogs developed their skills, commercial shipping vessels became fair game as well. Soon, Somali buccaneers were preying on anything that sailed their way including, starting in 2005, U.N. World Food Programme transports attempting to deliver food aid. And, four months ago, pirates seized a small yacht that was being sailed around the world by two retired American couples who were stopping along the way to donate Bibles to far-flung churches and schools. As U.S. naval officers attempted to negotiate their release, all four Americans were murdered. 

Piracy has become an organized enterprise in Somalia. There are courses of instruction for apprentice pirates. There are elite pirates who specialize in attack and capture. There are “holders” who “look after the hostages during the ransom negotiations” — and who bring along their own cooks. Piratical staffs include translators, negotiators, and accountants. There are “motherships” — floating bases of operations that can tow fast skiffs far out to sea. There are financiers who demand healthy returns on their investments. In 2005, the average ransom was $150,000. Last November it hit a new high: $9.5 million. A few months ago, $13.5 million was paid for the return of a ship and its crew. As the ransoms rise, so do the number of attacks: In the first six months of this year, there were more than three times as many as in the same period last year.

Somalia is a collapsed state, but Bahadur thinks it’s wrong to see it as a failed state. Rather, it currently comprises “a number of autonomous enclaves” dominated by rival clans. The Puntland State of Somalia, from which he reported, surrounds the tip of the Horn of Africa, including almost half its coastline.

Puntland was, he says, “the natural candidate to become the epicenter of the recent outbreak of Somali piracy” not because it is in chaos but because it is relatively stable. That means not too much crossfire for the pirates to worry about and not too many competing interests to pay off. It should be added: Puntland’s current president, Abdirahman Farole, who lived for about 20 years in Australia, claims to be an ardent opponent of piracy — though, so far at least, not an effective one. (Separately, Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council notes that “the U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and other authorities” have charged that Farole “is a beneficiary of the pirates’ largesse.”)

Somalia also is home to al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda. Bahadur is skeptical about reports of an “Islamist-pirate conspiracy,” but he doesn’t rule out alliances of convenience — a different kettle of fish. Al-Shabaab militias have, on occasion, forcibly relieved pirates of their ransoms and weapons.

The challenge posed by Somali piracy should not be underestimated. Bahadur observes that NATO and the European Union naval forces have been “operating under procedures more befitting a civilian police force than a military. Just as it is unacceptable for police officers to make arrests based on shades and hooded sweatshirts, naval personnel are not allowed to detain any AK-47-toting ‘fishermen’ they happen to find floating in the Indian Ocean.”

Under what we credulously call international law, Somali pirates can claim to be “boat people” — would-be immigrants. If taken to a Western country they can even ask for asylum, saying if they are sent home, they might face capital punishment. In other words, capture a pirate and bring him back to London in this day and age and there’s zero chance he will be hanged and a strong likelihood he will end up living on the dole in public housing.

It is possible to turn suspected pirates over to legal authorities in such neighboring countries as Kenya. But they can be prosecuted for terrorism only if sufficient evidence has been gathered. At the moment, conspiring to commit piracy is not a criminal offense.

In an epilogue, Bahadur offers his recommendations for mitigating — not eliminating — piracy. Among them: financing a local police force “capable of stopping the pirates before they reach the sea,” clamping down on illegal fishing, and encouraging or requiring “passive security measures aboard commercial vessels.”

I’m not persuaded this brave young reporter has the solutions, but the ideas he puts on the table could be the start of a serious policy discussion. Defeating Somali pirates in the 21st century should not be much more difficult than was defeating Barbary pirates on a different African coast in the 18th century.

But back then the new government of the United States decided that paying off brigands would not do and that defending American citizens was essential. Now, too often, American officials bow to the United Nations and other multilateral organizations effectively controlled by regimes hostile to what we now generally refrain from calling the Free World. To borrow the pirate Boyah’s words, that’s “the root of our troubles. We are waiting for action.”

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and political Islam.



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