Oil capture spotlights Somali pirates' reach
A supertanker hijacking helped boost the price of oil early this week.
Johannesburg, South Africa
By hijacking a Saudi oil tanker – the largest ship ever taken – Somali pirates this week may have guaranteed their biggest ever haul of ransom.Skip to next paragraph
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The capture of the Sirius Star, which can carry more than one-fourth of Saudi Arabia's daily oil output, helped send prices above $58 a barrel. And the fact that it was nabbed 450 miles off Kenya's coast is a sign of growing sophistication and reach by the pirates, who have tended to stay closer to the Gulf of Aden, a pinch point for sea traffic routed through the Suez Canal.
The news also raises concern from some Western analysts that the pirates' spoils could help fund a growing Islamist insurgency in Somalia, although there is little evidence of that so far.
"What this attack represents is a fundamental shift in the pirates' ability to carry out attacks," said Lt.
Somali pirates also hijacked a 26,000-ton Iranian cargo carrier on Tuesday, according to the US Navy.
Pirate gangs have certainly become more sophisticated, operating large "mother ships," often former Russian trawlers, which follow their targeted ship with GPS devices. When they are close enough, they offload smaller dinghies or speedboats that move in for the capture.
"They just come up to the stern, throw up their hook and ladder, and once you are on board, the ship is yours, because no one is going to mess with a man with an RPG [rocket propelled grenade launcher]," says Richard Cornwell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "Once [they're on board], it's over in 10 to 15 minutes. Unless you have a warship in the immediate area, and crucially, with a helicopter, you've got no chance of stopping them."
The attack of the Saudi oil tanker had occurred closer to Islamist bases in southern Somalia than to northern pirate bases, but most Somali experts say they haven't seen concrete evidence of Islamists cooperating with pirates.
After all, during the Islamists' brief six-month reign last year, piracy in Somalia was banned, and no pirate attacks occurred.
Yet the sheer size of the pirates' haul has shaken the maritime world and shown that Somalia's instability has spread far from its borders.
"I swear it's not the Islamists, and if anything, it's the Transitional Federal Government, because if you're not getting what you ask for from the international community, you'll go and nick it some other way," says Mr. Cornwell.
This hijacking does serve as a warning, particularly since the Sirius Star was nowhere near the usual piracy areas, and was planning to take the longer safer route around the southern tip of Africa.
"The question is, what if they had taken a ship of [liquid natural gas]?" says Cornwell. "Then you're really looking at a possible terrorist threat. If they blow that up off a harbor, you'll flatten the place. People are talking about 50 Hiroshimas."
Mustafa Alani, director of the Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai-based think tank, said in a phone interview that his center has been working since the beginning of the year on a report about piracy, which is due out within weeks.
Their research so far, he says, has found "no evidence" of any connection between the pirates, who are mostly Somalis, and any terrorist or political organization. "We found no evidence of any terrorist group helping" the pirates, Mr. Alani says.