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.