Who are Somalia's pirates?
A Monitor Q&A reveals who's behind the modern-day pirates, how they got so good at taking ships, and what's being done to stop them.
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Is there an Al Qaeda connection?Skip to next paragraph
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While the CIA's chief, Gen. Michael Hayden, suggested recently that Al Qaeda was beginning to expand its reach in the Horn of Africa, and possibly reaching out to radical local Islamist parties such as Al Shabab in Somalia, there appears to be little evidence of a connection between international Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and piracy.
"There may be some loose elements among the Islamist groups that have tie-ups with the pirates, because the movement is fractured into six or seven different groups, and each may have its own problems getting funding," says Jhazbhay.
How did they get so good at taking ships?
Practice, practice, practice.
More than 90 ships have been attacked off the coast of Somalia this year. Seventeen ships remain in the hands of Somali pirates. The Saudi owners of the Sirius Star, the oil tanker taken Nov. 15, are reportedly in contact with the pirates, possibly to negotiate the release of the ship, its crew, and the estimated $110 million cargo of crude oil.
"What staggered the mind is that this capture was 400 nautical miles out to sea," says Mr. Cornwell. "That's far deeper water than anything we've seen before. But with a GPS they can hijack to order." Using a mother ship – often an old Russian trawler – to prowl deeper waters for their target, they can offload smaller boats to move in close and overtake the ship, and climb up with hooks and ladders, and submachine guns.
"With a fully laden tanker ship, you have a fairly low free board, so it is easy to get up on board from smaller boats," says Cornwell. "Tankers are an obvious target of opportunity."
How will it affect security and trade?
Somalia is under international weapons sanctions, and warlord groups continue to fight both against the Ethiopian peacekeeping mission and against each other. But an influx of money is likely to mean a further influx of weapons to an already wartorn land.
"Regionally, I think the major problem is that piracy has given some groups the chance to lay their hands on money," says Jhazbhay. "There may be $30 million in ransom money received in recent years. Once they [the various armed groups] get that kind of money, they can buy a ground-to-air missile. Getting [a hold of] arms can affect the struggle for freedom in Somalia, and that affects the whole region."
What's being done to stop them?
Currently, the NATO alliance, the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, and a host of other countries have ships patrolling the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden – an area of approximately 1.1 million square miles – to prevent piracy.
On Nov. 18, an Indian warship sank a suspected pirate mother ship off the coast of Yemen, after the pirates fired on them.
But given the size of the territory, and the amount of shipping traffic that flows past Somalia from the Suez Canal, naval patrolling cannot guarantee the safety of commercial vessels.
"Unless you have a warship in the immediate area, and, crucially, with a helicopter, you've got no chance of stopping them," says Cornwell.
While individual ships can protect themselves with everything from barbed wire around the ship itself to high-pressure hoses, coalition forces can also do more to track and neutralize suspected pirate mother ships. "I can't see why more work isn't being done with satellites to find the mother ships," says Cornwell.
Egypt hosted a Nov. 20 emergency meeting with Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Jordan to try to forge a joint strategy against piracy, which threatens a crucial international trade route through the Suez Canal in the Red Sea – Egypt's key source of revenue.