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.

US Navy, Reuters
RANSOM: On Nov 20, Somali pirates demanded $25 million for the Saudi-owned MV Sirius Star, a hijacked supertanker now docked in Somalia's semi autonomous Puntland region. Pirates gave ship owners 10 days to comply with the demand.
Rich Clabaugh

– Today's pirates are mainly fighters for Somalia's many warlord factions, who have fought each other for control of the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991.

Their motives? A mixture of entrepreneurialism and survival, says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called.

"From the evidence so far, these primarily appear to be fighters looking for predatory opportunities," says Mr. Jhazbhay. They operated "roadblocks in the past, which were fleecing people as a form of taxation. Now they've seen the opportunities on the high seas."

Initially, one of the main motives for taking to the seas – working first with local fishermen, and later buying boats and weapons with the proceeds of every ship they captured – was "pure survival," says Jhazbhay, explaining that armed extortion is one of the few opportunities to make a living in lawless Somalia.

"It's spiked more recently because of a spike in food prices," he says.

Now it has become a highly profitable, sophisticated criminal enterprise hauling in millions of dollars in ransom payments.

Whom do they work for?

The pirates mainly work for themselves.

Much of the piracy seems to be based out of the Puntland, a semiautonomous region on the northern shore of Somalia that broke away from Somalia soon after 1991.

Thousands of pirates now operate off Somalia's coast, although there are no accurate numbers on precisely how many there are.

United Nations monitoring reports on arms smuggling in the Horn of Africa have pointed to evidence that pirate gangs have established relations with corrupt officials of the Puntland government. They bribe port officials to allow the pirates to use Eyl and other ports as their bases of operation, and to bring some of their captured ships in for safekeeping while the pirates negotiate ransoms with the ships' owners.

There is also evidence that expatriate Somalis living in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Persian Gulf may be feeding information to the pirates about ships that have docked in those regions and may be heading toward the Gulf of Aden and other pirate-infested areas.

Who benefits from this piracy?

The money seems to be distributed by warlords to their families and friends, and then further outward toward their fellow clan-members, says Jhazbhay.

There have been charges recently that local Islamist groups may be linked to the pirate gangs, and may have begun to use piracy as a source of funds to buy weapons.

Certainly, Islamist groups such as Al Shabab – an insurgent group formed after the Islamic Courts Union lost control of the country last year in the wake of a US-backed invasion by Somalia's neighbor, Ethiopia – have used pirate gangs to smuggle weapons into Somalia, which is currently under international weapons sanctions. But the evidence is thin, as yet, that Islamist groups are using piracy on the high seas as a funding mechanism.

"The last thing the Islamists want to do is give an unnecessary provocation to the major powers, who might come after them in a big way," says Richard Cornwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane. "What experience tells us is that if the Islamists did take control of Somalia, piracy would stop overnight. They don't want warlords gaining arms and money outside of their control."

Is there an Al Qaeda connection?

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.

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