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Pirates of the 21st century

Today's swashbucklers wield high-powered weapons and demand millions in ransom.

October 04, 2008|John S. Burnett | John S. Burnett is the author of "Dangerous Waters, Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas." modernpiracy.com

High seas piracy has emerged from the history books -- and things are much more terrifying than yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Ten days ago, Somali pirates hijacked the Ukrainian cargo ship Faina, with a crew of 20, which was transporting 33 battle tanks and assorted heavy weaponry. This dangerous cargo, booty far beyond the expectations of the pirates, has drawn rare international attention to the growing crisis of piracy at sea. U.S. Navy ships have surrounded the Faina for fear the weapons, if unloaded, will fall into the hands of Islamic insurgents. The Russian warship Neustrashimy, with marines and commandos aboard, is en route. The European Union has finally moved to set up an anti-piracy security operation in the region, and the United Nations may vote on an anti-pirate resolution next week.

The pirates reportedly demanded $35 million to free the ship, then $20 million -- and may have dropped their price to $5 million. But they don't call it ransom. Their leader told the New York Times that the money was a "fine" for transporting arms in Somalia's waters and for "unauthorized and unsanctioned fishing and for the humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia."

If the Faina hijacking serves any useful purpose, it may be that it has alerted the public to the scale of the problem. If terrorists hijacked a FedEx cargo plane with a crew of two, the news networks would be following events minute by minute. But few have expressed concern for those captured at sea, as if pirates really were romantic, swashbuckling rogues who swing through the rigging rescuing damsels in distress.

Right now, Somali pirates hold more than a dozen hijacked ships. Nearly 400 men and women from the vessels are being held at gunpoint in some Somali fishing village or aboard a ship that is running low on food and water while negotiations are underway with ship owners that will determine if they live or die. My own sailing vessel was attacked by pirates in the South China Sea, and I can attest there are few situations more terrifying than staring down the barrel of a loaded assault rifle held by a nervous pirate, knowing that no one is coming to your rescue.

Pirates attack merchant vessels, cruise ships, oceangoing tugboats, yachts and support vessels with impunity nearly on a daily basis -- often as warships from Combined Task Force 150, the multinational naval fleet that patrols the Horn of Africa for terrorist threats, watch the attack in real time on radar. Other than scaring off a few pirates, task force ships have not intervened.

The alarming increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia is not unexpected. Somalia has not had a functioning government since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. During the subsequent years of tribal conflict, foreign fleets took advantage of the vacuum and fished the tuna-rich Somali waters without check. In the southernmost port of Kismayo, where I served as a relief worker in the late 1990s, foreign fishing boats captured by angry local fisherman lie rusting against the pier, serving now as a place for young militiamen to relax in the sun during their stoned-out Qat break.

Today, however, those former fishermen have found that piracy is far more profitable than pulling up half-empty fishing nets. According to the International Maritime Bureau in London, which monitors piracy at sea, the average ransom paid for a ship and its crew is about $1 million. The bulk of the money is spread through the coastal communities where the hijacked ships are taken and funneled to transnational crime syndicates. But pirates are still better off than their countrymen, who wonder where their next meal is coming from. Two years ago, there were a reported 100 pirates working the coast; today, according to Andrew Mwangura, who heads the Seafarer's Assistance Program in Mombasa, Kenya, there are an estimated 1,200. And the list of volunteers to join them is long.

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Hijacking a huge cargo vessel or cruise ship is not difficult. The pirate boats, small fiberglass skiffs, are launched from mother ships stationed far offshore that have plotted the course of their unsuspecting prey. Pirates are armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, and they are equipped with satellite phones, GPS and small-boat radar. Merchant vessels -- the lumbering, slow-moving beasts of world commerce -- are soft targets; except for a few fire hoses blasting outboard, they are defenseless.

Pirates surround the target vessel like a pack of wolves, shoot up the ship, and if the master of the vessel is unable to evade capture, they swarm barefooted and screaming over the vessel and take control. With a gun at his back, the master is ordered to steer the ship into a den along the Somali coast.

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