For years, Somali pirates have been hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia. For years, the United States and what we optimistically call “the international community” have not been able to figure out what to do about it. Meanwhile, more and more vessels are being attacked over a widening expanse of ocean; violence is increasing while ransoms rise.
Jay Bahadur, an intrepid young Canadian journalist, went to Somalia and wrote a book titled “The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World.”
Among the first things he learned was that Somalia’s pirates don’t see themselves as pirates. They have a legitimate grievance: foreign fishing fleets depleting Somali waters and uprooting the coastal reefs with steel-pronged drag fishing nets. A pirate who goes by the nickname Boyah told Bahadur it is “up to the international community ... to solve the problem of illegal fishing, the root of our troubles.”
Starting in the 1990s, Boyah was among those who began seizing foreign fishing vessels. Before long, as these sea dogs developed their skills, commercial shipping vessels became fair game as well. Soon, Somali buccaneers were preying on anything that sailed their way including, starting in 2005, World Food Program transports
attempting to deliver aid. And they did not stop short of murdering hostages.
Piracy is an organized enterprise in Somalia. There are elite pirates who specialize in attack and capture. There are “holders” who “look after the hostages during the ransom negotiations.” Piratical staffs include translators, negotiators, accountants and cooks. There are financiers who demand strong return on investment.
In 2005, the average ransom was $150,000. A few months ago $13.5 million was paid for the return of a ship and its crew. As the ransoms rise, so do the number of attacks: During the first six months of this year, more than three times as many compared with the same period in 2010.
Somalia also is home to al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaida. Bahadur is skeptical about reports of an “Islamist-pirate conspiracy” but he doesn’t rule out alliances of convenience.
Bahadur offers recommendations for mitigating — not eliminating — piracy. Among them: financing a local police force “capable of stopping the pirates before they reach the sea,” clamping down on illegal fishing, and requiring “passive security measures aboard commercial vessels.”
Defeating the Somali pirates of the 21st century should not be much more difficult than was defeating the Barbary pirates along a different African coast in the 18th century. But back then the new government of the United States decided paying off brigands would not do and that defending American citizens was essential.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.