They’ve been described as “noble heroes” by sympathetic Somalis, denounced as criminals by critics. But the most often used word to describe the men holding an American captain off the Horn of Africa is “pirate” — conjuring images of sword-wielding swashbucklers romanticized by Hollywood.
The 21st century reality, though, is a far cry from that. There are no treasure-laden islands or Blackbeards in this part of the world, no wooden schooners flying skull and crossbones flags.
Instead: a vigilante movement that years ago tried to defend Somali shores morphed into a full-blown pirate scourge — after fishermen on defense stumbled upon an astoundingly lucrative bounty waiting to be had on their doorstep: Around 25,000 ships, most unarmed, transiting the Gulf of Aden each year.
Picture ragged Somali fishermen armed with rocket launchers, GPS systems and satellite phones. Picture tiny skiffs cruising the coast of a war-infested nation crawling with gunmen. Picture bandits with sunglasses in worn shirts firing machine-guns at cruise ships, scampering aboard captured trawlers with crude ladders.
And most of all, picture ransoms, huge ransoms.
“I think when most people think of pirates, they think of Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean,” said security consultant Crispian Cuss of the London-based Olive Group. But these guys are “just fishermen paid to act as pirates by warlords and armed gangs who have taken over a lawless state.”
The plight of an American captain, seized from the US-flagged Maersk Alabama and held by Somali pirates since Wednesday on a drifting lifeboat out of fuel, is only one of the latest examples of a problem that has plagued the region for years.
Captain Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vermont, is believed to be the first US citizen taken by pirates since 1804, when US Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur battled the infamous Barbary pirates off the northern coast of what is now Libya, dispatching US
Marines to the shores of Tripoli.
The modern piracy scourge in the Horn of Africa arose from the ashes of Somalia’s government, overthrown in 1991.
Since then, Somalia has suffered nearly 20 years of anarchy, chaotically ruled by rival clans backed by pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. Its nominal government controls barely a few blocks.
With no coast guard to defend its shores, Somalis began complaining that vessels from Asia and Europe were dumping toxic waste in their waters and illegally scooping up red snapper, barracuda and tuna. The rampant illegal fishing began destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen.
A memo prepared last month by the staff of the US House Armed Services Committee said Somali clans began resorting “to armed gangs in an attempt to stop the foreign vessels. Over time, these gangs have evolved into hijacking commercial vessels for ransom as an alternative source of income.”
Attacks in the Gulf of Aden and along Somalia’s coast have risen dramatically, from 41 in 2007 to 111 in last year, the International Maritime Bureau said. Since January, pirates have staged at least 66 assaults and currently hold more than a dozen ships and more than 200 foreign crew members.
The House memo said pirates operating off Somalia earned US$30 million in ransom through the seizure of 42 vessels last year.
Other estimates put the figure at US$80 million.