The Somali Pirates

Johann Hari’s story about Somalia and the background of the Piracy is making the rounds and rightly so. Somalia is the ultimate failed state and it’s people suffers terribly. And yes, Europeans have taken advantage of the situation to rob the Somalis of their fish and dump waste, including nuclear material,  in Somali waters.

I doubt, however, if we should define the acts of piracy as they occur now as self-defense. It is not the Somali fishermen who profit from the buccaneering, anymore. They may have been initially, but

The BBC’s Mohamed Olad Hassan in Somalia says many of the pirates are former fishermen, who began by attacking ships they argued were “illegally threatening or destroying” their business.

“Businessmen and former fighters for the Somali warlords moved in when they saw how lucrative it could be. The pirates and their backers tend to split the ransom money 50-50,” he says.(read more)

The bosses are found to be elsewhere, too. The profits from the piracy off the Somali Coast, some $ 20 million last year, are going to people who are increasingly not based in Somalia anymore.

While small gangs of armed men riding in fast skiffs are the dramatic face of piracy, these men are just the foot soldiers of sophisticated criminal enterprises in which major infrastructure is land-based. The most successful pirates—those with the weapons and intelligence to pull off attacks on supertankers hundreds of miles from land—are employed by wealthy criminal bosses, many of them expatriates, and draw on information provided by paid sources inside key Kenyan maritime agencies.


Omar described pirate networks as something akin to the West’s mafia. Resources are concentrated in the hands of a few senior bosses, each employing “capos” commanding bands of low-ranking pirates. The capos, Omar said, are former Somali army soldiers from before the civil war, when Somali troops trained in the Soviet Union. The capos and their subordinates operate from pirate enclaves in northern Somalia, especially in the town of Eyl.

(read more)

And they reinvest in drug trafficking.

Somali pirates are investing heavily in trafficking the narcotic khat, along with other businesses, as they seek to spend big profits from ransom payments after months of attacks.Maritime officials say at least 26 ships have been hijacked off the coast of the Horn of Africa country so far this year.

Most of them brought ransoms of at least $10,000, and in some cases much more. A lot of that money is now in the hands of pirates in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland.

Siyad Mohamed and his gang recently shared a $750,000 ransom after releasing a German ship they seized in May. Mohamed said they decided to invest in trafficking khat, a mild narcotic leaf that is very popular in the region. (read more)

To liken the Somali Pirates to Robin Hood is, in my opinion, a misinterpretation. Many organisations who are now undoubtedly criminal have their roots in social injustice. Take the very Mafia, which may well be involved in the dumping of toxic waste into Samali coastal waters. There are stories about how they were designed to protect the Sicilian peasants as far back as the Middle Ages and the Catalan marauders. The real origin is more likely later, but they still had lots of support by the people they purportedly protected from an unloved and alien aristocracy. Both, the Somali pirates and the Mafia, however, profited from weak or nonexisting governments. In the end there is nothing romantic about either of the two, they’re just criminals.

And the Somali people will continue to suffer in a failed state, which will continue to fail as long as criminals profit so nicely from the failure.

10 thoughts on “The Somali Pirates

  1. Glad you brought this up, EV.

    I have yet to see any press inquisition into HOW these piracy operations are pulled-off.

    The mothership(s) are surely identifiable–being stolen. They need a lot of fuel to cruise the blue water. Who is selling the fuel to the pirates?

    Maritime radar is quite short-range–a radar at 200 feet high (above sea level) has a range of about 17 miles, at 300 feet its still only about 22 miles.

    Eyl , apparently the pirate base, is about 300 mils south of the NE tip of Somalia which defines the 200-mile-wide mouth of the Gulf of Aden (that leads to the Suez Canal). through which all the pirates likely prey has to pass–so that would be the obvious interception area.
    Between the NE tip of Somalia and the Yemeni island of Socotra is another narrower bottleneck at a right angle to the Gulf of Aden, about 150 miles wide and 30 miles deep.
    Given the piracy merchant ships would be stupid to take that route. The further away from Somalia they get the safer they’ll be .

    But all this still means that the pirates have to get close to the ships first to find them on ship’s radar. What are the odds that these pirates are just going out, hoping to get lucky , even in these relatively restricted areas?
    Pretty damn low, in my estimation.

    Surely they have ‘spotters’ who then radio the mothership and provide an intercept course for the target.

    A maritime patrol aircraft could operate from Salalah in Oman and cover the bottlenecks quite easily, especially as they have the advantage of height for their radar. Identifying the pirate mother ships should be easy!

    What steps have shipping companies taken to avoid their ships from being hijacked? Nothing, it seems. No sound-cannons even.
    Can they actually afford the losses? Do they have hijack insurance? Can they write-off the losses in corporate taxes?

    If you are forced to drive through a criminal neighborhood every day you either arm yourself or you take out insurance in case you are robbed and/or your car is stolen.
    OR you just accept the loss, buy a new car and play the odds.
    Or you find a way to mitigate the loss (like insurance) so you can more easily afford a loss.

    The last might explain explain why the Somali piracy sounds like a big issue, but apparently really isn;t—otherwise the pirates wouldn’t be as successful as they are.

    Oh and to our old sea dogs: do you have any practical experience with the efficacy of maritime radar (S-band, X-band) as my knowledge is strictly academic.
    What about ship-to ship communications? I know nothing about that at all.

    Am I making any sense, basically?


  2. Thanks for this post, EV.

    Excellent comment, 5th.

    The government of Somalia is a deadly joke, leaving the people to fend for themselves, and the so-called “Robin Hood” pirates are self-serving. And still the people endure starvation and deadly pollution.

  3. Zooey… the whole situation might be summed up crudely as the triumph of a conspiracy of short-term economics and also a confluence of short economics; each and very ‘man’ for ‘himself’.

  4. Spot on evaluation of the logisitics, 5th. But there is an easier way to track ships. Most are utilizing the Suez Canal or headed for it. It would be fairly easy to plant spotter teams at the canal to monitor passage or requests to passage. It also gives them manifests of cargo.

    Once you know the SS Bucket has left the Canal on a given date at a given time and the Bucket cruises at x knots, about how long before it hits the Straits? It supplies a rough grid for placement. Shipping operates on fairly rigid schedules so getting from point A to Point B in the time allotted means plotting probable courses is fairly easy.

  5. thanks med.

    Yeah, they have to be in the right place at the right time and that takes foreknowledge. The mothership has to get close enough to the target for the skiffs to be launched to catch it. With the relative speeds of the mothership. the target ship and the skiffs (and the skiffs fuel capacity and consumption) they HAVE to be pretty precise–timing is everything.

  6. I think they should make water cannons like tugs have be standard on merchant vessels. Put shields on them like the old machine gun mounts to protect the user from gunfire and let them see how long it takes to fill a small boat with high pressure water.

    Now that’s entertainment.

  7. med…
    I’ve thought that too. As long as you have an alert crew,, it;s a perfect weapon–no danger to the cargo, not necessarily lethal so no political or moral complications–knock ’em over, flood the skiff, move on. EZ!

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