For years, Somali pirates have been hijacking ships off the coast of Somalia. For years, the United States and what we credulously call “the international community” have not been able to figure out what to do about it. As a result, more and more vessels are being attacked over a widening expanse of ocean; violence is increasing while ransoms rise.
Jay Bahadur, a resourceful, 27-year-old Canadian journalist, found this situation irresistible. He made his way to Somalia and did what good journalists do: ask questions — mostly while sipping sweet tea and chewing khat, an intoxicating plant to which an astonishing number of Somalis are addicted. The result his book: “The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World.”
Among the first things Bahadur learns is not so surprising in this day and age: Somalia’s pirates don’t see themselves as pirates. Displaying admirable public relations savvy, they call themselves “saviors of the sea” or “coast guards.” 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 tells Bahadur it is “up to the international community . . . to solve the problem of illegal fishing, the root of our troubles. We are waiting for action.”
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 Programme transports attempting to deliver aid. And, four months ago, pirates seized a small yacht that was being sailed around the world by two retired American couples that were stopping along the way to donate Bibles to far-flung churches and schools. As U.S. naval officers attempted to negotiate their release, all four Americans were murdered.
Piracy has become 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 is a collapsed state but Bahadur thinks it’s wrong to see it as a failed state. Rather, it currently comprises “a number of autonomous enclaves” dominated by rival clans. The Puntland State of Somalia, from which he reported, surrounds the tip of the Horn of Africa, including almost half its coastline. Puntland was, he says, “the natural candidate to become the epicenter of the recent outbreak of Somali piracy” not because it is in chaos but because it is relatively stable. That means not too much crossfire for the pirates to worry about and not too many competing interests to pay off.
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.
In an epilogue, Bahadur offers his 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 encouraging or requiring “passive security measures aboard commercial vessels.” I’m not persuaded this brave young reporter has the solutions but the ideas he puts on the table could be the start of a serious policy discussion.
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 that paying off brigands would not do and that defending American citizens was essential.
Now, too often, American officials bow to what we credulously call the United Nations and other multilateral organizations that have come under the control of powers hostile to what we now generally refrain from calling the Free World. To borrow Boyah’s words, that’s “the root of our troubles. We are waiting for action.”
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.