Somalia giving pirates a bad name

ALI MUSA/AFP/Getty Images Thought that pirates belonged to the realm of children’s books and a thick-eyelinered Johnny Depp? Well, there’s nothing storybook at all about this story: Small-scale pirates off the coast of Somalia have attacked 62 ships this year, 25 of them hijackings. On Sept. 25, the increasingly bold pirates caught their biggest ship ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
592271_081002_pirates2.jpg
592271_081002_pirates2.jpg

ALI MUSA/AFP/Getty Images

Thought that pirates belonged to the realm of children's books and a thick-eyelinered Johnny Depp? Well, there's nothing storybook at all about this story: Small-scale pirates off the coast of Somalia have attacked 62 ships this year, 25 of them hijackings.

On Sept. 25, the increasingly bold pirates caught their biggest ship yet, a Ukrainian boat carrying an estimated $30 million in weapons and ammunition. The pirates are asking for $20 million in ransom.

ALI MUSA/AFP/Getty Images

Thought that pirates belonged to the realm of children’s books and a thick-eyelinered Johnny Depp? Well, there’s nothing storybook at all about this story: Small-scale pirates off the coast of Somalia have attacked 62 ships this year, 25 of them hijackings.

On Sept. 25, the increasingly bold pirates caught their biggest ship yet, a Ukrainian boat carrying an estimated $30 million in weapons and ammunition. The pirates are asking for $20 million in ransom.

So, whence do such medieval-sounding avengers hail?

As someone who tried to write her undergraduate thesis on Somali pirates, I’m kind of perversely thrilled that they’ve become such a hot topic. Some quick background: For the last two decades, Somalia’s politics have been one big power vacuum, with any number of unsavory characters (both Somali and foreign) vying to fill the gap. (I will refrain from expounding further, but a good update can be found here.)

About 10 or 15 years ago, fishermen, too, noticed that the power vacuum wasn’t just a land-lubber phenomenon. As the pirates themselves describe in a fascinating interview with the New York Times, they call their merry band “the Central Region Coast Guard,” and characterize it as a sort of ersatz navy that merely protects fishing vessels from outsiders eager to steal their catch. Of course, they have held humanitarian aid, yachts, and now weapons shipments hostage. And as for the ransom thing, who wouldn’t ask for a bite, when there is nothing else to eat?

This time, the Somali pirates are likely to get their cut of at least a few million dollars. Ransoms paid to various captors this year alone have cost $30 million. But five U.S. warships and another Russian vessel on the way will ensure that no funny business takes place. Many had feared that the pirates would sell the weapons to terrorists on a dangerously well-connected Somali black market.

I’m sure they would love to do that, but since they attacked from wooden fishing boats, it’s not likely they could even begin to offload the weapons. Tanks — unlike pirates — don’t do so well on the high seas.

Correction: This original blog stated that Dickinson wrote her thesis on Somali pirates. Alas, she attempted to, but ended up focusing more broadly on Somali maritime security and U.S.-Somali relations, instead.
We regret the error.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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