Somalia's pirates have a big problem on their hands -- in the form of their greatest prize, the Saudi-owned oil tanker the Sirius Star.
The Sirius Star has 2 million barrels of oil on board and is one of at least 15 "prize" ships now anchored off the Somali coast. According to the pirates, the ship's crew of 25 is well-fed and well-treated. They have joined another 300 captive sailors taken from other hijacked vessels.
And add $30 million to these impressive numbers. That's an unofficial figure for the ransoms paid over the last year by shipping companies to Somali pirates to free crews, cargoes and vessels
From a sea crook's perspective, a freighter fleet and $30 million in cash isn't a problem, it's success. The cash roll may seem small by Wall Street bailout stands, but $30 million goes a long way in Puntland.
Remember the Land of Punt? Egyptian Queen Hapshetsut sent an expedition to Punt in the 15th century B.C. This A.D. 21st century "Puntland" is north of Mogadishu on the "elbow" of the Horn of Africa. Puntland claimed independence from "Mogadishu control" in 1998 -- which makes Puntland a separatist "state-let" of a sort.
Puntland, however, like most of anarchy-plagued Somalia, has no real government except gangsters with guns, making the miserable place a near-perfect criminal haven. The Puntland port of Eyl brags about its "piracy industry."
That may seem a bit media deaf, bragging about piratical success, but Eyl's residents have a sympathetic cover story incorporating an environmentalist touch with a pitch reminiscent of Cold War-era "Third World solidarity" propaganda. Their local fishing catch has diminished, and they blame the big ships. Ships shouldn't pass through their waters for free. Thus pirates are just heavily armed toll-booth operators.
The pirates shrug at media attention. Media interest has spiked before, then Oprah and Geraldo lost interest. For example, in fall 2005, Somali pirates attacked the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit. They failed when the liner's crew fought back. The crew maneuvered the ship and used its huge wake as a weapon against the pirates' speedboats. The crew also employed a non-lethal "directional parabolic audio boom-box," a "sonic weapon" that emits an eardrum-shattering sound. The pirates retreated. The headlines came and went.
So why do the pirates now have a big problem? They have had, quite simply, too much success -- and have moved from nuisance to noxious. Hijacking an oil tanker is an economic assault on the industrial world that the general public understands. Don't discount the global economic downturn's sobering effect. Shippers estimate that rerouting tankers and freighters around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope (in order to avoid pirate waters) increases shipping costs 20 percent to 30 percent,
Pirates and terrorists thrive in anarchic territory. Though Somali pirates may not directly connect with al-Qaida-affiliated terror groups, indirect ties exist -- and certainly so do short-lived alliances of convenience. Intelligence agencies scrutinize criminal organizations for many reasons. Smugglers and rebels share clandestine lives. Terrorists worldwide (e.g., Colombia) run "mafia-style" extortion rackets. The Filipino Islamist terror group Abu Sayyaf is a pirate gang.
Trading powers are responding to the Somali pirates' violent bravado. Last week, an Indian Navy ship sank a Somali pirate vessel off East Africa. StrategyPage.com reported Russia is sending more ships and a commando group trained in hostage rescue. Though it risks the lives of hostages, a punitive strike on the Pirates of Puntland could be next month's news.
Modern piracy won't be stopped by naval action alone. In "Jolly Roger With an Uzi" (published in 2000), authors Jack Gottschalk and Brian Flanagan analyze the piracy problem as a complex challenge to the international political system. Ineffective governments are part of the predicament. Corrupt shipping agents even play a role, providing intel to criminals. Placing armed guards on ships isn't a new idea, but it creates legal tangles. However, Gottschalk and Flanagan note that "lethal force to prevent pirate attacks" against ships on the high seas "may well be necessary to bring piracy under effective control."