We love pirates; they’re big hits on the silver screen, they’re great for childrens’ make-believe games, and for the more serious among us, their history is an interesting one, interwoven with colonial wars and the discovery of the New World.
But those are historical pirates, our imaginary archetypes of swashbuckling ruffians. Modern pirates? Not much fun at all. They’re real, they’re dangerous, they’re armed to the teeth, and they’re prepared for brutality that would give our movie-screen pirates a run for the money. Beyond that, they’re getting more and more active. Pirates in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden have been in the news more and more recently, for their attacks upon increasingly high-level targets. These are not the pirates of yesterday attacking local fishing and small-time commercial vessels; these are bold and well-equipped international terrorists.
Just this month of September, which dwindles to a close, has seen an almost unbelievable stream of pirate attacks, including the seizure of french, greek, and spanish commercial and private ships. A BBC report of September 16 details the 30-man operation carried out by French commandos under the order of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to rescue two French nationals who were captured by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and held for a ransom of $1.4 million. This was all deja-vu for the French, who launched a similar operation in April to free hostages taken seized from a French yacht back in April. Somali pirates love to prey on foreigners, who they can hold for very high ransoms, and have been increasingly willing to do so. Sarkozy clearly views piracy as no joking matter, and is working with the European Union (of which his France currently holds the rotating presidency) to put an end to it:
President Nicolas Sarkozy said the French operation should serve as a warning, and called for international efforts to counter escalating piracy.
“This operation is a warning to all those who indulge in this criminal activity,” Mr Sarkozy said at a press conference on Tuesday. “France will not allow crime to pay.”
“I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has done twice.”
Warships from France and other nations have been patrolling the Somali coast to protect ships carrying aid to the country, where up to a third of the population needs food aid.
On Monday, European foreign ministers agreed to set up a “co-ordination unit” to improve security patrols.
In perhaps the most shocking example of recent priacy, Somali pirates today seized a Ukranian ship carrying 33 Russian tanks, and in so doing caught the attention of the United States in a rather big way. As the Associated Press reports:
MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — As a heavily armed U.S. destroyer patrolled nearby and planes flew overhead Sunday, a Somali pirate spokesman told The Associated Press his group was demanding a $20 million ransom to release a cargo ship loaded with Russian tanks.
The spokesman also warned that the pirates would fight to the death if any country tried military action to regain the ship, and a man who said he was the ship’s captain reported that one crew member had died.
Pirates seized the Ukrainian-operated ship Faina off the coast of Somalia on Thursday as it headed to Kenya carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks and a substantial amount of ammunition and spare parts. The ordnance was ordered by the Kenyan government.
The guided missile destroyer USS Howard was stationed off the Somali coast on Sunday, making sure that the pirates did not remove the tanks, ammunition and other heavy weapons from the ship, which was anchored off the coast.
A spokesman for the U.S. 5th fleet said the Navy remained “deeply concerned” over the fate of the ship’s 21-member crew and cargo.
In a rare gesture of cooperation, the Americans appeared to be keeping an eye on the Faina until the Russian missile frigate Neustrashimy, or Intrepid, reaches the area. The Russian ship was still in the Atlantic on Sunday, the Russian navy reported.
Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said he was speaking Sunday from the deck of the Faina via a satellite phone — and verified his location by handing the phone over to the ship’s captain, who also spoke with the AP. It was not possible to further confirm their identities.
“We want ransom, nothing else. We need $20 million for the safe release of the ship and the crew,” Ali said, adding that “if we are attacked, we will defend ourselves until the last one of us dies.”
The article briefly touches on what is, in part, fuelling a great deal of the piracy: “Attacking ships has become a regular source of income for pirates in Somalia, a war-torn country without a functioning government since 1991.” Somalia’s has almost no economy to speak of, and the central government is not recognized by many areas within the country, many of which govern themsevles with varying levels of autonomy, with most of the southern areas governed through the Islamic courts. More recently, an invasion by Ethiopia has further destabilized the region. All of this has led to an upswing in Piracy in the region and has contributed to making it the area of the world with the highest pirate activity.
The IMB keeps a Weekly Piracy Report available on its website; of 11 reported incidents of piracy worldwide this week, 8 took place in Somolia or the Gulf of Aden. Of those, every succesful attempt included the taking of hostages. The report has the following to say concerning piracy in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden:
In today’s international climate, concerned with terrorism, rogue states, and the off-the-books swapping of weapons and intelligence that goes on between them, these lawless pirates have the potential and capacity to be major players. And their capacity is only growing. Somali pirates are of particular concern — they seem to be the most capable and willing to commit brazen acts of piracy against absolutely anybody. But we can’t completely ignore other areas with uncomfortable levels of piracy such as certain areas of Southeast Asia and South America, both areas where the United States is becoming increasingly concerned with terrorist groups and rogue states.
The United States needs to begin paying attention to this upswing in violent pirate activities. Indeed, we have a complex history with priates; the Barbary pirates were our first foes as an independant nation, and in 1800 a massive 20% of US government revenues was spent paying ransom and tributes to Ottoman Barbary Pirates, mostly Tunisian or Algerian (source). It took two Barbary Wars to end United States subservience to pirates. An interesting cultural note: these Barbary Wars were the first major combat role for the US Marine Corps; their Anthem still pays tribute to them with the line “…to the shores of Tripoli” and their nickname ‘Leathernecks’ comes from the thick leather collars they wore to protect themselves from pirate cutlasses.
But these are modern times, and priates bring modern threats, ones which the US must begin considering. Pirates, especially those in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, make great potential allies for Islamic extremists, and the fact that they exist in a state of virtual lawlessness and anarchy makes the territory that they control a perfect terrorist breeding ground and safe-haven. In fact, the United States maintains a small presencein the region used to monitor al Qaeda (source). Furthermore, priate activity often interrupts the transportation of food aid, which is frequently targeted by pirates, to some of the poorest people in the world.
The United States has protected itself and its interests from pirates before, and should begin considering the likelihood that it will soon have to do so again. And hopefully, sooner rather than after it is too late.
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