14.11.2008: 2134 UTC: Posn: 04:25.6S - 048:58.5E, off southern SomaliaThat was the fourth report of the day of piracy off the coast of Somalia; as you can imagine, cruise ships tend to avoid this stretch of water these days. In November 2005, a luxury cruise ship was attacked by pirates. The pirates were scared off by a quick-thinking crew who made loud acoustic bangs to simulate returning gun fire. The cruise ship then sped away at full throttle, leaving the pirates behind.
Pirates heavily armed with automatic weapons and RPG in two speedboats chased and fired upon a container ship underway. Master increased speed, took evasive maneuvres and crew activated fire hoses. Pirates aborted the attempted attack at 2256 UTC. Ship sustained damages due to gunshots and RPG fire. No injuries to crew.
Who are These Pirates?
Well, they don't wear eye patches, and instead of swords they have RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). They use small, fast speedboats to get around and work in crews of 10 or so. Once they find a good target, they launch hooks and rope ladders up to board the ship and overwhelm the crew. They usually attack at night.
Pirates are most likely to be Somali, and given their success rate at boarding ships and demanding ransoms for the crew, they are living the highlife, Somali style. This includes getting married to several beautiful women, driving around in big cars, and building big houses. Somali pirates have accountants, lend money to businessmen, and are basically running the economy of the autonomous region of Puntland.
In a recent report about Somali pirates, BBC Somalia analyst Mohamed Mohamed says pirates are a combination of ex-fisherman, ex-militia, and computer geeks. There's no use hijacking a huge ship if you don't know how the radio works and therefore can't demand your ransom. That has undoubtedly happened at some point. Pirates also have to know how to use GPS, of course.
Somali pirates don't see themselves as the bad guys. A pirate interviewed recently by the New York Times said “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.” The NY Times article continues -- "Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax".
Any Hope of Stopping The Pirates?
Piracy is a lucrative business. There's the ransom money, and even things like feeding and housing the hijacked crews helps sustain the economy in Puntland. A BBC report filed in September of this year talks about life in a Somali pirate town: "Eyl has become a town tailor-made for pirates - and their hostages. Special restaurants have even been set up to prepare food for the crews of the hijacked ships. As the pirates want ransom payments, they try to look after their hostages."
Right now it's still up to ships' captains to try and outmaneuver these pirates in speedboats, hose them down with fire houses, and even fire back. Countries are trying to put together some naval forces to patrol the Gulf of Aden, as obviously too many ships are getting attacked and insurance premiums are running at an all-time high. But there are lots of pesky international laws that don't allow any navy ships to just come in and shoot at a non-military vessel. There's also the issue of the crew and keeping them safe. However, it looks like the the Indian navy has had enough, and they just shot and sunk a ship that had been taken over by pirates yesterday, the 19th of November, 2008. [Update 25 November , the ship was apparently a Thai vessel and crew were injured in the attack - read full story.]
No doubt, more forceful action will be taken by the international community against piracy in these waters. Obviously a safer and more stable Somalia would really benefit everyone and make much of this go away.
Image of Somali Pirates Holding The Merchant Vessel, MV Faina, October 2008 -- © Getty Images/US Navy Handout