We’re not talking kids in their basement ripping DVDs. We’re not talking Johnny Depp wearing too much make-up. We’re talking honest-to-god, high-seas ambush, gun-toting pirates. Here we are in the 21st Century, and yet international waters are in some ways just as lawless and perilous as they were 300 years ago.
The pirates lairs are in the craggy coast of Somalia. They are perfectly poised to capture ships heading through the Gulf of Aden (gateway to the Red Sea), one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The first boats they boarded were minor vessels, and nobody really took notice. They would hold the crew hostage, threaten to sink the vessel, and demand a ransom payment. It was easy and cheap and relatively risk-free to just pay them off, and that’s what happened. Again and again. Each time there was a payoff, however, the pirates were enriched and emboldened. It proved that piracy was easy money. And they amassed the resources to outfit themselves, improve their weapons, and swell their numbers. After a few years, piracy has become a full-fledged economic juggernaut; Somali pirates have made over $150 million in the past year.
At this point the pirates have developed an extremely sophisticated enterprise. They have “mother ships” which can bring them out into the high seas, far from the coast. The mother ships carry many smaller zodiac-type boats, full of men with guns and rocket launchers. The smaller boats swarm their prey, eventually boarding by force, and taking control of the ships and their crew. Delicate ransom negotiations ensue. Eventually there is a big payday, the crew and ship are released, and everyone goes their merry way.
Of course, if the first ships had refused to pay the ransom, then this whole business would never have gotten off the ground. But after a few years of payments, the pirates have sophisticated communications gear, fast boats, and top-of-the-line weapons. Recently the pirates have become amazingly brazen. Last month they captured a Saudi supertanker. The ship, fully loaded with oil, is worth over a quarter billion dollars. Not a bad haul. The ships in general have very little protection, at best just non-lethal water and sonic canons; if you’re sitting on a supertanker full of oil, you’re not really interested in a full-fledged exchange of live ammunition. The pirates are still holding the supertanker. In a unfortunate turn-of-events for the pirates, one of their recent captures was a Ukrainian vessel which turned out to be loaded with tanks and machine guns, ostensibly bound for Kenya, but probably ultimately headed to Sudan (breaching the UN arms embargo). Immediately the pirates were on everyone’s radar. Instead of just giving up the vessel and slinking away, they’ve remained steadfast. They’re surrounded by international military, with both American and Russian destroyers keeping a watchful eye. Nonetheless, they won’t give up the ship until they receive $20 million (special holiday price, down from an original demand of $35 million). In the end, someone will almost certainly pay them off, and this money will feed yet further piracy.
It is absolutely astounding that, in this day and age, a small group of ragtag Somali pirates can confront the entire world, and win. The next time you’re paying to fill up your vehicle at the gas pump, don’t forget that some of that money is going to pirates in Somalia. Isn’t the global economy amazing?