By Daniel Holz | December 28, 2008 1:23 am

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.

pirate flagThe 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?

  • Retrogarde

    It’s unbelievable how criminals just run international territory. This is dangerous. Big money can buy a lot more than weapons and ammo. Pirates may also capture cargo you don’t want to see in the hands of sinister organizations.

  • Brian Mingus

    The oil tanker was bound for the USA. I doubt the pirates will be getting the huge payday they expect as we have very clear policies on how to deal with this: we don’t negotiate. We certainly don’t pay ransoms (unless someone has an example?). The international community is now getting involved, including China, who has sent its navy out on patrols in international waters for the first time in a LONG time. Now that they have attracted all of this attention, future supertankers will have escorts. I think the long view of this is that the pirates have just screwed themselves. If they sink the supertanker, it will attract enough international attention to stop piracy in its tracks. The US has a big Navy (over 300 ships), but if you combine all the Navy’s who have a vested interest in oil (read: all of them, duH!:), there really isn’t any room on the high seas for pirates.

  • Trocisp

    @ Brian Mingus

    Guns for Hostages – US-Israel/Iran.

    Didn’t go well for us, or Israel, or anyone for that matter.

    I say we say screw it, and start sinking the suckers (oil-rig excepted, of course). Have rescue boats (with divers) standing by, and recovery boats. If you want to go down with the ship, that’s fine Mr. Pirate, but if you want off, bring the hostages with you.

  • Radiolaire

    …I’m appalled. You really should stick with physics, or at least american politics, instead of delivering haidresser-style analysis.

    “an extremely sophisticated enterprise”, what are you, fox news ?

    Before you start blathering more, let me explain you how it all began: due to the sorry state of anarchy that Somalia is, for decades now, many fishing vessels cruise illegally in somalian waters. I am talking about thousand-ton factory trawler, with giant trawls which just completely wipe out all life on their path.

    So the somali fishermen, on the brink of starvation, decided to defend themselves. And that proved to be financially interesting, yes; but it was not the main reason it all began. It began because of those silent a**holes you never noticed before the sh*t hit the fan: fishing corporations. The next time you’re eating fish & chips, don’t forget that some of that food has been taken from the mouth of starving somalis (well, not anymore, thanks to who? Certainly not you, but pirates, yes).

  • Matt

    respectable international businesses and the gun-toting military= good
    ragtag gun-toting national pirates = bad

    Life is so simple when you’ve been brainwashed from birth.

  • Count Iblis

    The Somali government isn’t exactly in control. I guess Bush asking Ethiopia to get rid of the Islamic Courts (who did have quite a lot of public support and who would have been able to bring order to the whole of Somalia), didn’t work out very well.

    If you have a situation were there is no rule of law, then the people will do as they please. This is true not just in Somalia, but also on Wall Street, as we have seen recently. So, this is just how normal human beings behave.

  • daniel

    Radiolaire: actually, the pirates are indeed quite sophisticated. it is estimated it took them 4 days sailing in open water to get to the supertanker. and they’re busy eluding the Navies of many nations. see:

    there is no doubt that Somali fisherman have been shafted. as have just about all Somalis. this doesn’t justify piracy. really, what is happening here is greed and crime, thinly veiled behind ‘social justice’ type issues. as the pirates themselves state, all they want is money: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/01/world/africa/01pirates.html?scp=8&sq=pirates&st=cse

    Somalia has been essentially lawless and dysfunctional since the early 90s. but, needless to say, piracy is not going to solve the country’s problems. and only a tiny fraction of Somalis benefit.

  • Thomas

    The bloodies incident so far hasn’t been any action by the pirates. It was an Indian navy ship that thought it had discovered a pirate mothership and sunk it. Turns out it was a Thai fishing boat that had just been taken over by pirates. As Radiolaire described, foreigners take the opportunity to plunder Somali waters.

    Brian, while “we don’t negotiate” sounds fine, that’s not how it works in reality. In Afghanistan the situation has gotten so bad that the private companies that handle transport of supplies to the US army has to pay off the Talibans to get them through. Your tax money at work.

  • Grayorchid

    These last few years of piracy off the horn of Africa are unlike any historical precedent. In modern times, pirates are normally captured if possible, and returned to the owner of the waters they were caught in (if any) or their country of origin for prosecuting. This is not possible to do with Somalia, since there is no effective government there. So if we (the international community) are to go the route of capturing and prosecuting these criminals, we will have to do the honors ourselves and bring these people into our justice system. From the pirate’s point of view this may not be a bad thing; If the pirates succeed in jacking a ship and getting the ransom, then they win. If they are captured by one of the european or american navys, then they get a bed, adequate food and medical supplies, and possibly some foothold into western society. Compared to life in Somalia, that may still be considered winning. There is still the wildcard of being captured by the Chinese or Russian navy, but otherwise these people have very little to lose, and have a large amount of control over their fates if the international community is to act as humanly as possible.

    Lethal force is rarely the best option, but it’s still an option. If these pirates are in the act of attacking a ship or become hostile while being detained, then the militaries involved should have clearance to open fire. But I think such violence should be avoided as much as possible. My reasoning for this belief is grounded in both morality (killing people for trying to survive a hell on earth is the wrong way to help them) and political thinking. The political reasoning goes like so; Any course of action that results in frequent deaths of Somalis is going to be extremely unpopular in european nations, so these navys will likely be withdrawn or reduced to a less active role. I would imagine India, Canada, New Zealand and Australia would follow the EU’s example with whatever help they are providing with the policing effort. This leaves the US Navy, the Chinese, and the Russian navys in play. Of these three, the US Navy is by far and wide the most capable and numerous, so the Americans would naturally be involved in most of the activity… and violence. Even with the Americans on their best behavior, there will be plenty of cause (be it through truths, half truths, or complete abandonment of the truth) for the other two nations involved to demonize the United States. And they will. The Chinese political system is known for degrading other nations to justify its self to the Chinese people. And Putin would not pass up any chance to demonize america, though what that lunatic gains from it is beyond me. America should not give any kindling to these peoples imaginations, especially Putin, because who knows where the sparks he generates will land.

    Already, many merchant ships are organizing themselves into flotillas and passing by the gulf of Aden with an armed escort. This is a decent Band-Aid. But I hope these pirates actions remind the world of just how desperate these people are to survive. Maybe this will increase our global willingness to help heal the horn of Africa. The threat to global trade and security these pirates present us will not be fixed by marine interdictions and escorts, but by building a stable society among these same people we now feel threatened by.

  • http://www.youth.neag.org Tobydyd

    This is highly unfortunate, but also an example of how anyone can change the world if they give themselves entirely to their cause. If only our efforts to keep the world safe were as dedicated as the pirates efforts to get rich…

  • Radiolaire

    Daniel et al. > It has been fifty years that the superpowerful high-tech U.S. Army has got its ass kicked by starving third-world uneducated peasants with AK-47 (where “47” means “model of year 1947”). When will they learn?

    Is sailing for 4 days in open water sophisticated? Come on! Using a mothership? Obvious! Eluding the navies of first world countries? They don’t have any tools, they were designed to sink other combat vessels, not fishing boats and dinghies. It is an hammer for flies.

    Piracy is not going to solve Somalia problems? Well, maybe the tanker capture will be remembered as the equivalent of the “Boston Tea Party” or the “Annapolis Tea Party” for Somalia.

  • Thomas

    Grayorchid, there is another reason navies are afraid to use too much force. At the moment the pirates take sailors prisoners, the treatment is by no account pleasant, but they tend to survive. If the whole thing escalates, what is to stop the pirates from making all prisoners walk the plank?

  • Dr William Dyer

    I have been reading these piracy related stories off and on for a while. When I read about the Ukrainian transport hijacking I have thought to myself, “There has to be a better way to meet the members of Delta Force, Alfa, or what ever operators get the call.” I have been surprised nothing of the sort seems to have transpired yet. Maybe it is because of reports of the following:
    The attackers generally treat their hostages well in anticipation of a big payday to the point of hiring caterers on the shores of Somalia to cook spaghetti, grilled fish and roasted meat that will appeal to a Western palate. They also keep a steady supply of cigarettes and drinks from the shops on shore.

    The costs of having any number of modern warships patrol the waters can not be an insignificant sum. That alongside the cost from the disruption directly related to the piracy itself and the ransoms leads me to wonder about the difference in costs from working on putting together a more stable nation-state. Not that I think it is the prerogative of others to straighten out Somali, as much as outside powers making the commitment to taking part in making the environment were ending the Civil War is more likely to happen. So far the plans seem to look no farther then shutting down the actions of piracy. If the high seas become too risky, those people will probably turn to other activities to support themselves. The piracy of Somalia does not seem that different in origin then the narcotics trade that is thriving in Afghanistan.

  • somebody

    “Not that I think it is the prerogative of others to straighten out Somali,..”

    Considering the history of Western impact in Africa, I am not sure we can shrug off all responsibility.

    It is not the case that we have left them alone, and they still f***ed themselves over. The things that happened to Africa in the colonial era are so deep that it will probably take a millennium (or at least some centureis) for it to recover. In particular the enormous ethnic rifts that are staggering any kind of progress, is an immediate consequence of European countries splitting the African pie into pieces that suited them. And even today, the veritable bag of gold that Africa is (natural resources-wise), there is no way in hell than they are being left alone. 20% of the diamonds in the world are blood-diamonds.

  • Dr William Dyer

    I used the word prerogative specifically thinking of the reasons you cited somebody. Prerogative as in the definition of the word pertaining to Europe, USA, China, and others do not having the right or privilege to make over other nations for their own purposes, but while still having the right to pursue action(s) that encourage and further global stability. Such things are of course open to interpretation.

    That is why I tied the Somali piracy to Afghani opium crops. Both are ongoing and even growing because of the state of neglect or disrepair left by and in large part from foreign interests or occupation overrunning local issues and governance.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    It’s fascinating how aggrieved commenters spring into action whenever we say anything critical about anyone outside the U.S. I got it when I talked about China censoring blogs, and when I decried shootouts in World Cup matches. You would think we were a bunch of crazy jingoists, spending all our days proudly puffing up how awesome the U.S. is.

    Remarkably, it’s possible for a big, powerful country like the U.S. to have severe problems and do many bad things, and also for other countries to have problems! Not mutually exclusive. Somalia is in terrible shape, a situation for which the U.S. is by no means blameless. And pirates aren’t brave freedom-fighters; they’re just thugs.

  • Radiolaire

    “Just thugs”? That’s where the problem lies between you and me. People do not become “just thugs”, there is a reason, a story behind it, and your blog note completely missed it. Moreover, being a “thug” is not an objective assessment: I gave the Boston Tea Party as an example of “just thugs”, from a british POV e.g. (but also from a legal POV), and “heroes” or “cornerstone of the revolution” from an american POV.

    And I also got angry at you for trying to scare people by saying they were “extremely sophisticated”. “juggernaut”, “swarm”, “prey”: I’m not a humanities PhD, but I can see an heavily connoted lexical field when I see one.

    That has nothing to do with Chinese or American, internal or foreign, politics, and even less World Cup matches. Ok, my reference to the U.S. Army getting kicked may be misleading; what it meant was that those armies are unfit to fight piracy, and that’s not because the pirates are well-equipped and trained and whatnot. You don’t need to be “extremely sophisticated” to beat the topmost armed forces.

  • weary

    Sean, the same aggrieved commenters spring into action regardless of what is said. They will flame any blog post, taking the most contrary stance they can think of.

    It’s just a fact of life on the internet, as you of course know.

    if only everyone was as perfect as me…

  • http://jollybloger.blogspot.com Jolly Bloger

    They are just thugs, no matter their tearful origin. No one considers them freedom fighters, there is no parallel there. They aren’t real pirates either. Real pirates rockstars with huge personalities, big scraggly beards, and jeweled earrings. I was blogging the Somalia pirate thing for a while, but they just don’t have the pirate flair to hold my interest.

  • Imam Yahya

    Wait until the Chinese arrive. They will do what Westerners are too gutless to do — the Germans even took some pirates prisoner, and then released them, for Christ’s sake.

    No prisoners.

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  • jick

    I guess this is just bad timing, but after the news of mass murder in Palestine, I just felt uncomfortable reading this post and some of the comments.

    Okay, maybe they are just thugs. The world would be better without them. Now what? Perhaps we could just kill them off, letting their wives and children to starve? Somehow I feel that it won’t make that particular searoute much safer ten years from now…

    “We don’t deal with terrorists/thugs/whatever” is, IMHO, not a fruitful approach if you are interested in reducing the amount of human misery, or even reducing the amount of human misery in your own nation. (How many American soldiers were killed in Iraq by now?)

  • Jane Doe

    Where do I sign up to become a pirate? I’ve failed at everything else, just got kicked out of school, am in horrific student loan debt, my mother died, am perimenopausal, and have no assets. I’m game. Can’t pay my bills any other way that I can see.

  • joe

    The pirates really are just thugs. Radiolaire, if you’re ever mugged on the street, try to remember your words. Have sympathy while the muggers point a gun at you. Afterall, they probably had a good reason to tun to crime, some tragic origin story. And maybe you can thank them for only taking your cash instead of taking your cash AND killing you.

  • zw

    Sean, I’m really disappointed in your post above.

    It shows a real lack of understanding of human nature and critical analysis that led to bad actions such as the Iraq war. By dehumanizing these people (“thugs”) and ignoring the plight which led them to these criminal actions, you’re not really being a scientist, but a dogmatist. Why not just kill them all and be done with it, like the Indians tried?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Do people really hear “thugs” and immediately think “people who should be round up and summarily shot”? I would have thought “people who should be arrested and tried in a court of law,” but apparently not everyone agrees.

    I am not being the dogmatist here. I am neither ignoring the plight in which these people find themselves, nor using that plight as an excuse for their piracy. And I do not think that the world divides cleanly into “noble fighters against imperialist aggression” and “subhuman animals who should just be killed.” There is a middle ground, and being sensitive to the conditions of others does not imply that it is inappropriate to label criminal activity as such. Thugs are thugs, whether they are Somali pirates, IRA terrorists planting bombs in London, Hamas guerrillas firing rockets at Israel, Israeli checkpoint guards humiliating Palestinian workers, American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, or Halliburton executives siphoning away piles of money that was meant for supplies. Thugs come in many forms.

  • PNB

    They’ll never just blow up the ships because they are worth far more than the ransom that the pirates demand. Just doesn’t make economic sense.

    Something that DOES make economic sense is for a group of starving Somalis to try to make a buck where they can: on the open seas. I think one factor that is being overlooked is that Somalia doesn’t just not have a government, there is no economy to speak of either, and therefore no way to earn money or buy food. Though it may not seem the noblest of trades to us Westerners, I certainly can’t fault these men for finding a way to feed their people. As was already said, they treat their prisoners well and in general accept a much smaller ransom than they could conceivably bargain for. Honorable? No. Thugs? Maybe. Reasonable? I think so.

  • Radiolaire

    I love this post, it acts like the potion of the Dr. Jekyll. We have starving uneducated third-world armed men, stolen, poisoned (tons of toxic waste dropped by the first-world countries in somalian waters washed ashore after the 2005 tsunami), taking over civilian ship full of westerners; they are well treated, and they negotiate to return ship and crew unarmed. And the reaction here seems to be, “kill them all without mercy”.

    (Sean, you’re not part of this description. At last somebody sane…)

    Yes, what they want is “just money”. To do what? Your deed, as readers of a science blog, should be to be curious, to ask yourselves questions to think things through. They want money, but not to buy themselves drugs, or a porsche, or a new swimming pool.

    Oh, and stop thinking about what would make a “rational economic sense”. After the general failure of the financial sector this year, I though people would stop thinking that ordinary people take sound, extremely rational economic decisions, and that you can manipulate them by changing the incentives.

    You have to understand people’s motivation when they resort to armed action. Full-scale military retort never solved terrorism, the same way death penalty doesn’t improve your safety on the streets. Sure, people who have been victim of an assault want revenge (except when they’re Dukakis), but that is precisely why we have an independant judicial system where the punishment is decided by a third party.

  • Elliot

    I have to imagine there are effective non-lethal countermeasures that can/will be developed. For example sound waves at frequencies that are extremely unpleasant, chemical deterrents like mace or pepper spray, short range detection devices, etc. which will make these attacks much harder to accomplish without the pirates having some very unpleasant but not fatal experiences.

  • Jennifer West

    I agree with Radiolaire in that if you want actions to stop you must ask why they occur. It is not enough to say that the first ships shouldn’t have paid money to pirates. I would give my wallet to a mugger, and I am not the cause of further muggings because of doing so.

    It’s not an apology or an excuse for the pirates to ask the question “why”? It’s a responsibility to do so, if you are concerned about the situation. I think Sean, while being a darling, is shortsighted to say they are just thugs. Regardless of what fate he believes they deserve.

    I mean, one either wants this problem to disappear again – pirates off our mental radar – or, one wants the problem to be solved. If you want it to be solved, you better figure out what the causes are.

    I’m grateful for the post and the comments.
    All the best,

  • Jason Heldenbrand

    Stop comparing pirates to Robin Hood.

    Most of the pirates in question live extremely lavish lives, they don’t impart their windfall upon the masses in pursuit of economic equality. The people in question are selfish and greedy, even worse human beings than the ‘evil imperialists’ in question because the horror is all around them in an immediate vicinity and yet do nothing about it.

    This is easy money for them. The only reason they have any support as of yet or haven’t been dealt with in far harsher ways is that they haven’t started killing hostages. Believe me, when people start refusing to pay they will start killing hostages. Then any glamor of what they’re doing will disappear, military force will become a more pressing concern and so on.

  • Mohamed Farrah Aidid

    Thank you for your concern for my pirates; we welcome support for our violation of international law. Please join me in Somalia as we are in need of a PR rep. I’m sure you will love it over here, and all of my friends will be very amiable. We promise not to hold you for ransom because everything wrong in the world is the fault of the United States, just as you say. I treasure your guilt and hope that your comfortable lifestyle will travel with you to Somalia. But please, don’t study history and see how Jefferson resolved the issue of the Barbary pirates.

    A friendly Somali warlord

  • Amos Kenigsberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I met a pirate expert (NB: not an expert pirate) at a Christmas party a few days ago, and he had some interesting info on the situation. My favorite bit was about how a ransom handoff goes down: a bunch of ex-British secret service guys arm themselves to the teeth, go out with a pro hostage negotiator, and make the handoff — or go crazy and blow up everything in sight.

    Now *that* would be a good subject for a reality show.

  • spyder

    So China decided to send some of its anti-piracy fleet (cruise missiles and special forces teams) to Somalia to protect Asian shipping. This is important and interesting for three reasons: China has been involved in fighting massive piracy in its own realms for decades (Indonesian archipelago piracy was claiming more than 100 ships a year a decade ago); China is demonstrating the strength of its new naval power to engage in distant actions; China is claiming that in protecting Asian shipping it is a friend of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, et al.

    On the same coin, we find that the US has been particularly incompetent in its own realms fighting piracy. All along the coasts of Central and South America, pirates have for years been capturing boats, killing the occupants and using the vessels for drug shipments. Many of these activities have been perpetrated by the right-wing militias bent on fighting for control of resources and wealth. At best, the US interdicts at a rate of 7% or so. Not very productive really. Hell, now these folks have stolen tourist submersibles (and began to make their own) and small naval vessels of other countries. But really, let us keep our energy focussed on Africa, where people don’t die and corporations are being forced to pay off some of their profits (certainly much more important).

  • jick

    I agree with Sean on that they should be arrested and tried in a court of law.

    I mean, ideally.

    Blame my lack of imagination, but I cannot think of any way we can arrest (and try in a court) a significant number of Somali pirates, without a lot of rounding up and shooting, and quite possibly exchanging gunfires and missiles and the likes. I predict that the overall result will be either like 1) summary execution, 2) a demonstration of inefficiency of international forces, or both.

    So, the ideal solution is infeasible. At least until someone first builds a sensible government in Somalia, but now I’m replacing a big problem with even bigger problem, ain’t I?

    I think this is why Radiolaire and others urge to think from their viewpoints, not because they are agreeable and pleasant guys, but because there is no other practical solution. Well, we can say they’re assholes, perhaps they really are, but that doesn’t solve anything.

    (Disclaimer: my knowledge of Somali pirates is way lower than most commenters and probably zero, so you can safely ignore whatever I wrote here. Well, I just had to vent. Thank you.)

  • Flaming Pope

    My shot at an effective solution.

    – instead of giving pirates a free ride back to shore accomplishing nothing, leave ’em floating. You may not have marine jurisdiction over the particular sea area, but that also means you don’t have a absolute saying that you have to give them a lift back to shore. If you see another boat come to pick them up, move your boat into the way and block them by accident.

    Pirates are not dumb, you can’t just go sinking ships in international waters. They know the profit of cargo and will calculate their ransom based on a percent margin of the final profit of whatever cargo is on the ship. So sinking these ships will lose a lot more money than just paying them off- sorta like an international mob “for protection.”

  • Anti-Radiolaire

    Please, don’t comment anti for the heck of it. You vouch for these pirates and make others look like they are the ‘thugs’ and should feel guilty.
    Piracy like other forms of crime is immoral. No philosophical discussions on this please.

  • Winter Solstice Man

    If the pirates were white and from Europe, would the world be more forgiving of them?


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