The capture of a Saudi oil tanker demonstrates the expanding reach and capabilities of Somalia's piracy industry - an enterprise that has thrived since the US-backed toppling of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union. With attacks now occurring as frequently as several times a day, naval task forces assigned to protect shipping off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden have vast areas of ocean to patrol in an effort to thwart increasingly audacious hijacking attempts.
The pirates of Somalia
A Chatham House report last month on the pirates of Somalia said: "At present it seems that scaling the high sides of large oil tankers is beyond their capabilities." With the capture of the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star this week it became clear that the pirates are rapidly extending their capabilities. "Both the size of the vessel and the distance from the coast where the hijackers struck is unprecedented," Commander Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet, told The Guardian. "It shows how quickly the pirates are adapting." In the space of just five days this month the International Maritime Bureau recorded 11 incidents in the waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden which involved ships coming under armed attacks including fire from rocket-propelled grenades. The Wall Street Journal said: "Until now, few energy analysts worried much about pirates on the high seas. But as much as half of the world's daily crude consumption is transported to market aboard ships, according to estimates by the US Department of Energy. "The oil industry relies heavily on shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden, which lies between Yemen and Somalia and connects the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. It is an important energy corridor, especially for Persian Gulf oil heading west through the Suez Canal. Ships laden with some 3.3 million barrels of crude - almost 4 per cent of daily global demand - move through the waters each day, according to Department of Energy estimates. "Still, sharply falling oil prices have provided some cushion. News of the attack against the Saudi tanker - capable of carrying 2 million barrels of crude, or some 2.3 per cent of daily global consumption - didn't rattle markets appreciably." The New York Times said: "Piracy gained a new level of international attention in September when a Ukrainian freighter packed with tanks, antiaircraft guns and other heavy weapons was captured. That freighter is still under pirate control. "Warships from the United States, Russia, Nato, India and Europe soon began steaming toward Somalia's waters. Aircraft now crisscross the skies on reconnaissance missions. They appear to have had some success: the percentage of successful pirate attacks dropped to 31 per cent in October from 53 per cent in August, according to the United States Navy. "But the pirates have proved resilient. There have been several attacks in the past week alone. On Tuesday, several people were killed when British sailors battled pirates to thwart an attack on a Danish shipping vessel, United States Navy officials said. "The pirates have several advantages. Their hunting grounds, from the Gulf of Aden to the Kenyan coast, comprise more than a million square miles. To be safe, merchant ships must stay in a narrow corridor identified by naval authorities. Of 15 recent pirate attacks, 10 took place outside those corridors, naval officials said." The Chatham House report noted: "It is generally thought that from sighting pirates to being boarded takes approximately fifteen minutes. Such a short space of time helps to explain why even with international patrols in the area ships are still captured." In late September, Sugule Ali, a spokesman for pirates who had just hijacked the Ukrainian freighter was interviewed by The New York Times. "He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. 'We don't consider ourselves sea bandits,' he said. '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 pirates who answered the phone call on Tuesday morning said they were speaking by satellite phone from the bridge of the Faina, the Ukrainian cargo ship that was hijacked about 200 miles off the coast of Somalia on Thursday. Several pirates talked but said that only Mr Sugule was authorised to be quoted. Mr Sugule acknowledged that they were now surrounded by American warships, but he did not sound afraid. 'You only die once,' Mr Sugule said. "He said that all was peaceful on the ship, despite unconfirmed reports from maritime organizations in Kenya that three pirates were killed in a shootout among themselves on Sunday or Monday night. "He insisted that the pirates were not interested in the weapons and had no plans to sell them to Islamist insurgents battling Somalia's weak transitional government. 'Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons,' he said. 'We don't want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money.' "He said the pirates were asking for $20 million in cash; 'we don't use any other system than cash.' But he added that they were willing to bargain. 'That's deal-making,' he explained." Chatham House said: "In the 1990s a private security firm had a contract to establish coastguard facilities. The exercise fizzled out but some analysts now trace the nautical skills of the pirates to that experiment and anecdotal evidence suggests that equipment meant for the coastguard has been used in piracy expeditions. Captured sailors have also reported that pirates who held them claimed to have been former coastguards." In a report about the on shore side of the piracy industry, BBC News said: "Whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship in the Somali region of Puntland, extraordinary things start to happen. "There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs. "People put on ties and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops, one saying he is the pirates' accountant, another that he is their chief negotiator.... "The going rate for ransom payments is between $300,000 and $1.5m (£168,000-£838,000). "A recent visitor to the town explained how, even though the number of pirates who actually take part in a hijacking is relatively small, the whole modern industry of piracy involves many more people. " 'The number of people who make the first attack is small, normally from seven to 10,' he said. " 'They go out in powerful speedboats armed with heavy weapons. But once they seize the ship, about 50 pirates stay on board the vessel. And about 50 more wait on shore in case anything goes wrong.' "Given all the other people involved in the piracy industry, including those who feed the hostages, it has become a mainstay of the Puntland economy." Chatham House noted: "The fact that the pirates originate from Puntland is significant as this is also the home region of President Abdullahi Yusuf. As one expert said, 'money will go to Yusuf as a gesture of goodwill to a regional leader' - so even if the higher echelons of Somali government and clan structure are not directly involved in organising piracy, they probably do benefit." The Financial Times said: "Western governments have stepped up attempts to crack down on piracy off the coast of Somalia by contributing to international maritime forces aimed at confronting the hijackers. "But although three separate task forces will be operating in the Gulf of Aden by the end of this year - two of them under Nato and European Union flags - many western experts believe that a successful crackdown faces a host of difficulties. "At the top of the list is concern that nothing can seriously be done to combat piracy while the government of Somalia allows the phenomenon to thrive." In The Times, Martin Fletcher identified intervention in Somalia in the name of the war on terror as one of President Bush's greatest blunders where: "the US supported - morally, materially and with intelligence - an invasion by predominantly Christian Ethiopia, Somalia's oldest bitter enemy. That replaced what was, for all its faults, Somalia's most effective government in memory with a deeply unpopular one led by former warlords, which had been cobbled together by the international community in Nairobi two years previously. " 'The Americans see an extremist under every Muslim stone,' one European official complained bitterly, and the consequences were entirely predictable. An insurgency that began early in 2007 has steadily gathered strength, while the reviled Government in Mogadishu has come to depend utterly for its survival on thousands of Ethiopian troops that were meant to withdraw within weeks. "As the fighting has worsened 10,000 Somali civilians are thought to have been killed, more than a million have fled their homes, and more than three million - 40 per cent of the population - now urgently need humanitarian assistance. Although the UN World Food Programme is still getting some aid into the country the situation is deteriorating and scores of humanitarian workers have been killed or abducted. Exploiting the lawlessness, pirates have turned the waters off Somalia into some of the most dangerous in the world." Ironically, as Chatham House pointed out: "The only period during which piracy virtually vanished around Somalia was during the six months of rule by the Islamic Courts Union in the second half of 2006. This indicates that a functioning government in Somalia is capable of controlling piracy. After the removal of the courts piracy re-emerged."