The Rise and Fall of the Somali Pirates

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Barkhad Abdi (actor) as Somali pirate Abduwali Muse in Oscar-nominated film “Captain Phillips (2013)”, Mar. 2014, SBS

Robbers on land are thieves, but thieves of the seas are called pirates

From the earliest ancient Mediterranean ‘Sea Peoples,’ Illyrians and Tyrrhenians, to the famous pirates of the Caribbean and Black Beard, pirates were impoverished, socially undesired men seeking mobility, power, and fame under the promising veil of the open seas. Despite the romanticization and idealization of pirates – love stories, luxurious adventures, Hollywood’s famed film series – piracy still exists as an issue in our modern world.

Strait of Malacca, Indonesia. Falcon Lake, Mexico. Sulu Seas, Philippines. The world is not new to pirate activity in the last decades. However, none left the world as emotionally ambivalent as the pirates of Somalia – an intense piece of history embodying the ‘revenge’ of local Somalian fishermen for their motherland, a 3000-kilometer barren coastline, the longest in Africa.

The government of Somalia collapsed in the early 90s following its detachment from the Soviet Union; 90% of the population were unemployed and lose clans controlled the state. Amidst Somalia’s absence of international protection and authority control, huge fishing boats, heading off mainly from close by Iran and Yemen, capitalized on the nation’s unregulated waters for fish and seafood. Hundreds of millions of dollars of fish were forcefully taken, eclipsing the fishing of locals, who traveled in mere wooden, poorly built, small fishing boats.

Such foreign ships brought food shortages along with machinery and nets that decimated the sea floor, rendering it impossible to sustain future ecosystems. Illegal transactions made by mafia groups and companies from Italy and Switzerland pushed the bedridden Somali government to take up their waste, some of which were even radioactive. Somalians were drinking “poisoned water” and experiencing rapid health decline. The 2004 tsunami further Somalia’s vulnerable shore, propelling an extensive UN investigation cementing radioactive waste as “severely damaging to the health of locals” and the vanishing of 150 Somali lives

Assad Abdulahi, a former fisherman-turned-pirate, exclaims in a 2008 interview with The Guardian, “they would destroy our boats and force us to flee for our lives.” His voice is reflective of many. However, little did Abdullahi know, a group of fishermen were already assembling an oceanic militia around the country’s gulf, seeing Somalia’s position, which sits on the gateway of the Suez Canal, the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia boasting 20,000 ships transporting European goods annually, as an attractive target for piracy to thrive.

Soon, Abdulahi was “hijack[ing] these fishing boats [just like my father],” and for the first capture, “we got 300 thousand dollars…with it, we bought AK-47s and small speedboats. ” The pirate doesn’t remember how many ships he has captured since then, “about 60,” he recalls.

Despite violence, the early days of Somalian piracy were marked as “subsistence.” After all, the ‘pirates’ were opposing criminal ships, ships that had stripped away their livelihoods and families in the blink of a few years. Nevertheless, piracy developed quickly from a gang of hundreds of young men to an organization and an industry. Pirate leaders, who had risen into warlords, saw the business as too lucrative to pass off.

Gradually, Somali pirates become ruthless. Using long ladders and hooks, they climbed up passing ships, even ones delivering humanitarian aid to their Somali counterparts, then hijacking them. They demanded millions of dollars of ransom, which if not fulfilled, would hold the crew hostage for days, months, and even years. Average ransoms saw a growth from $5 million in the early 2000s to over $150 million in 2011, a result of 237 Somali piracy incidences, 1200 hostages, and 35 deaths in captivity.

The Somali pirates abandoned their ragged wooden boats for efficient motors with GPS, satellites, and radars attached. Behind each operation was a team, that kept up with the latest route updates from international news and websites. Though only 7-10 people performed the first attack, “about 50 pirates stay on board and about 50 waits on shore in case anything goes wrong,” a resident of the pirate capital told BBC journalists.

Regardless, the mass influx of money benefitted the economy. Pirate leaders lived in mansions and luxury. If any Somali boy were asked what they “wanted to become when you[they] grew up,” they would most certainly answer confidently, “a pirate.” Somali people saw pirates as heroes, successfully revenging the rights of their country and spreading prosperity to the poor.

It was till 2005 that such activities truly received global news coverage. Following the hijacking of a Western luxury cruise ship, various wealthy, powerful individuals saw an end to their lives following captivity. In 2008, a Ukrainian ship was met with a demand of $35 million but was later negotiated under the rescuing of U.S. and Russian armed patrol personnel. Arguably, the most significant hijack saw a U.S. container ship bounded to Kenya fall under the hands of 4 pirates (ages 15-18), urging $2 million in ransom. After 5 days of ruthless struggling, Captain Richard Philips, along with its 14 crew members took sanctuary under the defense of the U.S. Navy Seals, shooting 3 out of 4 pirates. Chief Engineer Mike Perry’s “cat-and-mouse chase” with the pirate ringleader along with the bravery of Captain Philips was the most notable and was later depicted in the Oscar-nominated film “Captain Philips” starring Tom Hanks.

One hostage, Pilipino sailor Amal Barbaro corroborates this thrilling experience, “it felt like the walking dead by the end of their ordeal.” American journalist Michael Scott Moore, who was kidnapped and held in captivity for almost three years highlights his terrors – “they’re not just angry fishermen.” By 2009, nearly half of pirate incidences globally belonged in the Suez Gulf.

Can it be solved? Various challenges held governments back; international vessels encountered liability issues and gun laws that prevented carrying firearms on board; pirates were often hard to spot and could only be precisely recognized by most highly trained units; importantly, the open ocean was simply too vast to surveillance. However, the world saw great efforts made by international shipping organizations which started advocating security measures: high-pressure hoses, barbed razor wires, and safety rooms were made staples. A recognized portal was also created to escort ships through the most treacherous section of the gulf, employing armed security guards in addition.

These efforts gradually cumulated into sufficient defense systems, giving a resolution to the Somali pirate crisis. However, many are still left perplexed. While the Somali pirates were criminals hijacking resources, abandoning their weapons would leave these young men drowning in an unauthorized nation of pillage and toxic waste; in other words, piracy was a last resort.

The last scene of “Captain Philips” excellently illustrates this ethical dilemma. Najee, a 15-year-old pirate, preparing to shoot Philips suddenly hesitates over a rush of fear. His mere seconds of reluctance create an open window for rescuers to fire three shots, ending the lives of all three pirates instantly. 

Written by Julia Jiang

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