Pirates rule the waves; The hijacking by Somali pirates of a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying military weapons triggered strong activity by US and Russian warships. But, argues, the long-standing problem of piracy in this region has often been ignored by the international community.
Modern-day pirate activity off the Somali coast in the Indian Ocean date backs to at least 2000, but this latest bout of piracy has highlighted just how out of control and free of any fear of retribution these seafaring thieves are.
It has also drawn attention to the fact that things could get worse in conflict-prone Somalia and, by extension, for the already-troubled region.
It was fear of the damage that the weapons, some very heavy duty, could unleash in terms of terrorism that sent US and Russian warships rushing to intercept the hijacked vessel in record time - less than 24 hours after the hijacking. The ship was carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks, grenade launchers, and unquantified but substantial ammunitions and spare parts.
Within 72 hours of the attack, the hijacked vessel, the Faina, was surrounded by several US navy warships (including the USS Howard), a guided-missile destroyer, as well as a Russian warship armed with surface-to-air missiles, anti-submarine torpedoes, and 100mm guns.
Several helicopters flying over the hijacked vessels and other unidentified warships also reportedly accompanied the warships of the two big powers.
US officials involved in the operation stated that their duty was "to watch over the ship" while negotiations between the pirates and the shipping companies and governments concerned were taking place.
"Our goal is to ensure the safety of the crew, to not allow off-loading of dangerous cargo and to make certain Faina can return to legitimate shipping," Rear Admiral Kendall Card, commander of the task force monitoring the ship, explained.
In stark contrast to the swift and decisive reaction to the hijacking of the Faina, previous incidents involving private yachts, fishing vessels, humanitarian shipments and other cargo ships that have fallen victim to the notorious pirates, have led to vessels being held weeks, sometimes months, at times, with little or no media attention. The number of ships attacked this year stands at over 50, with 15 still being held for ransom.
Ships are usually seized while cruising in international waters. A security corridor of a multinational task force of naval vessels under the auspices of the United Nations, set up this year to deter piracy activities in the area, has been unable to curb the problem, only successfully deterring a dozen attacks since they started patrolling the affected shipping lanes in August. During their watch, dozens more vessels have been captured.
Usually, ransom money is paid for their safe release. Ransom amounts demanded by pirate gangs have ranged from $1m to the $8.2m stipulated for the release of two Malaysian vessels captured last month on their way to delivering shipments of petrochemicals and palm oil.
The ransom demanded in this instance by the pirates holding Fiana was initially $35m, but later figure was later reduced to $20m.
As we went to press, negotiations with the pirates were still going on. However, forces belonging to the government of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region north of Somalia, raided another vessel that had been hijacked and captured the 10 pirates who had seized the Panama-flagged Wail in the Gulf of Aden.
Private security needed
In a recent statement issued by the Combined Marine Forces, US Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney had warned the shipping industry not to rely on the world's navies to protect their vessels, but instead urged them to maintain their own private security.
In a similar vein, the director of the International Maritime Bureau, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, cautioned that intervention by the navies of the coalition of countries could not be a long-term solution, adding that the bureau had not experienced such a rapid rise of pirate activity in the area before.
Experts attribute the sharp increase in piracy to the accessibility of weapons and the dire situation of Somalia, a country so lawless that few outsiders dare enter, but which serves as a ideal hideout for the pirates. Armed with the latest automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the pirate attacks appear well coordinated and expertly planned.
The pirates have fleets of speedboats and reportedly operate under a military structure including a fleet admiral, vice admiral, communications personnel, a spokesman, and even a head of financial operations.
The pirates also have at their disposal global positioning systems and a sound knowledge of the region's shipping lanes and routes, say experts.
The International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Crime Services have posted on their website images of three suspected fishing vessels identified by international intelligence sources as mother vessels supplying information to the pirates.
Maritime experts have also disclosed that at least four pirate gangs headed by Somali warlords control the lucrative piracy business in the region.
The gangs vying for control of the 3,300km coastline of Somalia have been named as the Somali Marines, reportedly the most powerful and sophisticated of the pirate gangs, boasting automatic weapons and rates who are in fact financed by the warlords. There is, however, concurrence that piracy in Somali has become a lucrative business which threatens to disrupt a major trade route for key commodities such as oil and grain. The precious commodity of oil, for example, travels from the Middle East, down the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, before making its way to the southern regions of Africa.
The Gulf of Aden has also become a notorious illegal human- and arms-trafficking route. Soon after news of's hijacking broke, there was media speculation that the arms shipment was, in fact, destined for Sudan, not Kenya.
Despite adamant assertions by Kenya that the shipment of battle tanks and other ammunitions were destined for its military, and requests by Kenya government spokesman Alfred Mutua for the media not to fall prey to the "alarming propaganda by the pirates to the media that the weapons are not for the Kenyan military", a weekend elapsed before the destination of the weapons was confirmed by diplomats and US Navy spokespersons to be Sudan.
While many have welcomed the speedy and resolute reaction of world powers to the hijacking of the Faina, assertions have been made that the lack of urgency and general indifference shown towards attacks on civilian and humanitarian ships may have played a significant role in giving the pirates a false sense of security, emboldening them to continue attacking shipping.
"If the pirates are left to their own devices and allowed to roam and wreak havoc as they wish, the luck of the draw will allow the pirates to seize more weapons shipments, and it is a matter of time before they sell such weapons and distribute them in our country," say many other Somalis.
"Fear of Faina's cargo getting into the wrong hands is short-sighted," warns political analyst Peter Masondo. "The pirates reign over the shipping routes which are quickly becoming an illegal arms-smuggling route, and the fortunes they make from ransoms puts them in a perfect position to acquire more arms when and as they require."
The sophisticated weaponry, speedboats, and other equipment acquired over the years, which the pirates use in their raids, is testimony to this assertion. While the distribution of weapons obtained from the hijacked vessel may appear to be the immediate threat, the actual danger lies in the world's selective response to the threat of pirates.
"The pirates are evidently consistently empowering themselves and improving their strategies and approach to make their lucrative business more efficient," Masondo says, adding that it is acquisition, not just distribution, of weapons by the pirates that should be targeted by concerned world powers.
The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia, headed by President Abdullahi Yusuf, has proven to be incapable of controlling either the pirates or the Somali coastline that the pirates rule, Abdullahi Yusuf s hapless government continues to struggle for power with the warlords on the one hand, and with the so-called Islamists on the other hand, with the help of Ethiopia.
And, amidst all this, the threat to global security and trade continues to increase and pirate gangs prosper, their audacity confirmed by the increase and manner of their attacks.
The pirate gangs' incredible sangfroid is demonstrated by their demand to use a Malaysian ship captured in early September as their temporary headquarters during negotiations simply because it had halal food supplies on board and it was the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. This display of "piety" while executing criminality illustrates the casualness with which the pirates continue to prey on vessels on the high seas.