TOPICS > Nation

Modern-day Somali Pirates Increase Attacks

November 19, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
Loading the player...
Somali pirates are increasing the frequency of their attacks and targeting larger ships, targeting oil supertankers and grain cargo vessels. Experts explain the rise in modern-day piracy and the efforts among the international community to curb the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Kidnapping, robbery and ransom on the high seas. Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Modern-day piracy off the coast of Africa, it’s been on the rise for several years and reaching new heights now with eight attacks just this week.

Last night, an Indian naval vessel destroyed a Somali pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden, but separate bands of buccaneers seized a Thai fishing boat and a cargo ship carrying grain to Iran.

The most spectacular raid of all occurred Saturday, when pirates captured a Saudi supertanker loaded with at least $100 million of oil, the largest ship ever hijacked.

In Italy today, the Saudi foreign minister said talks between the owners of the tanker and the pirates were ongoing.

PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL, Foreign Minister, Saudi Arabia: We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers, but the owners of the tanker are the owners of the tanker, and they are the final arbiters of what happens there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Piracy, of course, has long been the stuff of legend and lore, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” to the killing of Blackbeard off the coast of North Carolina, to Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

But the modern, real version is a dangerous and costly affair. More than 20,000 oil tankers, freighters, and merchant vessels pass through the Gulf of Aden annually. So far this year, Somali pirates have launched almost 100 attacks on ships in and around the gulf, with at least three dozen having been hijacked.

The flare-up in piracy has led to higher insurance costs for shipping companies and forced some companies to divert ships around South Africa.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, a private group that monitors global piracy, at least 14 vessels with 243 crew members are still being held.

An official with the organization said today in London that a more forceful approach was needed to stem the wave of new attacks.

CAPT. POTTENGAL MUKUNDAN, Director, International Maritime Bureau: I think the issue is that we need to deter them. We need to clearly signal to them that there is a risk in them carrying out these actions and that, you know, it is no longer a pirate’s charter, these waters. I think that is the point that we have to get across. And if we get that across, then hopefully the attacks will come down.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the rise in pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia was tied to that country’s ongoing political struggles.

GEOFF MORRELL, Pentagon Press Secretary: This problem emanates not at sea. I mean, it starts from onshore. And clearly the Somali government needs help. This transitional federal government has acknowledged it does not have the capacity to deal with this problem. And so it needs additional help from the U.N., from the African Union, from the world to try to deal with some of the economic and governance problems that lead to the pirates.

Pirates grow bolder

Peter Pham
James Madison University
There's no government to speak of in Somalia to stop them. The area is very wide and poorly patrolled, so the opportunity is there. And, unfortunately, the shippers are willing to pay the ransom, so there's an economic motive, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Somalia has not had a fully functioning government since 1991 and is currently dealing with an Islamist insurgency.

And one further development today: The Guardian newspaper reported that the British will lead a fleet of European Union warships to Gulf of Aden next month to combat piracy.

For more on all of this, we turn to Andre Le Sage, assistant professor and chief of counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.

And Peter Pham, associate professor and director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.

Well, Peter Pham, who are these pirates? And why has there been a rise in piracy?

PETER PHAM, James Madison University: Well, the pirates are armed criminal gangs, more or less operating on a clan basis, led by essentially warlords who have taken to the waters.

The crimes are occurring because it's a crime of opportunity. There's no government to speak of in Somalia to stop them. The area is very wide and poorly patrolled, so the opportunity is there. And, unfortunately, the shippers are willing to pay the ransom, so there's an economic motive, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andre Le Sage, what would you add to that, in terms of why there's been this uptick?

ANDRE LE SAGE, National Defense University: Well, I think that the uncontrolled situation in Somalia is really at the heart of the problem. And also, a small number of pirate interests that started off in 2003 became more sophisticated over the years, have generated a substantial amount of ransom money that they can then reinvest in new piracy operations.

Other copycat outfits have also started to get into the game, and it's multiplied the number of pirates that are out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the capture of the supertanker this weekend really grabbed the world's attention. What did it tell us -- stay with you, Andre -- about the range, the boldness of these pirates?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Well, these are obviously very brazen attacks, to be able to get out to 450 nautical miles off of the east African coast is just something that people didn't think was possible in the past.

Originally, the International Maritime Bureau was advocating that ships stay maybe 50 nautical miles up to 200 nautical miles outside of Somali waters so they could avoid problems. But now we're seeing much more sophisticated attacks.

We're also witnessing the fact that the international maritime presence, the naval presence that has been sent to the area, is just not sufficient to deter the pirates from continuing.

Support network on land

Andre Le Sage
National Defense University
Once they see a boat that might be a little bit slow, a little bit low in the water, with sides that aren't too high off the seas, they then use grappling hooks and ladders to board the ship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Pham, how sophisticated? Do they know, for example, what their targets are, what the cargoes are in particular targets?

PETER PHAM: I think we've seen a progression. Originally, it was whatever came by and could be seized.

Now we're seeing these criminal networks of pirates engaging in intelligence-gathering, rationally choosing their targets, and also reacting to where the increased patrols have come.

So as patrols have moved into the Gulf of Aden, we've seen, like the attack on the Saudi tanker, in waters where the patrols aren't operating.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Andre Le Sage, how sophisticated in terms of how it's actually done? They have a mother ship, I hear, in many cases, a number of speedboats, but what actually happens when they take over a ship?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Although these ships are being attacked hundreds of nautical miles off-shore, these are relatively low-tech operations that the pirates are running.

They bring a small number of speedboats -- maybe three or five -- off the Somali coast. Maybe they capture a slightly larger fishing trawler that they can use as a base of operations for days or weeks. They can lay in wait for ships to come by. They might maneuver themselves into high-density shipping areas.

Once they see a boat that might be a little bit slow, a little bit low in the water, with sides that aren't too high off the seas, they then use grappling hooks and ladders to board the ship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just like pirates of old, huh?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Exactly. And some people report that attack from beginning to end, it might take only 15 minutes until a crew is actually seized and put under pirate guard, and then the vessel steams back to the Somali coast for the ransoming process to begin.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the cargo ship being attacked, these are generally unarmed? Are they always unarmed? Are they unarmed sometimes?

ANDRE LE SAGE: They're not always unarmed, but there is some debate about whether weapons should be brought on board ships.

In 2005, the Seabourn Spirit, a Western cruise ship that was rounding the Horn of Africa, was attacked. They were able to deter the pirates by using an LRAD, a long-range acoustic device, sort of a sonic weapon that directed high-intensity sounds at the pirates and scared them away.

Others have encouraged using water cannons or some form of non-lethal weapons that could be used against pirates.

There is a reluctance by the private shipping industry to have actual guns on board ships.

Many ship owners pay

Peter Pham
James Madison University
Right now, the going ransom is about a little over $1 million U.S. dollars per vessel on average.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Pham, the U.N. secretary-general today estimated that pirates had taken in -- I think it was $20 million to $30 million so far this year in ransom. So the ship owners are paying the ransom, right? I mean, how does that work? There's a negotiation? Have there been any attempts not to pay or to take back the ships?

PETER PHAM: Well, there have been a number of ship owners who haven't paid, and theirs are among the vessels -- 14, I believe, currently -- which the pirates are continuing to hold as well as the crew. Some 240 some-odd crewmen are still being held.

But most ship owners and insurers have made their calculations that paying -- right now, the going ransom is about a little over $1 million U.S. dollars per vessel on average -- is far more economical to pay that ransom than to pay for the cost of a lost ship.

So they negotiate with the pirates over a course of several days or weeks, and then the money is brought in cash and brought out in a tugboat to the captured vessel by a private security company or other intermediaries, passed over, and the pirates then let the ship go and sail on their way with their cash.

JEFFREY BROWN: And staying with you, from what we know, is it always about ransom? Or are there any cases where it's been the cargo that they're after and then sell it? I guess I'm thinking for one of the famous case of the Ukrainian ship where they have a bunch of tanks and other weapons on board.

PETER PHAM: Well, certainly the weapons on board would have been valuable, but they've been unable to offload the most precious part of that cargo, which were the tanks.

There's simply no facility in Somalia to physically remove those tanks from that tanker, the Faina, that you referred to.

So by and large, it's largely been about the economic value of the cargo and the ransom they can extract for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Andre Le Sage, we've talked a little bit about the situation in Somalia that allows this to happen. Explain how the pirates operate on land.

For one thing, they have to have a port where they can take these ships to. Do they have relationships, payoffs? Are they working with people on land? How does that work?

ANDRE LE SAGE: That is something that we really don't know enough about. But there is some speculation that pirates, in order to finance their operations at sea, in order to get the fuel, in order to get the ammunition and the weapons, that they're making deals with well-connected businessmen, maybe some militia leaders on land, to finance their operations upfront.

Also, once a crew and cargo is taken in a hostage situation, they need to feed them. They need to have catering services that grow up on land to come and bring food on to the boat, bring fresh water on to the boat.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was just reading a story today about boom towns growing up on the coast of Somalia from the money that's coming in.

ANDRE LE SAGE: Absolutely. These are very remote villages on the Somali coast, very far away from any urban centers, towns that don't really make the headlines like Mogadishu does. But these are places that are growing up as 14-odd ships now are being held off their immediate coastline, and a small pirate industry is booming.

International efforts beginning

Andre Le Sage
National Defense University
It is a problem that's being taken seriously by the international community. You've had two different U.N. Security Council resolutions, and we are seeing more naval assets, but it's just not sufficient.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Peter Pham, what do we know about the international efforts so far? Is it coordinated? Is it every nation fending for itself to defend its commercial ships? How is that working?

PETER PHAM: Well, I think, at an operational level, the various naval officers in command of the vessels have been behaving as seamen have always been, lending assistance and responding to distress calls, irrespective of the nationality of -- we've had U.S. ships come to the rescue of North Korean vessels. We've had Russian ships come to the rescue of Saudi vessels.

So there's a bit of cooperation. The problem, however, is that the waters that we're dealing with were -- originally we thought we needed to cover about a million square miles of sea. Now, with the recent capture of the tanker, we're looking at maybe 2 million to 3 million square miles, and simply put, there aren't the naval resources to cover that size.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Andre, I mentioned in the introduction this E.U. effort, British-led. Does that signal a really ramping up the effort here?

ANDRE LE SAGE: It signals the increased attention that multinational forces, multinational naval forces are giving to this problem. But it's not going to be sufficient to solve it at sea.

We already have Combined Task Force 150, an international naval flotilla that is operating in the Indian Ocean to combat terrorist transits, possible movements of terrorists into Africa, places like Yemen, et cetera. Those forces have steered their operations to address piracy concerns somewhat.

More recently, we've had a NATO flotilla out there. And the European Union force, I believe it's called Operation Atlanta, that will be led by the British, that will actually replace the NATO ships that are there.

It's certainly not going to provide the number of vessels, number of vessels that are also required to have air support, such as helicopters, to go after pirates, that are really required to address this massive area of operations that Dr. Pham mentioned.

JEFFREY BROWN: But briefly, you think, to really get at the root of this, you need to deal with what's going on land in Somalia?

ANDRE LE SAGE: Yes, everything else that we are doing right now is a piecemeal solution. And it is a problem that's being taken seriously by the international community. You've had two different U.N. Security Council resolutions, and we are seeing more naval assets, but it's just not sufficient.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, fascinating story. Andre Le Sage and Peter Pham, thank you both very much.

PETER PHAM: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: If you go to our Web Site, you can ask questions about Somali piracy. To participate, visit us at Just click on "TV Shows."