Pirates ahead: A boarding team from the USS Winston S. Churchill approaches a suspected pirate vessel in the Indian Ocean, in 2006. Somali pirates have turned the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden into the world's most dangerous seas. (Kenneth Anderson/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
They don't call the waters off Somalia the most dangerous seas in the world for nothing. According to the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Center, 55 ships have been attacked off Somalia since January while 11 are still being held for ransom.
This week, Somali pirates 200 miles south of Mogadishu seized the Greek-owned, Maltese-flagged freighter Centauri with its crew of 25 Filippinos and a Hong-Kong-flagged Great Creation, with a crew of 24 Chinese and one Sri Lankan. That ship was reportedly taken to a place called Eyl in Somalia's breakaway state of Puntland to the north of the country, where pirates usually take their loot. The most high-profile case of piracy involves the recent seizure of a retired French couple and their yacht as they were sailing through the Gulf of Aden, god knows why. The demanded ransom: $1 million.
It's nothing short of terrorism. "These pirates," the Maritime Bureau says, "are firing automatic weapons and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) in an attempt to board and hijack vessels. Once the attack is successful and the vessel hijacked, the pirates sail towards the Somali coast and thereafter demand a ransom for the release of the vessel and crew." Often, governments pay the ransom, as the Spanish government did in April when the Spanish fishing boat Playa de Bakio and its crew of 26, out for skipjack tuna, were attacked, then freed a week later following the payment of a rumored $1.2 million ransom.
In June, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1816 urging "states whose naval vessels and military aircraft operate on the
high seas and airspace off the coast of Somalia to be vigilant to acts of piracy and armed robbery"--which essentially authorizes military force against pirates.
Of course, it's not just a matter of Somalis suddenly deciding to be the world's most feared pirates. There's a reason behind the unreason. While holding the Spanish ship's men captive, The Economist reported in July, the pirates "regaled the crew with tales of famine in their villages." Some of the Spaniards felt sorry for them. When one of the pirates stripped his shirt off, 'he was all bones, no meat at all,' said a Basque crewman. The Spaniards were less enamoured of the pirates when they threatened them with machine guns and knives. 'They valued life less than cockroaches,' said the skipper."
Can you blame them? Yes, but not them alone. Somalia is one of the failed states of the world, shrugged off by the world community for having outlived its usefulness as a humanitarian mission while precluding further interventions: Bloodied and humiliated by Islamist militants in Mogadishu in 1993, the American military has sworn off Somalia except as a target of air raids against alleged al-Qaeda operatives. Somalia itself is in a constant state of civil war. Since the beginning of 2007, the United Nations reports, when Ethiopian troops ousted the Union of Islamic Courts, nearly 9,500 people have been killed in Somalia. An untold number have died from indirect causes of the war, famine chief among them. As the UN's humanitarian news agency reported in late July,
Drought, conflict, hyperinflation, high food and fuel prices, the weakness of the Somali shilling and a succession of poor harvests have increased the number of people needing food and other assistance to 2.6 million - up 40 percent from January.At a news conference in Nairobi on 22 July, Mark Bowden, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, called the situation "fluid" and warned that "we are months before a major crisis" as the situation was likely to deteriorate further, potentially affecting 3.5 million, or half the total population.
Piracy in the waters off of Somalia, in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, is the humanitarian crisis' shrapnel.