Arrr! The Somali Pirates and Their Troublesome Treasure

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HO / AFP / Getty

Somali pirates in small boats hijacking on Sept. 25 the MV Faina, a Belize-flagged cargo ship owned and operated by "Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine"

Pirates aren't picky. Armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers and using skiffs mounted with high-powered engines launched from "motherships" disguised as fishing boats, the buccaneers who prowl the waters off the Somali coast pick their prey from the passing shipping traffic like lions selecting a kill: the slower and more defenseless, the better. "We hijack every ship we can," Sugule Ali, a pirate captain, told TIME by satellite phone this week.

The MV Faina fitted the bill. Slow, low-sided and sailing under a Belize flag, the freighter seemed no different from any of the 60 other ships attacked by pirates this year in the same waters. And Ali and his men had no reason to believe the outcome of this hijacking would be any different. In a well-established routine, a vessel is typically held for a few days or weeks while the pirates negotiate a ransom with the ship's owners, usually netting between $500,000 and $2 million. Then ship and crew are then released unharmed. This year, according to a new report by the British think tank Chatham House, the Somali pirate industry has raked in as much as $30 million.

But the Faina's cargo surprised Ali and his men and sent alarm bells ringing around the world — the unprepossessing freighter was carrying 33 Russian T-72 tanks and a host of other armaments that had originated in Ukraine. By the end of this week, U.S. frigates and a Russian warship were bearing down on the pirates, the European Union had decided to launch a multinational antipiracy patrol, and Ukraine and Kenya found themselves embroiled in an arms scandal.

The U.S. — together with allies such as France — has taken the lead in providing security in a vital shipping lane leading to and from the Suez Canal. Somalia has been convulsed by civil war since 1991, and as an attendant humanitarian disaster involving millions of refugees has spread chaos and lawlessness across the land, piracy at sea has rocketed. The primary strategic concern of the U.S. in the region appears to be rooting out al-Qaeda, which is why the U.S. military backed an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to prevent a popular Islamist movement from taking power. But the Islamists remain powerful, and the still violent stalemate clouds any prospect of restoring law and order onshore. Although the pirates lack the quays to take the tanks ashore, and their clan affiliations make connections to the Islamists unlikely, the U.S.S. Howard sailed to within three miles of the Faina to ensure that the tanks did not fall into Islamist hands.

The fate of the cargo is also rapidly becoming a hot potato for other reasons. Russia responded to the hijacking by announcing it was sending a warship to the area — three of the crew being held hostage are Russian, and Sudan's government has called on Moscow to attack the pirates. That's because while the government of Kenya claims to be the intended recipient of the tanks, many — like Andrew Mwangura, the Mombasa-based coordinator for the Seafarers Assistance Programme, and Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, press liaison of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain — believe the weapons were headed elsewhere. "We are aware that the actual cargo was destined for Sudan, not Kenya," Christensen told the Associated Press. Christenen's press releases have since dried up, and Mwangura has been arrested by Kenyan police for issuing "alarmist statements."

Diplomats in Nairobi, speaking on condition of anonymity, made clear that they shared the suspicion that the tanks were destined for south Sudan, where Kenya has supported a secessionist resistance movement oppossed to the northern Sudanese–dominated government in Khartoum. The fact that such a shipment might contravene international arms embargoes might help explain why the Faina, traveling with minimal security on board, presented itself as an unremarkable cargo freighter — to fool officials along its route as well as pirates. Of more concern to East Africa's regional security, recent reports from north and south Sudan have suggested both sides are currently re-equipping their militaries. A revival of the decades-long north-south civil war would reopen one of Africa's bloodiest and most intractable wars — 2 million died in the fighting between 1972 and 2005 — and jeopardize hopes for a solution to the crisis in Darfur.

For Ali and his men, piracy is a business: realizing the value of the Faina's cargo, he demanded $35 million, although that figure was later reduced to $20 million. But he likes to cast it as also a protest. "We were forced into this work," he argues, speaking from the Faina's bridge at anchor off the village of Hobyo. "We were fishermen. I used to work in the sea every day. But ships from other countries fish our coasts illegally, destroy our nets and fire on whoever approaches them. We were refused the right to fish. They even dump toxic waste. We couldn't work. So we decided to defend ourselves." Ali insists that piracy would stop if the pirates' fundamental grievances were addressed. "If the world stops stealing our property and harming us, we have a solution," he said. "We will stop the piracy and go back to our normal jobs."

That seems unlikely. On Thursday, French Defense Minister Herve Morin announced that at least eight European countries had agreed to contribute to an international naval antipiracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, in addition to the U.S. and Russian naval presence already there. Faced with such overwhelming force, Ali said his men would fight to the last. "If someone attacks you in your home, you need to defend yourself," he said. "Whatever weapons they have, you must fight. A person in his home cannot be afraid. Whoever attacks, we will defend ourselves."

With reporting by Abdiaziz Hassan Ahmed Dhoore / Nairobi