For a while, the 21st century had debased piracy. The word evoked cheap and illegal Chinese DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters the real Pirates of the Caribbean having become historical fantasy. Suddenly, however, old-fashioned "Jolly Roger" piracy has hoisted itself as a distinctly modern-day menace, playing out every week off the eastern coast of Africa. At least 88 ships have been attacked in the Gulf of Aden alone this year. The problem would not pose too difficult a problem for the modern military forces of the world to solve except that there has been no political will thus far to launch a campaign against these pirates at all.
Retired and active-duty military officers say commando raids on pirate vessels and the ports they use would stymie the buccaneers. "We know where these guys live and where their ships and boats operate from it'd be a simple mission to take them out," says Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who ran U.S. Central Command and remains a frequent visitor to the region. "There was talk of the U.S. military doing some kind of mission the Navy would love to do it but there's no stomach for it right now." (See pictures of modern-day pirates.)
However, the seizure of a Saudi-owned oil supertanker, the MV Sirius Star, and its 25-member crew early Saturday morning in the Indian Ocean might trigger new thinking on whether to launch such a strike. It was shocking on two counts. One, the pirates have typically taken vessels within 200 miles of shore, but the supertanker was taken 450 miles off the Somali coast. International navies have been protecting a narrow corridor farther north toward the Gulf of Aden, but this seizure demonstrates the pirates' dramatically expanded reach. Two, the buccaneers have never taken over an oil supertanker, capable of carrying 2 million barrels of oil. It is the biggest ship ever seized by the pirates. U.S. Navy officers say the ship appears to be heading toward the Somali port of Eyl, a harbor where the pirates often park their plunder while negotiations proceed. Meanwhile, pirates are holding 14 other vessels and their crews hostage for ransom off the coast of Somalia.
The pirates are lured by the booty. Almost half of the world's crude is transported by sea, and much of it passes Somalia every day. Insurance rates for shipping in the region are rising, and some vessels are taking longer routes around Africa to avoid the area. Because shippers abhor uncertainty and the risk it entails, they have been paying the ransoms up to $2 million demanded by the pirates. (And insurance companies can take comfort in their actuarial charts: only 1 in 600 ships in the area gets attacked.)
The big ships aren't too difficult to capture. Commercial shippers and many ports generally frown upon if not ban crews from carrying weapons. So when bands of pirates approach a target ship at high speed with machine guns and RPGs blazing, there's little fighting back that the crew can do. Reports to the International Maritime Bureau on hijackings detail crews using water shot from fire hoses, evasive maneuvers that sometimes generate waves to keep the pirates at bay and "Mayday" calls to other ships as the key defenses against pirates.
But if such efforts fail, there's little for the crew to do but watch the pirates use grappling hooks and rope ladders to climb aboard and take them hostage. "The crews [of the captured ships] are not exorbitantly large," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday. (That's an understatement: the supertanker's crew of 25 runs a ship three times the size of a Nimitz-class U.S. carrier, which is manned by 3,200 sailors, not including the 2,500 responsible for flying and maintaining its aircraft.) "So once they have access," Mullen added, "they seem to be able to get on and take over." The pirates generally don't kill or take the cargo; they just want cash.
The pirates, largely from lawless coastal Somali towns, have basically turned the heavily plied route through the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean into a toll road. But as the pirates are becoming more brazen, the international community's patience is running out. "Right now, it's just cheaper to pay the ransom," says Zinni, who led the pullout of U.N. troops from Somalia in 1995. "But just wait until a cruise ship gets taken down and there's some sort of miscalculation and a bunch of people get killed."
Somalia's lack of government and extreme poverty make it an ideal breeding ground for piracy, and the Cold War's end helped make that possible. "I can remember driving down the roads in Somalia, and you'd see all these scrap heaps of MiGs and tanks" from the 1969-1991 reign of Siad Barre, the Somali dictator allied with the Soviet Union, Zinni says. "During the Cold War, one side or the other kept authoritarian regimes in power who controlled this sort of thing."