The package at the end of a parachute shown in U.S. Navy photographs floating gently down onto the deck of the Sirius Star last week held the key to securing the release of the captive Saudi supertanker: a ransom reported to be as much as $3 million in bank notes. A day later, the ship's owners announced that the vessel held by Somali pirates since mid-November had been freed, and its crew members were all safe.
In a bizarre twist of fate, however, most of the pirates didn't get to enjoy their ill-gotten gains: according to the account by the Somali-based news site Somaliweyn Media Center, the pirates were "singing in colorful tone and exchanging some ridiculous words" while motoring back to shore in bad weather when one of their skiffs capsized. Five pirates are believed to have drowned; four survived but lost their booty. The body of one pirate washed up with a bag containing more than $150,000 in cash a fortune by Somali standards. The pirates' grim end even resulted in some small-scale redistribution of wealth: "Pastoralists traveling along the shore have slowly collected dollars floating on the surface of the sea, and some brought by the ebb tide to shore," read the account on the Somaliweyn site. (See pictures of Somalia's pirates.)
Yet while the fate of the pirates and their loot might be seen as just deserts, the ending of the the Sirius Star's hijacking through paying a large ransom underscores just how little the international community is able to do when ships fall victim to pirates. The Saudi tanker was released just as the U.S. announced it would form a new international force off the coast of Somalia to fight against a piracy industry that extracted an estimated $180 million in ransom payments during 2008, an all-time high, according to Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program. Ships from Canada, China, India, Russia and even Iran are now patrolling those waters.
The new force, however, will have no expanded mandate to attack the pirates, who have exploited gray areas in international law and the absence of any rule of law onshore in Somalia. The news release last week from the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain announcing the formation of task force CTF-151 was short on details, saying that piracy is a problem that "begins ashore and is an international problem that requires an international solution. We believe the establishment of CTF-151 is a significant step in the right direction."
The problem facing foreign navies' efforts to interdict pirates, says Mwangura, is their failure to address both the anarchy that prevails in Somalia and grievances over illegal fishing and toxic-waste-dumping in their waters that has prompted many local fishermen to sign up with pirate crews.
"When we talk about pirates, we need also to talk about illegal fishing and toxic dumping," Mwangura said. "But if we just talk about piracy, piracy, piracy, we are just going to stop it for a while; that's not a long-term solution."
By Mwangura's account, piracy is a profitable business not just for the pirates: of last year's ransom tally of $180 million, just $30 million went to the pirates themselves, the rest going to negotiators, middlemen and other more shadowy players in the onshore chaos of Somalia.
And the size of the bounty paid for the Sirius Star, rather than its loss at sea, will inspire Somali pirates to raise their game.
The International Maritime Bureau says some 200 crew members and at least 12 more ships remain under pirate control, including the MV Faina, which is carrying 33 Ukrainian battle tanks and other war material. Kenya, which says the tanks are destined for its military forces, insists it will not pay a ransom.
"As you are aware, our cargo in the MV Faina is still in the hands of pirates," Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said on Monday. "However long it takes, Kenya is not willing to pay ransom and will not pay any ransom." The Faina's captain told Agence France-Presse that the ship remains captive because he refuses to negotiate.
But the pirates are undeterred by the U.S.'s mustering naval allies or the tough talk of the Kenyans and others. In Somalia, young men are lining up to join the ranks of the pirates, regardless of what may happen to them. "We have heard of the risks, but the profit is too great," one former pirate, Mohammed Farah, from the city of Garowe in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, told TIME.
"Even now, pirates are marrying the most beautiful ladies, with nonstop dancing at weddings that go a couple of days," Farah said. "Some pirates are even sending their girlfriends to hospitals abroad to give birth. Imagine that."