Naval patrols fail to deter pirates
ON THE ARABIAN SEA: Rear Admiral Giovanni Gumiero is going on a pirate hunt.
From the deck of an Italian destroyer cruising the pirate-infested waters off Somalia's coast, he has all the modern tools at his fingertips - radar, sonar, infrared cameras, helicopters, a cannon that can sink a ship 10 miles, or 16 kilometers, away - to take on a centuries-old problem that harks back to the days of schooners and eye patches.
"Our presence will deter them," the admiral said confidently.
But the wily buccaneers of Somalia's seas do not seem especially deterred - instead, they seem to be getting only wilier. More than a dozen warships, from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States, have joined the hunt.
And yet, in just the past two months, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot, or 305-meter, Saudi oil tanker.
The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea.
UN officials recently estimated that Somali pirates had netted as much as $120 million this year in ransom payments - an astronomical sum for a country whose economy has been gutted by 17 years of chaos and war. Some shipping companies are now rerouting their vessels to avoid Somalia's waters, detouring thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa.
The pirates are totally outgunned. They continue to cruise around in fiberglass skiffs with assault rifles and at best a few rocket-propelled grenades. One Italian officer said that going after them in a 485-foot-long destroyer, bristling with surface-to-air missiles and torpedoes, was like "going after someone on a bicycle with a truck."
But the pirates - true to form - remain unfazed.
"They can't stop us," said Jama Ali, one of the pirates aboard a Ukrainian freighter packed with weapons that was hijacked in September and is still being held.
He explained how he and his men hid out on a rock near the narrow mouth of the Red Sea and waited for the big gray warships to pass before pouncing on slow-moving tankers. Even if foreign navies nabbed some members of his crew, Jama said, he was not worried. He said his men would probably get no more punishment than a free ride back to the beach, which has happened several times.
"We know international law," Jama said.
Western diplomats have said that maritime law can be as murky as the seas. Several times this year, the Danish Navy captured men they suspected to be pirates, only to dump them on shore after the Danish government decided it did not have jurisdiction.
The American warships surrounding the hijacked Ukrainian freighter have intercepted several small skiffs going to the freighter, but let the men aboard go because U.S. officials said they did not want to put the freighter's crew in danger.
This seeming impunity is especially infuriating to the new cadre of private security guards, fresh from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, hired to tag along on merchant voyages as an added layer of protection. Burly men with tattooed forearms and shaved heads sipping Heineken and checking their watches are now common sights on the beaches of Oman, Kenya and Djibouti. They have their own ideas for dealing with seafaring outlaws.
"We should make 'em walk the plank," one British security guard said.
Despite tough talk, the guards are unarmed (because most countries do not allow them to bring weapons into port), so they are often forced to confront machine-gun-toting pirates with fire hoses.
Or worse. There was even a recent case, according to several security contractors, in which Filipino crew members pelted pirates with tomatoes in an attempt to stop them from scaling the hull of their ship. It did not work.
The Italian naval officers say the piracy patrols are helping: Already the Italians have rescued several merchant vessels surrounded by pirate skiffs. The Italian destroyer is part of a NATO mission that began in October.
"But the answer is to have a good, strong government on land," Gumiero said. "That's the only way to end this, for sure."
Yet strong government is nowhere to be found. The piracy epidemic is not so much a separate problem as a symptom of the failed state of Somalia - a place crawling with guns, gangs and criminals that has not had a functioning central government since 1991.
Many Somalia analysts think that it is about to get even worse. The Ethiopian military, which has been shoring up a weak and unpopular transitional Somali government, says it will pull out within a month.
The transitional government, split by poisonous infighting, seems on the brink of collapse. Islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda are poised to take over. Famine is steadily creeping toward millions of people, many withering away in plastic huts that are no match for the intense sun or the drenching rains.
UN officials are swinging into crisis mode, calling high-level meetings in East Africa and New York to address piracy and the greater Somali mess. Some UN officials are pushing to send in peacekeepers, but no countries are rushing to offer troops.
Some U.S. officials have proposed chasing the pirates on the shore and raiding their dens, which are well known but so far untouched. Somalia's transitional leaders, eager for any help, said they would welcome that.
"This is a cancer, and it's growing," said Abdi Awaleh Jama, an ambassador at large for the transitional federal government. "We have to extract it once and for all."
More than 100 ships have been attacked off Somalia's coast in 2008, far more than in any previous year on record. The economic costs are piling up, with higher insurance payments for shippers, higher fuel costs because of detours and new private security bills, not to mention the million-dollar ransom payments.
The cash-starved Egyptian government is poised to lose billions of dollars if ships from the Middle East and Asia stop using the Suez Canal, one of Egypt's biggest foreign-exchange earners, and go around Africa instead.
But the end of piracy could be an economic catastrophe for many Somalis. Their country exports almost nothing these days, and more legitimate forms of business have largely died off.
Entire clans and coastal villages now survive off piracy, with women baking bread for pirates, men and boys guarding hostages, and others serving as scouts, gunmen, mechanics, accountants and skiff builders. Traders make a nice cut off the water, fuel and cigarettes needed to sustain such oceangoing voyages.
Maritime experts say that the naval efforts will take time.
"Let's wait and see," said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London. "You must appreciate it's a very large stretch of water, a massive area," he said, referring to the several hundred thousand square miles of sea where the naval ships are patrolling.
Then there is the nettlesome question of what to do with the pirates. Italian officers on pirate patrol seemed uncomfortable at the thought of actually capturing a real live pirate. There is not even a brig or place to hold the pirates on the destroyer.
"Our main goal is providing safe passage," said Fabrizio Simoncini, the destroyer's captain.
So far, they have done a decent job at that, escorting at least eight humanitarian ships with 30,000 tons of badly needed aid for Somalia.
The Indian Navy recently announced that it had arrested 23 pirates, though it is not clear where the suspects would be prosecuted. At an anti-piracy conference in Nairobi last week, British officials outlined a plan for their navy to capture Somali pirates and hand them over to Kenyan courts.
But according to Kenneth Randall, dean of the University of Alabama School of Law and an international law scholar, "Any country can arrest these guys and prosecute them at home, under domestic laws that apply."
"I'm actually surprised people think it's unclear," he said. "The law on piracy is 100 percent clear."
He said that international customary law going back hundreds of years had defined pirates as criminals who robbed and stole on the high seas. Because the crimes were committed in international waters, he said, all countries had not only the authority but also the obligation to apprehend and prosecute them.
Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.