A Ransom Note to the World

Monday, April 13, 2009

While President Obama was busy selecting cabinet secretaries, pirates off the Horn of Africa were busy selecting ships to hijack. Last year alone, the Gulf of Aden was the scene of about ninety such attacks. The International Maritime Bureau, which monitors these incidents, reported that during November 10–19, at least ten pirate attacks occurred in the region.

One of those attacks was against the Sirius Star, a 1,000-foot-long, Saudi-owned oil tanker that, when commandeered, was carrying more than $100 million worth of cargo. It was released in January after an apparent ransom was parachuted aboard the vessel. Two months before, another ship, the Faina, was transporting thirty-three T-72 tanks (and ammunition for them) to Kenya when pirates seized it off the coast of Somalia. Its captors demanded a multimillion-dollar ransom for the safe return of ship, cargo, and crew. The vessel was held captive until February, when a $3.2 million ransom was paid and the pirates sped off in motorboats.

Piracy has lately become big business around the Horn of Africa. Somalian pirate profits—generated from the hefty ransoms the criminals extract from the owners of the ships they seize—are on track to reach $50 million a year, which is serious money in a country wracked by anarchy, where lucrative business opportunities are rare, and where the extant government is generally feeble and notoriously corrupt. (One captured pirate estimated that 30 percent of his group’s plunder went toward government bribes.)

And so piracy flourishes. During the past three years, the number of pirate attacks off the Somalian coast has tripled, and the techniques are becoming more sophisticated. The takeover of the Sirius Star, for example, occurred a whopping 450 nautical miles from land, prompting Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to admit to being "stunned by the range of it."

Somalian pirate profits—generated from the hefty ransoms the criminals extract from the owners of seized ships—are on track to reach $50 million a year.

A dismal situation, no doubt, but one that perhaps seems but a blip on the radar of global problems. Why should the world’s economic powers care if pirates ply the waters off the Horn of Africa, capturing the occasional vessel and demanding a relatively nominal million-or-so dollars for its release? Insurance premiums may bump up a bit, sure, with the extra costs eventually borne by consumers, but such fluctuations are virtually meaningless when compared to the current global financial crisis. Isn’t recent piratical activity mere criminal mischief and largely insignificant?

Perhaps it would be so if the Gulf of Aden were not sandwiched between Somalia, a failed state that is still beating back a persistent Islamist insurgency, and Yemen, homeland to 40 percent of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Late last year, former CIA director Michael Hayden voiced his concern about Al-Qaeda’s growing influence in Yemen. "We’ve seen an unprecedented number of attacks [in Yemen] this year, 2008, including two on our embassy," he said. "Plots are increasing not only in number but in sophistication, and the range of targets is broadening."

The link between pirates and terrorists is mostly hypothetical, but perhaps not for long. Terrorists obviously see in the success of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean an opportunity to further their own political aims. Were terrorists to attack ships, hold hostage their crews, and collect hefty ransoms, they could use the money to fund their operations elsewhere. Especially now"when international efforts have eliminated many of the traditional means of terrorist fundraising and have frozen terrorist finances"plunder at sea has become even more appealing.

It would be even more worrisome if terrorists began to take their political fight to the oceans and attack ships not to make money but to wreak havoc. The easy takeover of the Sirius Star is ominous. Approximately 60 percent of the world’s oil is shipped by such sluggish supertankers, and 4 percent of it passes through the Gulf of Aden. Al-Qaeda has made clear that disrupting global oil supplies—according to the terror group, "the provision line and feeding artery of the life of the crusader nation"—is one of its top objectives. Were terrorists able to capture a vessel like the Sirius Star, which pirates did with ease, and destroy it, they would foment panic in world oil markets—not to mention environmental catastrophe.

Terrorists also could seize and destroy a tanker carrying pressurized liquefied natural gas (LNG), which, according to Candyce Kelshall, a specialist in maritime energy security, would be "potentially catastrophic." "An LNG tanker going up is like fifty Hiroshimas," she said.

It seems necessary, therefore, for the world to regain control of its oceans. In some instances, it has. Piracy not long ago was rampant in the Malacca Strait, which divides Malaysia and Indonesia and connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Today, because of cooperation between Asian nations that has allowed for increased air- and sea-based policing, pirate attacks in the strait are way down. In 2006, the insurance company Lloyd’s of London removed the Malacca Strait from its list of high-risk areas.

Al-Qaeda has made clear that disrupting global oil supplies—according to the terror group, "the provision line and feeding artery of the life of the crusader nation"—is one of its top objectives.

But similar success will be difficult to come by in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, in large part because the area in need of policing covers some 2 million nautical miles; a strait it is not. An international naval force does patrol these waters, but their vastness makes it nearly impossible to stop or even deter pirate activity. Moreover, the nations whose coastlines have become pirate havens, especially Somalia, are wholly incapable of policing their own territories. The navy chief of Tanzania, for example, estimates that the operational range of his fleet is a mere twenty nautical miles from land, which doesn’t do much for the oil tanker under attack 450 miles offshore.

British Commodore Keith Winstanley, deputy commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, believes that piracy along the Somalian coastline will cease only when it is assailed on land, at its source. In the end, "the root cause is ashore, in Somalia," he told the Washington Post, "and there’s obviously a limit as to what influence navies or the commercial shipping sector can have about that." Similar limits exist to what can be done on land, of course. But piracy in the region is increasing and spreading (several attacks occurred recently off Tanzania’s coast), and the potential for such activity to result in serious harm is surely growing.