How the US War on Terror Helped Somalia's Pirates

The last radio message sent by the Stella Maris—a 54,000-metric-ton Japanese freighter plying the Gulf of Aden—was chilling: "Pirates onboard." After that transmission, on July 20, the ship went silent. A French warship patrolling nearby was sent to help. But before it could arrive, pirates sent the Stella Maris, its crew of 20 Filipinos and its cargo of zinc and lead ore steaming toward Somalia's lawless shores.

This has been a banner year for Somalia's privateers. The Stella Maris was the 10th ship to be hijacked off the coast in 2008. Its capture, and the subsequent seizures of five other freighters in mid-August, have earned these waters the dubious designation as the world's riskiest shipping zone, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB)—surpassing Indonesia and Nigeria, the previous record holders. Worldwide, 24 of 62 pirate attacks in the second quarter of this year occurred off Somalia. Now the brigands are exacerbating Somalia's already grave humanitarian crisis by interrupting the flow of critical food aid. And if that weren't bad enough, Somalia's pirates have lately found a surprising (if unwitting) ally: the United States.

The U.S. War on Terror has produced yet another unintended consequence. Two years ago piracy in the Horn of Africa was almost stamped out. The Islamists who took over Mogadishu and parts of Somalia in 2006 defeated several militias involved in piracy and warned others that they'd face punishment under a harsh version of Sharia. This tactic worked: "During the summer of 2006 there were no attacks [on ships] at all," says Pottengal Mukundan, director of the IMB.

But the Bush administration—which had tried to block the Islamists' rise by supporting a rival warlord faction—suspected Somalia's new leaders of sheltering Qaeda operatives. So Washington backed neighboring Ethiopia when it invaded in December 2006. The Ethiopians ousted the Islamists in short order and installed a U.N.-backed transitional government. But this only plunged Somalia into anarchy once more. Today the government can't even control the capital, let alone the country.

Whereas the Islamists managed to enforce a period of relative calm, now dozens of militias are battling for power once more. The pirates, some backed by warlords affiliated with the transitional government, have exploited the chaos.

Apart from undermining commerce, they have also begun threatening aid shipments needed to sustain the 2.6 million people—or 35 percent of Somalia's population—who stand at the brink of starvation. Last year three ships chartered by the World Food Program (WFP) were attacked. Things improved after Western navies agreed to escort aid ships, and a Canadian frigate currently keeps the thieves at bay. But it is due to leave the area in September, and no other navy has signed on to step in. That means no more protection for the transports—which, according to WFP spokesperson Peter Smerdon, must import 30,000 tons of food a month if Somalia is to avoid a catastrophic famine. Should the deliveries be blocked, "we could start to see scenes similar to the 1992–1993 famine in which hundreds of thousands of people perished," he says.

The United States and its allies have made periodic attempts to battle the pirates using a group of eight warships from the United States, Canada, Europe and Pakistan that patrol the region looking for terrorists. But a recent trip aboard the French frigate E.V. Jacoubet in the Gulf of Aden illustrated the problems the al-lies face. The Jacoubet is heavily armed and can track vessels hundreds of kilometers away.

But the high-tech gear goes only so far, says Yannick Bossou, the ship's commander. The real trick is spotting the pirates before they strike. The Gulf of Aden, which separates the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula, is crowded with small fishing boats and motorized cargo dhows that provide easy cover. The buccaneers typically disguise themselves, pile aboard a large dhow and then sail up to 240km out to sea in search of slow-moving, low-hulled prey. Having spotted a target, they launch two or three motorized skiffs, use ropes and grappling hooks to climb aboard, and subdue the crew, using automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Former hostages report that the bandits mix the modern and the medieval. They've been known to slaughter goats to roast on captured ships and spend much of their time chewing the narcotic leaf khat. But they also use GPS devices, satellite phones and spies in nearby ports such as Dubai and Djibouti to find their victims.

Further complicating matters, once the pirates make it back to Somali waters with their booty, they're generally scot-free. The current location of the Stella Maris, for example, is well known—it's being held off the village of Ely in northeastern Somalia by pirates who have reportedly demanded a $3 million ransom. But few militaries, seeing how the Americans and more recently the Ethiopians have been burned there, have the means or the stomach to pursue the bandits into the lawless and heavily armed country. With the exception of a daring French commando raid in April that captured six pirates involved in the seizure of a French luxury yacht, pirates in Somalia proper are almost never targeted. It's a place "where some nations have gotten a bloody nose," says Bob Davidson, a Canadian naval officer who commands the allied warships that patrol the region. "It might be simple to say, 'We know where they are—why don't you just go get them?' But you've got to have law, firepower and [be willing to] risk collateral damage."

Given the qualms of foreign powers, military officers agree that little will improve until progress is made in Somalia itself. The problem "has to be solved on land," says Gérard Valin, the French admiral who oversaw the April raid. And at the moment, there's little hope of that. The transitional government grows weaker by the day, and is riven by infighting between the president (a former warlord) and the prime minister.

All that is good news for the pirates, who, given the number of attacks, seem to be expanding their operations by the day. The boom isn't surprising, for piracy is a lucrative business: Siyad Mohammed, a leader of one of the pirate gangs, told Reuters recently that his group managed to earn a $750,000 ransom after releasing a German ship hijacked in May. That's an enormous take in a country teetering on the edge of famine. But while it may enrich a small few, such banditry on the high seas promises more misery for Somalia—yet another calamity for a place that has already suffered much.

How the US War on Terror Helped Somalia's Pirates | World