by Jay Bahadur; Pantheon, 2011; 300 pages; $26.95
The Maersk Alabama was hijacked several hundred kilometers off the central coast of Somalia on April 8, 2009 — the first U.S.-registered ship commandeered by pirates in 200 years.
Three days later, Navy Seal snipers from the destroyer USS Bainbridge killed three of the hijackers and detained a fourth, the gang’s leader, Abdiweli Muse. Muse was taken to New York where he was tried, convicted of piracy and sentenced to 34 years in prison.
However, the 2009 incident of the MV Maersk Alabama did not by any means end Somalian piracy in the waters off the so-called Horn of Africa. To this day, pirates continue to waylay vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
If anything, matters have grown much worse since the first recorded act of piracy in modern Somalia, including when the cargo ship MV Naviluck was taken over by pirates off the Somali province of Puntland on Jan. 12, 1991. Just this past February, pirates hijacked the private yacht Quest and executed all four Americans on board, who were on a mission to distribute Bibles worldwide.
“The current trend of ransom inflation is almost certain to continue unabated … and pirate negotiators have only just begun to realize how much ship owners are willing to pay,” journalist and freelance CBS News correspondent Jay Bahadur writes in The Pirates Of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, a meticulously researched, boots-on-the-ground account of modern buccaneers.
Since warships from the nations of the world — including the U.S. Navy — sailed into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean after December 2008, ostensibly to protect the shipping lanes there “the absolute number of hijackings steadily rose,” Bahadur reports. In 2008, there were 49 documented hijackings, in 2009 there were 68, in 2010 there were 74, and 2011 is already on pace to exceed 2010.
“Since 2009, the economic incentive … has been steadily increasing,” Bahadur writes. The average pirate ransom in 2008 was $1.25-$1.5 million. That grew to $2 million-$2.5 million in 2009, and $3 million-$4 million in 2010. The record so far is a $9.5 million ransom paid for the release of a South Korean oil tanker in the late spring of 2011. Between 2008 and 2011, Somali pirates earned an estimated $25 million to $90 million per year.
In the future, Bahadur expects pirate gangs to be much more organized, with rival organizations “increasingly tempted to rip off successful pirate groups … Piracy might well develop into a mafia-style business complete with infighting, turf wars and mob hits.”
Bahadur clearly identifies Somali piracy’s evolutionary development: From local Somali fishermen protecting their coastal waters to invasive foreign trawlers to an extralegal, rag-tag Somali Coast Guard to unabashed piracy of merchant vessels for ransom.
“Five years ago, the Somali pirates were little more than fishermen who had traded their nets for assault rifles … Since then, they have blossomed into maritime trade professionals … that has allowed them to strike deep in the Indian Ocean,” Bahadur writes.
Finding the root cause of piracy in Somalia is an important goal of the book, which Bahadur researched for months on the ground in Somalia, living among the pirates of coastal Puntland, the epicenter of piracy in the Horn of Africa.
For the author, Somalia today is a perfect example of a modern failed nation. When the Somali state collapsed in 1991, the country became a land without a functioning government, with little or no governance outside the clan structure that divided the population into a collection of warring families loyal only to themselves. What followed was lawlessness, home-grown armed guards, organized criminal gangs, crumbling infrastructures, deregulation, extreme poverty, famine and the birth of modern piracy.
The Pirates Of Somalia is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding a once great nation’s tragic decline and fall. Somalia was once one of Africa’s most productive and promising post-colonial countries. And Bahadur warns the solution to piracy in that part of the world must be found on land and not merely at sea.
Art Gould is a former newspaper reporter and book publisher. He lives in Anniston.