Dispatch April 2009

The Truth About the Somali Pirates

Eliza Griswold considers who the pirates really are—and why it may require a reassertion of Islamic leadership to keep them in check

Desperate Somali women are flocking to the coast to marry pirates! This is perhaps the most outrageous claim of the past ten days, during which Somalia’s pirates have succeeded, more than any aid or news organization so far, in drawing the world’s attention to the plight of their country—the world’s longest running failed state.

In 2006, a U.S.-backed invasion by neighboring Ethiopia overthrew the only functioning government—an Islamist regime—that Somalia has had in two decades. And more than half of Somalia’s seven million people are now living under threat of famine. These are just a couple of the reasons behind the latest scourge of waterborne gangs currently trawling ¼ of the Indian Ocean.  These gangs aren’t religious terrorists; their god is cash. 

Here’s who the pirates are: Militias calling themselves “coastguards,” made up of strike teams of gunmen who have fought in the employ of various warlords for decades, fishermen who have found a more lucrative prey in tankers than in tuna, and a few techies capable of reading a GPS, or making a call on a Satellite phone. (Months of ransom negotiation can cost roughly $40,000, so the pirates wisely use the phones aboard the captured vessels.) At the top of the food chain are warlords —or businessmen. Call them what we will, the label means little. Many belong to the northern-based clan called Majarteen, the family of Somalia’s recently ousted and politically powerless president, Abdullahi Yusuf, who also happens to be one Somalia’s most notorious warlords. This is how business has been done for more than two decades in Somalia: leadership means little more than the acquisition of money, and the pirates are no different.

What the pirates do is exactly what Somali militias do on land: They feed off of anyone with anything to steal. On land, rival clan-based militias attack UN aid convoys, food trucks—even refugees forced to carry all their wealth in the world as they flee from home. At sea, they use the same tactics, only with higher, more public stakes. In the past year, they have seized 30 Russian-made tanks (from a Ukrainian ship bound for Kenya); they have stripped parts from luxury yachts and oil tankers; and last year they raked in an estimated $30 million. Finally, two weeks ago, they drew the world’s attention by attacking their first American ship, the Maersk Alabama. The Alabama was carrying containers of food —vegetable oil, wheat, and dehydrated vegetables—meant to alleviate starvation in Somalia. And while the attack kept the world riveted, as if this were a unique and astonishing event, in reality, it was just a larger-scale version of what these bandits do on land every day, while the world pays little attention.

Presented by

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Wideawake Field (2007), is working on a book about Christianity and Islam, The Tenth Parallel.

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