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.

Thanks to the high-profile rescue and the courageous tale of the Alabama’s captain and crew, however, the world is paying attention now. Last week, Hillary Clinton unveiled several new anti-pirate initiatives, which include proposals for freezing pirate assets, arrangements to work with 30 nations on international maritime protection, and, most importantly, new plans to address the glaring chaos of Somalia—Finally.

Secretary Clinton also spoke of the need to take Somalia’s new Prime Minister, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed—one of the leading Islamists who fled the U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopia nearly three years ago—very seriously.  Paradoxically, the Islamists led by Sheikh Ahmed, are the only leaders who have effectively banned piracy ever—during their six months in power in 2006. Under the Islamist’s watch, piracy stopped almost completely. Now, heading back into power after nearly three years of bloody insurgency, the Islamists are ready to take on the pirates again. In the past few days, the Islamists leading Somalia’s transitional government have announced that piracy is a crime against Islam and punishable by death.

The Islamists have other concerns along their coast, however. For years, a number of countries (especially the Japanese) have taken advantage of Somalia’s chaos to poach tuna by helicopter, while others have dumped their toxic waste along what is one of the world’s longest coastlines. As Ibrahim Addou, an American citizen and high-ranking minister in the new Somali transitional government said, these international practices, too, must end.  The pirates are only a symptom of an increasingly desperate nation struggling to survive.

And what of those Somali women dolling themselves up and racing to the coast in search of pirate husbands? A couple of salient facts render this alleged trend implausible. For both men and women, crossing clan lines—or even traveling at all—can be lethal, due to the warlord-controlled militias that trawl the highways and set up makeshift checkpoints.  What’s more, most Somali women have their hands full just trying to feed themselves and their children, let alone plotting to run off with pirates.

One woman, Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Russian-trained gynecologist, has fed and housed tens of thousands of people on her family farm a few miles from Mogadishu. Last year, those who had fled their homes to live in the relative safety of her camp successfully fought off a militia attack. This militia, in the employ of a notorious warlord and then-Mayor of Mogadishu, came with trucks and antiaircraft guns, looking to steal a supply of UN food. The marauders may have traveled by land instead of sea, and on jeeps instead of motorboats. But apart from the fact that they kicked up dust, not sea spray, in their wake—the men were pirates.