The real story of the Somali pirates

April 18, 2009

"Pirates caught redhanded by one of Her Majesty's warships after trying to hijack a cargo ship off Somalia made the grave mistake of opening fire on two Royal Navy assault craft packed with commandos armed with machineguns and SA80 rifles", began a November 22, 2008 London Times article.

If not for the reference to modern weapons, the article could have been written 300 years ago.

The pompous triumphalism from the press of the "great powers" reached a fever pitch following the US navy's April 12 rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the US-flagged and crewed Maersk Alabama. Three teenage pirates were killed and one captured in the raid.

This is not the only parallel between the current confrontation of powerful navies and pirates off the coast of Somalia and that in the early 18th century Atlantic — the "golden age of piracy".

Like the piracy of the "golden age", contemporary Somali piracy is a response of the downtrodden to the devastating effects of globalising capitalism.


The 18th century pirates were victims of the first intercontinental economy. In the triangular trade manufactured goods went from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and plantation commodities from the Caribbean back to Europe. Malnutrition and brutal discipline affected sailors almost as much as slaves.

Sailors and slaves often responded by turning to piracy.

Today's Somali pirates have been victims of the devastation that neoliberal globalisation has wrought on Africa, the destruction of local fisheries by industrial fishing and the dumping of the first world's toxic and nuclear waste in Third World locations.

In a January 5 article, British Independent columnist Johann Hari said foreign illegal fishing in Somali waters netted more than US$300 million a year.

The concentration of manufacturing in particular parts of the world (such as southern China) that accompanied the recently-ended economic boom, created an exponential increase in intercontinental shipping. The Somali pirates, like their 18th century counterparts, have taken advantage of this.

The Western media have emphasised one element behind the rise of piracy: ready access to arms and lack of governmental authority.

In an April 13 Huffington Post article, Canada-based Somali hip hop artist and activist K'naan explained the other side: "Already by [1992], local fishermen in the coastline of Somalia have been complaining of illegal vessels coming to Somali waters and stealing all the fish", he said.

"And since there was no government to report it to, and since the severity of the violence overshadowed every other problem, the fishermen went completely unheard."

Dumping waste

K'naan added: "A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company, [Progresso], made a deal with [Somali warlord] Ali Mahdi, that they were to dump containers of waste material in Somali waters.

"These European companies were said to be paying warlords about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe costs about $1000 a ton."

After the December 2004 tsunami "washed ashore several leaking containers, thousands of locals in the Puntland region of Somalia started to complain of severe and previously unreported ailments, such as abdominal bleeding, skin melting off and a lot of immediate cancer-like symptoms."

K'naan said: "It was months after those initial [1992] reports that local fishermen mobilised themselves, along with street militias, to go into the waters and deter the Westerners from having a free pass at completely destroying Somalia's aquatic life."

An October 11 Al Jazeera report said UN envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah confirmed "that European and Asian companies are dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline". He said the practice continues.

UN Environment Programme spokesperson Nick Nuttall told Al Jazeera: "The waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes — you name it."

Abdi Ismail Samatar, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota, told Al Jazeera the naval forces despatched to the Gulf of Aden to protect shipping from the pirates had turned a blind eye to the waste dumping.

Piracy has developed from a defensive activity by fishing communities into a highly profitable business. At least $30 million being paid in ransoms in 2008. The practice of exchanging captured ships, their cargoes and crews for ransoms has meant the mariners held hostage have generally been well treated.

No hostages have been killed by pirates. Among the economic activities flourishing in the pirate ports have been restaurants catering to the tastes of the captured foreign crews.

On September 23 last year, a group of pirates chanced upon Ukrainian freighter the MV Faina. "We just saw a big ship, so we stopped it", pirate spokesperson Sugale Ali told the October 1 New York Times in a satellite phone interview from the bridge of the hijacked vessel.

To their surprise, the pirates found the ship carried heavy weapons, including 33 tanks. This triggered the deployment of Western naval forces, amid concerns the weapons may be sold to the warring Somali militias.

However, Sugale explained: "Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons. We don't want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money."

The MV Faina was eventually ransomed for $3.2 million.

While the global economy was booming, paying the occasional ransom was absorbed by shipping companies as an operating cost, cheaper than sailing ships around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid Somali waters or hiring to provide security.

The global economy's collapse may be changing this.

Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, said in an April 13 post on that the owners of the Maersk Alabama earn $500 million a year as a Pentagon sub-contractor. The US government denied the Alabama was working for the Pentagon.

Scahill also questioned the official version of the rescue of Captain Phillips. Scahill said the lifeboat containing Phillips and his three captors was under tow from a US warship, and that the pirates were negotiating to exchange him for money and safe passage when US navy snipers shot the pirates.

Cracking down

On April 16, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton indicated a tougher line on piracy. "We may be dealing with a 17th-century crime, but we need to bring 21st-century solutions to bear", she said.

One of the solutions she touted — freezing pirates' assets — is strange, as pirates don't use banks. It could, however, pressure shipping companies against paying ransoms.

France has also stepped up operations against pirates. On April 4, the French navy stormed a hijacked luxury yacht, killing one of the hostages along with two pirates. On April 16, 11 pirates were captured when their vessel was seized by the French.

The US and French naval pressure has not diminished pirate activity. The April 16 Independent reported, "brigands have seized four vessels and more than 75 hostages since Sunday".

An aggressive approach increases the likelihood of pirates harming seafarers. Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of Mombasa-based East African Seafarers Assistance Program, told Reuters on April 12: "It raises the stakes. Now they may be more violent, like the pirates of old."

Hussain, a pirate, told Reuters: "The French and the Americans will regret starting this killing. We do not kill, but take only ransom. We shall do something to anyone we see as French or American from now."

Like 18th century pirates, Somali pirates see themselves as fighting for justice. As Sugale Ali told the October 1 NYT: "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.

"We are simply patrolling our seas."

As K'naan explained: "The truth is, if you ask any Somali, if getting rid of the pirates only means the continuous rape of our coast by unmonitored Western vessels, and the production of a new cancerous generation, we would all fly our pirate flags high.

"It is time that the world gave the Somali people some assurance that these Western illegal activities will end, if our pirates are to seize their operations. We do not want the EU and NATO serving as a shield for these nuclear waste-dumping hoodlums."

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