“It is only in Somalia where every attack is aimed at hijacking the ship. …
The pirates know that by holding crew, they are able to extract money and
that is what they are after. In any other country, to have these big vessels
held by criminal gangs along the stretch of the coast, would be unimagin-
able. No one would tolerate it.”
— POTTENGAL MUKUNDAN
DIRECTOR OF THE INTERNATIONAL MARITIME BUREAU
The crude oil ship, the largest vessel ever seized by
pirates, was anchored for nearly two months off the
eastern Somali coast near the town of Eyl, with 25
hostages aboard. On Jan. 9, the Somali pirates, who
initially demanded $25 million in ransom, reportedly
settled on a payment of $3 million and released the
vessel and hostages after it was received.
In an ironic twist, five of the pirates drowned later that
day when their small boat capsized as they returned to
shore in rough weather, according to the Associated
Press. One pirate’s body reportedly was recovered with
$153,000 in a plastic bag in his pocket. Three other
pirates survived but lost their share of the ransom.
While many vessels have managed to deter attempted hijackings in recent weeks with evasive maneuvers
and anti-piracy measures, such as raising alarm,
increasing speed and calling immediately on coalition
warships, attacks persist. On Jan. 1, the Egyptian cargo
vessel Blue Star was captured and taken back to
Somalia with 28 hostages.
Mukundan said he believes another region for concern is Nigeria’s coast and the Gulf of Guinea. There, a
French merchant ship was captured in early January,
but later released with all nine hostages safely aboard.
The rampant piracy off Somalia is seen as a reflection of
the nation’s lawlessness, and many experts see deterrence
as a complex operational challenge given the breadth of
the region, punctuated by logistical and legal issues.
“It is only in Somalia where every attack is aimed at
hijacking the ship,” said Mukundan. “There are no
low-level pirates or criminals in Somalia, so that is why
it is such a high-risk area. The objective is ransom. It
is not cargo, it is not the ship.
“The pirates know that by holding crew, they are
able to extract money and that is what they are after. In
any other country, to have these big vessels held by
criminal gangs along the stretch of the coast, would be
unimaginable. No one would tolerate it.”
When vessels were under attack by crime groups in
the Strait of Malacca several years ago, the governments
in the area — Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore — took
action that ultimately halted most of the pirate activity,
said Capt. Charles D. Michel, chief of the Office of
Maritime and International Law at the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Those governments eventually put enough patrol
forces and law enforcement personnel out there to
make a difference, and that is what broke the backs of
the pirates there,” Michel said. “You had functioning
governments that could actually prosecute these individuals and put them in jail.”
Further illustrating the need for a jurisdictional and
legal framework to deal with Somali pirates, Michel noted
that piracy in the Strait of Malacca rarely involved ransom.
It was characterized more as being “hit and run or
total takeover,” he said. “The piracy crimes were all
done under the cover of darkness because there were
governmental authorities who would have responded.
“Holding people for ransom is very lucrative. The
Somali pirates know the value that Western society places
on human life, and no government authority is going to
stop them. They do it in an open and notorious fashion.”
In keeping with the U.S. counterpiracy action plan and
International Maritime Organization- (IMO-) supported
efforts, discussions are under way among interagency maritime partners from U.S. and foreign governments that aim
to refine a process for dealing with apprehended pirate
groups, other than sending them back to Somalia where
they are not likely face any consequences, Michel said.
One driver cited in U.N. Resolution 1846 that is
helping direct a possible framework for handling
Somali pirates by building judicial capacity is the
Suppression of Unlawful Acts at Sea Convention,
which was adopted by the IMO in 1988 in response to
the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking. In short, the convention obligates states to accept people who have committed violence against maritime navigation, investigate the alleged offense committed by those individuals and either prosecute or extradite them.