Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Blithe Pirates of Somalia

The unflappable pirates of Somalia are daunted neither by Western warships, nor the threats of the otherwise influential Islamic militants in their midst. And, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s former supervisor for the region, there really isn’t much anyone can do to stop them.

The AP’s Mohamed Olad Hassan has a piece today describing how, when the fiercest Islamic group in Somalia threatened local pirates who are holding a gigantic oil tanker, the men simply moved the ship from the Somali port of Harardhere out to sea.

Somali pirates have now hijacked forty ships this year. The Nov. 15th oil tanker seizure was the most audacious. The pirates somehow found and seized the Saudi-owned Sirius Star some 500 miles out to sea, even though it’s the size of an aircraft carrier and carryies some 2 million barrels of oil. The pirates may be asking for $25 million in ransom.

Mel Gamble, the CIA’s former Chief of Africa Division and Deputy Chief of the European Division, says that he and his former colleagues sometimes attempted to track the pirates at sea. But Somalia’s coast is so long, and there are so many hidden inlets, that “we tended to lose them once they moved inland,” Gamble says.

Gamble spoke today over a conference call with institutional investors organized by a New York brokerage called Wall Street Access. Since retiring from the CIA earlier this year, Gamble has become an adviser to a New York business intelligence firm called Veracity.

The pirates only began venturing out so far into the sea, Gamble said, because Somali warlords crowded them out of the criminal action within the ports themselves. The size of the sea at their feet is enormous, and specifically how the pirates find their targets isn’t certain. However, Gamble said he wouldn’t be surprised if they get tip-offs from acquaintances at ports-of-call where the ships or tankers stop along the way.

Can the area be effectively patrolled by the U.S., European and other navies now present in the area? “No,” Gamble said. “But the military can conduct deterrent operations.”

Also on the phone call was John Blaney, former U.S. ambassador to Liberia, and before that the State Department’s director for a ten-country region in southern Africa. Bret Stephens over at The Wall Street Journal today fretted over what to do with pirates — hang them, like in the old days, or mete out modern justice. But Blaney warned against anything approaching the former. For one thing, he said, some of the pirates are now arming themselves with “shape charges,” ultra-powerful armor-piercing warheads. Such warheads could pierce an oil tanker’s hull. “What are you going to do if three or four pirate boats approach an oil tanker and have seven or eight of these shape charges that can penetrate the cargo?” Blaney asked. “The answer is you surrender the boat.”

Some captains are now equipped with diversionary tactics, such as taking a meandering ‘S’ route until help arrives. Many ships are avoiding the area entirely through a long route around the southern tip of Africa.

Ultimately, Blaney says, the answer may lie in finding a way to work with Somalia to reduce criminality.
Source: Businessweek

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