In April 2009, Somali pirates attempted to capture an American-flagged ship, taking its captain hostage. U.S. military sharpshooters brought the incident to a relatively quick end, killing three of the four hostage takers.
While this dramatic event may have been the first time that many Americans had heard of Somali pirates, their activity and audacity has been growing for some years.
By 2008--after decades in which the Straits of Malacca, the Caribbean, and the Nigerian coast consistently witnessed the most incidents of maritime piracy--a full 111 out of the total 293 pirate attacks worldwide happened off the coast of Somalia alone.
Perhaps the most spectacular attack came on November 15, 2008 when pirates boarded the Saudi owned Sirius Star, a 330-meter tanker (318,000 deadweight tons) carrying over $100 million of oil. Attacked 833 kilometers off the coast of Kenya, the pirates used a mother ship, disguised as a fishing trawler, to launch small boats that overtook the Sirius Star.
"This is unprecedented," a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet said. "It is the largest ship that we've seen pirated." The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, said: "I'm stunned by the range of it. The pirates are very good at what they do. They're very well armed. Tactically, they are very good."
Cyrus Mody of the International Maritime Bureau characterized the event as historic: "It is the first attack of its kind in which such a big vessel has been hijacked so far away from the coast. It shows that the pirates now have the capability and capacity to sustain themselves in deep sea until the vessel actually comes by."
Under the pirates' command, the Sirius Star sailed to a mooring off the coast of an area known as the Puntland region where it joined a dozen other hijacked ships.
The autonomous state of Puntland is located at the very tip of the Horn of Africa, between Somalia to the south and the Somaliland Republic (formerly British Somaliland) to the west. [click here for a map] Unlike Somaliland, which has for years been seeking international recognition as an independent state, Puntland envisions itself as a federal but self-governing division of Somalia.
In the case of the Sirius Star, ransom negotiations took about two months—the original $25 million demand settled for $3 million. The negotiations for the Ukrainian ship Faina, which was transporting 33 T-72 tanks, 150 grenade launchers, 6 antiaircraft guns, and ammunition to Kenya and Southern Sudan, took five months. The crews survived their ordeal, the exception being the captain of the Faina, who died of a stroke soon after his capture.
Ancient Traditions, Modern Pirates
The Horn of Africa has long had its pirates. For thousands of years, the weather patterns and currents of the Indian Ocean have transported watercraft from Africa to Arabia, Arabia into the Persian Gulf, then off to the west coast of India, and back again. Trade with the Mediterranean world sailed south on the Red Sea, through the Bab el Mandeb, into the Indian Ocean and beyond. [ Indian Ocean Map ]
An early travel guide, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written in Greek in the first century AD by an anonymous merchant, noted the richness of the maritime trade. He also warned that along the coast of Azania (what is now Somalia) "live men of piratical habits…."
Claudius Ptolemy, in Geographia, first published in 150 AD, identified the Horn region south of Cape Guardafui as "the Gulf of Barbaria." "Men of the greatest stature, who are pirates, inhabit the whole coast and at place have set up chiefs."
One-thousand seven hundred years later, in 1854, when the great British explorer Richard Burton embarked on a Royal Geographic Society trip to the port of Berbera, the British officials in Aden worried. Attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden were common. Major Gordon Laing had been murdered leaving Harar in 1826.