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Somali pirates roaming the Gulf Of Aden, hijacking - amongst other ships - a Saudi oil supertanker. How is it possible? What geo-political context is giving rise to these latter-day pirates?
The four horsemen of civil war, occupation, famine and epidemic disease are barely enough to warrant attention from the worlds press, but, capture a ship-load of oil and suddenly the whole world's crying Somalia! Something ought to be done about the problems in Somalia. By 'something must be done,' of course, governments businesses and their loyal hangers-on (known locally as the free press) mean of course that the scourge of modern day piracy off the Horn of Africa) must be defeated by military force as it threatens the free flow of goods (especially oil) between the Middle East and Europe (via that old colonial hub, the Suez Canal). 

Free trade-friendly regimes around the world are demanding that the Somali government step in and act decisively against the pirates. One slight problem though… there is no Somali government. Well, to be more accurate, there are anywhere between six and several dozen Somali 'governments' all in various stages of war and mutual non-recognition. There was something like a Somali government, which briefly controlled Mogadishu and most of Somalia, known as the Islamic Courts Union. They were destroyed by joint US and Ethiopian fire-power in late 2006. The latest spike in piratical activity (as well as the latest round of civil war and insurgency) pretty much dates from back then (see SchNEWS 567 & SchNEWS 585 ).

Somalia's pirates mostly operate out of the semi-autonomous Puntland region, which lies in the relatively sparsely populated north of the country. De-facto independent since 1991, Puntland has remained (mostly) free of political violence, more or less staying out of the country's 17 year long civil war. When countries such as Britain aren't idiotically pushing for sanctions against the all but non-existent central government, they're demanding that Puntand (one of the world's poorest and weakest states) stamp down on the pirates themselves.

Realpolitik-savvy types point out that tax on the pirates is now the Puntaland authority's main source of cash, and that the pirate gangs have access to more fire-power than the government has – and they aren't afraid to use it.

Dig a little deeper than the foreign policy wonks dare to go, you find that the Puntlanders tell a slightly different story. They tell of big-business fishing trawlers riding roughshod over their traditional fishing grounds, overfishing and intimidating locals who tried to fish in their own waters.

Just as Somali fishermen in small boats found themselves unable to compete against these giant fish factories, they found that the combination of small boats, rope ladders and Kalashnikovs (none of which are in short supply in coastal Somalia) were just the ticket for getting a bit of 'compensation' from the trawlers. From boarding fishing vessels it was just a skip and a jump to hijacking the massive cargo ships that ply the route between the Mediterranean, Middle East and South Asia.

With no central authority to stop them, these modern day motley crews have gotten bolder and bolder as they operate on the high seas - further and further from the Somali coastline, now striking targets in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. This year they've capture headlines with the vessels that they've taken. Back in September they captured a Ukrainian vessel full of tanks and rocket launchers, and then they topped even that a few weeks back with the largest ship ever captured by pirates, the 318,000 ton Saudi oil supertanker, the Sirrus Star. Having captured 1% of Saudi Arabia's oil output, they got to watch the value of their cargo increase as oil prices jumped up in fear.

Not only have Western governments promised to bring their warships to face the pirates (whose little boats are anyway much more agile than those of the British, Russian or US navies), but psychotic Muslim killing mercs Blackwater have threatened to put their oar in, offering to send their ship - the McArthur and its crew of ex-navy SEALS to patrol the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile, the pirates continue to benefit from the complete and utter chaos in the horn of Africa on the edge of the worlds' most important shipping lanes.


The Ethiopian government, which invaded Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts two years ago (alongside the largely fictitious Transitional Federal Government) has been fighting (ie - losing) an Iraq-style insurgency ever since. Looking for a way out, the Ethiopians have been desperately trying to do deals with some of their erstwhile enemies, the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia.

As far as an intervention to quell a fundamentalist movement goes, the invasion of Somalia has become an even greater failure than the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq. Whilst the Ethiopians try to peel off the 'moderate' insurgents, the Islamic Courts Militias are taking over town after town, and now directly control most of the south of the country. Their former military wing- Al Shabab (trans: 'The Youth') seem to have split off and are championing an even stricter form of religious intolerance than the original religious intolerance of the Islamic Courts. Clashes between the two groups have been reported. The Islamists effectively run a 'night government' of Mogadishu - passing judgements, training soldiers and collecting taxes under the noses of the Ethiopians and the Transitional Government.

As the Ethiopians plan to withdraw (perhaps the Ethiopian president has Bush's old 'Mission Accomplished' banner to wave somewhere), they're desperately seeking any semblance of non-enemy authority to hand over to. As they pull back from outlying districts, these areas are straight away recaptured by the Islamists, who bring with them their brand of peace at the cost of conformity to a strict Islam that's alien to Somalian tradition (although, just as was the case in 2006, Somalis often see this as preferable to the desperation that has been forced on them for the best part of a generation – see SchNEWS 567).

Meanwhile, the UN warns that the population of Somalia faces 'total destitution' next year if the political and military situation does not get better next year. As the Ethiopian government has just announced that it will delay troop withdrawals, and the West is much more concerned about the passage of Saudi oil and plastic Chinese crap past Somalia's shores, it looks like 2009 has the same mix of occupation and desperation that 2007 and 2008 had.

* For up to date info on Somalia, check out the Mogadishu-run Shabelle Media Network (when they're not being shut down by the government that is).


The following comments have been left on this story by other SchNEWS readers...

Added on 11th April 2010 at 08:39 by roibeard

by Dan Eden for viewzone

How do I tell you about this?

Most of you have already heard about the Somali pirates. Just recently they captured an American cargo ship and held the captain hostage. They have done this to many other vessels from a variety of different countries. In fact, the American captain was lucky -- he escaped, with the help of some sharp-shooter Navy Seals -- but hundreds of international sailors and crew are still being held by Somali pirates who seek millions of dollars for their safe return, and the safe return of their ships.

You know all this already, though. And you probably think it's just one more evil group of people trying to get rich quick. You probably even think we should just kill them all or find their Somali-based camp and wipe it out and be done with it.

But there's another side of this story you haven't been told. And when you hear it, you might just change your opinion of what's been going on.

I want to first describe Somalia. It's not a beautiful place, in fact it has been compared to hell on earth. All of Africa is poor by western standards, but Somalia is poor by African standards. Decades of drought, famine, genocide, war and corruption have left the inhabitants of this dusty ruin of a country in a constant battle for daily survival.

The land is littered with trash and debris from brief periods of hope and prosperity that cycled through corruption and violence. People live in huts made of trash and a majority of the nation survives on their only resource -- the ocean.

In the latter part of the 1990s, Somali people began to get sick. It was isolated at first -- skin rashes, some hair falling out, bleeding of the gums, diarrhea... and it came and went. Some people thought it could have been the fish or the water, but no one really could focus on the cause. Then, on Christmas day of 2004, it all became clear.

The great earthquake in Indonesia caused a deadly tsunami that moved west, killing hundreds of thousands of people along the way, and finished by pushing the ocean waters up the Somali coast. After it receded, Somali people found dozens of huge, strange metal cylinders on their shoreline.

Being impoverished but resourceful, people began to open the cylinders and scavenge through the contents. Maybe there was something of value inside... something they could use or sell for food. Some cylinders contained what appeared to be rocks or dirt, others had what looked like plastic and glass trash. Soon, the beaches were littered with the same debris, likely from cylinders that had broken apart under the water.

Within a few weeks, hundreds of people were sick and 300 people had died. Why? What was going on? What does this have to do with pirates?

In a schoolyard, the bullies usually pick on the weakest kids. In the global schoolyard, a country without a government to protect its people, like Somalia, is an invitation for abuse. And when the abuse is about money it's a done deal.

The easiest way to abuse Somalia was to rob them of their one great resource -- food. According to Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the United Nations envoy to Somalia,

"European ships have been looting Somaia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed out own fish stocks by over-exploitation ñ and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somaliaís unprotected seas."

The most prized catch of the Somali seas if the yellowfin tuna, yet these fish have been found to have surprisingly high traces of such toxic chemicals as cadmium, mercury and radioactive uranium. Despite this, these same fish are sold all across Europe without the requirement to disclose the chemicals or their country of origin.

But that's not the worst of it.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, a growing expense to both private corporations and governments has been the disposal of waste -- biological from hospitals and labs, toxic waste from factories and industry and nuclear waste from medical and military use. Even the least expensive disposal of these toxic materials can cost $250 per ton.

But what if a company offered to dispose of these toxic wastes for just $2.50 per ton? You can see where this story is going.

In the mid-90s, a Swiss firm, Achair Partners, and an Italian company, Progresso, offered their quick toxic waste disposal services to a host of European nations. The waste was loaded on to their ships and sailed away. Oh yes, there was talk and plans were made for giant incinerators to neutralize the poisons. It was all supposed to be ecological. But none of the contractors -- mostly European nations -- bothered much to check that out. Yes, the waste was loaded on to their ships and sailed away... only to be dumped in the shallow ocean off Somalia.

After the 2005 tsunami, much of the once submerged waste found it way to the beaches where the broken containers spread debris and toxic particles inland. Nick Nuttall, a UN Environment Program spokesman, said that there are reports from villagers of a wide range of medical problems like mouth bleeds, abdominal hemorrhages, unusual skin disorders and breathing difficulties in many of the northern Somali villages like Hobbio and Benadir.

What? You never heard of this before?

Humans are an amazing species. We are capable of the best and worst. At best we can survive and struggle against almost anything to ensure our survival. The Somali people did. Faced with no government to protect them from the pollution of their ocean, and the depletion of their only source of food, they organized against the dumping. They organized locally in tribes, and the tribes organized clans. With no coast guard, the Somali fishermen tried to thwart off the huge ships that were dumping uranium, mercury, lead, medical waste and other toxins on their food supply and livelihood. They knew their small effort would have little effect on the huge dumping companies... but maybe if the world knew... maybe the world would stop them.

Somali "pirate" leader, Januna Ali Jama, has clearly stated that their actions against foreign ships are aimed at stopping the dumping of toxic wastes. He said,

"We are reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years. The Somali coastline has been destroyed. We believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas."

Ex-Somali Army Colonel Mohammed Nureh Abdulle lives in Haradhere ñ the town in the center of the pirate community. In a BBC interview he said,

"The town's residents are more concerned with the dumping of toxic waste than piracy... this dumping has been going on for a very long time. In 1991 the government collapsed in this African Nation and certain large corporations took advantage of this. European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping thousands of barrels of toxic waste into the ocean. The coastal population began to get sick. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies and many other symptoms but lacking proper medical attention much was overlooked. Then after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness and more than 300 died.

A few nights ago, some tanks came out from the high sea and they cracked it seems and now they are leaking into the water and into the air.

The first people fell ill yesterday afternoon. People are reporting mysterious illnesses; they are talking about it as though it were chicken pox -- but it is not exactly like that either. Their skin is bad. They are sneezing, coughing and vomiting.

This is the first time it has been like this; that people have such very, very bad sickness. The people who have these symptoms are the ones who wake early, before it is light, and herd their livestock to the shore to graze. The animals are sick from drinking the water and the people who washed in the water are now suffering. "

In August of 2008, a group of about 40 Somalis attacked and seized an Iranian cargo ship, the Dyanat and took it to the port of Eyl. There it was secured by a larger group of about 100 Somalis. Within days of securing the ship, those Somalis that had been on board and inspected the cargo began to develop strange health problems. They had strange skin burns, loss of hair, nausea... and a number of men died. The actual cargo containers were securely locked and the crew claimed they did not have the access codes to open them. At first the captain said the containers contained "crude oil" but later admitted they were carrying "minerals." After a week the ransom was paid and the ship continued. Many believe it contained radioactive waste that would have been dumped had the Somaliís not intervened.

But humans are also capable of the worst. Despite the Italian Greenpeace announcement in 1992 that this activity was going on, despite the United Nations warning in that same year, despite the Italian parliament's recognition of these activities in 2000, the thousands of Somali people who are sick, the mutations and hundreds of deaths and contaminated fish, even today, these facts are suppressed.

The European nations who signed contracts with Achair and Progresso could care less about a poor country with dark skinned people. In the color spectrum of greed, green trumps every color. It is much easier to ferment hatred for brown or black skinned "pirates" than to admit the real reason for these desperate acts. It is much easier to just "kill them all" than to step in to their shoes (or lack of shoes) and see what options you might choose.

Just recently, British Foreign Minister David Miliband boasted that Britain would take the lead on "cracking down" on the pirates. The Royal Navy has instituted a special operation called "Operation Atalanta." The target will be the Somalis -- not the toxic waste ships! So now, US and European ships will continue to dump their toxic cargos with the protection from huge Navy vessels, and continue the misery of the Somali people.

Oh, there's much more I could write about this. I could tell you the guilty individuals who allowed this to happen or how the Somali warlords received arms in return for their complicity. Or the brave journalists like Ilaria Alpi and Mivan Brovato, who were assassinated in Somalia following their interview with a high level whistle-blower... But, for now, open your eyes and look for the truth behind the headlines and sound-bites.

It's much more interesting to think in black and white, good and bad. But too often the truth comes in only one color, the green of money.


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