Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pirates, Ahoy!

Pakistan let out a collective sigh of relief as the Pakistani hostages of the Malaysian merchant ship, MV Albedo, were released and came back home. The hostages have been in custody since November 2010 and the fate of the non-Pakistani hostages still remains unknown. To secure the release of these hostages, there were meetings and negotiations that rivaled any in the corporate world. So the question that arises in the curious mind goes something like this: Who are these pirates and how have they been in business for so long without being apprehended?

The Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia has been lucrative to many countries--ironically, Somalia cannot be counted among them. European and Asian companies illegally fish for yellow-finned tuna and rob Somalia of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue. Then some Italian masterminds came up with a brilliant plan. They made it possible for certain European countries to dump toxic waste in the waters for a fraction of the money they would pay to legally dispose of such materials. These acts have not only devastated the fishing trade, but also caused debilitating diseases in the Somali coastal populations caused by radiation poisoning.

Not a people to take one on the chin, the Somalis developed another trade: piracy. Initially, what started as a rag-tag band of aggressive entrepreneurs, has developed into a thriving business.  They are organized and well equipped. Their ranks include accountants and computer experts. One of their groups has ex-Somali marines as its members and an infrastructure of a small navy with financial directors and admirals at its helm.

These organized bands have the run of the 2000 mile-long Somali coastline. Because of the constant kidnappings, the  freighter traffic has gone down along the Somali coast. The freighters whose size does not allow them to pass through other waterways like the Panama Canal must use the Somali route at the expense of hefty insurance premiums. And that is only if they can find someone gullible enough to insure them.

Almost thirty navies of the world have come together as a multinational task force in an effort to deter the activities of these pirates. But, surprisingly, they have not been able to do much in curtailing the pirates’ activities.The forces patrolling this area claim that they are spread too far and wide to be affective.  When ship owners demanded a naval blockade of the area or an all-out attack on the pirate bases in Somalia, they were told that the sheer immensity of the coastline makes a blockade impossible, and no country wants to involve itself in an attack which may lead to more embarrassment than success. Everyone still remembers Black Hawk Down.

Some have voiced what is painfully obvious: the forces patrolling the area are not being aggressive enough. The US and British have allowed their freight ships to carry armed guards and have trained their personnel in anti piracy techniques.  The Italians station members of their military on some of their freighters. Some navies have entirely different policies. The Kenyans and Tanzanians have a simple one when confronted with pirates: shoot to kill and take no prisoners. But perhaps the safest ships in the waters off the coast of Somalia are those flying the Russian flag. The armed guards aboard the freighters simply blow the pirate boats out of the water and leave the survivors to drown.  Nazdarovya! (Russian for “Cheers!”)

In a Robin Hood-like twist, these pirates support schools and hospitals in the coastal towns. The town of Harardhere, only three hundred miles from the capital city of Mogadishu, where the pirates have established their base, has thrived especially. A percentage from the ransom money goes towards the towns’ hospitals, schools and other local services. "Piracy-related business has become the main profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend on their output," said Mohamed Adam, the town's deputy security officer. "The district gets a percentage of every ransom from ships that have been released, and that goes on public infrastructure, including our hospital [sic] and our public schools."

CNN reported that the pirates have also set up a stock exchange in Harardhere, where trades are made on future ransoms received by them. Ex-pat Somalis are very active in these tradings. Somali refugees from as far off as Canada invest great amounts of money.  People can also trade commodities for shares. One woman traded a rocket launcher, which she received as a settlement in her marriage, for shares and ended up making quite a profit.

What started as a reaction by some Somalis to illegal fishing has become so much more.These pirates seem to have training. They are known to buy the most up-to-date weapons, some say from the Yemenis. They operate on fast boats, at times based off a mother ship, and are guided by the latest GPS technology. They seem to fear nothing and feel they have “little to lose and everything to gain.”

According to a Kenyan-based security consultant, almost fifty percent of the money is said to go to Islamic militant organizations like Al Shahaab, even though their public stance towards piracy is one of disapproval.  Despite this damaging evidence, the pirates still flourish going up against the whole world. Even though it seems that so much about the pirates is public knowledge, it also seems that not enough is known to stop their activities. Many pirates have been arrested but only a handful have been tried or convicted. Some have been released on the premise that “a search for a nation to prosecute them was futile.” Some countries don't want to prosecute them on their soil because they don't want to be bombarded with requests of asylum. This was probably the case in the Netherlands, where a Somali was granted asylum after completing his sentence, because Somalia was considered too dangerous for him to return to.

The tragedy hits home for us Pakistanis when freighters like the HV Albedo are attacked and 23 crew members are taken, including seven of our own. We saw the daily struggle of the nation to stand with the suffering families as it tried to put the ransom money together. We witnessed our sympathetic media parade before us crying children with folded hands and silent women with appeals screaming in their eyes. We come together, all of us, the Zardaris, the Malik Riazes and the Ishrat-ul Ibads and we give money and we negotiate and we do all that we can back to bring our people back home to their loved ones.

But a few amongst us wonder if this really had to happen. The question is, that despite global efforts, why does piracy still flourish.? Their headquarters are a few hundred miles from the capital of the country, but no action is taken against them. We know where they are, we know who they are and we know how they operate, and yet nothing stands in their way.The navies of the world have come together and as yet have not been able to secure the Somali coastline. The world is bleeding millions of dollars in ransom towards these pirates and there is no end in sight. They are supporting terrorist organizations that have been the reason for the destruction of countries, but the world powers turn a blind eye. And so the curious mind wonders: is everything that can be done really being done? Are the Somali pirates a mere distraction to keep prying eyes away from those particular waters? Some of us wonder if there is something more than just radioactive water and depleted fishing in the Gulf of Aden. People speculate that secret pipelines are being laid, others--the more imaginative ones--claim that a gateway to the stars and beyond has been discovered and is being guarded by the new world order. I personally favor the former theory, but wish for the latter.

The Somali government claims that it is preoccupied elsewhere. There is a lack of central governance as the Al-Shahaab Islamist group, with ties to Al-Qaida, wages a war with the western-backed and internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government. In this case, the burden falls on the nations of the world. Sadly, the countries that can make a difference are more interested in trade revenues than making a humanitarian effort. But then the question remains: Is the solution really that simple--or is it something more?

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