They come out of the darkness in the waters off the coast of East Africa, zooming up in speedboats to the sides of massive cargo ships, armed with grappling hooks, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
Quickly, these modern-day pirates climb aboard their prey: cargo ships that contain food, machine parts and, most recently, oil or enough weaponry to supply a small army. Most of the time they meet no opposition — only frightened, unarmed crews who find themselves prisoners and held for ransoms that have exceeded $1 million.
Based in Somalia, these pirates are only a little like the images of the daring, swashbuckling thieves who have pranced through Hollywood movies or adventure stories that have been passed on for generations.
These pirates typically use the Global Positioning System to coordinate attacks along major shipping corridors in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. A report last month by Chatham House, a British think tank, said that once aboard, Somali pirates typically are focused on demanding a ransom from the ship’s operators and chewing khat, a narcotic leaf that is a stimulant.
Piracy off Somalia’s coast has long been a symbol of that African nation’s instability. Now attacks on shipping are soaring and becoming more brazen, heightening concerns about the safety of shipping from oil-rich areas in Africa and the Middle East at a time of global economic instability.
The potential for Somali renegades to send tremors through the world’s economy was clear Saturday, when pirates captured their biggest prize to date: the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker brimming with 2 million barrels of oil (estimated value: $100 million).
The Times of London reported Wednesday the Saudi government had confirmed that the ship’s owner — Vela International Marine — was negotiating a possible ransom with pirates who boarded the oil tanker more than 450 nautical miles from the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
The pirates’ raid of the Sirius Star — and hijackings Tuesday in the Gulf of Aden of a Thai ship with 16 crewmembers and an Iranian cargo vessel with a crew of 25 — are signs that attacks by loosely organized bands of Somali pirates are “a criminal enterprise which has gone completely out of control,” says Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy.
U.S. and British analysts say the series of raids underscore worries that terrorists could dive into the same lawless seas off East Africa, capture booty to finance their operations or even mount a spectacular attack with a seized ship.
“There is serious concern that terrorists see piracy as an opportunity for themselves,” says Roger Middleton, an expert on piracy and Africa at Chatham House. “It can provide the means to generate enormous amounts of money, or to capture a boat with the more disturbing prospect of a huge oil tanker as a floating bomb.”
Pirates already are driving up the cost of shipping and insurance. Some shipping lines have begun avoiding the shipping corridors near Somalia and their shortcut to the West through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, a tactic that will raise shipping costs and eventually costs for consumers. Environmental catastrophe looms if a supertanker is punctured during an attack or purposely sunk, Middleton says.
The Bush administration is trying to coordinate efforts to stop the pirates, although military officials say they can’t stop all pirates because there are too many ships in a huge area to protect.
“We are coordinating closely with many other countries, NATO, the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations, and the Maritime Industry to deal with the piracy problem,” says Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council.
Meantime, the pirates continue to operate with near impunity across broad swaths of the Indian Ocean. They often anchor their seized boats near the ungoverned Somali coast and wait for the ships’ owners to pay increasingly lucrative ransoms.
This year, pirates have attacked at least 95 ships near Somalia, including 38 hijackings, Mukundan says. More than 740 crewmembers have been taken hostage. There has been one fatality, Middleton says, adding that he fears hijackings could become increasingly violent.
Last year saw fewer than 25 attacks. As recently as 2004, pirates made just five raids. During the last week alone, pirates attacked 11 ships off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden.
The pirates’ targets usually are slow-moving cargo ships that can’t match the mobility of the pirates’ small, swift 15-foot skiffs powered by outboard engines. The pirates zip around the larger ships, locate a low deck and climb aboard with rope ladders. The shipping vessels’ small crews — the huge supertanker had just 25 aboard — often are armed lightly, if at all, and are easily subdued by pirates with automatic weapons.
“Clearly, they are tactically proficient at what they do,” says Cmdr. Jane Campbell, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, which patrols the region.
Once pirates get access to a ship, “they seem to be able to get on and take over,” says Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At first, the pirates worked in the waters close to shore. Now, they’re ranging into open waters, expanding their range with so-called mother ships. These vessels, often fishing trawlers, can hold several skiffs and travel hundreds of miles offshore to menace shipping lanes.
“I’m stunned by the range” of the attack on the Sirius Star, Mullen says.
For now, money appears to be the primary motive for piracy, Middleton says. A few years ago, ransoms in the tens of thousands of dollars were common. Last year, pirates gathered ransoms of a few hundred thousand dollars. In 2008, they have been topping $1 million. Ransom payments could total $30 million this year, Middleton says.
Those are princely sums for the pirates, many of whom are from Puntland, a semiautonomous, impoverished region in Somalia, he says.
A nation of about 9 million inhabitants, Somalia is one of the world’s poorest countries, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The challenge of protecting more than 16,000 ships that move through the region is enormous. Ships from the 5th Fleet, NATO, Russia and other countries cruise the waters. But the pirates’ hunting grounds are vast: more than 1 million square miles. That’s an area roughly four times the size of Texas or the Red and Mediterranean seas combined.
In recent months, there has been a degree of success in fending off pirates. Last month, pirates captured 31 percent of the ships they attacked compared with 53 percent in August, according to the 5th Fleet.
On Tuesday, for example, the Indian Navy encountered a suspected pirate mother ship in the Gulf of Aden towing two speedboats, according to a statement from the Indian government. The suspected pirates, seen brandishing rocket-propelled grenade launchers, fired at the Indian ship.
The INS Tabar returned fire and sank the ship. The suspected pirates fled on the speedboats. On Nov. 11, the Indian Navy reported that it prevented two hijackings.
The International Maritime Organization has urged its members to use a recommended corridor in the sea that is patrolled by the U.S. Navy, NATO and ships from other countries.
“Our presence in the region is helping deter and disrupt criminal attacks off the Somali coast,” Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said in a statement. “But the situation with the Sirius Star clearly indicates the pirates’ ability to adapt their tactics and methods of attack.”
Another challenge: Ship operators often are reluctant to carry firearms on board, said Nick Knittel, vice president of Miami-based McRoberts Maritime Security. Weapons create bureaucratic problems, because shipmasters often are required to declare any firearms when entering a port, and the weapons typically are impounded by that country’s authorities until the ship departs, he says.
Security specialists also say having weapons on board could make a situation more dangerous, says Knittel, a former Army captain with the 101st Airborne Division.
Crewmembers could be wounded in a firefight, Knittel says, and more experienced pirates could capture the weapons and use them against the crew.
Many large cargo ships now feature satellite tracking devices that allow companies to monitor for any changes in course or speed — and contact authorities if there are signs of a pirate attack. Crews sometimes are trained to use fire hoses to fend off pirates, and many large cargo ships sailing high-risk routes light their decks with floodlights at night and assign crewmembers to watch for attackers.
Shipping companies also can hire armed guards to ride on ships, but that’s often enormously expensive. Large vessels often remain at sea for weeks or months at a time.
Even so, the surge in pirate attacks is prompting shipping companies to consider new ways to protect their crews and cargo. It’s not clear what security measures had been taken on the Sirius Star.
Having security teams aboard cargo ships would help deter attacks, Gortney says. He notes that at least 10 of 15 recent successful pirate raids involved ships traveling outside recommended traffic lanes or those that didn’t have adequate security.
“Companies don’t think twice about using security guards to protect their valuable facilities onshore,” he says. “Protecting valuable ships and their crews at sea is no different.”
The ultimate solution to piracy: creating a stable government in Somalia, which is nominally under the control of a faction backed by neighboring Ethiopia. That, says Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau, “could take decades.”
“Somalia is prone to chronic humanitarian emergencies produced by natural and man-made disasters and has been the site of continuous humanitarian operations since 1990,” according to a February report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Since the ouster of longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been under the influence of various ethnic and religious factions. U.S. troops landed there in 1992 to help restore order; in October 1993, a battle between Army Rangers and insurgents left 18 soldiers and hundreds of Somalis dead. That battle inspired the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
It’s a “stateless society,” says Stephen Morrison, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The United States backed the ouster of the government led by the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union in 2006. However, that six-month government was the one institution that managed to stop piracy in recent years, Middleton wrote in his Chatham House report.
While Somalia lacks a stable government, Morrison says, that doesn’t mean the United States or other nations can enter its territorial waters with impunity.
Donna Leinwand and Jim Michaels in Washington contibuted to this article.
By Tom Vanden Brook, Peter Eisler