hijacked ship, Somali pirates, Faina
Fred Vloo/AP
MV Sirius Star

Somali Pirates Show Brazen Defiance in Oil Tanker Raid

November 18, 2008 09:48 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Somali pirates have seized an oil tanker in one of their most bold acts, revealing a pirate culture more capable than many expected.

Pirates Seize Oil Tanker, Largest Vessel Yet


The Sirius Star—an oil tanker built in South Korea, staffed by an international crew and owned by Saudi Aramco—is the most recent the victim of Somali pirates. Pirates attacked the ship on Saturday, and the ship now appears to be on its way to Somalia. The pirates have not yet issued any demands.

The oil tanker, stretching the length of an aircraft carrier, is the largest vessel yet to fall prey to the pirates. It was also further from the African coast—450 nautical miles—than any other ships hijacked by Somalis, the Los Angeles Times reports. The pirates usually seize ships no more than 200 miles from the shore. “I’m stunned by the range of it,” Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The pirates were able to hijack the tanker despite the U.S., European Union and Russian warships patrolling the waters in response to recent piracy. The 25-member crew of the oil tanker is small, which is typical for such vessels.

The audacity of such a raid surprised many observers, and security specialists are worried that pirates may one day raid or sell to terrorists a tanker holding pressurized liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Candyce Kelshall, a specialist in maritime energy security at Blue Water Defence, said, “An LNG tanker going up is like 50 Hiroshimas.”

“Our presence in the region is helping deter and disrupt criminal attacks off the Somali coast, but the situation with the Sirius Star clearly indicates the pirates’ ability to adapt their tactics and methods of attack,” said U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the Combined Maritime Forces.

In October, pirates captured a Dutch ship with a largely Russian crew. That raid came just two weeks after a NATO-led flotilla of ships arrived in Somali waters to curb criminal activity on the high seas, and after a shift in British policy allowed for direct, aggressive contact with the pirates.

According to The New York Times, the active flotilla includes ships from the United States, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Britain. NATO spokesman James Appathurai told the Times of the difficulty of the protective force’s task: “This is obviously a very, very complicated thing they are trying to do. There are a host of pirates, but they don’t identify themselves with eye patches and hook hands that they are pirates.”

Over the summer the United Nations approved a resolution allowing other navies to patrol and police Somalia’s waters, and in late September, Somalia’s foreign ministry authorized other governments to act on the troubled country’s soil.

Somalia’s president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed has urged his citizens and other countries to fight piracy.

“I call on the Somali people to fight against the pirates. I also call on the international community to act quickly on what is happening in Somali waters as well as on shore,” he said during a press conference.

Background: Pirates active this year

Earlier this October, one pirate was killed and two were wounded in a shootout aboard the Wail, a Panamanian ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates, Reuters reports. One member of the Puntland coastguard was killed in the conflict.

In Septmember, pirates captured the Faina, which was loaded with tanks and other weapons. Ransom talks have been ongoing, although at one point the pirates threatened to blow up the ship.

“We are ready to blast the ship, the cargo and ourselves if the owners refuse to pay us ransom,” a spokesman for the pirates told UPI. The United States is primarily concerned the weapons on the Faina will fall into the wrong hands.

“Our concern is making sure that this cargo does not end up in the hands of anyone who would use it in a way that would be destabilizing to the region,” said Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for the Pentagon, in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday. “[A]nd we have committed significant resources to make sure those objectives are met.”

AP reports that the ship has 33 Russian-made tanks, along with rocket launchers and other weapons.

There were conflicting reports of pirates dying in a shootout, and the Russian media reported that the Faina’s captain’s death was due to illness, according to Agence France-Presse.

On Sept. 30, The New York Times published an interview with one of the alleged pirates aboard the Faina, who said the world didn’t understand what they were doing. Sugule Ali spoke to the Times via satellite phone, and said he was on the Faina’s bridge.

He was quoted as saying: “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

He also told the Times that they didn’t want the weapons, and didn’t plan to sell them. They just want the $20 million ransom, in cash.

Related Topic: The pirate life

Somali pirates, now infamous for detaining the Ukrainian ship, MV Faina, live the high life in their country, according to a recent BBC article.

“They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day,” says Abdi Farah Juha who resides in the regional capital, Garowe. “They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns,” he says. “Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.”

The crews, which consist of former fishermen, ex-militiamen and technicians, are able to garner a substantial amount of money in a poor country that been racked by war. The average asking ransom price for a ship hijacked Gulf of Aden is $2 million, and the UK think-tank Chatham House indicates that pirates have collected about $30 million so far in 2008.

The lucrative venture has even tied some warring clans together, the article claims. The men, who usually range from 20–35 years old, appear to be flocking to piracy more than ever.

But resident Mohamed Hassan notes that, "This piracy has a negative impact on several aspects of our life in Garowe.” They flood the local economy with U.S. currency, and their proclivity for drug and alcohol use upsets their neighbors, according to Hassan.

Opinion & Analysis: Solving the problem of piracy

David Axe, writing on Wired’s Danger Room blog, said foreign navies can’t be everywhere at once, and other ideas, such as putting mercenaries on commercial ships, are fraught with problems.

“In short, there’s no easy seaborne solution to piracy. Experts stress that ending piracy requires law and order on land, where pirates have their bases. But law and order for Somalia, which has lacked a functioning central government since 1991, is no doubt years and years away,” Axe wrote.

Axe also wrote a Popular Mechanics piece that examines what commercial ships can do to protect themselves, and suggests the hijacked Ukrainian freighter may encourage more governments to help patrol the Somali coast.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines