international pirates, Somali pirates
U.S. Navy, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky/AP
Pirates leave the Ukrainian merchant vessel MV Faina for Somalia's shore.

2008: Year of the Pirate

December 26, 2008 10:58 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
International piracy made a dramatic return to the world stage this year, grabbing headlines for both its novelty and high stakes action.

Beyond Peg Legs and Parrots

Although piracy has plagued the waters off the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia for some time, 2008 saw a surge in piracy that made the world take notice, drawing naval vessels from across the globe to the Indian Ocean to join the fight.

Brazen in their attacks, the Somali pirates, embarking from the shores of a country with little infrastructure and no functioning government or means to halt the assaults, began targeting larger and larger ships as they made their way to the Gulf of Aden; one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

With more than 100 seizures and $120 million in ransom paid out this year alone, the pirates attacked everything from cruise ships to private yachts and cargo vessels, accumulating millions in ransom and causing a massive slowdown in the region.

So quick and proficient in their work, the pirates were able to capture four ships in a 48-hour period.

It was not until September that the pirates achieved international notoriety after taking control of a Ukrainian ship carrying 30 tanks to Kenya. The payload made international headlines for its value and potential for harm.

Reaction: The international response

Attracting ships from Russia, the E.U. and the United States, the capture moved the United Nations to announce a multi-national flotilla of vessels that would move into waters off Somalia to fight and capture pirates.

Unfortunately, the flotilla and private security efforts failed to halt the pirates from capturing their largest treasure yet: a Saudi oil tanker the size of six football fields and worth over $100 million.

This lucrative bounty further clouded the international cast of characters when al-Shabab—a militant Somali group designated a terrorist organization just months before—pledged to fight the pirates and recapture the ship.

Hesitant to risk both their cargo and the lives of their crews, most companies have been quick to pay the pirates off, while some have turned to the aid of private companies in hopes of offering the protection the international community has so far been unable to provide.

However, a spate of recently foiled attacks and international agreements could finally provide the solution to the daunting challenge presented by policing the expanse of the Indian Ocean.

The United States has introduced a resolution to the UN Security Council that would allow those in pursuit of pirates to follow them into their hideouts, located within Somali territory.

Further, a recent agreement to try those pirates captured at sea in an official court setting in Kenya presents a replacement for Somalia’s current, inactive judicial system.

Earlier this month, the first group of pirates was presented and officially charged in a court room in Mombasa, Kenya, after a push from the British government led to the country hosting the proceedings.

While further actions were delayed until January, the introduction of law into a previously lawless situation gave some hope that the pirates might finally face justice.

The legal system applied to the Somali pirates was a point of contention as their actions affected victims and ships from so many different nations, few of which were able to agree on the judicial guidelines they should face if captured.

Out on the high seas, ships have grown increasingly confident and successful in their efforts to stave off attacks, while offensive measures have proven to be equally effective.

With the exception of an Indian naval attack on a ship that turned out to be an occupied Thai fishing vessel, foreign navy attacks proved successful in fending off attempts and even capturing 23 pirates earlier this month.

It remains to be seen whether these new efforts will curb the rise of piracy in the region or simply quell it for the time being. Intelligence services also continue to search for who has been funding the pirates’ efforts.

In November, The Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner cited an internal memo from the U.S. Treasury that traced payments and ransom bank accounts to expat Somalis residing in Dubai, though no firm proof of the connection has been offered to the public.

The subject of media scrutiny from across the map, the pirates have earned headlines, and have occasionally found themselves the subject of satire.

Few believe the stark rise in piracy is a laughing matter. Further, columnists, joined by a chorus of Somali residents speaking in defense of allegations of aiding or profiting from the pirates’ actions, have declared that this year’s events spotlight the responsibility of the international community to help rebuild Somalia and put an end to the lawlessness that has made such attacks possible. 

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