Pirates holding the Sirius Star oil tanker off the Somali coast are reported to be demanding 25 million dollars in ransom money. This, and the dramatic rise in piracy in general in the region in recent months, is causing a huge headache for shipping lines, governments and the agencies trying to police the shipping routes.
Somalia is, of course, desperately poor. Lawlessness and violence has brought trade and agriculture almost to a standstill, and have condemned most people to a hand to mouth existence. Piracy is bad news for most Somalis, since many of the ships targeted and scared off have been aid ships loaded with food relief and medicine. But in poor coastal villages, the money the pirates are bringing in is transforming their lives. Somalia expert Jason Alderwick of the International Stategic Institute told me how.
Jason Alderwick: In the villages where the pirates have decided to settle it's almost the primary form of business now, because the money involved is just huge in terms of significant amounts of foreign exchange for the local economy. It's a real cash cow.
Chris Cummins: If you compare this area, around the town of Eyl in Puntland, with the rest of Somalia, what differences would you see?
JA: You may see painted houses rather than the traditional huts. You'll be seeing a much more improved infrastructure. It's not as though they're paving roads and putting up street lights, but around their private residencies things will look relatively smart.
CC: Then are we to imagine pirates as sort of Robin Hood figures who take from the rich and share with the poor? Or is it more complicated than that?
JA: It's a lot more complicated than that. This isn't a story that has been going on for the last 2 or 3 months. This story has developed over a period of years. It initially started because there was a complete lack of regulation of the fishing area along the coast of Somalia and so international fishing fleets were going in and effectively hoovering up the entire fishing stocks. That really angered the local population and so they started extracted "license fees" from the fisherman. That's how it started, but it escalated over a series of events. Extracting license fees developed into taking fishing crews hostage and demanding ransoms and then that expanded to larger and larger vessels being targeted. Now we are in a situation where the criminal gangs and the criminal element have just gone ballistic.
CC: They say that quite a huge industry has grown up around piracy. It's quite hard for us to understand because, of course, when these ships are attacked, there are usually less than 20 pirates on board those speed boats. So how has the industry grown up?
JA: Well the boats need servicing and the pirates and hostages need feeding. A network has been developed on a logistical and also organizational level. There are various middlemen required to negotiate the ransom payments etc. In addition to that you have to be able to rotate your armed gang that keeps watch over the hostages and the ship. So it becomes quite a large body of people involved.
CC: How sophisticated is this? I've heard of ransoms of up to 2 million dollars being paid and the Saudi oil tanker deal could dwarf that figure. It would surely take more than a few fishermen-turned-pirates to deal with such transactions?
JA: You're right. It's a sophisticated network and it would be wrong to dismiss the actors as simple fishermen. They might be involved at the hard end of the operation, but there are some sophisticated players operating behind the scenes.
CC: What's life like for the hostages? We're talking about so much money changing hands that they must be considered valuable commodities. Is that reflected in the way they are treated?
JA: Well, I'd like to point out that conditions are not like a 4 star hotel. Generally they are being held on board their ships, although there have been recorded incidents of them being taken onshore. In the ships, apart from being deprived of their freedom, they are generally looked after quite well. But they are being held against their will by armed gunmen. That's not going to be a pleasant experience whichever way you look at it.