Hooked: Somali Piracy Is a Problem for the World

Ten Somalis are facing a Hamburg court as Germany holds its first piracy trial in centuries. They are almost certain to be convicted, but any legal victory for the German authorities will be purely symbolic. Off the coast of Somalia, piracy is becoming ever more sophisticated, with ransoms growing and ambushes getting more audacious. By SPIEGEL Staff

It was April 5, 2010, and the German cargo ship Taipan was 500 nautical miles off the Horn of Africa. The crew, 15 sailors in all, had barricaded themselves into a well-concealed safe room deep in the ship's hold and were now crouched tightly together on the floor.

From there, they had shut off the engines and the electrical systems. Now they were trying to be as quiet as possible, for fear that the pirates on board could hear them. The attackers had brought along a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, or RPG. The captain had seen it with his own eyes. And although this safe room had thick steel walls that were supposedly bulletproof, would they stand up against an RPG? Keeping quiet seemed to be the best approach.

Their silence only made the noise the pirates were making -- the shouting, the gunshots and the sound of doors being kicked in -- sound even louder. The pirates, knowing that there would be no ransom without hostages, were determined to find the crew. One of them was already calling for the captain in English and saying that all the pirates had been captured. It had to be a trick, the men thought, still keeping quiet.

But there it was again: "We're here to help you!" Not a sound from the safe room. "Captain Eggers, this is the Royal Dutch Navy. There are no pirates left here." Not a sound. But then the captain, Dierk Eggers, heard someone speaking Dutch and realized that it wasn't a trap, that he and his crew could finally come out and that it was all over. A special-forces unit from the Dutch frigate Tromp had captured the 140-meter (460-foot) German freighter and taken the pirates prisoner. The pirates were now lying handcuffed in a row on the deck.

Symbolic Victory

More than half a year has passed since then. The liberation of the Taipan is seen as one of the biggest successes in the fight against Somali pirates. Prosecutors in Hamburg now intend to turn that success into a victory by the German justice system over outlaws operating off the Horn of Africa.

The trial of the 10 Somali pirates, who the Netherlands has extradited to Germany, began on Monday in courtroom 337 at the Hamburg Regional Court. It is the first piracy trial on German soil in centuries. The court has scheduled 14 hearings. The trial revolves around charges of abduction with the intent to extort money, under Section 239a, Subsection 1 of the German Criminal Code, and attacking maritime traffic, under Section 316c, Subsection 1, Number 1b. More generally, the trial is about the rule of law. It's already clear that if the German authorities win the case, as they are expected to do, it will be no more than a symbolic victory. No one is sure if the larger battle can even be won anymore.

While preparations for the trial were underway in Hamburg in recent weeks, the situation off the coast of Africa deteriorated even further. Pirates have captured 37 ships from January to October of this year, up from 33 in the same period last year. In early November, German authorities counted 19 ships, carrying 440 hostages, at anchor off the coast of Somalia, including the Singapore-flagged MT York, which has a German captain. The ransoms are going up, with pirates now demanding an average of $12 million (€8.9 million), and with ship owners paying up to $10 million. According to Clayton Consultants, a US security firm, the negotiations are now lasting twice as long as in 2009.

The pirates' range of operations is also expanding, rendering increasingly powerless the international protective fleet, the European Union's Atalanta mission and the American, Russian and Indian navies. The few pirates they encounter today are getting more and more cunning, as well as increasingly violent and dangerous. On the other hand, there is a growing industry that profits from the crisis: There are companies that specialize in arming ships, negotiating with hostage-takers and insuring ships traveling along high-risk routes. Some 6,000 kilometers (3,750 miles) away from the Hamburg courtroom, in the fishing areas off East Africa, hardly anyone believes anymore that the Somali malaise is only a temporary phenomenon.

And so the global community has yet another problem it cannot solve, because solving this problem would require improving the world itself. Or at least a small part of the world that has already ceased to be a nation-state and remains nothing but a shattered country where young men without prospects stand to gain a lot and lose very little through piracy. There is, of course, the possibility that they could lose their lives, but lives mean relatively little in Somalia.

The Hunting Season

It is now November, and the new hunting season has only just begun. Not that there were months without any attacks, but in the monsoon period the waves are higher and the small skiffs the pirates use in their attacks are tossed about in the rough seas, making hijacking more difficult, more dangerous and sometimes impossible. This has prompted some pirates to move their territory to the Red Sea, where the waves are not as high. But now the monsoon has ended, the clouds are high in the sky, and the Indian Ocean below is as flat as a pancake -- and nicely filled with goods from around the world.

In the week before last, pirates captured the Tunisian tanker Hannibal II and the Chinese freighter Yuan Xiang. The German ship BBC Orinoco was also briefly in the hands of pirates on Nov. 11, but the crew fled to their safe room and the desperados disappeared again.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called the pirates a "scourge." But even though these pirates climb the walls of ships barefoot, carrying weapons so rusted that the investigators in the Taipan case had very little hope of obtaining usable fingerprints, there is no question that the hostage business is extremely well organized.

There are the backers, the financiers, who can be sure that they will not be getting their feet wet in the business. Many have already moved from Somalia to neighboring Kenya, where they invest the millions they have obtained in ransom money. It was no accident that German investigators found Kenyan numbers stored in the mobile phones of the Taipan pirates. They also happened to be the same numbers the investigators had tracked down after the hijacking of the German freighter Hansa Stavanger in April 2009. A gang leader who directed both operations apparently lived in Kenya.

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1. Quickest way to become a German citizen.
macsnell 11/23/2010
Why doesn't Germany simple budget for piracy (say 25% GDP) and send it to Somalia? Would be cheaper than warships, commandos, prisons, payouts, and pensions to the prisoners. The pirates have more to gain from being captured than ransom. But they have to go through these dangerous motions in order to be captured--Germany will not extradite benign pirates, so they need to play cowboys and Indians to make it look real. A German prison is a veritable mansion compared to life in Somalia, free bratwurst, medical care, education, all without working. Many a poor German has to do with considerable less and with backbreaking work. And Osama is no fool. While the Bundeswehr is chasing ghosts in Afghanistan, he caresses Germany's PC culture. He knows a Trojan Horse when he sees one.
2. The reason the pirates exist
Anntink 11/26/2010
is because multinational fishing industries sent huge fleets of ships to their shores and decimated the territorial fishing waters the people of Somali depended on for survival. Greed of international corporations has once again destroyed the lifestyle of an innocent population; the Somali were forced into piracy for survival. Where was the “world” when Somali needed help to protect its territorial waters?
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