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.
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.
Attracted by the High Stakes
The pirate warlords even manage to get by in the chaos of Somalia. In the pirate stronghold of Harardhere, small companies like Ganfanji collect venture capital, which they use to buy speedboats, ladders, fuel and RPGs, and send pirates out to sea. Anyone who wants to be a shareholder but has no money can also buy his way in with weapons or provisions.
The situation appeals to gamblers, who are attracted by the prospects of raking in high profits -- anything is possible. But there is one thing they don't expect to encounter: trouble with the authorities. "The district receives its share of every ransom, and that goes into public infrastructure, including the hospital and public schools," the deputy security chief of Harardhere recently explained. The leaders of the pirate trade now probably include senior members of the tightly run al-Shabab militias, which dominate large parts of Somalia. In the past, these Islamists were known for their severe punishments of pirates, because they believed that piracy is un-Islamic. Today, however, al-Shabab seems to have adopted the view that it is better not to cut off the hand that feeds you. Clan leaders in Harardhere say that they share ransoms with the militias. In return, a Canadian intelligence report concludes, the Islamists offer "weapons, gun training and local protection."
Live Goats on Board
The masterminds can easily find plenty of men for their boats. One of the pirates who was caught and put on trial in Kenya raved during a court recess about how happy he had been when he was permitted to go on the next pirate mission. He felt enormously lucky to have been chosen, saying that hundreds of others would wait along the coast for an investor to entrust them with his boat.
Those who make it are then allowed to participate in a business model whose aim is to generate revenue in the form of ransoms. In a secret report, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has identified a fixed distribution of roles during the attack phase. The threat team, men armed with RPGs and Kalashnikovs, stand at the ready in the middle of the skiff to intimidate the crew of the ship being attacked. Behind and in front of them are the boarding teams, Somalis carrying pistols and ladders, who are the first to climb on board.
Once they have captured a ship, the pirates take it to a spot off the Somali coast, where a guard team takes over. This team sits at the end of a well-functioning logistics chain that brings food, alcohol and the drug khat, which is chewed and serves as a sort of staple for the pirate gangs. When negotiations in the Hansa Stavenger case became protracted, the supply teams even brought live goats on board.
On the most important men in this phase is the pirates' spokesman, who bargains with the shipping companies. The BKA is convinced that this person, who likely has a basic command of English and experience as a negotiator, is too valuable to venture out to sea himself. Good spokesmen are apparently a rare commodity, are often booked by multiple pirate gangs and sometimes negotiate over several ships at the same time, says the BKA.
Ever Further Out to Sea
To this day, not a single patrol ship operated by the international protective force has dared to venture into the pirates' nest of Harardhere. Nevertheless, the interceptors are also building up their strength. An armada of 40 warships from 30 countries cruises off the coast of Somalia today. The flotilla is gradually gaining control of the waters, at least in the Gulf of Aden, a bottleneck leading to the Suez Canal.
But does any of this do any good? The pirates are no longer sailing their skiffs out directly from villages on the coast. Instead, they are chartering mother ships and putting the skiffs into the water far out to sea -- far away from the international protective force. And when they don't have their own mother ship, they simply use captured vessels like the Japanese ship Izumi. Pirates are also beginning to strike off the coast of Tanzania, and they have even boarded ships in the seas off Durban in South Africa.
This is why the ship owners have stopped relying on the international protective force, and have taken to transforming their ships into fortresses instead. This is especially true of the Germans, who own the world's third-largest commercial fleet. The basic equipment on a ship traveling the Africa route today now includes rolls of razor wire draped around the ship, steel plates to cover the rungs of ladders, bars on the windows of the bridge and lubricant foam to spray on stairways. Traces of blood were found on the Beluga Fortune, which pirates captured in October and then promptly released because the crew had been hiding and couldn't be found. The pirates had apparently slipped and fallen on the slippery coatings.
Some ship owners place life-sized dolls in German army uniforms on the decks of their ships (at €2,000 apiece). Others have installed sonic cannons, inspired by the example of the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit, which used the devices to drive away Somali pirates in 2005. Strong laser pointers are sometimes used to blind the attackers. Water cannons connected to motion detectors are currently being tested. But targeting pirates with these devices will likely have the effect that the hijackers themselves become more trigger-happy. And they are not shooting with water, sound or light, but with Kalashnikovs and RPGs.
Taking Refuge in the Citadel
For this reason, the most important form of protection in the Indian Ocean is the "citadel," as the safe room hidden in the ship's hold is known. It has reinforced steel walls, is preferably soundproofed so that the crew can't be heard, and should be located in a narrow section of the ship so that there isn't enough room to fire at it with an RPG. Three pirates who attempted this feat at close range on the freighter Go Trader on Oct. 30 were knocked down and seriously injured by the detonation.
When crews manage to escape into a safe room, where they can stop the engines and radio for help, the pirates usually leave before the frigates arrive. More recently, however, pirates have even succeeded in capturing ships with citadels, like the chemical tanker Marida Marguerite. "We were wrapped up like a porcupine," says Falk Holtmann, head of the Shipcare shipping company in Haren an der Ems in northern Germany. There was razor wire everywhere, companionways were welded shut and stairs had been removed. The fire-extinguishing system had been reconfigured so that it could spray water over the ship's side to flood a skiff below.
But none of the precautions helped when the pirates arrived on May 8. A sailor hadn't heard the alarm early enough and didn't make it to the safe room in time. Now the Marida Marguerite, with its crew, is anchored off the Somali coast.
Armed with Sniper Rifles
Holtmann, the head of the shipping company, has included armed security personnel on all ships since then, and he isn't the only one. Another company is paying a southern German outfit $40,000 a month for security, which is $10,000 less than it would cost to use the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope.
The owner of the Taipan, the Hamburg-based Komrowski shipping company, has hired British security experts, placing four men on each ship. "They have sniper rifles and shoot very precisely," says managing director Roland Höger. The guards fire across the bow first, but will also fire into the skiffs if necessary.
Although weapons are banned on German ships, most German ship owners have registered their vessels in other countries -- meaning they can continue to arm them against pirates. But former soldiers and police officers aren't the only form of protection. An entire industry now profits from piracy, including insurance companies, which now charge a premium of between $10,000 and $50,000 per voyage.
A Trying Problem
While all these problem solvers are raking in the cash, the countries participating in the international protective fleet, including Germany, are stuck with a fundamental problem. There is one thing in the world of Somali piracy for which there is no clever solution: the issue of what to do with the captured pirates. The biggest question is where they should be tried.
Kenya was once the answer. The EU countries had just sent their first warships on the Atalanta mission when they reached an agreement with the Kenyan government in 2009. Under the deal, the EU would pay for the modernization of run-down prisons. In return, Kenya would try all pirates captured during the EU mission.
The arrangement worked for a while. For example, there is currently a trial underway in Kenya against nine pirates who attacked the freighter Courier in March 2009 and were pulled out of their skiff by the German navy. But the Kenyans canceled the deal in October, saying that they were overloaded. Negotiations are now underway with Tanzania and Mauritius, but the only country with which a transfer agreement still exists is the Seychelles. And even the Seychelles wants out.
To make matters worse, two weeks ago a Kenyan court ordered that the Courier pirates be set free. The court argued that Kenya has no jurisdiction, not over the nine pirates and not over other Somali outlaws on the high seas. If the higher court concurs with the decision, the pirates could be released, as could all of their compatriots in custody in Kenya.
No Desire to Have More Trials
From the standpoint of some German defense attorneys, this would even be a good decision. Two of them have filed a suit on behalf of the Courier attackers in a Cologne administrative court. They want to bring the case from Kenya to Germany, because German soldiers apprehended the pirates and because, so they argue, the Kenyan courts cannot be trusted to conduct a trial that meets German legal standards.
They are not the only ones who think like that, but if there is one thing the German government doesn't want, it is another piracy trial. That could mean even more defendants spending years in German prisons, and then possibly even being allowed to stay in the country because deportation to Somalia is unrealistic.
This is why the German government didn't even want the Taipan trial. But it was unavoidable, because the Taipan sailed under the German flag and had two German crewmembers. Most of all, however, the pirates did not attack the ship in the territory patrolled by the Atalanta force. The Dutch were only allowed to intervene because their own government had given them permission. It immediately took the Germans up on their promise to take on the pirates.
Every court-appointed lawyer costs €263 per trial day. If a trial drags on, the rate can go up to €479 a day. Multiply these rates by 10, and that's the price the German justice system has to pay for its symbolic victory. The sentence will presumably be tough, at least five years in prison in the event of a guilty verdict, and it will presumably satisfy all standards of European justice.
But there is one thing it will definitely not do: deter anyone. And it will certainly not change anything.
JÜRGEN DAHLKAMP, THOMAS DARNSTÄDT, MICHAEL FRÖHLINGSDORF, MATTHIAS GEBAUER, HORAND KNAUP, JÖRG SCHMITT, HOLGER STARK, ANDREAS ULRICH