African Piracy Resurgent

I don’t have any special insight into the hijacking of a Saudi oil tanker by a gang of Somali pirates, other than to note that it is a remarkable story, and hardly a fluke. Pirates in the Indian Ocean have captured and ransomed a number of large vessels over the last year or two. Here are a handful of pirates in small boats who somehow captured a Ukrainian vessel, the MV Faina:

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But the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star was something else. Here is the Sirius Star at sea:

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The Sirius Star was carrying $100 million worth of oil at current prices, and was captured hundreds of miles away from the pirates’ Somalian base, off the coast of Tanzania.

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What I really don’t understand about this story is that the oil tanker reportedly carried a crew of 25 men. 25?? It’s hard to imagine how a crew that small could manage a huge oil tanker, let alone defend it against thieves. If I were going to ship $100 million worth of oil across the Indian Ocean, I think I’d hire some armed guards to protect it.

The ship and crew will presumably be ransomed rather than rescued, unless, perhaps, the international community is really determined to start putting down the Somali pirates. The pirates’ problem is that they don’t have a credible means of realizing the value of the oil. In the old days, when pirates could make off with gold, silver and pearls, this wasn’t an issue. Here, the pirates don’t appear to have much choice but to sell to the highest bidder, and there is only one bidder, the ship’s Saudi owners.

Even in the halcyon days of the 17th century, pirates rarely came out much ahead in the end. Today’s African pirates aren’t likely to do better. But for the moment, at least, they can take some satisfaction in having pulled off a remarkable crime.

If you’re interested in Caribbean piracy, by the way, Empire of Blue Water, which focuses mainly on the pirate–or privateer, as he would insist–Henry Morgan, is a good place to start.

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UPDATE: Mark Steyn strikes, appropriately, a more sober note:

It’s the scale of these operations that impresses. In the quarter ending September 30th, Somali pirates hijacked 26 vessels and kidnapped 537 crew members. According to Chatham House, their booty in ransoms so far this year may be as high as $30 million. That makes piracy about the most attractive profession in Somalia.

This is a glimpse of tomorrow. Half a century ago, Somaliland was a couple of sleepy colonies, British and Italian. Now the husk of a nation state is a convenient squat from which to make mischief. And, when freelance raiders are already seizing vessels the size of aircraft carriers, their capability in the future will be constrained only by their ambition.

Or, I suppose, by someone else’s military power. Perhaps Obama can make himself a name here, although the Indian Ocean sea lanes aren’t primarily our concern.

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