Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pirates of the Indian Ocean.

When you think of pirates, what are the images that come to mind? A swash-buckling Errol Flynn? An effete Johnny Depp with an eye patch? Do you imagine the colorful characters represented by your child's toys? Is that a parrot on his shoulder? Does that guy have a peg leg? The degree to which pirates have been romanticized over time is amazing. The bright colors, long hair, and natty clothing of the stereotype are pervasive and misleading. What do modern-day pirates actually look like? They are likely to be skinny Africans or Asians. Coming as most do from Third World nations wracked by poverty, they usually don't spend a lot of time trying to impress with sartorial splendour.

The very first pirates that the United States had to deal with were from the Barbary Coast ports of Northern Africa. These Ottoman Corsairs were Muslims from Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers and Morocco that operated in the Mediterranean from the Crusades until the 19th century. What particularly annoyed the Western powers was the fact that these cutthroats demanded tribute from ships desiring to move through the waters where they were based. If money was not forthcoming, than the pirates would attack and capture both ship and crew. They also made raids on coastal towns and grabbed unsuspecting Europeans villagers, selling them into slavery. This took a serious toll on the psyches and pocketbooks of major world powers.

It's incredible to think that tributes to Barbary Coast pirates accounted for 20% of US government revenues in 1800. Granted, modern-day thieves probably siphon off that much from the Fed nowadays, but at least most of those responsible are actually US citizens. Jefferson and Stephen Decatur finally put an end to the problems by sacking Tripoli, and for awhile the seas were safe for American shipping. It looked as if piracy was a thing of the past. But it never did go away entirely. Apparently terror floats on water as well as it creeps on land. Still there's always more to the story that can't be encapsulated by a bumper sticker mentality. The latest activity is happening off the coast of Somalia.

When Somalia was beset with internal breakdown fifteen years ago, regular patrols along their coast came to an end. That's when fishermen from other nations started fishing the rich Somali waters with impunity. Finally the Somalis struck back with vigilantism. They began to corner these illegal fishermen and demand taxes. Naturally this practice escalated, and soon the vigilantes transformed into pirates that targeted any ship within reach. It became a lucrative way to address the crippling poverty in that part of Africa. At the end of this past September, some independent Somalis hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, guns, and ammunition headed for Kenya. They were quickly surrounded by American and Russian warships, and demanded $20 million to release the ship, crew, and cargo.

As of November 20, 2008 pirates have attacked 95 ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, hijacked 39, and were still in possession of 17 vessels. They will likely have received tens of millions of dollars before the year is over. Most recently, the Somali pirates have seized a Saudi oil tanker called the Sirius Star, which was carrying two million barrels of crude. They are asking for $25 million within ten days, and threatening "something disastrous" if they don't get it. The world's major military powers are taking notice of the situation and considering what to do about it. The United Nations is thinking about putting together a fleet to stem the problem. But until there is some stability in Somalia itself, I don't see how they are going to stop this piracy.

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Blogger Warm Apple Pie said...

So that's why they call you One-Eyed Willie . . . One-Eyed Willie.

Yeah, when's the last time we had some intense naval combat? Vietnam? If we weren't stretch so thin we could resume our normal cop-of-the-world functions and move a carrier group off the coast and fly daily patrols.

8:48 PM  

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