Modern pirates roam the coast of Somalia capturing ships for ransom, but one recent group caught a prize much bigger and more deadly, from a number of perspectives, than they imagined. Facing US and Russian warships, they have vowed to fight to the death.
The popularity of recent films like The Pirates of the Caribbean has, to a large extent, romanticized the ideal of the pirate in many people’s mind. There’s even an annual “Talk like a Pirate Day” event held every year on September 19th. Part of this notion comes from most people’s perceptions that piracy is a thing of the past and over time the fear and stories of the atrocities they’ve committed have faded. Pirates have not disappeared from the seas, however. They are very much alive and active off the coasts of some of the poorest countries in Africa.
Recently, pirates have returned to the news, as the BBC reports that Somali pirates have captured a ship registered under the flag of Belize, but which turned out to be loaded to the gills with Ukrainian weapons. Not just any weapons, but a cache that includes 33 Russian T-72 armored tanks, according to reports from both the BBC and Time. It seems that the pirates had no idea of the magnitude of the prize they were taking.
Pirate groups operate in these waters and routinely raid passing ships. A small group of armed men can easily capture the small crews that man these vessels. Since a bulk freighter can cost upward of a hundred million dollars without even considering the value of the cargo, shipping companies will often pay a ransom for the release of the ship and the safe return of the crew. Ransom payments may run between several hundred thousand dollars and several million dollars. According to Time, the British firm Chatham House estimates that Somali pirates have received total ransom payments of $30 million.
Pirates will run up alongside the large vessels in small speed boats, often under the cover of darkness. From there, they swarm aboard the ship and quickly overwhelm the crews. The ships’ crews know the drill and are likely to be released unharmed if they don’t resist. Other, less heavily armed, and much more desperate pirates will climb aboard the ship and simply grab anything of value that they can find, life vests, food from the ship’s stores, or literally anything that can be sold for a few dollars. These pirates take their loot and dash back to their speed boats for quick escape.
The only real defense these ships have is to prevent the speed boats from approaching or stopping the pirates from boarding. Often, the weapon of choice for the defending crew is a powerful fire hose. As you can imagine, it is exceedingly difficult for a very small boat to approach and for men to climb ladders while being pummeled with a high powered fire hose. Of course, that only works if you see the pirates coming, and if you have enough fire hoses to keep all of the small speedboats at bay.
So, imagine the surprise of these particular pirates upon discovering that in capturing this vessel, named Faina, they are now in possession of enough weapons to make a serious go at over-running the capital city of a number of small African countries. To make matters more complicated, it seems that the international community is quite adamant about protecting those weapons. Warships from the United States, Russia, and European Community countries quickly appeared alongside the captured vessel in a show of force.
The pirates are now in a no win situation, outmanned, outgunned and nearly out of time. The BBC reports one hijacker told them “I warn any military operation that, if we are attacked, we will defend ourselves until the last one of us dies.” Of course, any military force that attacks the pirates might have no objections whatsoever to that outcome.
The BBC also reports that in true pirate fashion, there has been some serious internal disagreement among the buccaneers. Upon discovering the weapons, the pirates initially asked for a $35 million ransom for the ship, crew and cargo. Later they reduced the request to $20 million. Sources tell the BBC, however, that while a group of moderates among the pirates would like to reduce the ransom and do whatever they can to get out of the situation in which they find themselves, others are now advocating keeping the weapons for themselves. Of course, according to the Time report, the pirates would have no access to docking facilities capable of offloading something the size of Russian tanks, so it’s not entirely clear how they would go about executing the latter plan. Meanwhile, the BBC’s source says, the argument became so heated that three of the pirates were shot by their cohorts. Some things never change.