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Pirates and Power at Sea
U.S. Navy cruiser monitors a pirated ship. (AP)

On Tuesday, Sept. 30, the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser monitors the pirated motor vessel Faina off the coast of Somalia while one of his helicopters provides aerial surveillance. (US Navy photo)

Somali pirates don’t joke around.

Off one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, where oil-tanker traffic and a whole lot more flow to the Suez Canal, they have been taking ship after ship this year. Boarding bloody if need be, commandeering the bridge, holding crew and cargo ransom for big money.

Ten days ago they hit a deadly jackpot. A Ukrainian freighter stuffed to the gunwhales with heavy weaponry. Soviet tanks. Grenage launchers. Ammo.

Now U.S. warships have the captive ship cornered. A Soviet frigate is on the way. But the problem is spreading.

This hour, On Point: Pirates, global order fraying off the Horn of Africa, and a high seas crisis on the world stage.


Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, based in Nairobi, Kenya. He joined us earlier from an island near the coast of Somalia.

Joining us from London is Roger Middleton, consultant researcher for the Africa program at Chatham House in London. He’s the author of “Piracy in Somalia: Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local War.”

Joining us from New York City is J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy in Washington, D.C. He writes a weekly column for the New Atlanticist about African security issues. His Sept. 29 column was “The Challenge of Somali Piracy.”

Joining us from Bahrain is Lt. Nathan Christensen, deputy spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

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  • Galbeyte

    As a Somali hailing from the regions where the pirates are from, I express dismay and yet sympathy for these pirates. There is deep poverty in the central Somali regions especially the Hobyo region has been politically blacklisted from receiving any significant international aid resulting in people turning to piracy and any other enterprise to survive. The coastal waters were illegal fished and became dumping grounds for foreign vessels before the rise of the pirates who began off as a volunteer force of frustrated Somali fishermen fighting these foreign vessels.

    My dismay lies in the environment it creates: criminality, excessive inflation, the deaths of foreign sailors, and negative attention.

    But a $5 million dollar ransom exceeds all international funding given to the entire region. So what other livelihood can a poverty stricken Somali turn to ?

  • fran

    Tom, you are neglecting to interview a key group re: piracy. The large shipowners. Norwegian companies have been paying pirate ransom for years and not just in the Somali area. Indonesia is another source of pirate violence. Oil cargo lines have been dealing with these pirates, case by case, for at least a decade and very little has come out in the media. Many seamen have been killed in these episodes as well as pirates but one reads almost nothing about them. Please try to get one of these companies onboard; they really know what’s been happening.

  • http://www.maritimesecurity.org Ronald Thomason


    Although many people are unaware of the very real scourge of piracy, the threat is as old as maritime commerce itself. We live in a global economy where the availability of food and other consumer products, at reasonable prices, are dependent upon our ability to security the international supply chain, including the maritime trade lanes.

    The Maritime Security Council (MSC) is the oldest, US based, not-for-profit organization dedicated to security in the international maritime environment. The MSC provides guidance and assistance to governments and industry in addressing issues affecting international trade and maritime commerce, including piracy.

    The annual MSC Chairman’s Leadership Forum is being conducted in Washington, DC on Tuesday, October 7, 2009; where pressing maritime security issues, such as the Commercial Impact & Industry Response to the Rise in Piracy, will be discussed.

    For more information on the Maritime Security Council and the MSC Chairman’s Leadership Forum please visit: http://www.maritimesecurity.org.

  • http://www.ceegaag.com Hussean Fiin

    The world neglected Somalia for eighteen long years, Injustice, killings, Raping, diseases, Hunger, is what is known about Somalia, The civilized world allow this thing to go on in Somalia so I will say about what is happening(pirates) ‘Chickens Coming Home to Roost’ Malcolm X

    The world people nowadays do nothing until they affected ether from their pocket or prestigious. I hope the world will support the Somali transitional government to restore the government institutions and hold free and fare election. Hi five to the pirates.

    Eng. Hussean Fiin, Editor of Ceegaag Online Boston USA

  • Mark Stephenson

    Hussein, I would suggest that the appropriate strategy for dealing with pirates would be to outfit cargo ships and freighters with concealed heavy weapons not unlike the German raiders of WWII to blow the pirates out of the water when they approach, thus feeding the fish and spurring a resurgence of the local marine fauna. Better yet, government entities should purchase and outfit shabby-looking vessels with such weapons and cruise around as lethal bait. More than likely the local pirate activity would reduce significantly, either by the word getting out or by simple attrition.

  • Peter Nelson

    As a Somali hailing from the regions where the pirates are from, I express dismay and yet sympathy for these pirates. There is deep poverty in the central Somali regions especially the Hobyo region has been politically blacklisted from receiving any significant international aid

    Blacklisted by whom? How?

    The world neglected Somalia for eighteen long years


    Aid agencies operated there until criminal gangs and violent warlords made it impossible to help the Somali people safely.

    Is the world responsible for making the Somali’s behave peacefully first before trying to help them with food and medicine?

  • Peter Nelson

    Hussein, I would suggest that the appropriate strategy for dealing with pirates would be to outfit cargo ships and freighters with concealed heavy weapons not unlike the German raiders of WWII to blow the pirates out of the water when they approach

    I agree. In the “golden age” of pirates merchant ships were often armed.

    It wouldn’t take much with the Somali pirates – most of them are armed with little more than light automatic weapons and maybe an RPG or two. And their boats, while fast, are flimsy.

    It seems to me that a few 20mm cannon (whatever the modern equivalent of an Oerlikon would be) and maybe a couple of man-portable anti-tank weapons such as the MILAN 3 or MILAN ER, to take out the boats, would be sufficient. The 20′s could each be operated by a single sailor and the anti-tank weapons would need a 2 man crew. So you only need a few sailors trained to provide shipboard defense.

    The important thing is to detect the pirates before they’re alongside – they like to attack at night. But radar and nightime thermal imaging should make that easy, so I don’t know what the problem would be.

  • http://skew.dailyskew.com/2008/09/greek-ship-with-filipino-crew-hijacked.html Damian Hospital

    For anyone who sympathizes with these Somalian terrorists, understand that my niece and nephews’ father has been held hostage there for 3 weeks.

  • Mohamed

    I think the best way to deal with these pirates is to help the Puntland state government(Northeastern Somalia)to establish a strong well trained, well equibed and well armed navy with boats and survailance devices to counter these ruthless, senseless gangs. Puntland state is well positioned geographically and a lot more stable then the south, however corrpted they might be. Most of these piracy takes place off the coast of Puntland region. These ransom money flooding into the hands of these pirates is like to fall into the hands of terorists.

    What a tragedy for my beloved country, in my lifetime it went from a great African country to a new low for the difinition of failed state. Prayers.

  • Stephen E

    Mr. Nelson is correct in recommending that commercial vessels plying dangerous waters — whether off the Horn of Africa, or Southeast Asia — should take necessary precautions to defend themselves, however international law must be modified in order to allow this. Though it will depress the profit margin for shipping companies, at the very least they must invest in sophisticated surveillance equipment and large enough crews to operate those devices each night that they are transiting dangerous waters. If the law will allow, they should also be armed with sufficient firepower to deter pirate attacks, even though this will also require a heavy investment (in personnel, equipment, supplies, training and ordnance). These costs will be passed on to consumers, however it’s better to spend this money on assuring the rule of law than to being paid as ransom. Obviously, the root causes of this problem in Somalia must be addressed as well — but not until the security of the rest of the world is secured when they come to aid that pitiful country. If Somalis would rather have anarchy than assistance, then they may be given the freedom to starve.

  • kayse

    I oppose those who suggest that Somalia failed becasue the world ignored, Somalia failed becasue Somalis act like animal toward each other. I am Somali so I know this from personal experiance.

  • http://raw.dailyskew.com/blog.html Richard A. Weinstein

    those pirates seem very disorganized.
    it seems like they wouldnt be hard to locate or apprehend.
    why isnt more being done?
    i dont get it.

  • fred sturdevant

    You got to be kidding, shooting them is too good, burn them from a distance.

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