U.S. Navy Hunt for Somali Pirates: Behind the Pirate Code

"The piracy is a direct result of a lack of a functioning government in Somalia. … They're providing funds for their extended family and tribes, and it's life or death out there, so they're going to be shrewd," he said.

Genung cited figures that the average Somali onboard the Faina as a guard would make $100 -- $13,400 over the course of the ship's captivity. In contrast, the average annual income in Somalia is $600, according to the CIA World Factbook.

"Everyone can agree it's an extraordinary tragic situation," said Genung, but he insisted his greater sympathies lie with the hostage crew, not with their pirate captors. At present, seven hijacked ships and 123 crew members are being held hostage off the coast of Somalia.

Somali Piracy Controlled by Certain Clans

While the Navy doesn't see a terrorism link, pirates are generally paid in cash, making the flow of money difficult to trace. Piracy is considered to be under the control of specific clans, centered in the Somali region of Puntland.

The pirates and their investors have grown rich from what has, until now, been a crime without punishment. Last month the United States established a prosecution track for suspected pirates, in a tentative agreement with Kenya that would have the men face trial in that country. Often captured pirates would be set free after surrendering their weapons. The Navy hopes its capture of 16 suspected pirates would send a signal to others, deterring future pirate attacks.

Acts of piracy more than doubled last year in the Gulf of Aden, a 1.1 million square mile body of water that is four times the size of the United States. An international coalition of navies responded by patrolling the waters and sketching a recommended shipping route -- a two-lane maritime highway the naval forces could patrol more easily.

The average ransom is now between $1 million and $2 million. Last year, a total of $30 million was paid out. But the total cost of piracy eclipses that number. Added to the cost of the naval deployments, shipping companies will pay an extra $400 million in insurance premiums this year, according to an estimate by Lloyd's List. All of that money ultimately comes from consumers.

A Mini-Mission Accomplished

The Faina was released this month after owners parachuted a reported $3.2 million ransom onboard, in cash. The day it pulled into the port of Mombasa, Kenya, the Navy was in the process of apprehending its first batch of suspected pirates. For Genung, who's served 31 years in the Navy, the capture was a mini-mission accomplished.

"The crew is ecstatic, because they know the human cost of what happened on Faina. … Virtually all of them have gotten e-mails from a family member or friend saying, great job. And it's deserved."

Now the Big Test: Can the U.S. Jail the Pirates?

But the greater goal, and perhaps the greater challenge, is to put the suspected pirates behind bars.

"What defines success for me is that when we capture pirates we build a strong case that allows for justice to be done and that they're convicted by a fair trial," said Genung.

For now the plan, yet untested, lies in Kenya. While negotiations proceed, Genung remains on course, hoping his ships will pick up pirates before they strike.

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