Who Are These Pirates?

Here's a primer on who these pirates are and how they operate.

November 23, 2008, 1:40 PM

LONDON, Nov. 24, 2008 — -- A Greek-owned oil-tanker hijacked by Somali pirates in September has been released this weekend with its cargo and crew intact. Its owners confirmed that a ransom had been paid.

But about 1,000 Somali pirates, who've been terrorizing the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and living like sultans, are still holding 14 ships and about 250 crew members.

Here's a Q&A primer to help clarify this ongoing story.

Who Are These Pirates Exactly?

The pirates claimed they were disaffected Somali fishermen operating in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, whose boats had been challenged and sometimes attacked by unauthorized foreign vessels fishing the same waters. The pirates said their boats were often destroyed and they were forced to flee, according to one of the pirates, a 42 year old father of nine who described himself as "a pirate boss."

In an interview with The Guardian this week, Asad Abdulahi said he and his shipmates considered themselves "heroes running away from poverty.

"We don't see the hijacking as a criminal act but as a road tax," he said, "because we have no central government to control our sea."

How Do the Pirates Operate?

Most are based in the port of Eyl in the state of Somalia, which has had no government to speak of for 20 years. They put to sea in a "mother ship" that took them into the shipping lanes, several hundred miles offshore. They then launched small speedboats armed with little more than AK 47's, grenades and grappling irons to haul themselves up onto the deck of a ship. Generally, they can sieze a ship without firing a shot.

How Many Ships Have Been Hijacked?

The Somali pirates have captured 39 ships so far this year, the biggest prize being the huge, Saudi-owned Sirius Star, whose cargo included 2 million barrels of oil, seized Nov. 15 by a handful of pirates, 450 miles off the coast of East Africa. The Saudi foreign minister has said that his government does not negotiate with hijackers but added, significantly, that "what the ship owners do, is up to them."

What many ship owners do is pay up. Ransoms worth an estimated $150 million have been paid in the past year, by approximately 25 shipowners, in payments dropped in sacks, by helicopter or packed into waterproof suitcases and floated on boats toward an agreed pickup point.

Can't Anyone Stop These Pirates?

An Indian frigate managed to sink a "mother ship" last week. But there are restrictions on naval boats, described in the next answer.

Somalia is an impoverished, failed state, and the pirates have been throwing their ransom money around, building huge villas, importing expensive cars, opening restaurants and generally winning popular support in their home port of Eyl. But this week, heavily armed Islamists reportedly moved into the port of Haradheere, where the Sirius Star is anchored. The Islamists said they would punish the pirates for "seizing a Muslim ship." But analysts said they are probably more interested in a cut of the ransom, if and when it's paid.

What Can the Ships Do to Protect Themselves?

The simple answer is, avoid the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. But that, of course, means taking enormous, costly detours around the entire African continent, past the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, to reach the Mediterranean and European ports. This southern route adds 12 to 15 days to each voyage, at a cost of $20,000 to $30,000 a day.

Nine countries now have warships in the area, including Russia, France, Malaysia, Denmark and part of the U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. Turkish and British frigates also run patrols in the Gulf of Aden. But the navies are operating under a restrictive United Nations mandate that does not allow them to actually board hijacked vessels . The Indian frigate that sank a pirate ship last week seems to have been a one- time event.

Some shipping companies have considered hiring private security companies to protect their ships, even arming the ship's crews, though merchant ships are by law generally prohibited from carrying weapons.

The International Maritime Organization advises ships that continue to sail through these pirate-infested waters to sail at night, which is not terribly helpful, since they still have the other 12 hours of daylight to worry about. It also said that crews should "batten down the hatches, and try using high-pressure fire hoses against the pirates as they approach the ship in their small speedboats."

How Many Hostages Have Died in This Wave of Piracy?

As far as we know, none. Captured crew members said on release that they were well treated by the pirates who told them not to be frightened, because "you are poor people like us."