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

A Navy captain determines the key to a pirate's ethics (yes, they have them).

February 20, 2009, 8:10 AM

Aboard the USS Vella Gulf, Feb. 20, 2009 — -- Capt. Mark Genung is hunting pirates for the U.S. Navy. He's the commanding officer of the USS Vella Gulf, the flagship of the Navy's Combined Task Force 151, which caught 16 suspected pirates last week.

The Somali men were picked up after allegedly attempting to hijack two commercial ships. Both ships escaped after taking evasive maneuvers and speeding away. The crew on one of the ships, the M/V Polaris, reacted quickly to push the pirate ladder overboard as the pirates tried to board.

For Genung, task force leader Admiral Terry McKnight and the crew under their command, the captures came with the pride of a job well done.

"You're members of the world's most famous cruiser right now. … You can be very proud," the captain told his crew over a loudspeaker in a "pipe all hands," the traditional Navy call for a shipwide announcement.

Genung and the USS Vella Gulf crew have developed a close working knowledge of Somali pirates since last Sept. 25 when pirates hijacked the M/V Faina, a Ukrainian-Russian vessel carrying a fortune in weapons. The capture of the M/V Faina was considered a security issue: Faina's cargo included battle tanks, tank rounds, reactive armor and small arms.

Genung was called in as the Navy's chief negotiator, speaking with the pirates twice a day.

"We needed to be sure it didn't fall into the wrong hands," he told ABC News.

Through most of the 134 days of Faina's capture, the USS Vella Gulf kept watch over the ship and stayed in constant touch with its crew and captors. Genung took responsibility for the crew's safety and welfare. Most of the crew was kept in a small room with limited water. For much of its captivity the Faina had no power for half of the day, turning the cargo ship into a hot, steel cage with little ventilation.

Shortly after the hijacking the M/V Faina's captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, died of what appeared to be natural causes. Still, Genung wasn't worried about deliberate harm to the crew's security, given the pirates' apparent rules of engagement.

The Pirate Code

"Whether it's a code, a set of ethics, a good set of rules, they do have an understanding of how they want to do business, and they hold to that," Genung told ABC News.

"They called it the pirate code. What is clear is that there's a group of elders within the pirate hierarchy who've all decided it's in the pirates' best interest not to harm the hostages," he said. The use of force, said Genung, would push nations to intervene, thwarting the pirates' goal of a cash ransom.

There were other rules of pirate procedure that Genung noticed over time.

"They don't send any hostages back as signs of good will, alive or dead. … By keeping them all onboard you're much more likely to seal the deal and get the maximum ransom you're looking for," he told ABC News.

Genung's communications alternated between a rotating pair of pirate leaders onboard the Faina. Both of them spoke English but would negotiate only in the Somali language through an interpreter. When one of the pirates, who went by the name Suleiman, spoke to the Navy in English Genung said he was punished by his fellow pirates, confined to a "time out room."

"There's not a lot of trust onboard," said Genung.

Genung called the pirates "extremely shrewd" at their business.

"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.

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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