Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: Pirate State By Peter Eichstaedt

There's a new book out that provides insights into the rise of piracy in places like Somalia and Nigeria that is worth looking at. I recently reviewed it for The Globe & Mail in Canada, and here's what I wrote:

"Paradise - for pirates that is"

When it comes to describing Somalia, one of the few words you would expect a sane person to use would be ‘paradise’. But a few years ago, in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa, that was exactly how one man remembered for me the Somalia of the 1970s: as an economically vibrant, politically stable and culturally inviting country. Today it is better known as one of the most lawlessness places on the planet, fraught with warlords, famine, religious extremists, and, of course, pirates.

How Somalia got to this point and how piracy has come to flourish in the seas off the Horn of Africa are what drives American journalist Peter Eichstaedt’s new book, Pirate State: Inside Somalia’s Terrorism At Sea. A former senior editor with Uganda Radio Network, the author knows East Africa well (his previous book looked at child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army). In this work, he introduces us to pirates, gunmen, security officials and others trying to cope with the situation, going beyond the headlines, and the hyperbole, to investigate the root causes of piracy off Somalia, while also examining the broader implications that the situation poses to the world.

As Eichstaedt shows, the spectacular growth of piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa can be traced back to Somalia’s descent into anarchy that began almost two decades ago. In the years that followed, a variety of elements capitalized on the country’s chaos. Local warlords carved out clan-based fiefdoms on land, while foreign vessels appeared offshore to illegally harvest fish and dump toxic waste into the same seas.

The rape of the ocean by foreigners was one reason some Somalis began attacking vessels in the 1990s, and it continues to be used as a justification for piracy today. While Eichstaedt acknowledges this as a motivating factor, he also goes to lengths to dispel its lingering rationalization. The notion that today’s pirates are just simple fishermen forced to pillage ships because of foreign exploiters falls apart as the author reveals how organized the situation has become today. For behind those young men hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean lie criminal gangs tied to Somali warlords and politicians, entities intent on illegally generating tens of millions of dollars from the sea each year. In the words of a Somali negotiator for pirate gangs, “Angry fishermen [are] not the reason and cause of piracy. It is a purely selfish business.”

One of the book’s strongest sections comes when Eichstaedt travels to the sprawling Dadaab Refuge Camp in northeastern Kenya to see how those displaced by the fighting in Somalia feel about the situation in their homeland. These snapshots of refugee life reveal an overwhelming sense of despondency about the state of their nation, a place most fear returning. Many of these exiled Somalis also voice contrasting views about the international community’s responsibilities: some blame it for creating – or even fostering – the current situation, while others feel outsiders are the only solution to end the lawlessness.

The desire to reach a more hopeful, peaceful place – like America – resound within Dadaab. So, too, does a fear of how Somalia is being torn apart even further by extremist groups. The same chaos that allowed pirates to flourish has also given rise to Islamist insurgents, some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. Eichstaedt traces the growth of the largest such group, al-Shabaab, meeting with a former fighter and raising the potential of Somalia becoming a new Afghanistan.

At times the book seems rushed, condensing some of the author’s experiences into just a few pages or paragraphs. And he omits to speak personally with any of the victims of pirate incidents, relying on media reports instead. But Eichstaedt more than compensates for these moments of brevity by introducing us to those affected by Somalia’s anarchy and those perpetuating it. As he makes abundantly clear in his book, Somalia is today a paradise only for pirates, warlords, criminal gangs and extremists.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Another Counter-Piracy Resource

For those who may be interested in analyses of maritime piracy from a shipping perspective, the UK-based Shipping Guides Ltd (website here) is worth a look. On their site, they have a page that takes data from the ICC's International Maritime Bureau and gathers it into maps and charts. You have to pay for the info, though the cost is cheap (20 British pounds). There's a link now over to the right if you're interested.

Monday, October 25, 2010

One Year in Pirate Captivity

When it comes to being taken captive by pirates, especially those who operate off the Horn of Africa, the standard (hopeful) vision is that mariners hijacked will be freed within a few months, possibly even weeks. That is, ransoms will be negotiated by the various parties involved in an expeditious manner, as shipowners and operators do not want to see their vessels, crews and cargoes creating a strong hit on the business side of things.

It's harsh, but true, that piracy today operates - for the most part - just as it always has: As a commercial crime in which criminals gain money through illegal activities and reputable entities consider it part of doing business in the seafaring realm.

But what happens if you do not have the money of a shipping firm, ship management firm or other nautical-oriented endeavor behind you in such a situation? Well, consider - again - the case of the British couple who were kidnapped a year ago while sailing their yacht from the Seychelles towards Tanzania.

Rachel and Paul Chandler were kidnapped on October 23, 2009, and have just passed their one year anniversary in the hands of Somali pirates who seized them. As recent reported, their captors are renewing demands that the couple will not be released until a "full ransom" is paid. Those same captors have also reportedly received nearly $500,000 that was collected by family, friends and supporters of the Chandlers.

Why has there not been more action on the part of the British government to secure their release? Certainly no government wants to get into the business of paying criminals for their illegal actions. Yet there is a degree of duplicity going on here, inasmuch as these same governments allow corporations, and perhaps individuals, who operate from their territories to do just that.

A numbered company based out of a mail drop in any country can transfer funds to criminal gangs in Somalia to secure the release of professional mariners. A nation can even send its military to free hostages. Seems easy to find a half million dollars from some government account that could quietly end this couple's trauma.

After a year in captivity, it would seem something's not being dealt with properly here. We're talking pocket change compared, say, to the amount of money that will be spent repairing HMS Astute after it ran aground last week.

For more on the Chandlers, there is a site set up to support them,

Rachel Chandler with a Somali doctor, January 28, 2019 (AFP photo)