Modern-day piracy has turned peaceful oceans into dangerous routes for cargo and passenger ships. What is behind the rash of attacks?
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Perched on the edge of an 18-foot boat, Sahal scans the glistening waters of the Indian Ocean with long-range binoculars. He is the leader of a group of 20 men in a small fleet of three powerboats, armed with AK-47 machine guns, prowling for their next target.
Back home in rural Somalia, his wife and two children wait for him to return home with food and money. Ayanna, Sahal’s spouse, thinks he is fishing. A few years earlier she would have been correct—but not anymore. If she knew her husband’s real occupation, she would be much more anxious and afraid.
Sahal and his crew of bandits are actually fishermen turned pirates. Out of what they call “necessity” and desperation, they have resorted to hijacking, kidnapping and extortion to make a living.
The soft-spoken Somali man does not fit the image of a traditional pirate. He does not wear an eye-patch or carry a sword. Nor does he steal treasure and bury his spoils on exotic tropical islands in the Caribbean. His type of piracy is a sophisticated, ruthless and dangerous global endeavor in which many lives are regularly lost.
Until 1991, Sahal and his friends were honest fishermen. They worked long, hard hours for their incomes and lived honestly. It was, after all, what their fathers and grandfathers did.
From a young age, Sahal would help pull the nets off the fishing boats and carry the morning catch to market for a modest but acceptable price. He earned enough money to afford a humble home, buy clothes, and send his children to school.
But everything changed when civil war broke out in the country. The government collapsed and maintaining order became impossible. As a result, foreign fishing trawlers began to travel as they pleased throughout the country’s waters because there were no established maritime borders. This lapse allowed companies from France, Spain, Indonesia, South Korea and other nations to strip millions of dollars’ worth of fish from the water without having to acquire legitimate licenses.
The once tuna-rich waters of Somalia soon became a popular docking place for international fishing boats with large nets, which left almost nothing for locals to catch. The struggling fishermen became desperate, knowing their government did not have the resources to patrol a 2,000-mile coastline—and protect their livelihoods.
Initially, some Somali fishermen became a self-appointed “coast guard.” They armed themselves and started to patrol the seas. In one incident, these coast guards crossed the line—they stormed a fishing vessel and demanded money for its release. When their victims conceded to paying a ransom, the captors saw a new opportunity to make a living.
Soon these men were hijacking any boat they came across—not just fishing vessels. They realized their initial policing efforts were a waste of time and that they could make more money capturing cargo ships.
Today, oil tankers hauling millions of dollars of oil and luxury cruise liners are the top prize. Pirates, such as Sahal, are no longer interested in fishing, or even protecting Somali waters.
They are now in it for the money.
Other pirates claim they still have no choice—they must feed their families. A 2008 Newsweek article quoted one Somali pirate as saying, “…when evil is the only solution, you do evil. That is why we are doing piracy. I know it is evil, but it is a solution.”
What drives men to resort to such measures?
While Sahal’s story is hypothetical, his plight, and those of others like him, is not. Such scenarios of desperation and hopelessness play out daily for many Somali fishermen—always with tragic consequences.
At first, only struggling fishermen felt forced into this way of life. But now nearly anyone and everyone are drawn to the lucrative life of riches and relative job security—lawlessness has become the order of the day.
In the midst of defending their way of life, many pirates have lost the ideal of “doing good” that they once tried to maintain. They own expensive homes and cars. When not “working,” they spend their time vacationing in exotic locales. They have also become structured, forming organized groups through the involvement of warlords, who control payment of the ransom money and split it with other hijackers.
It is no longer a question of survival—all-out greed now motivates them to commit these crimes. The average pirate makes more money from one “job” than he could earn from many years fishing. Statistics show that over 40 ships were hijacked off the coast of Somalia during 2010, netting pirates millions of dollars! This is quite a large reward for those claiming to only want to “right” a wrong.
According to an April 2011 report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 142 pirate attacks occurred worldwide during the first three months of 2011. This surge in the number of attacks was mostly driven by the increase in incidents that occurred off the coast of Somalia, totaling 94, up from 35 during the same period last year. Consulting firm Geopolicity estimated that Somali piracy cost nations a total of up to $8.3 billion in 2010.
The IMB report also revealed: “Of the 18 ships hijacked worldwide in the first three months of the year, 15 were captured off the east coast of Somalia, in and around the Arabian Sea and one in the Gulf of Aden. In this area alone, 299 people were taken as hostage and a further six were kidnapped from their vessel. At their last count, on 31 March , IMB figures showed that Somali pirates were holding captive 596 crew members on 28 ships.”
During the same time period, pirates also murdered seven crew members and injured 34.
Pirates are not just holding “loot” and captives for ransom. They are also increasingly torturing their victims and using them as human shields.
Boston Herald reported: “Pirates have recently tied hostages upside down and dragged them in the sea, locked them in freezers, beaten them and used plastic ties around their genitals, Maj. Gen. Buster Howes told The Associated Press.”
In addition, the rogue fishermen have retaliated against jail sentences imposed by the government to deter piracy—which the Somali men consider a lawful practice. In February of 2011, four Americans were kidnapped in response to a 33-year jail sentence handed to a pirate for the 2009 hijacking of the ship, Maersk Alabama. After the pronouncement, another pirate said he and his gang would retaliate by targeting American citizens.
A seemingly once-noble desire—that of Somali fishermen merely wanting to support their families—has turned into an evil business.
All sides—pirates, businessmen and the Somali government—blame each other for the problem of piracy. But none can truthfully justify their actions. Fishermen turn to violence and use AK-47 rifles to hijack luxury cruise ships, and large multi-national companies exploit those in other countries and engage in corrupt practices with the government. None have the moral high ground.
While Somalis adamantly state that they tried for years to obtain international aid and are therefore justified in their actions, foreign governments are obligated to protect their assets and citizens abroad. In their minds, terrorism, kidnapping, murder and torture committed by pirates are intolerable and must be stopped at all costs.
Countries spend millions of dollars and use sophisticated technology and manpower, but it is still not enough to deter pirates. When they are caught by American Naval forces, they are usually set free again, without serious consequences. Despite the fact that some lose their lives in skirmishes during the actual hijackings, or that only one in 20 attempts to capture a ship is successful, they still pursue this perilous trade.
It is a typical Robin Hood story. Those who view themselves as protectors of the rights of the less fortunate often become the ones who infringe on the rights of others. While trying to protect the innocent, they end up using force and violence to fight injustices.
In turn, the so-called “haves” are then forced to defend themselves and their assets against the “have-nots.” The problem escalates as one side tries to outdo the other.
Clearly, all sides are wrong. Evil actions are not the answer to eradicating evil. Then what is the solution?
One imprisoned pirate told Newsweek the answer to the problem is a stable government that can restore law and order in the country and bring foreign investments to create more jobs. He believes an effective and legitimate government could enforce the laws of the country, and thus stop illegal fishing.
“We know the EU and NATO forces are coming, but that is not the solution,” he said. “The solution is to restore peace in Somalia so that we can have a better life and more job opportunities. I can tell you that sending forces will not stop us going into piracy. They can arrest us if they find us out at sea, they’ve arrested our friends several times, but that will never deter us from this business. The only thing that can stop piracy is a strong government in Somalia.”
Is this realistic?
Somalia, if freed from a state of war, will need billions in foreign aid to help rebuild itself. Even then, the fishing waters will need many years to be replenished to a level that can sustain the small scale fishermen as in the “old days.”
Similarly, the civil war in Somalia has raged for decades. There is no reliable infrastructure and corruption is a fact of life.
“It’s a major hindrance to sustainable business and economic development throughout the continent and is corrosive on the progress of the society and the countries in the African Continent,” a document issued by Anti-Corruption Conference Africa stated. “In many parts of the world, corruption adds an additional 10% financial burden on the overall costs of doing business. The World Bank study on corruption has stated that ‘bribery has become a $1 trillion industry’. The impact of corrupt practices on development is very significant—it impedes economic growth, distorts competition and represents serious legal and image risks.”
Even if a legitimate government were elected today, it would take many more decades to re-establish law and order completely.
“Countries torn apart by conflict pay a huge toll in their capacity to govern,” Transparency International chairman Huguette Labelle said in Forbes magazine. “With public institutions crippled or nonexistent, mercenary individuals help themselves to public resources, and corruption thrives.”
Look at the examples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and others. Billions of dollars go into these countries, but rarely is it reported that the money is used productively.
More than 20 countries are now directly involved in the fight against piracy. Every effort so far has failed to dissuade pirates. The United States Navy is in the process of testing an advanced—and costly—laser technology intended to distract and disorient any would-be attackers.
Though U.S. forces generally look for less offensive ways to deter and capture pirates, other countries are not so forgiving, often using increasingly forceful and violent means to fend off pirates. This does not treat the cause of the conflict, but rather attempts to use the “eye for an eye” principle—continuing the cycle of violence.
Consider the misery created by mankind in pursuit of “survival.” There is no end to the cycle of problems it confronts. Violence begets violence and evil begets evil. Seemingly, without miraculous intervention, this cycle will continue.
So then, what is the way to stop it? The answer lies in the very heart of man himself.
Clearly, mankind does not know how to eradicate evil. It does not understand how to stop human beings from preying on and destroying their own kind. Think of all the mayhem—genocides, hate-mongering, wars, destruction, anger and strife—that has occurred throughout man’s history.
Yet the Creator God does understand, and He reveals the answer through the Instruction Manual He designed to guide man, the Bible.
The book of Jeremiah states: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked…” (17:9). James 4:1-2 adds, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war, yet you have not…”
Put together, these passages explain that man’s nature is “deceitful,” “desperately wicked,” and greedily “lusts.” This begins to touch on the reason there is a cycle of violence in the first place: human nature.
This human nature, which guides everything that man does, runs contrary to God’s principles. By rejecting the Instruction Book created for him, man has effectively cut himself off from being able to understand how to achieve peace.
Consider just one verse regarding the use of evil practices to avenge wrongdoing. The book of Romans states: “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (12:17).
Think of how much better off humanity would be if it followed just these instructions. Piracy, hijackings, extortion, bribery and corruption would be a thing of the past. Governments would function correctly. There would be no need for fishermen to resort to violence to feed their families. The world would be a better place.
So then, where did human nature come from—and how can it be changed?
Thousands of years ago, God instructed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat of the Tree of Life, which would allow them to have contact with Him and enable them to receive His Holy Spirit to make them complete. Yet there was another tree in the garden: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. While both trees were there, God commanded them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, since doing so would result in (eventual) death.
By allowing these two trees to be in the garden, God gave human beings a choice: obey Him or cut themselves off from Him by disobedience. Sadly, they chose to disobey God and concede to Satan, a spiritual being who was also in the garden. Plying his trade, Satan convinced the first man and woman that they did not have to obey God—which cut man off from God. This remains true today.
While many view the account in the garden as a fairy tale, it explains exactly why man has made the decisions he has—and why he has not been able to find the way to peace in a way that no other historical account can. How else can one explain the idea that man cannot of himself find peace—why he has not been able to apply basic principles to “get along with his neighbor”? What else so perfectly mirrors the reason man cannot seem to find happiness today—why even though the Bible says “do not commit adultery,” “do not kill” and “do not steal,” no one is able to adhere to such simple instructions?
This inability to apply instructions stems from the fact that man does not have access to God’s Holy Spirit—which would have allowed him to apply such principles and live a righteous life—yielding the fruits of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness [and] temperance” (Gal. 5:22-23).
Man rejecting his opportunity to have God’s Spirit in the Garden of Eden does not mean all is lost. God is merciful. He sees the suffering of mankind, and just as any loving parent, it pains Him to see His Creation make wrong decisions, and then have to learn from mistakes. But this is necessary.
God also realizes that without help, mankind would not be able to end the violence so prevalent in the world today. Therefore, His ultimate goal is to bring a solution somewhat related to the one mentioned by a Somali pirate—restoration of government.
But this will be His government!
Unlike any human government, with its scandals, corruption and tyranny, God’s government will stand for eternity. Administered by a just and loving Jesus Christ, everyone will have what they need. Abundance, prosperity and happiness will be commonplace.
This awesome promise is given in the book of Micah: “And He [Christ] shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever” (Mic. 4:3-5).
Though God promises His government will come to pass, this does not deter Satan from trying to thwart His Master Plan. Since the first time Satan deceived mankind, he has continually attempted to dissuade people from obeying God—or even from believing that God exists! (Read Psalm 14:1.)
Notice Revelation 12:9: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” This attempt to deceive includes the wonderful news that God will one day restore His kingdom to Earth.
But Satan—the ultimate “hijacker” who has captured mankind—will be defeated with the arrival of God’s government. This will end the cycle of greed and violence that he has brought to this world, and restore peace and prosperity for all.
No longer will companies be able to steal from and abuse the poor. No longer will downtrodden men murder to feed their families. No longer will a wife wonder if her husband will come home alive. No longer will there be crippled, ineffectual governments and worldwide chaos and confusion.
And no longer will anyone—pirate or otherwise—be able to say, “Evil is the only solution.”