The Risk of Piracy, Chechen-Style
- By Yulia Latynina
- Nov. 26 2008 00:00
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The events in the Gulf of Aden seem to be a microcosm of the contemporary world. Located between Yemen and Somalia, the Gulf of Aden is a vital artery of global shipping that feeds the Suez Canal. Every day, 250 ships of every kind -- giant tankers and container ships carrying everything from clothes to electronics -- transport $2 billion of goods through the gulf.
In the past weeks, the Gulf of Aden has turned into a maritime version of Chechnya. In the beginning of their struggle against Russia, Chechen insurgents were relatively benevolent, releasing captured Russian soldiers and even giving them money for the road home. But soon human trafficking turned into a prosperous business when insurgents received large ransoms for the release of captives.
Somali piracy is on the rise. The only weapons pirates need to do business are automatic rifles. Their communication equipment consists of crude walkie-talkies, and they gather intelligence by slipping $100 bills to corrupt Kenyan port official who tell them everything they need to know about potential targets. It is pure chaos, with the pirates high on drugs and the "mother ships" from which they launch their operations nothing more than souped-up washtubs.
The only positive trait of Somali pirates is that they are not bloodthirsty. There has not been a single instance of the pirates killing a hostage. They are more likely to shoot each other under the influence of narcotics than to slit the throats of their captive crews.
After seizing the Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship, Somali pirates for the first time demanded a ransom for the cargo rather than the crew. Then, on Nov. 14, they pulled off a superheist when, for the first time in history, they captured a supertanker -- Saudi Arabia's Sirius Star. The only bigger prize left for the pirates is to seize is a giant container ship. Judging by how things are going, though, that day cannot be far off.
What can the West do in this situation? Not much. Burn Somali coastal villages? Sink the pirates' boats with heat-seeking missiles? This would be difficult since their vessels are indistinguishable from fishing boats.
What do the Islamic countries think about what is happening? They are deeply disturbed about the West's growing military presence in the region. Egypt, with control over the lucrative Suez Canal, knows that its economy will sink faster than the Titanic if ships are forced to use alternative routes.
What comes next? The pirates will become more Islamized, and it won't be long until pirates linked to an al-Qaida organization seize a container ship with $2 billion in freight. We will soon see a new version of both Chechnya and Afghanistan on the seaways.
Unfortunately, the global economy is helpless against the pirates, in the same way that an elephant can't effectively battle lice. Globalization has made many countries dangerously dependent on key transport routes now held hostage by pirates.
Humane standards also complicate the problem. The West simply can't get away with solving the piracy problem in the same ruthless and lawless fashion as Russia handles its Chechen problem.
The Islamic Courts Union, which held power in Somalia in 2006 until the United States kicked it out, was able to get rid of the pirates in a matter of weeks, just as the Taliban did with Afghan drug traffickers. Now pirates refer to the radical al-Shabab insurgency group, which controls many areas in the south of Somalia and has a good chance of taking control of the entire country, as the "defenders of the faith" and to Western ships in the Gulf of Aden as infidels and occupiers.
The United States always hopes for the best and ends up with the worst.
Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.