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In a Failed State: Origins of Somali Piracy

Theories and rumors swarm over the origins of the hijack-and-ransom piracy practiced by Somali clans.
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If piracy hasn't been around as long as wood has floated -- to use the old-salt expression -- certainly it has existed as long there here has been such a thing as sea-going trade between nations, empires, city-states, tribes. It's perhaps slightly younger than prostitution

But the 21st century form practiced by the Somalis, with its hijack-hostage-ransom arithmetic, is a true innovation. It is something new in the piracy field -- in modern times, at least. (A band of roving seafarers from a mostly forgotten tribe of the eastern Mediterranean once held Julius Caesar hostage, famously, with the object of extorting a ransom. According to Plutarch, they struck a deal for 50 gold talents; Caesar then sent the Roman armada to hunt down his captors, which they did. And the Barbary pirates -- to which Somali's bandits are most often compared, for obvious geographic and religious reasons -- would sometimes take tribute in return for the release of certain captured ships, but their main line was out-and-out loot and plunder.)

And it works: Somalia's pirate gangs have devised a money-extortion scheme that the world's navies, with all their shocking firepower, are nearly powerless against. The warships can't get too close, for fear of inciting violence that would harm the crews. The evidence suggests that the pirates, for their part, driven by self-interest, don't wish to do violence to the crews, either -- because if they did, they'd provide justification to the naval admirals nearby to send in the commandos and attack helicopters.

(The death toll aboard Somali-pirate-seized ships has remained light, at least among reported incidents. Over the last two years, two crew members have died: a captain killed by gunfire (possibly stray) during a 2009 attack; and the captain of the

MV Faina

, felled by a heart attack at some point during his ordeal.)

The failed state makes it all go. The pirate gangs, said to be affiliated with familial clans led by warlords, are based largely in two semi-autonomous regions in the northeastern part of the country, called Puntland and Galguduud. Puntland especially is the "perfect environment" for the pursuit of piracy. The region remains chaotic enough for a brigand to live free from much in the way of laws -- though Puntland's court system, such as it is, has prosecuted and jailed pirates -- but not nearly as chaotic as Mogadishu and the southern portion of the country, where heavily armed clans and Islamic fundamentalists fight their nightmare conflict.

In other words, Puntland offers a "less expensive" site in which to "do any kind of business in," says Roger Middleton, the Somalia expert at Chatham House, a foreign-policy think tank in London. In further other words, Puntland at least has enough of an administrative structure in place for which the pirates to bribe.

A thematically ripe collection of facts and rumors and conspiracy theories have coalesced around the origins of modern hijack-for-ransom piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Fact: with the collapse of the country's government nearly 20 years ago, so, too, collapsed any apparatus to guard Somalia's 3,000-mile length of coast.

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Fact: flash-forward 15 years, after the tsunami of 2005: barrels of muck -- apparently hundreds of them -- began washing ashore on the beaches of the failed state. A United Nations group went in to have a look at the barrels. Radioactive uranium, cadmium, lead, mercury, chemical waste, industrial waste, hospital waste -- the list of toxic substances was almost comically thorough, the origin-stories of a hundred superheroes.

The resulting UN report appeared to give credence to what many had already believed: That ships from somewhere, owned by someone, had steamed (were still steaming?) into the failed-state territorial waters off Somalia and unloading tons of toxic waste.

(There have also been reports of deeply sinister connections between the waste-dumping and the Italian mafias and crime syndicates of Sicily and Calabria, which evidently have long histories of providing such illicit maritime services.)

At the same time, fishing trawlers from around the world were spreading their nets in Somali waters, long renown for the fecundity of its equatorial sea life. They had free reign of course, since no authority existed to regulate or police the foreign boats.

And so the legend, the origin story (which the pirates themselves have at times striven to cultivate): "vigilante" groups of Somali fishermen took matters into their own hands by busting the trawlers who, by the Somali's sights, were over-fishing. They also took levies, of a sort, selling "licenses" to the foreign fishing boats. Different warlords, evidently, held discrete portions of the sea. (Large numbers of foreign fishing boats are still hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia to this day. The latest, in fact, was on March 9; the ship is believed to be Spanish.)

And, what with all the evidence of waste dumping, the Somali fishermen -- again, according to the logic of this particular origin story -- began motoring out to the huge merchant ships plying the waters en route to Suez, just to make sure the ships weren't unloading heinous cargoes into the ocean.

Somehow, according to legend, all this morphed: from victim fishermen to righteous vigilantes to self-deputized fishing-license sellers to armed toll-collectors to toxic avengers and hijack artists and hostage takers and sophisticated ransom negotiators. Probably not to the pirates' mainstream credit, the Barbary-coast dictator Muamar Quadaffi, a man with as many lives as there are spellings of his name, once praised Somalia's pirate bands, arguing that they were simply defending themselves and their resources.

To this day the pirates will from time to time say that they're part of a quasi-militia organization, called (translated) the Coast Guard.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

Scott Eden has covered business -- both large and small -- for more than a decade. Prior to joining, he worked as a features reporter for Dealmaker and Trader Monthly magazines. Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Reader, that city's weekly paper. Early in his career, he was a staff reporter at the Dow Jones News Service. His reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the Believer magazine, among other publications. He's also the author of Touchdown Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a nonfiction book about Notre Dame football fans and the business and politics of big-time college sports. He has degrees from Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.