The deployment of an elite unit of US Navy SEALs to a remote airstrip in central Somalia last Tuesday night was an unprecedented move on the part of the United States. Acting under explicit orders from the White House, in less than an hour the team had freed aid workers American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted from their harrowing three-month captivity in the hands of Somali pirates, leaving eight of the pair’s captors dead in their wake.
Not only was it the first time U.S. military boots had touched Somali soil since pulling out of the war-wracked nation in 1993, the daring rescue occurred more than 150 miles inland, a place few expect to find high-seas marauders.
Yet kidnappings on land are increasingly becoming part of the Somali pirate MO, which has traditionally consisted of ocean-based attacks on commercial vessels transiting through the Gulf of Aden shipping choke point. Hijacked vessels are typically held hostage off the lawless coast for months on end; in the most tragic case to date, the Iceberg 1, a Panamanian-flagged cargo ship, has been held for 22 months, with no clear end in sight for her 23 crewmembers.
While the shift to land-based kidnappings may seem, well, very un-piratelike, it has been a logical reaction to the drop in the success rate of hijackings. Viable seaborne targets are declining by the day, as vessel owners and charterers increasingly turn to armed guards to protect their assets. As of yet, pirates have failed to board, let alone successfully commandeer a vessel so equipped, and gangs tend to abort attacks upon the mere sighting of an armed security team.
Looking year on year, the drop-off is striking. In the last three months of 2011, pirates managed to hijack just four vessels, a decline made all the more stark when compared with the 17 ships taken over the same period in 2010. The financial ramifications for pirate organizations have been significant; with their coffers running low, the desperate and increasingly violent hijackers have turned inland for fresh victims.
Foreigners on Somali soil are indeed proving easier prey. Over the last few months Somali pirates have held a number of foreigners for ransom, including two Spanish Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) workers, British vacationer Judith Tebbutt, and, most recently, American journalist Michael Scott Moore, who was kidnapped on the same road as Buchanan and Thisted only a week ago while researching a book on piracy. Paul and Rachel Chandler, two British yachters kidnapped in 2009 and held in Somalia for 388 days before garnering a $1 million ransom, were perhaps responsible for triggering the realization that Western hostages are supremely valuable commodities, whether accompanied by an oil tanker or not.
While Somali pirates are often described as a disorganized bunch of ragtag gunmen wielding rusty AK-47s, they are relatively sophisticated criminals; their weapons may require a bit of tape and WD-40, but they possess a network of experienced ransom negotiators at their fingertips, and have successfully brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms and sent the multibillion-dollar shipping industry into a panic. The latest diversification of their revenue stream is but another example of pirates adapting their tactics.
In some instances, pirate organizations have begun to move up the supply chain, abandoning the troublesome business of kidnapping by directly purchasing hostages from less experienced inland gangs for cents on the ransom dollar. Such was the case with both Judith Tebbutt and the late Marie Dedieu, kidnapped by opportunistic thugs while vacationing in the northern Kenyan resort town of Lamu late last year. Dedieu, a diabetic cancer patient with a serious heart condition, was literally dragged out of her wheelchair, and, left without critical medication, died within weeks of her abduction. Her kidnappers opted against cutting their losses by attempting to ransom Dedieu’s body to her bereaved family.
Tebbutt, however, remains alive and captive in central Somalia, after a pirate gang purchased her from her abductors. More recently, pirates paid $200,000 to al-Shabaab Islamist militants who last October kidnapped Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaud, two Spanish MSF workers, from the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya.
As might be expected, the U.S. rescue operation on Jan. 25 may have caused the pirates currently holding journalist Moore to rethink their business model. Whether in an attempt to dissuade a follow-up U.S. raid, or to exact half-baked revenge for the deaths of their colleagues, Moore’s captors immediately began circulating rumors (later proved to be false) that they had executed him in retaliation.
Worryingly, such a bloody reprisal would not be out of character. Pirates hardly follow a nondiscrimination policy with respect to the treatment of hostages, often targeting citizens of countries deemed too robust in capturing, prosecuting, and in some cases employing deadly force against the gangs. Indian and South Korean crewmembers have been singled out for particular abuse, and in several instances have been held back in captivity after their vessels were released. In a recent example of unprecedented barbarism, pirates severed the hand of a Taiwanese fishing captain as a negotiation tactic.
One possibility is that Moore will be moved from land to the much more secure environment of a hijacked vessel. Prior to their liberation, both Thisted and Buchanan had been moved for a time to the Malaysian-flagged MV Albedo, precisely because their captors had felt vulnerable to attack on land. Subsequent disputes with a key pirate investor involved with the Albedo had forced the group holding the two aid workers back to shore.
It is commonly cited trope that ending Somali piracy requires that the fight be taken to the pirates on land, rather than simply combating them at sea. Now that pirate organizations have begun to convert themselves to land-based kidnapping gangs, tacking them on their home turf has never been more imperative.