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The Politics of Ransom

Do Europeans and Americans have different reasons to fear Somali pirates?

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero "did little to deny" — as the Associated Press put it last week — that his government had helped pay a record-breaking ransom to Somali pirates for the Alakrana, a Basque tuna trawler held for a month and a half off the town of Haradheere.

Ismail Haji Noor, a London-based counter-piracy envoy for Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, said the ransom of $3.3 million was the highest yet recorded by the TFG. When the pirates released the Alakrana last Tuesday there were reportedly onshore celebrations in Somalia, as well as fights over the money, which would oil every moving part of a well-organized pirate economy.

Over howls of protest from the United States, this pattern of behavior may persist, because the most important element of the pirate economy is the astonishing amount of ransom paid by Western firms. Nils Andersen, head of A.P. Møller-Maersk, one of the world's largest shipping lines, recently said that ransoms were now just an item on the budget for any risky sea voyage. "If the ships are hijacked, you negotiate, and you try to find a deal with the pirates," he told the BBC. "I think the whole shipping industry has crossed that bridge, unfortunately. ... The sums so far are, you could say, large for pirates, but it's not something that has damaged [our] company as such."

So the Somali pirate networks have found not just a choke point in world trade; they've found a surprising wormhole between the universes of the desperately poor and the impossibly rich. But the indulgence of Europeans like Andersen and Zapatero drives some Americans up a tree.

"The Europeans wish [our warships] would just go away," a U.S. Air Force officer in Djibouti said in September, talking unofficially about pirates. (He had nothing to do with counter-piracy and asked not to be named.) "They look at the ransoms as just another tax — the shipping lines as well as the governments. The American shipping lines aren't eager to pay because they know Americans are targets. If you're a European, you won't get killed by a pirate. If you're American, you might."

Noor disagrees with that. Somalis in general may have reason to resent Americans, but he says the largely nonfundamentalist community of coastal pirates holds no particular grudge, because they see so few American seafarers. "Of course everyone is looking for an American hostage," he said, but the real grudge among pirates is against fishing trawlers like the Alakrana.

Since the early '90s, after the central Somali government of Siad Barre collapsed, foreign fishing boats have harvested Somali waters for valuable seafood like tuna, lobster and shark. The lack of a central government gave the foreign fishermen an excuse to pay no license fees, although some local governors — warlords, in some cases, but also recognized regional leaders — have demanded payment.

This lawless bottom trawling has decimated Somali fishing grounds and outraged coastal communities since at least the mid-'90s. Attempts by Somalis to "enforce" license payment on those boats gradually led to hijacking attempts on larger cargo ships, according to regional experts at the International Crisis Group. Along the way, piracy became organized crime.

But the coastal communities remember old grudges. Abdi Yare, a spokesman in Haradheere for the pirates who held the Alakrana, told Agence France-Presse during the hostage standoff that the boat had been caught "stealing" fish. "The ship we are holding is not a commercial vessel, it came to Somalia to steal our marine resources," he said. "The amount of fish they have stolen from Somalia is more than the amount of the ransom we have demanded."

In any case, the fact that pirates catch so few Americans may be a matter of circumstance. U.S. fishing boats tend not to sail as far as the Indian Ocean; and American-flagged ocean liners are relatively rare, because it's cheaper for a company to pay taxes or crew wages under, say, a Panamanian or Liberian flag.

But pirate gangs make one hard distinction between Europe and the United States: When they demand a sack full of ransom money, they want it in dollars.

"No, they don't want euros," a Kenyan seafarers' unionist named Abubakar Omar told me in Mombasa. He chuckled. "Because dollars are exchangeable," meaning they work as an alternate currency in Somalia. "Everybody can use them."

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