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Piracy’s New Golden Age

Pirates are as old as ships. The first pirates preyed on Greek, Roman, Carthaginian, and Phoenician cargo vessels in the Mediterranean. Sometimes they robbed for themselves. At other times, they were hired by the state, extracting reparations for perceived injuries in times of peace or simply attacking the enemy in times of war. That was how British pirates came to plague the Caribbean in the 1600s. Possessed of a far smaller navy but the same appetite for colonies, Britain employed privateers like Blackbeard—also known as Edward Teach and based on the North Carolina coast—to attack Spanish possessions and hijack Spanish ships transiting the Caribbean from Latin America back to Europe filled with New World gold.

Pirates need lawlessness on land and traffic at sea. Thankfully, today that largely rules out the Mediterranean and the Caribbean—both modern yachting paradises. Rather, pirates have moved with the times. Now they cluster in poorly policed states around the new bottlenecks in global shipping: the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden, gateway to the Suez Canal. The first, the name given to the narrows between Indonesia and Malaysia, is Asia’s link to the globe and an aorta of the international economy: More trade passes through there than any other sea-lane. Indonesia also happens to be one of Asia’s more corrupt and less guarded nations. Not coincidentally, for the past decade, the Strait of Malacca has been the most consistently dangerous waterway in the world. While thugs will occasionally attack a private boat (see map on page 55), their main target is freighters, worth millions but barely protected. Nearly 20 percent of the world’s 263 pirate attacks took place here in 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur.

The waters off Africa are fast becoming even more treacherous. Centuries ago, pirates used to hit freighters near the continent’s east coast: the island of Réunion is littered with the graves of old pirates and, supposedly, chests of buried treasure. Now, as Africa shakes off its aid dependency and becomes a business destination once again, the pirates have returned. Of the 83 pirate attacks or attempted hijackings in the third quarter of 2008, the IMB reports that 24 were off Nigeria, lawless on land and teeming with oil tankers at sea, and 26 off Somalia, a failed state since 1991. Somalia’s pirates are the most daring. They will stage multiple attacks in a day and see anything as fair game: Once, in November 2005, they even tried to board a cruise ship, Seabourn Cruise Lines’ Spirit, which managed to outrun them.

Two hijackings off Somalia in 2008 briefly threw piracy back to the top of the world’s security agenda. On September 25, a group of Somali pirates hijacked the M.V. Faina. The Faina turned out to be carrying 33 Russian T-72 tanks from Odessa, Ukraine, to Mombasa, Kenya. There have been scores of ships seized and crews taken hostage off Somalia in the past few years. But tanks were different. Shipping documents suggested the cargo was ultimately destined for southern Sudan, sparking fears that Africa’s longest running and bloodiest civil war—between northern and southern Sudan—might be primed to erupt once again. In response, an international armada descended on the Faina and cornered it in a bay along the Somali coast. A tense standoff ensued as the pirates tried to negotiate a ransom for the tanks and U.S. and Russian warships tried to prevent their being unloaded. In addition, eight European countries agreed to contribute ships and men to an international antipiracy task force.

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