Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Pirates: The Maersk Alabama

Fishermen Turned Pirates

Somalia's 2000-mile coastline is the longest in continental Africa. And the pirate-infested waters stretching from Somalia to Tanzania make up over one million square miles, about four times the area of Texas.

Map of Somalia
Map of Somalia
Understandably, then, Somalia is a maritime nation, its economy dependent on the sea. Unfortunately, it's also a failed and nearly lawless state.

In 1991, Somalia, facing rampant inflation and human rights abuses, ousted dictator Siade Barre with help from Ethiopia. Civil war and widespread famine ensued. International peacekeeping and relief missions, punctuated by the bloody but indecisive 1993 Battle of Mogadishu between U.S. special operations forces and the militia of warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid , were only partially successful, and a tsunami in 2006 further weakened the country. Violence flared again. Ethiopia invaded to maintain the UN-backed transitional government against an Islamic theocracy. In 2009, Ethiopia withdrew, and fighting resumed.

As Somalia has dissolved as a state, foreign vessels with more sophisticated equipment and greater resources have increasingly overfished Somali watersSomalia no longer has a Coast Guard with which to defend its maritime interests. As a result, $300 million per year in fish has effectively been stolen by foreign fishing operations, notably from South Korea, Japan and Spain, operating extralegally in Somali waters.

In response, fishermen in the villages of Eyl, Kismayo and Harardhere formed gangs to protect their livelihoods. Pirate crews such as the National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia or the Somali Marines show their founding motives in their names: At least originally, these were protective organizations.

These gangs then demanded that fishing boats pay them a tax. Unlicensed international fishers operating in the tuna- and lobster-rich waters proved to be a good source of protection money: They didn't want their illegal fishing publicized and ended. Some of these vigilantes were then seduced by these ransoms into an escalating series of crimes. It was certainly more than they ever made as fishermen.

Though many of Somali fisherman and other locals are scandalized by this thuggery, there's little they can do. Pirates employ them and bring money into the community. They dominate local merchants. They steal food and supplies destined for aid organizations, but the feeble transitional government is too busy dealing with an Islamic insurgency in the country's south to worry about the pirates in the north.