Ruthless new breed of Somali pirates craves riches, not revenge

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KAMPALA, Uganda | Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have become more violent and demanded bigger ransoms in the wake of moderate international successes in thwarting their operations and bringing them to justice.

However, the pirates’ bloodthirstiness has not emerged from the desperation of impoverished fishermen, but from the calculated ruthlessness of organized criminal gangs who see profits in piracy.

The aftermath of last week’s deadly incident aboard the hijacked yacht Quest demonstrates the pirates’ resolve: Somali pirates announced Wednesday that they were sending more men and ammunition to the 30 hijacked ships under their control, and threatened to kill some of the 660 hostages they were holding.

Pirates fatally shot four American hostages — Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle, Wash.; and Jean and Scott Adam of Marina Del Rey, Calif. — on the Quest before Navy special forces boarded the vessel, killed some pirates and took 15 into custody.

The U.S. military said the captured pirates could face trial in the United States.

This photo provided by Joe Grande shows Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle a yacht in Bodega Bay, Calif., in June 2005. The couple were on a yacht seized by pirates and were killed last week. (Associated Press)

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This photo provided by Joe Grande shows Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle ... more >

On Feb. 16, a New York court sentenced a Somali pirate to almost 34 years in prison for his role in the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship whose captain was rescued by Navy sharpshooters who killed three pirates with simultaneous head shots.

In November, a federal court in Virginia convicted five Somalis on charges of piracy and other criminal activity.

Greater vigilance has led to some success in thwarting piracy. The U.S.-led coalition, Combined Task Force 150 of the Combined Maritime Forces, uses 14 ships from 10 countries to patrol waters around the Horn of Africa. More ships are deployed through NATO and the European Union, while the Contact Group for Piracy off the Coast of Somalia deals with operations such as strategy, capacity-building and communications.

As a consequence, the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden totaled 53 last year, down from 117 in 2009, after having doubled from 2007 to 2008. The stronger security presence has forced pirates to search farther out at sea in search of fresh loot.

But more people were taken hostage by pirates in 2010 than any other year on record, according to the International Chamber of Commerce and International Maritime Bureau. Eleven hijackings have been recorded off the coast of Somalia since the first of the year.

Ransom demands commonly reach $5 million, compared with a few hundred thousand dollars a few years ago.

Pirates once were thought to be poor, angry fishermen upset over international trawlers illegally fishing Somalia’s waters. Now criminal gangs dominate the piracy trade and have begun systematically torturing hostages, including locking them in freezers, the Associated Press reported.

“What we’re seeing is that because of the business model the pirates have adopted is so lucrative that you’re now getting organized criminal gangs involved as opposed to fishermen who just decided to have a go at piracy,” Wing Commander Paddy O’Kennedy of the European Union Naval Force Somalia told the AP.

“Criminal gangs are more violent than your average fisherman who’s turned to piracy,” he added.

Donna Hopkins, coordinator for counterpiracy and maritime security in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said a key incentive for pirates is a history of weak prosecution.

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