What ‘Captain Phillips’ doesn’t tell about Somali pirates

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013 5:30 a.m.CDT

WASHINGTON – Earlier this month I had the disconcerting experience of watching a Navy SEAL raid off the coast of Somalia re-enacted onscreen while trying to surreptitiously sneak looks at my iPhone to check on the progress of a real Navy SEAL raid in Somalia taking place that very night.

There may be little proven connection between the Somali pirates depicted in the new film “Captain Phillips” and the al Shabab militants targeted earlier this month, but the new Tom Hanks movie, directed by Paul Greengrass, comes out at a time when the international security threats posed by the world’s most unstable country are very much in the news.

Although “Captain Phillips” works well as a fast-paced thriller, it doesn’t provide much context for what’s happening on screen. The film is tightly focused on the saga of Richard Phillips (Hanks). Unlike other re-enactment films – such as last year’s “Argo,” which featured an extensive prologue on the history leading up to the film – “Captain Phillips” drops viewers right into the action, beginning just before the fateful encounter between Phillips and the pirate crew led by Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (Barkhad Abdi). This may have been the better choice from a narrative point of view, but viewers may leave the movie not knowing much more about modern piracy than they did when they walked in.

For instance: In the film, Muse briefly mentions foreign vessels coming to take away the fish off the Somali coast. That refers to what many observers believe was a precipitating cause of the uptick in Somali piracy roughly 20 years ago. When the regime of longtime Somali dictator Siad Barre collapsed in 1991, the country was plunged into ongoing violence between rival armed groups and left without a central government capable of defending the country’s economic interests – including the “exclusive economic zone” off the Somali coast. Fleets from Europe and Asia quickly moved in, depleting the supply of fish.

As an African Development Bank report from 2011 put it, “Fishermen, dismayed at the inability of the central government to protect their country’s EEZ, and at the number of foreign fishing vessels illegally exploiting their traditional fisheries, took matters into their own hands. Initially arming themselves to chase off the illegal foreign fishing vessels, they quickly realized that robbing the vessels was a lucrative way to make up for lost income. Seeing their success, land based warlords co-opted some of the new pirates, organizing them into increasingly sophisticated gangs.” (There have also been periodic reports of toxic waste being dumped off Somalia’s shores, including by the Italian mafia.)

Pirates in most parts of the world specialize in stealing goods on board ships, but Somali pirates almost always hold ships for ransom, sometimes for months at a time. (The Maersk Alabama incident depicted in “Captain Phillips” was unusual in that the crew fought off the pirates after they had boarded.) Shipping companies were generally willing to write off pirate ransoms as the cost of doing business. This ransoms could reach as high as $9.5 million, so it’s not surprising that the pirates in the movie aren’t impressed by Phillips’ offer of the $30,000 in the ship’s safe.

By 2008, piracy had grown into a $50 million a year industry in Somalia. In 2009, the year of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, pirates carried out 214 attacks, leading to 47 hijackings. By 2011 it was up to 237, although the number of successful hijackings decreased.

But that year also marked a turning point with the establishment of Combined Task Force 151, the multinational naval unit tasked with protecting shipping from piracy off the Somali coast. If nothing else, “Captain Phillips” gives a good sense of the firepower mismatch between western naval vessels and the pirates they were sent to hunt.

Although initially met with skepticism, the task force, combined with improved security onboard ships – many merchant vessels now carry armed military contractors on board when passing through – does seem to have had an impact. The improving security situation on land in Somalia also likely played a role.

The number of attacks plummeted in 2012, and so far this year, there have been only 10 reported attacks by Somali pirates and two hijackings. In an ironic development, some pirates have now gone into a new line of business, protecting illegal fishing boats.

This isn’t to say that the problem of piracy has gone away. In fact, the number of attacks off Somalia are now exceeded by attacks off the coast of West Africa, particularly in the oil rich Gulf of Guinea. But the situation where Richard Phillips sailed has changed drastically.

• Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics.

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