Piracy on the high seas and laser dazzlers

More people were taken hostage at sea in 2010 than in any year since records began. So how can a ‘ragged band’ of pirates hold the world to ransom?

The pirates approach the 'Yasin C' merchant vessel using sophisticated GPS guidance devices. They attack the ship using automatic weapons and grenades.

The crew, unable to fight back, lock themselves in the sweltering engine room for more than a day while a fire ignited by the grenades rages above their heads.

It’s just one more act of piracy off the coast of Somalia in East Africa, now the most dangerous waters on earth. And it’s a problem no one has been able to solve.

The story begins back in the early 1990s, when Somali fishermen got together to attack foreign boats they believed were encroaching on their territory and stealing heir fish.

But the motivation has now changed. Fishermen protecting their rights have become pirates earning millions. They capture ships, merchandise and people. And only when companies, governments or relatives pay the ransom are they returned.

Eight sailors were killed by pirates last year, but generally they neither wish to damage the boat nor harm the crew. There is no money for them in a sunk ship or a dead sailor.

After allowing the problem to fester for years, governments and companies are slowly taking action. Last year they spent around $8 billion on measures to combat the pirates.

But it remains a profitable business. There were 445 pirate attacks last year, with the pirates receiving a record total of $238 million in ransom money.

Some of that money came from the family of the British couple Paula and Rachel Chandler. They were freed after 13 months captivity, following an attack on their yacht.

And pirates currently still hold 31 vessels and 713 crew members from various countries.

Naval gazing
What is to be done? Various countries have sent in their navies, but the area is too large and the merchant ships too numerous for such policing to work.

Increasingly, ships are taking things into their own hands. The American ‘Maersk Alabama’ used Long Range Acoustic Devices to repel invaders, while BAE systems are marketing laser dazzlers to blind pirates before they can get on board.

Maybe the long-term solution lies on land rather than sea. Since 1991, Somalia has been without a functioning government; just a civil war encouraging lawlessness.

Would the establishment of effective government, the rule of law and alternative employment of the Somali people be the greatest naval victory of all?

You Decide

  1. Do you feel sorry for the pirates? Or admire them?
  2. Everyone has to make money to survive. When does a worker become a criminal?


  1. Write a scene for a play about the pirates. Imagine a hostage now tied and talking to their guard. What do they learn about each other? What emotions are in the room?
  2. Research the great pirates of history. What conclusions do you come to about them? Heroes or villains?

Some People Say...

“Why don't they just bomb Somalia out of existence?”

What do you think?

Q & A

So who are these pirates?
They probably split into three groups. There are the fishermen who know the waters well, and resent foreign ships. Then there are the ex-militia or military who provide the muscle. And finally, the ‘techies’ who operate the equipment like the GPS device.
And how do they operate?
At sea, there are ‘mother ships’ which control operations and send out smaller attack vessels. But there are also bases on land. Somalia’s long snaking coastline around the Horn of Africa provides the perfect hideout.
And will the pirates ever be defeated?
There's more security on ships now, and increasing international anger. But it's a slow process.
Why is it slow?
Governments and commerce can bear the economic costs. When it all gets too expensive, maybe they’ll join together and act.

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