Somali sea gangs lure investors at pirate lair
BY Mohamed Ahmed / Dec 1, 2009

In Somalia’s main pirate lair of Haradheere, the sea gangs have set up a cooperative to fund their hijackings offshore, a sort of stock exchange meets criminal syndicate. Heavily armed pirates from the lawless Horn of Africa nation have terrorized shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and strategic Gulf of Aden, which links Europe to Asia through the Red Sea. The gangs have made tens of millions of dollars from ransoms and a deployment by foreign navies in the area has only appeared to drive the attackers to hunt further from shore. It is a lucrative business that has drawn financiers from the Somali diaspora and other nations — and now the gangs in Haradheere have set up an exchange to manage their investments.

One wealthy former pirate named Mohammed took Reuters around the small facility and said it had proved to be an important way for the pirates to win support from the local community for their operations, despite the dangers involved. “Four months ago, during the monsoon rains, we decided to set up this stock exchange. We started with 15 ‘maritime companies’ and now we are hosting 72. Ten of them have so far been successful at hijacking,” Mohammed said. “The shares are open to all and everybody can take part, whether personally at sea or on land by providing cash, weapons or useful materials … we’ve made piracy a community activity.”

Haradheere, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Mogadishu, used to be a small fishing village. Now it is a bustling town where luxury 4×4 cars owned by the pirates and those who bankroll them create honking traffic jams along its pot-holed, dusty streets. Somalia’s Western-backed government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is pinned down battling hard-line Islamist rebels, and controls little more than a few streets of the capital. The administration has no influence in Haradheere — where a senior local official said piracy paid for almost everything. “Piracy-related business has become the main profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend on their output,” said Mohamed Adam, the town’s deputy security officer. “The district gets a percentage of every ransom from ships that have been released, and that goes on public infrastructure, including our hospital and our public schools.”

In a drought-ravaged country that provides almost no employment opportunities for fit young men, many are been drawn to the allure of the riches they see being earned at sea. Abdirahman Ali was a secondary school student in Mogadishu until three months ago when his family fled the fighting there. Given the choice of moving with his parents to Lego, their ancestral home in Middle Shabelle where strict Islamist rebels have banned most entertainment including watching sport, or joining the pirates, he opted to head for Haradheere. Now he guards a Thai fishing boat held just offshore. “First I decided to leave the country and migrate, but then I remembered my late colleagues who died at sea while trying to migrate to Italy,” he told Reuters. “So I chose this option, instead of dying in the desert or from mortars in Mogadishu.”

Haradheere’s “stock exchange” is open 24 hours a day and serves as a bustling focal point for the town. As well as investors, sobbing wives and mothers often turn up there seeking news of male relatives missing in action. Every week, Mohammed said, gang members and equipment were lost to the sea. But he said the pirates were not deterred. “Ransoms have even increased in recent months from between $2-3 million to $4 million because of the increased number of shareholders and the risks,” he said. “Let the anti-piracy navies continue their search for us. We have no worries because our motto for the job is ‘do or die’.” Piracy investor Sahra Ibrahim, a 22-year-old divorcee, was lined up with others waiting for her cut of a ransom pay-out after one of the gangs freed a Spanish tuna fishing vessel. “I am waiting for my share after I contributed a rocket-propelled grenade for the operation,” she said, adding that she got the weapon from her ex-husband in alimony. “I am really happy and lucky. I have made $75,000 in only 38 days since I joined the ‘company’.”


A basic piracy operation requires a minimum eight to twelve militia prepared to stay at sea for extended periods of time, in the hopes of hijacking a passing vessel. Each team requires a minimum of two attack skiffs, weapons, equipment, provisions, fuel and preferably a supply boat. The costs of the operation are usually borne by investors, some of whom may also be pirates.

To be eligible for employment as a pirate, a volunteer should already possess a firearm for use in the operation. For this ‘contribution’, he receives a ‘class A’ share of any profit. Pirates who provide a skiff or a heavier firearm, like an RPG or a general purpose machine gun, may be entitled to an additional A-share. The first pirate to board a vessel may also be entitled to an extra A-share.

At least 12 other volunteers are recruited as militiamen to provide protection on land of a ship is hijacked, In addition, each member of the pirate team may bring a partner or relative to be part of this land-based force. Militiamen must possess their own weapon, and receive a ‘class B’ share — usually a fixed amount equivalent to approximately US$15,000.

If a ship is successfully hijacked and brought to anchor, the pirates and the militiamen require food, drink, qaad, fresh clothes, cell phones, air time, etc. The captured crew must also be cared for. In most cases, these services are provided by one or more suppliers, who advance the costs in anticipation of reimbursement, with a significant margin of profit, when ransom is eventually paid.

When ransom is received, fixed costs are the first to be paid out. These are typically:
• Reimbursement of supplier(s)
• Financier(s) and/or investor(s): 30% of the ransom
• Local elders: 5 to 10 %of the ransom (anchoring rights)
• Class B shares (approx. $15,000 each): militiamen, interpreters etc.

The remaining sum — the profit — is divided between class-A shareholders.


BY Ryan Hagen / April 20, 2009

The crew of the Maersk Alabama, having survived an attack by pirates in Somalia last week, has returned home for a much-deserved rest. But with tensions ratcheting up between the U.S. and the rag-tag confederation of Somali pirates, it’s worth looking to the past for clues on how to tame the outlaw seas. Peter Leeson, an economist at George Mason University (and an occasional Freakonomics guest blogger), offers a brisk and fascinating look at old-school piracy in his new book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. Leeson agreed to sit down and answer some important piratical questions for us:

Q: The Invisible Hook is more than just a clever title. How is it different from Adam Smith’s invisible hand?
A: In Adam Smith, the idea is that each individual pursuing his own self-interest is led, as if by an invisible hand, to promote the interest of society. The idea of the invisible hook is that pirates, though they’re criminals, are still driven by their self-interest. So they were driven to build systems of government and social structures that allowed them to better pursue their criminal ends. They’re connected, but the big difference is that, for Adam Smith, self-interest results in cooperation that generates wealth and makes other people better off. For pirates, self-interest results in cooperation that destroys wealth by allowing pirates to plunder more effectively.

Q: In the book, you write that pirates had set up their own early versions of constitutional democracy, complete with separation of powers, decades before the American Revolution. Was that only possible because they were outlaws, operating entirely outside the control of any government?
A: That’s right. The pirates of the 18th century set up quite a thoroughgoing system of democracy. The reason that the criminality is driving these structures is because they can’t rely on the state to provide those structures for them. So pirates, more than anyone else, needed to figure out some system of law and order to make it possible for them to remain together long enough to be successful at stealing.

Q: So did these participatory, democratic systems give merchant sailors an incentive to join pirate crews, because it meant they were freer among pirates than on their own ships?
A: The sailors had more freedom and better pay as pirates than as merchantmen. But perhaps the most important thing was freedom from the arbitrariness of captains and the malicious abuses of power that merchant captains were known to inflict on their crews. In a pirate democracy, a crew could, and routinely did, depose their captain if he was abusing his power or was incompetent.

Q: You write that pirates weren’t necessarily the bloodthirsty fiends we imagine them to have been. How does the invisible hook explain their behavior?
A: The basic idea is, once we recognize pirates as economic actors, businessmen really, it becomes clear as to why they wouldn’t want to brutalize everyone they overtook. In order to encourage merchantmen to surrender, they needed to communicate the idea that, if you surrender to us, you’ll be treated well. That’s the incentive pirates give for sailors to surrender peacefully. If they wantonly abused their prisoners, as they’re often portrayed as having done, that would have actually undermined the incentive of merchant crews to surrender, which would have caused pirates to incur greater costs. They would have had to battle it out more often, because the merchants would have expected to be tortured indiscriminately if they were captured.

So instead, what we often see in the historical record is pirates displaying quite remarkable feats of generosity. The other side of that, of course, is that if you resisted, they had to unleash, you know, a hellish fury on you. That’s where most of the stories of pirate atrocities come from. That’s not to say that no pirate ever indulged his sadistic impulses. But I speculate that the pirate population had no higher proportion of sadists than legitimate society did. And those sadists among the pirates tended to reserve their sadistic actions for times when it would profit them.

Q: So they never made anyone walk the plank?
A: There was no walking the plank. There’s no historical foundation for that in 17th- or 18th-century piracy.

Q: You write about piracy as a brand. It’s quite a successful one, having lasted for hundreds of years after the pirates themselves were exterminated. What was the key to that success?
A: There was a very particular type of reputation that pirates wanted to cultivate. It was a very delicate line to walk. They didn’t want to have a reputation for wanton brutality or complete madness. They wanted to be perceived as hair-trigger men, men on the edge, who if you pushed, if you resisted, they would snap and do something horrible to you. That way, the captives they took had an incentive to be very careful to comply with all of the pirates’ demands. At the same time, they wanted a reputation as being very brutal, as meting out these brutal, horrible tortures to captives who didn’t comply with their demands. Stories about those horrible tortures were relayed not only by word of mouth, but by early 18th-century newspapers. When a former prisoner was released, he would oftentimes go to the media and provide an account of his capture. So when colonials read these accounts in the media, that helped institutionalize the idea of pirates as these men on the edge. That worked marvelously for pirates. It was a form of advertising performed by legitimate members of society that again helped pirates reduce their costs.

Q: What kinds of lessons can we draw from The Invisible Hook in dealing with modern pirates?
A: We have to recognize that pirates are rational economic actors and that piracy is an occupational choice. If we think of them as irrational, or as pursuing other ends, we’re liable to come up with solutions to the pirate problem that are ineffective. Since we know that pirates respond to costs and benefits, we should think of solutions that alter those costs and benefits to shape the incentives for pirates and to deter them from going into a life of piracy.

Peter Leeson
email : pleeson [at] gmu [dot] edu






“We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits
those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and
carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of
us like a coast guard.”

Somalia’s pirates flourish in a lawless nation
BY Jeffrey Gettleman / October 31, 2008

Boosaaso, Somalia: This may be one of the most dangerous towns in
Somalia, a place where you can get kidnapped faster than you can wipe
the sweat off your brow. But it is also one of the most prosperous.
Money changers walk around with thick wads of hundred-dollar bills.
Palatial new houses are rising up next to tin-roofed shanties. Men in
jail reminisce, with a twinkle in their eyes, about their days living
like kings. This is the story of Somalia’s booming, not-so-underground
pirate economy. The country is in chaos, countless children are
starving and people are killing one another in the streets of
Mogadishu, the capital, for a handful of grain. But one particular
line of work – piracy – seems to be benefiting quite openly from all
this lawlessness and desperation. This year, Somali officials say,
pirate profits are on track to reach a record $50 million, all of it
tax free.

“These guys are making a killing,” said Mohamud Muse Hirsi, the top
Somali official in Boosaaso, who himself is widely suspected of
working with the pirates, though he vigorously denies it. More than 75
vessels have been attacked this year, far more than any other year in
recent memory. About a dozen have been set upon in the past month
alone, including a Ukrainian freighter packed with tanks, antiaircraft
guns and other heavy weaponry, which was brazenly seized in September.
The pirates use fast-moving skiffs to pull alongside their prey and
scamper on board with ladders or sometimes even rusty grappling hooks.
Once on deck, they hold the crew at gunpoint until a ransom is paid,
usually $1 million to $2 million. Negotiations for the Ukrainian
freighter are still going on, and it is likely that because of all the
publicity, the price for the ship could top $5 million. In Somalia, it
seems, crime does pay. Actually, it is one of the few industries that

“All you need is three guys and a little boat, and the next day you’re
millionaires,” said Abdullahi Omar Qawden, a former captain in
Somalia’s long-defunct navy. People in Garoowe, a town south of
Boosaaso, describe a certain high-rolling pirate swagger. Flush with
cash, the pirates drive the biggest cars, run many of the town’s
businesses – like hotels – and throw the best parties, residents say.
Fatuma Abdul Kadir said she went to a pirate wedding in July that
lasted two days, with nonstop dancing and goat meat, and a band flown
in from neighboring Djibouti. “It was wonderful,” said Fatuma, 21.
“I’m now dating a pirate.”

This is too much for many Somali men to resist, and criminals from all
across this bullet-pocked land are now flocking to Boosaaso and other
notorious pirate dens along the craggy Somali shore. They have turned
these waters into the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world. With
the situation clearly out of control, warships from the United States,
Russia, NATO, the European Union and India are steaming into Somalia’s
waters as part of a reinvigorated, worldwide effort to crush the
pirates. But it will not be easy. The pirates are sea savvy. They are
fearless. They are rich and getting richer, with the latest high-tech
gadgetry like handheld GPS units. And they are united. The immutable
clan lines that have pitted Somalis against one another for decades
are not a problem here. Several captured pirates interviewed in
Boosaaso’s main jail said that they had recently crossed clan lines to
open new, lucrative, multiclan franchises. “We work together,” said
Jama Abdullahi, a jailed pirate. “Good for business, you know?”

The pirates are also sprinkled across thousands of square miles of
water, from the Gulf of Aden, at the narrow doorway to the Red Sea, to
the Kenyan border along the Indian Ocean. Even if the naval ships
manage to catch pirates in the act, it is not clear what they can do.
In September, a Danish warship captured 10 men suspected of being
pirates cruising around the Gulf of Aden with rocket-propelled
grenades and a long ladder. But after holding the suspects for nearly
a week, the Danes concluded that they did not have jurisdiction to
prosecute, so they dumped the pirates on a beach, minus their guns.
Nobody, it seems, has a clear plan for how to tame Somalia’s unruly
seas. Several fishermen along the Gulf of Aden talked about seeing
barrels of toxic waste bobbing in the middle of the ocean. They spoke
of clouds of dead fish floating nearby and rogue fishing trawlers
sucking up not just fish and lobsters but also the coral and the
plants that sustain them. It was abuses like these, several men said,
that turned them from fishermen into pirates. Nor is it even clear
whether Somali authorities universally want the piracy to stop. While
many pirates have been arrested, several fishermen, Western
researchers and more than a half-dozen pirates in jail spoke of
nefarious relationships among fishing companies, private security
contractors and Somali government officials, especially those working
for the semiautonomous regional government of Puntland.

“Believe me, a lot of our money has gone straight into the
government’s pockets,” said Farah Ismail Eid, a pirate who was
captured in nearby Berbera and sentenced to 15 years in jail. His
pirate team, he said, typically divided up the loot this way: 20
percent for their bosses, 20 percent for future missions (to cover
essentials like guns, fuel and cigarettes), 30 percent for the gunmen
on the ship and 30 percent for government officials. Abdi Waheed
Johar, the director general of the fisheries and ports ministry of
Puntland, openly acknowledged in an interview this spring that “there
are government people working with the pirates.” But, he was quick to
add, “It’s just not us.”

What is happening off Somalia’s shores is basically an extension of
the corrupt, violent free-for-all that has raged on land for 17 years
since the central government imploded in 1991. The vast majority of
Somalis lose out. Young thugs who are willing to serve as muscle get a
job, albeit a low-paying one, that significantly reduces their life
expectancy. And a select few warlords, who have sat down and figured
out how to profit off the anarchy, make a fortune. Take Boosaaso, once
a thriving port town on the Gulf of Aden. Piracy is killing off the
remains of the local fishing industry because export companies are
staying away. It has spawned a kidnapping business on shore, which in
turn has scared away many humanitarian agencies and the food, medicine
and other forms of desperately needed assistance they bring. Reporting
in Boosaaso two weeks ago required no fewer than 10 hired gunmen
provided by the Puntland government to discourage any would-be

Few large cargo ships come here anymore, depriving legitimate
government operations of much-needed port taxes. Just about the only
ships willing to risk the voyage are small, wooden, putt-putt
freighters from India, essentially floating jalopies from another era.
“We can’t survive off this,” said Bile Qabowsade, a Puntland official.
The shipping problems have contributed to food shortages, skyrocketing
inflation and less work for the sinewy stevedores who trudge out to
Boosaaso’s beach every morning and stare in vain at the bright
horizon, their bare feet planted in the hot sand, hoping a ship will
materialize so they will be able to make a few pennies hauling 100-
pound sacks of sugar on their backs.

And yet, suspiciously, there has been a lot of new construction in
Boosaaso. There is an emerging section of town called New Boosaaso
with huge homes rising above the bubble-shaped huts of refugees and
the iron-sided shacks that many fishermen call home. These new houses
cost several hundred thousand dollars. Many are painted in garish
colors and protected by high walls. Even so, Boosaaso is still a
crumbling, broke, rough-and-tumble place, decaying after years of
neglect like so much of war-ravaged Somalia. It is also dangerous in
countless ways. On Wednesday, suicide bombers blew up two government
offices, most likely the work of Islamist radicals trying to turn
Somalia into an Islamist state. Of course, no Somali government
official would openly admit that New Boosaaso’s minicastles were built
with pirate proceeds. But many people, including United Nations
officials and Western diplomats, suspect that is the case.

Several jailed pirates have accused Muse, a former warlord who is now
Puntland’s president, of being paid off. Officials in neighboring
Somaliland, a breakaway region of northwestern Somalia, said they
recently organized an antipiracy sting operation and arrested Muse’s
nephew, who was carrying $22,000 in cash. “Top Puntland officials
benefit from piracy, even if they might not be instigating it,” said
Roger Middleton, a researcher at the Royal Institute of International
Affairs in London. Actually, he added, “all significant political
actors in Somalia are likely benefiting from piracy.” But Muse said he
did not know anything about this. “We are the leaders of this
country,” he said. “Everybody we suspect, we fire from work.”

He said that Puntland was taking aggressive action against the
pirates. And Boosaaso’s main jail may be proof of that. The other day,
a dozen pirates were hanging out in the yard under a basketball hoop.
And that was just the beginning. “Pirates, pirates, pirates,” said
Gure Ahmed, a Canadian-Somali inmate of the jail, charged with murder.
“This jail is full of pirates. This whole city is pirates.” In other
well-known pirate dens, like Garoowe, Eyl, Hobyo and Xarardheere,
pirates have become local celebrities. Said Farah, 32, a shopkeeper in
Garoowe, said the pirates seemed to have money to burn. “If they see a
good car that a guy is driving,” he said, “they say, ‘How much? If
it’s 30 grand, take 40 and give me the key.’ ”

Every time a seized ship tosses its anchor, it means a pirate shopping
spree. Sheep, goats, water, fuel, rice, spaghetti, milk and cigarettes
– the pirates buy all of this, in large quantities, from small towns
up and down the Somali coast. Somalia’s seafaring thieves are not like
the Barbary pirates, who terrorized European coastal towns hundreds of
years ago and often turned their hostages into galley slaves chained
to the oars. Somali pirates are known as relatively decent hosts,
usually not beating their hostages and keeping them well-fed until
payday comes. “They are normal people,” said Said. “Just very, very

Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money
BY Jeffrey Gettleman / October 1, 2008

Nairobi, Kenya — The Somali pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter
loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition said in
an interview on Tuesday that they had no idea the ship was carrying
arms when they seized it on the high seas. “We just saw a big ship,”
the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, said in a telephone interview. “So
we stopped it.” The pirates quickly learned, though, that their booty
was an estimated $30 million worth of heavy weaponry, heading for
Kenya or Sudan, depending on whom you ask.

In a 45-minute interview, Mr. Sugule spoke on everything from what the
pirates wanted (“just money”) to why they were doing this (“to stop
illegal fishing and dumping in our waters”) to what they had to eat on
board (rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, “you know, normal human-being
food”). He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had
been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he
said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas
and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are
simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

The pirates who answered the phone call on Tuesday morning said they
were speaking by satellite phone from the bridge of the Faina, the
Ukrainian cargo ship that was hijacked about 200 miles off the coast
of Somalia on Thursday. Several pirates talked but said that only Mr.
Sugule was authorized to be quoted. Mr. Sugule acknowledged that they
were now surrounded by American warships, but he did not sound afraid.
“You only die once,” Mr. Sugule said.

He said that all was peaceful on the ship, despite unconfirmed reports
from maritime organizations in Kenya that three pirates were killed in
a shootout among themselves on Sunday or Monday night. He insisted
that the pirates were not interested in the weapons and had no plans
to sell them to Islamist insurgents battling Somalia’s weak
transitional government. “Somalia has suffered from many years of
destruction because of all these weapons,” he said. “We don’t want
that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the
weapons. We just want the money.” He said the pirates were asking for
$20 million in cash; “we don’t use any other system than cash.” But he
added that they were willing to bargain. “That’s deal-making,” he

Piracy in Somalia is a highly organized, lucrative, ransom-driven
business. Just this year, pirates hijacked more than 25 ships, and in
many cases, they were paid million-dollar ransoms to release them. The
juicy payoffs have attracted gunmen from across Somalia, and the
pirates are thought to number in the thousands. The piracy industry
started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response
to illegal fishing. Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991,
casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline,
Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing
fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and
turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and
demanding that they pay a tax. “From there, they got greedy,” said
Mohamed Osman Aden, a Somali diplomat in Kenya. “They starting
attacking everyone.”

By the early 2000s, many of the fishermen had traded in their nets for
machine guns and were hijacking any vessel they could catch: sailboat,
oil tanker, United Nations-chartered food ship. “It’s true that the
pirates started to defend the fishing business,” Mr. Mohamed said.
“And illegal fishing is a real problem for us. But this does not
justify these boys to now act like guardians. They are criminals. The
world must help us crack down on them.” The United States and several
European countries, in particular France, have been talking about ways
to patrol the waters together. The United Nations is even considering
something like a maritime peacekeeping force. Because of all the
hijackings, the waters off Somalia’s coast are considered the most
dangerous shipping lanes in the world.

On Tuesday, several American warships — around five, according to one
Western diplomat — had the hijacked freighter cornered along the
craggy Somali coastline. The American ships allowed the pirates to
bring food and water on board, but not to take weapons off. A Russian
frigate is also on its way to the area. Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Navy
spokesman, said on Tuesday that he had heard the unconfirmed reports
about the pirate-on-pirate shootout, but that the Navy had no more
information. “To be honest, we’re not seeing a whole lot of activity”
on the ship, he said.

In Washington, Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, declined
to discuss any possible American military operations to capture the
ship. “Our concern is right now making sure that there’s a peaceful
resolution to this, that this cargo does not end up in the hands of
anyone who would use it in a way that would be destabilizing to the
region,” Mr. Morrell told reporters at the Pentagon. He said the
United States government was not involved in any negotiations with the
pirates. He also said he had no information about reports that the
pirates had exchanged gunfire among themselves.

Kenyan officials continued to maintain that the weapons aboard were
part of a legitimate arms deal for the Kenyan military, even though
several Western diplomats, Somali officials and the pirates themselves
said the arms were part of a secret deal to funnel weapons to southern
Sudan. Somali officials are urging the Western navies to storm the
ship and arrest the pirates because they say that paying ransoms only
fuels the problem. Western diplomats, however, have said that such a
commando operation would be very difficult because the ship is full of
explosives and the pirates could use the 20 crew members as human

Mr. Sugule said his men were treating the crew members well. (The
pirates would not let the crew members speak on the phone, saying it
was against their rules.) “Killing is not in our plans,” he said. “We
only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.” When asked
why the pirates needed $20 million to protect themselves from hunger,
Mr. Sugule laughed and said, “Because we have a lot of men.”

“The pirates adopt names like the National Volunteer Coast Guard,
which is used by a group that intercepts small boats and fishing
vessels in southern Somalia. Another of the four main piracy groups
along the coast calls itself the Somali Marines. Organized like a
military unit, with admirals, vice admirals and the like, the group
operates around Mogadishu.”

Q. & A. With a Pirate: “We Just Want the Money”
BY Jeffrey Gettleman / September 30, 2008

Somali pirates in small boats hijacked the Faina, a Belize-flagged
cargo ship owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine, on Sept.
25. Sugule Ali, the spokesman for the Somali pirates holding hostage
the Faina, a Ukrainian freighter loaded with weapons, spoke to me by
satellite telephone today from the bridge of the seized ship. In the
holds of the Faina, which the pirates seized on Thursday, are 33
Russian-built battle tanks and crates of grenade launchers, anti-
aircraft guns, ammunition and other explosives. American officials
fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamist
insurgents who are battling Somalia’s weak government. My questions
were translated into Somali, and Mr. Ali’s responses into English, by
a translator employed by The New York Times.

Q. Tell us how you discovered the weapons on board.
A. As soon as we get on a ship, we normally do what is called a
control. We search everything. That’s how we found the weapons. Tanks,
anti-aircraft, artillery. That’s all we will say right now.

Q. Were you surprised?
A. No, we weren’t surprised. We know everything goes through the sea.
We see people who dump waste in our waters. We see people who
illegally fish in our waters. We see people doing all sorts of things
in our waters.

Q. Are you going to sell the weapons to insurgents?
A. No. We don’t want these weapons to go to anyone in Somalia. Somalia
has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these
weapons. We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are
not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money.

Q. How much?
A. $20 million, in cash. We don’t use any other system than cash.

Q. Will you negotiate?
A. That’s deal making. Common sense says human beings can make deals.

Q. Right now, the American Navy has you surrounded. Are you scared?
A. No, we’re not scared. We are prepared. We are not afraid because we
know you only die once.

Q. Will you kill the hostages if attacked?
A. Killing is not in our plans. We don’t want to do anything more than
the hijacking.

Q. What will you do with the money?
A. We will protect ourselves from hunger.

Q. That’s a lot of money to protect yourselves from hunger.
A. Yes, because we have a lot of men and it will be divided amongst
all of us.

Q. [There are 20 crew members, most of them Ukrainian, being held
hostage.] How are you interacting with the hostages? Eating with them?
Playing cards?
A. We interact with each other in an honorable manner. We are all
human beings. We talk to one another, and because we are in the same
place, we eat together.

Q. What if you were told you could leave peacefully, without arrest,
though without any ransom money. Would you do it?
A. [With a laugh] We’re not afraid of arrest or death or any of these
things. For us, hunger is our enemy.

Q. Have the pirates been misunderstood?
A. We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits [”sea bandit” is one way
Somalis translate the English word pirate]. We consider sea bandits
those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and
carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of
us like a coast guard.

Q. Why did you want to become a pirate?
A. We are patrolling our seas. This is a normal thing for people to do
in their regions.

Q. Isn’t what you are doing a crime? Holding people at gunpoint?
A. If you hold hostage innocent people, that’s a crime. If you hold
hostage people who are doing illegal activities, like waste dumping or
fishing, that is not a crime.

Q. What has this Ukrainian ship done that was a crime?
A. To go through our waters carrying all these weapons without

Q. What is the name of your group? How many ships have you hijacked
A. I won’t say how many ships we have hijacked. I won’t talk about
that. Our name is the Central Region Coast Guard.

“Our crew, who had been well trained and prepared, used water cannon, self-made incendiary bombs [Molotov cocktails or petrol bombs], beer bottles and anything else that could be used to battle with them. Thirty minutes later, the pirates gestured to us for a ceasefire. Then the helicopter from the joint fleet came to help us.”

Somali pirates in stare-down with global powers
BY Elizabeth A. Kennedy / Oct 15, 2008

Nairobi, Kenya — With a Russian frigate closing in and a half-dozen
U.S. warships within shouting distance, the pirates holding a tanker
off Somalia’s coast might appear to have no other choice than to wave
the white flag. But that’s not how it works in Somalia, a failed state
where a quarter of children die before they turn 5, where anybody with
a gun controls the streets and where every public institution has
crumbled. The 11-day standoff aboard the Ukrainian MV Faina begs the
question: How can a bunch of criminals from one of the poorest and
most wretched countries on Earth face off with some of the world’s
richest and well-armed superpowers?

“They have enough guns to fight for another 20 years,” Ted Dagne, a
Somalia analyst in Washington, told The Associated Press. “And there
is no way to win a battle when the other side is in a suicidal mind
set.” In Somalia, pirates are better-funded, better-organized and
better-armed than one might imagine in a country that has been in
tatters for nearly two decades. They have the support of their
communities and rogue members of the government — some pirates even
promise to put ransom money toward building roads and schools. With
most attacks ending with million-dollar payouts, piracy is considered
the biggest economy in Somalia. Pirates rarely hurt their hostages,
instead holding out for a huge payday. The strategy works well: A
report Thursday by a London-based think tank said pirates have raked
in up to $30 million in ransoms this year alone. “If we are attacked
we will defend ourselves until every last one of us dies,” Sugule Ali,
a spokesman for the pirates aboard the Faina, said in an interview
over satellite telephone from the ship, which is carrying 33 battle
tanks, military weapons and 21 Ukrainian and Latvian and Russian
hostages. One Russian has reportedly died, apparently of illness. The
pirates are demanding $20 million ransom, and say they will not lower
the price. “We only need money and if we are paid, then everything
will be OK,” he said. “No one can tell us what to do.”

Ali’s bold words come even though his dozens of fighters are
surrounded by U.S. warships and American helicopters buzz overhead.
Moscow has sent a frigate, which should arrive within days. Jennifer
Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington said hostage-taking is the key to the pirates’ success
against any military muscle looming from the U.S. and Russia. “Once
you have a crew at gunpoint, you can hold six U.S. naval warships at
bay and they don’t have a whole lot of options except to wait it out,”
Cooke said. The pirates have specifically warned against the type of
raids carried out twice this year by French commandos to recover
hijacked vessels. The French used night vision goggles and helicopters
in operations that killed or captured several pirates, who are now
standing trial in Paris. But the hostages are not the bandits’ only
card to play. Often dressed in military fatigues, pirates travel in
open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger mother ships
that tow them far out to sea. They use satellite navigational and
communications equipment and an intimate knowledge of local waters,
clambering aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.

They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket
launchers and grenades — weaponry that is readily available throughout
Somalia, where a bustling arms market operates in the center of the
capital. They also have the support of their communities and some
members of local administrations, particularly in Puntland, a
semiautonomous region in northeast Somalia that is a hotbed for
piracy, officials and pirates have told the AP. Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf,
a deputy minister of ports in Puntland, acknowledged there were
widespread signs that Puntland officials, lawmakers and government
officials are “involved or benefiting from piracy” and said
investigations were ongoing. He would not elaborate. Piracy has
transformed the region around the town of Eyl, near where many
hijacked ships are anchored brought while pirates negotiate ransoms.
“Pirates buy new luxury cars and marry two, three, or even four
women,” said Mohamed, an Eyl resident who refused to give his full
name for fear of reprisals from the pirates. “They build new homes —
the demand for construction material is way up.” He said most of the
well-known pirates promise to build roads and schools in addition to
homes for themselves. But for now, Mohamed says he has only seen
inflation skyrocket as the money pours in. “One cup of tea is about
$1,” he said. Before the piracy skyrocketed, tea cost a few cents.

Piracy in Somalia is nothing new, as bandits have stalked the seas for
years. But this year’s surge in attacks — nearly 30 so far — has
prompted an unprecedented international response. The Faina has been
the highest-profile attack because of its dangerous cargo. The U.S.
fears the arms could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants
in a country seen as a key battleground on terror. The United States
has been leading international patrols to combat piracy along
Somalia’s unruly 1,880-mile coast, the longest in Africa and near key
shipping routes. In June, the U.N. Security Council passed a
resolution that would allow countries to chase and arrest pirates
after attacks increased this year. But still, the attacks continue.
Dagne, an analyst in Washington, said that unless the roots of the
problem are solved — poverty, disease, violence — piracy will only
flourish. “You have a population that is frustrated, alienated, angry
and hopeless,” Dagne said. “This generation of Somalis grew up
surrounded by abject poverty and violence.”

Pirates die strangely after taking Iranian ship
BY Andrew Donaldson / Sep 28, 2008

A tense standoff has developed in waters off Somalia over an Iranian
merchant ship laden with a mysterious cargo that was hijacked by
pirates. Somali pirates suffered skin burns, lost hair and fell
gravely ill “within days” of boarding the MV Iran Deyanat. Some of
them died. Andrew Mwangura, the director of the East African
Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, told the Sunday Times: “We don’t
know exactly how many, but the information that I am getting is that
some of them had died. There is something very wrong about that ship.”

The vessel’s declared cargo consists of “minerals” and “industrial
products”. But officials involved in negotiations over the ship are
convinced that it was sailing for Eritrea to deliver small arms and
chemical weapons to Somalia’s Islamist rebels. The drama over the Iran
Deyanat comes as speculation grew this week about whether the South
African Navy would send a vessel to join the growing multinational
force in the region. A naval spokesman, Lieutenant-Commander Greyling
van den Berg, told the Sunday Times that the navy had not been ordered
by the government to become involved in “the Somali pirate issue”.

About 22000 ships a year pass through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of
Aden, where regional instability and “no-questions-asked” ransom
payments have led to a dramatic rise in attacks on vessels by heavily
armed Somali raiders in speedboats. The Iran Deyanat was sailing in
those waters on August 21, past the Horn of Africa and about 80
nautical miles southeast of Yemen, when it was boarded by about 40
pirates armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. They were
alleged members of a crime syndicate said to be based at Eyl, a small
fishing village in northern Somalia.

The ship is owned and operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran
Shipping Lines, or IRISL, a state-owned company run by the Iranian
military. According to the US Treasury Department, the IRISL regularly
falsifies shipping documents to hide the identity of end users, uses
generic terms to describe shipments and operates under various covers
to circumvent United Nations sanctions. The ship set sail from
Nanjing, China, at the end of July. According to its manifest, it was
heading for Rotterdam where it would unload 42500 tons of iron ore and
“industrial products” purchased by a German client. At Eyl, the ship
was secured by more pirates — about 50 on board, and another 50 on

But within days those who had boarded the ship developed mysterious
health trouble. This was also confirmed by Hassan Allore Osman,
minister of minerals and oil in Puntland, an autonomous region of
Somalia. He headed a delegation sent to Eyl when news of the toxic
cargo and illnesses surfaced. He told one news publication, The Long
War Journal, that during the six days he had negotiated with the
pirates, a number of them had become sick and died. “That ship is
unusual,” he was quoted as saying. “It is not carrying a normal

The pirates did reveal that they had tried to inspect the ship’s cargo
containers when some of them fell sick — but the containers were
locked. Osman’s delegation spoke to the ship’s captain and its
engineer by cellphone, demanding to know more about the cargo.
Initially it was claimed the cargo contained “crude oil”; later it was
said to be “minerals”. And Mwangura has added: “Our sources say it
contains chemicals, dangerous chemicals.” But IRISL has denied that —
and threatened legal action against Mwangura. The company has
reportedly paid the pirates 200000 — the first of several “ransom
instalments”, but that, too, has been denied.

‘Toxic waste’ behind Somali piracy
BY Najad Abdullahi / October 11, 2008 / 12:21 Mecca time

Somali pirates have accused European firms of dumping toxic waste off
the Somali coast and are demanding an $8m ransom for the return of a
Ukranian ship they captured, saying the money will go towards cleaning
up the waste. The ransom demand is a means of “reacting to the toxic
waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country
for nearly 20 years”, Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for the pirates,
based in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, said. “The Somali
coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing
compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas.”

The pirates are holding the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks
and military hardware, off Somalia’s northern coast. According to the
International Maritime Bureau, 61 attacks by pirates have been
reported since the start of the year. While money is the primary
objective of the hijackings, claims of the continued environmental
destruction off Somalia’s coast have been largely ignored by the
regions’s maritime authorities.

Dumping allegations
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy for Somalia confirmed to Al
Jazeera the world body has “reliable information” that European and
Asian companies are dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off
the Somali coastline. “I must stress however, that no government has
endorsed this act, and that private companies and individuals acting
alone are responsible,” he said. Allegations of the dumping of toxic
waste, as well as illegal fishing, have circulated since the early
1990s. But evidence of such practices literally appeared on the
beaches of northern Somalia when the tsunami of 2004 hit the country.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported the tsunami had
washed up rusting containers of toxic waste on the shores of Puntland.
Nick Nuttall, a UNEP spokesman, told Al Jazeera that when the barrels
were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed
a “frightening activity” that has been going on for more than decade.
“Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste
starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war
there,” he said. “European companies found it to be very cheap to get
rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste
disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne. “And the
waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste.
There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is
also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes
– you name it.”

Nuttall also said that since the containers came ashore, hundreds of
residents have fallen ill, suffering from mouth and abdominal
bleeding, skin infections and other ailments. “We [the UNEP] had
planned to do a proper, in-depth scientific assessment on the
magnitude of the problem. But because of the high levels of insecurity
onshore and off the Somali coast, we are unable to carry out an
accurate assessment of the extent of the problem,” he said. However,
Ould-Abdallah claims the practice still continues. “What is most
alarming here is that nuclear waste is being dumped. Radioactive
uranium waste that is potentially killing Somalis and completely
destroying the ocean,” he said.

Toxic waste
Ould-Abdallah declined to name which companies are involved in waste
dumping, citing legal reasons. But he did say the practice helps fuel
the 18-year-old civil war in Somalia as companies are paying Somali
government ministers to dump their waste, or to secure licences and
contracts. “There is no government control … and there are few
people with high moral ground … [and] yes, people in high positions
are being paid off, but because of the fragility of the TFG
[Transitional Federal Government], some of these companies now no
longer ask the authorities – they simply dump their waste and leave.”

Ould-Abdallah said there are ethical questions to be considered
because the companies are negotiating contracts with a government that
is largely divided along tribal lines. “How can you negotiate these
dealings with a country at war and with a government struggling to
remain relevant?” In 1992, a contract to secure the dumping of toxic
waste was made by Swiss and Italian shipping firms Achair Partners and
Progresso, with Nur Elmi Osman, a former official appointed to the
government of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, one of many militia leaders involved
in the ousting of Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia’s former president. At
the request of the Swiss and Italian governments, UNEP investigated
the matter. Both firms had denied entering into any agreement with
militia leaders at the beginning of the Somali civil war. Osman also
denied signing any contract.

‘Mafia involvement’
However, Mustafa Tolba, the former UNEP executive director, told Al
Jazeera that he discovered the firms were set up as fictitious
companies by larger industrial firms to dispose of hazardous waste.
“At the time, it felt like we were dealing with the Mafia, or some
sort of organised crime group, possibly working with these industrial
firms,” he said. “It was very shady, and quite underground, and I
would agree with Ould-Abdallah’s claims that it is still going on…
Unfortunately the war has not allowed environmental groups to
investigate this fully.”

The Italian mafia controls an estimated 30 per cent of Italy’s waste
disposal companies, including those that deal with toxic waste. In
1998, Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian weekly magazine, claimed that
although most of the waste-dumping took place after the start of the
civil war in 1991, the activity actually began as early as 1989 under
the Barre government. Beyond the ethical question of trying to secure
a hazardous waste agreement in an unstable country like Somalia, the
alleged attempt by Swiss and Italian firms to dump waste in Somalia
would violate international treaties to which both countries are

Legal ramifications
Switzerland and Italy signed and ratified the Basel Convention on the
Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their
Disposal, which came into force in 1992. EU member states, as well as
168 other countries have also signed the agreement. The convention
prohibits waste trade between countries that have signed the
convention, as well as countries that have not signed the accord
unless a bilateral agreement had been negotiated. It is also prohibits
the shipping of hazardous waste to a war zone. Abdi Ismail Samatar,
professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota, told Al Jazeera
that because an international coalition of warships has been deployed
to the Gulf of Aden, the alleged dumping of waste must have been

Environmental damage
“If these acts are continuing, then surely they must have been seen by
someone involved in maritime operations,” he said. “Is the cargo aimed
at a certain destination more important than monitoring illegal
activities in the region? Piracy is not the only problem for Somalia,
and I think it’s irresponsible on the part of the authorities to
overlook this issue.” Mohammed Gure, chairman of the Somalia Concern
Group, said that the social and environmental consequences will be
felt for decades. “The Somali coastline used to sustain hundreds of
thousands of people, as a source of food and livelihoods. Now much of
it is almost destroyed, primarily at the hands of these so-called
ministers that have sold their nation to fill their own pockets.” Ould-
Abdallah said piracy will not prevent waste dumping. “The intentions
of these pirates are not concerned with protecting their environment,”
he said. “What is ultimately needed is a functioning, effective
government that will get its act together and take control of its

‘We consider ourselves heroes’ – a Somali pirate speaks
Asad ‘Booyah’ Abdulahi, 42, describes himself as a pirate boss,
capturing ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
Interview by Xan Rice and Abdiqani Hassan / November 22 2008

“I am 42 years old and have nine children. I am a boss with boats
operating in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. I finished high
school and wanted to go to university but there was no money. So I
became a fisherman in Eyl in Puntland like my father, even though I
still dreamed of working for a company. That never happened as the
Somali government was destroyed [in 1991] and the country became

At sea foreign fishing vessels often confronted us. Some had no
licence, others had permission from the Puntland authorities but did
not want us there to compete. They would destroy our boats and force
us to flee for our lives. I started to hijack these fishing boats in
1998. I did not have any special training but was not afraid. For our
first captured ship we got $300,000. With the money we bought AK-47s
and small speedboats. I don’t know exactly how many ships I have
captured since then but I think it is about 60. Sometimes when we are
going to hijack a ship we face rough winds, and some of us get sick
and some die.

We give priority to ships from Europe because we get bigger ransoms.
To get their attention we shoot near the ship. If it does not stop we
use a rope ladder to get on board. We count the crew and find out
their nationalities. After checking the cargo we ask the captain to
phone the owner and say that have seized the ship and will keep it
until the ransom is paid. We make friends with the hostages, telling
them that we only want money, not to kill them. Sometimes we even eat
rice, fish, pasta with them. When the money is delivered to our ship
we count the dollars and let the hostages go.

Then our friends come to welcome us back in Eyl and we go to Garowe in
Land Cruisers. We split the money. For example, if we get $1.8m, we
would send $380,000 to the investment man who gives us cash to fund
the missions, and then divide the rest between us. Our community
thinks we are pirates getting illegal money. But we consider ourselves
heroes running away from poverty. We don’t see the hijacking as a
criminal act but as a road tax because we have no central government
to control our sea. With foreign warships now on patrol we have
difficulties. But we are getting new boats and weapons. We will not
stop until we have a central government that can control our sea.”

Somali pirates strike again / November 19, 2008 / 09:02 Mecca time

Somali pirates have struck again in the Gulf of Aden, hijacking
another ship a day after seizing a Saudi oil supertanker with a cargo
worth $100m. The Delight, a Hong Kong-registered vessel carrying
33,000 tonnes of wheat, was sailing to Iran with 25 crew members when
it was seized, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said. A spokesman for
the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Gulf confirmed on Tuesday that the
Delight had been hijacked. A Hong Kong government spokesman said
“this could be a serious matter for us. We will deal with it”.

Saudi tanker anchored
News of the latest hijack came as the hijackers of the Saudi Sirius
Star – the biggest vessel ever hijacked – anchored the vessel off
Somalia. The vessel was seized in the Indian ocean off East Africa on
Sunday in the boldest attack by pirates operating from lawless
Somalia. “We can confirm the ship is anchoring off the Somali coast at
Haradheere,” Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the US
Fifth Fleet, said on Tuesday. Haradheere is situated roughly in the
centre of Somalia’s coastline.

The supertanker had been heading for the US via the Cape of Good Hope
at the southern tip of Africa, instead of heading through the Gulf of
Aden and the Suez Canal. The hijacking occurred despite an
international naval response, including from the Nato alliance and
European Union, to protect one of the world’s busiest shipping areas.
US, French and Russian warships are also off the Somali coast. The
pirates have driven up insurance costs, forced some ships to go round
South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal and secured millions of
dollars in ransoms. Last week, the European Union, in its first-ever
naval mission, launched a security operation off the coast of Somalia
to combat growing piracy and protect ships carrying aid agency

Outrageous act
Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister called the
hijacking of the Sirius Star an outrageous act and promised to back an
EU-led initiative to step up security in shipping lanes off Africa’s
east coast. “This outrageous act by the pirates, I think, will only
reinforce the resolve of the countries of the Red Sea and
internationally to fight piracy,” he told reporters in Athens. The
vessel owned by Saudi oil giant Aramco was fully loaded when it was
attacked on Sunday more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa.
The standoff comes as another ship is seized off the coast of Somalia.
According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a Thai fishing
boat with 16 crew members has been hijacked. Noel Choong, head of the
IMB piracy reporting centre, based in Kuala Lumpur, said the ship was
seized in the Gulf of Aden on Monday. Eight ships have now been
hijacked in the past two weeks.

‘Hitting the jackpot’
Andrew Mwangura, co-ordinator of the East African Seafarers’
Association, said: “The world has never seen anything like this …
The Somali pirates have hit the jackpot.” The association, based in
the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, has been monitoring piracy for years.
Mwangura said he thought a hijacked Nigerian tug was a “mother-ship”
for the November 15 seizure. “The supertanker was fully loaded, so it
was probably low in the water and not that difficult to board,” he
said, adding that the pirates probably used a ladder or hooked a rope
to the side.

Pirates are well organised in the Horn of Africa, where Somalia’s
northeastern tip juts into the Indian Ocean. Somalia has had no
effective government since the 1991 overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre,
the former president, touched off a bloody power struggle that has
defied numerous attempts to restore stability. This year, Somali
pirates have attacked 90 ships, more than double the number in 2007,
according to the International Maritime Bureau, and are still holding
16 ships and more than 250 sailors.

CURRENTLY HELD FOR RANSOM,2933,454124,00.html
Somali Pirates Keep Hundreds of Hostages in Pirate City of Eyl
Heres a list of ten of the biggest vessels still in pirates’ hands.

1. Sirius Star / Hijacked November 17
Cargo: 2 million barrels of oil, value $100 million
Crew: 25 men

2. MV Karagol / Hijacked November 12
Cargo: 4,000 tons of chemicals
Crew: 14 Turks

3. MV Stolt Strength / Hijacked November 10
Cargo: Phosphoric acid
Crew: 23 Filipinos

4. CEC Future / Hijacked November 7
Cargo: Unknown
Crew: 11 Russians, one Georgian, one Lithuanian

5. MV Yasa Neslihan / Hijacked October 29
Cargo: Iron ore
Crew: 20 Turks

6. MT African Sanderling / Hijacked October 15
Cargo: Unknown
Crew: 21 Filipinos

7. MV Faina / Hijacked September 25
Cargo: 33 T-72 Russian battle tanks
Crew: 17 Ukrainians, 2 Latvians, one Russian

8. MV Captain Stefanos / Hijacked September 21
Cargo: Unknown
Crew: 17 Filipinos, two other nationals

9. Centauri / Hijacked September 18
Cargo: 17,000 tons of salt
Crew: 25 Filipinos

10. MV Great Creation / Hijacked September 17
Cargo: Chemical fertilizer
Crew: 24 Chinese, one Sri Lankan

Somali pirates transform villages into boomtowns
BY Mohamed Olad Hassan and Elizabeth Kennedy / 11.19.08

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Somalia’s increasingly brazen pirates are
building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying
beautiful women — even hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food
for their hostages. And in an impoverished country where every public
institution has crumbled, they have become heroes in the steamy
coastal dens they operate from because they are the only real business
in town. “The pirates depend on us, and we benefit from them,” said
Sahra Sheik Dahir, a shop owner in Harardhere, the nearest village to
where a hijacked Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100 million in
crude was anchored Wednesday.

These boomtowns are all the more shocking in light of Somalia’s
violence and poverty: Radical Islamists control most of the country’s
south, meting out lashings and stonings for accused criminals. There
has been no effective central government in nearly 20 years, plunging
this arid African country into chaos. Life expectancy is just 46
years; a quarter of children die before they reach 5. But in northern
coastal towns like Harardhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the pirate economy is
thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms that have
reached $30 million this year alone. “There are more shops and
business is booming because of the piracy,” said Sugule Dahir, who
runs a clothing shop in Eyl. “Internet cafes and telephone shops have
opened, and people are just happier than before.”

In Harardhere, residents came out in droves to celebrate as the
looming oil ship came into focus this week off the country’s lawless
coast. Businessmen gathered cigarettes, food and cold bottles of
orange soda, setting up kiosks for the pirates who come to shore to
resupply almost daily. Dahir said she even started a layaway plan for
them. “They always take things without paying and we put them into the
book of debts,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone
interview. “Later, when they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot.”
Residents make sure the pirates are well-stocked in khat, a popular
narcotic leaf, and aren’t afraid to gouge a bit when it comes to the
pirates’ deep pockets. “I can buy a packet of cigarettes for about $1
but I will charge the pirate $1.30,” said Abdulqadir Omar, an Eyl
resident. While pirate villages used to have houses made of corrugated
iron sheets, now, there are stately looking homes made of sturdy,
white stones. “Regardless of how the money is coming in, legally or
illegally, I can say it has started a life in our town,” said Shamso
Moalim, a 36-year-old mother of five in Harardhere. “Our children are
not worrying about food now, and they go to Islamic schools in the
morning and play soccer in the afternoon. They are happy.”

The attackers generally treat their hostages well in anticipation of a
big payday, hiring caterers on shore to cook spaghetti, grilled fish
and roasted meat that will appeal to Western palates. And when the
payday comes, the money sometimes literally falls from the sky.
Pirates say the ransom arrives in burlap sacks, sometimes dropped from
buzzing helicopters, or in waterproof suitcases loaded onto skiffs in
the roiling, shark-infested sea. “The oldest man on the ship always
takes the responsibility of collecting the money, because we see it as
very risky, and he gets some extra payment for his service later,”
Aden Yusuf, a pirate in Eyl, told AP over VHF radio.

The pirates use money-counting machines — the same technology seen
at foreign exchange bureaus worldwide — to ensure the cash is real. All
payments are done in cash because Somalia has no functioning banking
system. “Getting this equipment is easy for us, we have business
connections with people in Dubai, Nairobi, Djibouti and other areas,”
Yusuf said. “So we send them money and they send us what we want.”

Despite a beefed-up international presence, the pirates continue to
seize ships, moving further out to sea and demanding ever-larger
ransoms. The pirates operate mostly from the semiautonomous Puntland
region, where local lawmakers have been accused of helping them and
taking a cut of the ransoms. For the most part, however, the regional
officials say they have no power to stop piracy. Meanwhile, towns that
once were eroded by years of poverty and chaos are now bustling with
restaurants, Land Cruisers and Internet cafes. Residents also use
their gains to buy generators — allowing full days of electricity,
once an unimaginable luxury in Somalia.

“Pirate Jama Shino in the Somali town of Garowe, threw the most lavish
wedding party for his second marriage and invited hundreds of people
from the local authorities and among citizens,” Hussameddin wrote.
“The bride and the young women who attended the party, said: “Marrying
a pirate is every Somali girl’s dream. He has power, money, immunity,
the weapons to defend the tribe and funds to give to the militias in
civil war,” – from an op-ed in the Egyptian paper, Al Ahram.

Somali pirates living the high life
BY Robyn Hunter / 2008/10/28

“No information today. No comment,” a Somali pirate shouts over the
sound of breaking waves, before abruptly ending the satellite
telephone call. He sounds uptight – anxious to see if a multi-million
dollar ransom demand will be met. He is on board the hijacked
Ukrainian vessel, MV Faina – the ship laden with 33 Russian battle
tanks that has highlighted the problem of piracy off the Somali coast
since it was captured almost a month ago. But who are these modern-day
pirates? According to residents in the Somali region of Puntland where
most of the pirates come from, they live a lavish life.

“They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the
day,” says Abdi Farah Juha who lives in the regional capital, Garowe.
“They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they
have new cars; new guns,” he says. “Piracy in many ways is socially
acceptable. They have become fashionable.” Most of them are aged
between 20 and 35 years – in it for the money. And the rewards they
receive are rich in a country where almost half the population need
food aid after 17 years of non-stop conflict.

Most vessels captured in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden
fetch on average a ransom of $2m. This is why their hostages are well
looked after. The BBC’s reporter in Puntland, Ahmed Mohamed Ali, says
it also explains the tight operation the pirates run. They are never
seen fighting because the promise of money keeps them together.
Wounded pirates are seldom seen and our reporter says he has never
heard of residents along Puntland’s coast finding a body washed
ashore. Given Somalia’s history of clan warfare, this is quite a feat.
It probably explains why a report of a deadly shoot-out amongst the
pirates onboard the MV Faina was denied by the vessel’s hijackers.
Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told the BBC Somali Service at the time:
“Everybody is happy. We were firing guns to celebrate Eid.”

Brains, muscle and geeks
The MV Faina was initially attacked by a gang of 62 men. BBC Somalia
analyst Mohamed Mohamed says such pirate gangs are usually made up
of three different types:
* Ex-fishermen, who are considered the brains of the operation
because they know the sea
* Ex-militiamen, who are considered the muscle – having fought for
various Somali clan warlords
* The technical experts, who are the computer geeks and know how
to operate the hi-tech equipment needed to operate as a pirate –
satellite phones, GPS and military hardware.

The three groups share the ever-increasing illicit profits – ransoms
paid in cash by the shipping companies. A report by UK think-tank
Chatham House says piracy off the coast of Somalia has cost up to $30m
(£17m) in ransoms so far this year. The study also notes that the
pirates are becoming more aggressive and assertive – something the
initial $22m ransom demanded for MV Faina proves. The asking price has
apparently since fallen to $8m.

Calling the shots
Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden, is reportedly where the pirates get
most of their weapons from. A significant number are also bought
directly from the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Observers say Mogadishu
weapon dealers receive deposits for orders via a “hawala” company – an
informal money transfer system based on honour. Militiamen then drive
the arms north to the pirates in Puntland, where they are paid the
balance on delivery. It has been reported in the past that wealthy
businessmen in Dubai were financing the pirates. But the BBC’s Somali
Service says these days it is the businessmen asking the pirates for

Such success is a great attraction for Puntland’s youngsters, who have
little hope of alternative careers in the war-torn country. Once a
pirate makes his fortune, he tends to take on a second and third wife
– often very young women from poor nomadic clans, who are renowned
for their beauty. But not everyone is smitten by Somalia’s new elite.
“This piracy has a negative impact on several aspects of our life in
Garowe,” resident Mohamed Hassan laments.

He cites an escalating lack of security because “hundreds of armed
men” are coming to join the pirates. They have made life more
expensive for ordinary people because they “pump huge amounts of US
dollars” into the local economy which results in fluctuations in the
exchange rate, he says. Their lifestyle also makes some unhappy. “They
promote the use of drugs – chewing khat [a stimulant which keeps one
alert] and smoking hashish – and alcohol,” Mr Hassan says.

The trappings of success may be new, but piracy has been a problem in
Somali waters for at least 10 years – when Somali fishermen began
losing their livelihoods. Their traditional fishing methods were no
match for the illegal trawlers that were raiding their waters. Piracy
initially started along Somalia’s southern coast but began shifting
north in 2007 – and as a result, the pirate gangs in the Gulf of Aden
are now multi-clan operations. But Garowe resident Abdulkadil Mohamed
says, they do not see themselves as pirates. “Illegal fishing is the
root cause of the piracy problem,” he says. “They call themselves

‘Pirates Are Stronger Than Us’ – Eyl Mayor / 23 August 2008
“The mayor of a small coastal town in northeastern Somalia has
declared that local authorities are unable to stop pirates. Abdullahi
Said O’Yusuf, the mayor of Eyl in Puntland region, confirmed Radio
Garowe during a Saturday interview that four hijacked ships are being
held hostage near the town’s shores. “They are stronger than us,”
Mayor O’Yusuf said, while speaking of the pirates. He condemned
continued attacks on foreign ships traveling across the Indian Ocean,
while underlining that local authorities “cannot do anything” to stop
piracy. The Associated Press has reported that four ships – with
owners in Malaysia, Iran, Japan and Germany – and a total crew of 96
people are being held hostage by Somali pirates. Mayor O’Yusuf said
the pirates who hijacked the ships “are the same ones who received
ransom payments before,” referring to previous pirate attacks in the
region. According to the Mayor, pirates use ransom payments to “buy
houses in big cities” in different parts of the country.”

“Eyl is a town in the northern Puntland region of Somalia. The
prominent clans in the Eyl district are the Majeerteen and Leelkase
sub-clans of the Darod. Eyl is near the Hafun peninsula, the location
of most of Somalia’s casualties from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. As
of 2008 Eyl has become a pirate haven, with more than a dozen ships
being held captive by pirate crews. The Puntland government has
acknowledged that they are relatively powerless to stop pirate
activities. French commandos decided a hostage rescue in Eyl was too
dangerous, and carried out a rescue of two French sailors before they
could be taken there.”

Life in Somalia’s pirate town
BY Mary Harper / 18 September 2008

Whenever word comes out that pirates have taken yet another ship in
the Somali region of Puntland, extraordinary things start to happen.
There is a great rush to the port of Eyl, where most of the hijacked
vessels are kept by the well-armed pirate gangs. People put on ties
and smart clothes. They arrive in land cruisers with their laptops,
one saying he is the pirates’ accountant, another that he is their
chief negotiator.

With yet more foreign vessels seized off the coast of Somalia this
week, it could be said that hijackings in the region have become
epidemic. Insurance premiums for ships sailing through the busy Gulf
of Aden have increased tenfold over the past year because of the
pirates, most of whom come from the semi-autonomous region of
Puntland. In Eyl, there is a lot of money to be made, and everybody is
anxious for a cut.

Entire industry
The going rate for ransom payments is between $300,000 and $1.5m
(£168,000-£838,000). A recent visitor to the town explained how, even
though the number of pirates who actually take part in a hijacking is
relatively small, the whole modern industry of piracy involves many
more people. “The number of people who make the first attack is small,
normally from seven to 10,” he said. “They go out in powerful
speedboats armed with heavy weapons. But once they seize the ship,
about 50 pirates stay on board the vessel. And about 50 more wait on
shore in case anything goes wrong.”

Given all the other people involved in the piracy industry, including
those who feed the hostages, it has become a mainstay of the Puntland
economy. Eyl has become a town tailor-made for pirates – and their
hostages. Special restaurants have even been set up to prepare food
for the crews of the hijacked ships. As the pirates want ransom
payments, they try to look after their hostages. When commandos from
France freed two French sailors seized by pirates off the Somali coast
in September, President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had given the go-ahead
for the operation when it was clear the pirates were headed for Eyl –
it would have been too dangerous to try to free them from there.

The town is a safe-haven where very little is done to stop the pirates
– leading to the suggestion that some, at least, in the Puntland
administration and beyond have links with them. Many of them come
from the same clan – the Majarteen clan of the president of Somalia’s
transitional federal government, Abdullahi Yusuf.

Money to spend
The coastal region of Puntland is booming. Fancy houses are being
built, expensive cars are being bought – all of this in a country that
has not had a functioning central government for nearly 20 years.
Observers say pirates made about $30m from ransom payments last
year – far more than the annual budget of Puntland, which is about
$20m. When the president of Puntland, Adde Musa, was asked about
the reported wealth of pirates and their associates, he said: “It’s more
than true”.

Now that they are making so much money, these 21st Century pirates
can afford increasingly sophisticated weapons and speedboats. This
means that unless more is done to stop them, they will continue to
plunder the busy shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden. They even
target ships carrying aid to feed their compatriots – up to a third of the
population. Warships from France, Canada and Malaysia, among others,
now patrol the Somali coast to try and fend off pirate attacks.

An official at the International Maritime Organisation explained how
the well-armed pirates are becoming increasingly bold. More than 30%
of the world’s oil is transported through the Gulf of Aden. “It is
only a matter of time before something horrible happens,” said the
official. “If the pirates strike a hole in the tanker, and there’s an
oil spill, there could be a huge environmental disaster”.

It is likely that piracy will continue to be a problem off the coast
of Somalia as long as the violence and chaos continues on land.
Conflict can be very good for certain types of business, and piracy is
certainly one of them. Weapons are easy to obtain and there is no
functioning authority to stop them, either on land or at sea.


“We want pre-emptive action against the mother ships before the
pirates carry out a hijacking,” said Captain Pottengal Mukundan,
director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which
monitors international piracy, referring to the ships pirates use as
bases from which to launch attacks. “The positions of the mother ships
are generally known. What we would like to see is the naval vessels
going to interdict them, searching them and removing any arms on
board. That would at least force the pirates to go back to Somalia to
pick up more arms before they could come back again,” he told Reuters
in an interview.

But the laws governing what navies can do to take on the pirates are
complex. Only if pirates are caught in the act of piracy — actually
boarding a ship and seizing it — can a naval ship intervene with the
full force of international law. Arriving 30 minutes after a vessel
has been boarded, when there is a degree of uncertainty over whether
those on board are pirates or not, is often too late, experts say.
Denmark recently had to return some suspected pirates to Somalia
because it couldn’t prove they were pirates after they were seized.

Mr. Mukundan said there were currently about four ‘mother ships’ —
seized dhows or other larger fishing boats anchored near international
waters — being used by pirates. The pirates live on the mother ships,
storing arms, fuel and other supplies on board, and then target ships,
which can include fuel tankers, by catching up to them in high-speed
boats and boarding them with rope ladders while heavily armed. Mr.
Mukundan acknowledged the legalities of taking on ‘mother ships’ were
tricky, but said it could be done if governments gave their naval
forces instructions to do it.”


“Piracy is an international crime consisting of illegal acts of
violence, detention, or depredation committed for private ends by the
crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft in or over
international waters against another ship or aircraft or persons and
property on board. (Depredation is the act of plundering, robbing, or

In international law piracy is a crime that can be committed only
on or over international waters (including the high seas, exclusive
economic zone, and the contiguous zone), in international airspace,
and in other places beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any nation.
The same acts committed in the internal waters, territorial sea,
archipelagic waters, or national airspace of a nation do not
constitute piracy in international law but are, instead, crimes within
the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the littoral nation.

Sea robbery is a term used to describe attacks upon commercial
vessels in ports and territorial waters. Such attacks are, according
to international law, not true acts of piracy but rather armed
robberies. They are criminal assaults on vessels and vessel crews,
just as may occur to truck drivers within a port area. Such attacks
pose a serious threat to trade. The methods of these attacks have
varied from direct force using heavy weapons to subterfuge in which
the criminals have identified themselves on VHF radio as the national
coast guard.

These maritime criminals are inclined to operate in waters where
government presence is weak, often lacking in both technical resources
and the political will to deal effectively with such attacks.
International law permits any warship or government vessel to repress
an attack in international waters. In a state’s territorial waters,
such attacks constitute an act of armed robbery and must be dealt with
under the laws of the relevant coastal state. These laws seldom, if
ever, permit a vessel or warship from another country to intervene.
The most effective countermeasure strategy is to prevent criminals
initial access to ports and vessels, and to demonstrate a consistent
ability to respond rapidly and effectively to notification of such a
security breach.

Acts of piracy can only be committed by private ships or private
aircraft. A warship or other public vessel or a military or other
state aircraft cannot be treated as a pirate unless it is taken over
and operated by pirates or unless the crew mutinies and employs it for
piratical purposes. By committing an act of piracy, the pirate ship or
aircraft, and the pirates themselves, lose the protection of the
nation whose flag they are otherwise entitled to fly.

To constitute the crime of piracy, the illegal acts must be
committed for private ends. Consequently, an attack upon a merchant
ship at sea for the purpose of achieving some criminal end, e.g.,
robbery, is an act of piracy as that term is currently defined in
international law. Conversely, acts otherwise constituting piracy done
for purely political motives, as in the case of insurgents not
recognized as belligerents, are not piratical.

International law has long recognized a general duty of all
nations to cooperate in the repression of piracy. This traditional
obligation is included in the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas
and the 1982 LOS Convention, both of which provide: “[A]ll States
shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of
piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction
of any State.””


Lucrative Piracy Business Thrives Off Somali Coast / November 18,

The seizure Monday of a supertanker carrying $100 million of crude oil
off the coast of Somalia is one of many ship hijackings by pirates of
late. A cargo ship flying a Hong Kong flag also was taken over in the
Gulf of Aden on Tuesday — the seventh hijacking in the area in 12
days, according to The Associated Press. The magnitude of recent
piracy attacks is rising, and an interactive map maintained by the
International Chamber of Commerce shows where these attacks are
taking place. Many are focused around the eastern Horn of Africa, but
piracy in the waters around Indonesia also has been frequent. J. Peter
Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public
Affairs at James Madison University, says the recent spikes in piracy are
“a crime of both opportunity and expediency.”

“Somalia has lacked a government, effectively, since 1991 and the
current interim government — the 14th of its kind in a decade and a
half — is tottering on its last legs, so there is very little control
to prevent lawlessness,” he says. “There is also the fact that
increasingly commerce is moving in this direction — the demand for oil
and other resources. Roughly 11 percent of the world’s petroleum flows
through these waters.” For Somalis, Pham says, “this is really the
best thing they have going for them economically. Piracy and ransom
this year will exceed more than $50 million — it’s Somalia’s largest

“The ship owners and insurers have found that it’s more cost-effective
to pay ransoms. They are currently averaging slightly over $1 million
per vessel, and that’s cheaper than buying a new ship,” Pham says.
“The Saudi tanker that was seized [Monday] was just launched six
months ago and cost $150 million to build and the cargo on board is
worth $100 million, so I suspect the ship owners will be willing to
pay some fraction of that to get it back.” Pham says that most tankers
of that size are not armed, or if they are, they have small side arms.
The pirates come in fast speed boats, circle the vessel and threaten
to blow it out of the water with rocket-propelled grenades or shoulder-
launched missiles. “Faced with that prospect, most captains — to save
the life of their crew and save the vessels — will surrender control
of the vessel to the pirates,” Pham says.

The world’s most utterly failed state / Oct 2nd 2008

Tipped off by friends in ports from Odessa to Mombasa, Somali pirates
captured a Ukrainian freighter, the MV Faina, in the Gulf of Aden and
steered it to Somalia’s coast. At first they demanded $20m for the
release of ship and crew. The captain died, apparently of
“hypertension”, and several pirates may have then killed each other
after a quarrel. This recent incident was only the latest in a long
list of similar outrages and highlights the growing menace caused by
the total failure of the state of Somalia, the ultimate cause of the
virus of piracy in the region.

The ship was carrying 33 T-72 Russian tanks, anti-aircraft guns and
grenade launchers. Lighter weapons may have been offloaded on the
Somali shore before an American warship arrived on the scene. Kenya
claimed ownership of the cargo but the manifest suggests its
destination was south Sudan, with Kenya’s co- operation in its
delivery to be rewarded in the future with cheap south Sudanese oil.
At midweek, a Russian warship was steaming to the scene to take
responsibility for its citizens on the ship.

The attack was only one of at least 60 off Somalia this year. Foreign
navies can intercept vessels captured by pirates, but the desolation
and length of Somalia’s coastline give them little chance of stamping
out piracy without much larger and better co-ordinated forces. In
cahoots with gangs in Yemen, Somali pirates look set to go on hitting
vessels heading into or out of the Red Sea or passing through the Gulf
of Aden: about 10% of the world’s shipping.

It is big business. The pirates are increasingly sophisticated,
handsomely bankrolled by Somalis in Dubai and elsewhere. They are not
yet directly tied up with the Islamist insurgents in Somalia, though
they may yet have to pay cash to whoever controls their coastal havens
in return for uninterrupted business, thus assisting the purchase of
weapons and fuelling the violence. The nabbed ships are mostly
anchored off the village of Eyl in Puntland in the north-east or the
pirate town of Haradheere farther south (see map) until a ransom is
paid, which is usually within a month of capture. The average ransom
has tripled since 2007, as has the number of ships taken. Some $100m
may have been paid to pirates this year. By comparison, the United
Nations Development Programme’s annual budget for Somalia is $14m.

Piracy is a symptom of the power vacuum inside Somalia. The country’s
“transitional federal government”, headed by a warlord president,
Abdullahi Yusuf, and a bookish prime minister, Nur Hussein, is
powerless to stop its citizens raising the Jolly Roger, just as it
cannot halt the resurgent jihadists, some with al-Qaeda connections,
who have taken control of much of southern Somalia, including the port
town of Kismayo. Hundreds of thousands have fled street fighting in
the north of Mogadishu to camps outside the city; some head south to
refugee camps in Kenya. About 9,000 civilians have been killed in the
insurgency in the past year, according to human-rights groups.

The UN’s envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdullah, a former foreign
minister of Mauritania, is overseeing peace talks in nearby Djibouti
between the transitional government and the moderate wing of the
Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS), an Islamist group
headed by a former teacher, Sharif Ahmed. The aim is to create a
genuine government of national unity before elections next year.

A condition of any agreement is the withdrawal of the 7,000-odd
Ethiopian troops now in Somalia. Mr Ould Abdullah wants to replace
them and a separate 2,200-strong African Union force of Ugandan and
Burundian troops with 8,000 UN peacekeepers. Ethiopia, which is losing
men and money, would be happy with that, if the peacekeepers were
somehow shoehorned in without the jihadists taking advantage of a
hiatus. America agrees, but only if the deployment of blue helmets is
matched by an effort to build a new Somali national army. Mr Ould
Abdullah is also keen for the International Criminal Court in The
Hague to indict some of the worst warlords, to show they cannot murder
their opponents with impunity. But it is unlikely, in present
circumstances, that UN peacekeepers will ever arrive. If the UN cannot
produce half its promised force for Darfur, despite a detailed plan
for one, Somalia stands little chance of getting any blue helmets at

Feuding among Somali leaders makes matters worse. “Somalia is a victim
of its political, business and military elite,” says Mr Ould Abdullah.
“They’ve taken the country hostage.” A slender hope, backed by Britain
and some other EU countries, is that ordinary Somalis will eventually
force their leaders to put national interest above self-interest and
sign the proposed agreement in Djibouti. In any event, says another
diplomat, “There is no Plan B.”

As the peace talks limp on, the insurgency is getting stronger. It is
led by the Shabab (Youth), the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union,
which ran Somalia with some success for a few months in 2006 until it
was smashed, at the end of that year, by the invading Ethiopians, with
American backing. The Shabab has since reconstituted itself, making
ground with tactics copied from Iraq: roadside bombings, the kidnap
and murder of foreigners, local aid-workers and peace campaigners, and
grenade attacks on video shacks showing films or football.

My enemy’s enemy is my friend
Its fighters come under the leadership of a wily red-bearded 70-year-
old jihadist, Hassan Dahir Aweys, and a former deputy commander of the
Islamic Courts, Mukhtar Robow. They are backed by Eritrea, which has
offered sanctuary to the radical rump of the ARS in its capital,
Asmara. Eritrea’s interest is not to help Somalia but to hurt its
bitter enemy, Ethiopia. The Shabab is also backed by fighters from the
Hawiye clan and by hungry young freelance gunmen who represent
Somalia’s huge lost generation. Half the population, 10m-odd before
the exodus, was born after Siad Barre’s regime fell in 1991. Since
then, it is guessed, only 10% have had even rudimentary education;
health care barely exists.

Few foreign governments have shown much interest in trying to end
Somalia’s woes. Diplomats charged with trying to do so are frustrated
and depressed. Meanwhile the suffering is mounting. The UN reckons
3.2m Somalis now survive on food aid. The piracy means that warships
have to escort ships bringing food. If fighting intensifies, that will
be harder—and manipulating food aid could become a weapon, as it was
during fighting in 1991 and 1992, when 300,000 Somalis starved to

BY Hari Jagannathan Balasubramanian / October 06, 2008

…as I now read Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary
Miracles, the political outline is becoming clear: one man rule from
1969-1991; then civil war; a failed American rescue attempt; and then
no government; and more recently, Ethiopia meddling in its affairs.
The excerpts I’ll present here, though, are images of a modernizing
Somalia, of how in the absence of a government, a free market thrived
in the 90s and filled the void.

“In 1999 I went back to Somalia to see what had happened.
Considering there was no state and civil war sputtered on, life was
not as bad as I had expected. In some ways it was a lot better. Those
few aid agencies that stayed on were no longer run by expatriate
overlords but staffed by Somalis. Not many foreign aid workers wanted
to be there. Somalis had also managed to get the economy going –
without a single cent from the World Bank or IMF. The new economy was
largely built around a worldwide telephone banking system – a truly
free market system and , at the time, by far the world’s cheapest and
most efficient. Several Somalis who had worked in telecoms in America
bought dishes and telephone equipment and set up phone booths in small
towns. From here, for a dollar a minute, people could call cousins and
aunts and uncles all over the world.”

And how the cell phone is the perfect device for the wandering Somali
herder wanting to learn market prices:

“Somali herders move around in a yearly pattern. In the dry
season, towards the end of the year, they go down to the coast as they
have done for centuries to sell some of their animals to traders who
take them across the Red Sea to the markets of Saudi Arabia. I have
watched them at the port of Berbera, herds of camels and sheep driven
to holding areas where herders have to buy fodder for them and pay for
water at the trough markets. These herdsmen are at a big disadvantage
while they wait to sell their animals. But the mobile phone has
rescued them. They can call up traders in Jeddah directly to find out
the market price of animals there. They now know when to come down
out of the mountains and sell. A week later I watch a herdsman on the
outskirts of Berbera driving his herd towards the port with herding
stick in one hand and in the other a mobile phone – perfect technology
for the nomad.”’

Telecoms thriving in lawless Somalia
BY Joseph Winter / 2004/11/19

Rising from the ruins of the Mogadishu skyline are signs of one of
Somalia’s few success stories in the anarchy of recent years. A host
of mobile phone masts testifies to the telecommunications revolution
which has taken place despite the absence of any functioning national
government since 1991. Three phone companies are engaged in fierce
competition for both mobile and landline customers, while new internet
cafes are being set up across the city and the entire country. It
takes just three days for a landline to be installed – compared with
waiting-lists of many years in neighbouring Kenya, where there is a
stable, democratic government. And once installed, local calls are
free for a monthly fee of just $10. International calls cost 50 US
cents a minute, while surfing the web is charged at 50 US cents an
hour – “the cheapest rate in Africa” according to the manager of one
internet cafe. But how do you establish a phone company in a country
where there is no government?

No monopoly
In some respects, it is actually easier. There is no need to get a
licence and there is no state-run monopoly which prevents new
competitors being established. And of course there is no-one to demand
any taxes, which is one reason why prices are so low. “The government
post and telecoms company used to have a monopoly but after the
regime was toppled, we were free to set up our own business,” says
Abdullahi Mohammed Hussein, products and services manager of
Telcom Somalia, which was set up in 1994 when Mogadishu was still
a war-zone. “We saw a huge gap in the market, as all previous services
had been destroyed. There was a massive demand.” The main airport
and port were destroyed in the fighting but businessmen have built
small airstrips and use natural harbours, so the phone companies are
still able to import their equipment. Despite the absence of law and
order and a functional court system, bills are paid and contracts are
enforced by relying on Somalia’s traditional clan system, Mr Abdullahi

Mobile target
But in a country divided into hundreds of fiefdoms run by rival
warlords, security is a major concern. While Telcom Somalia has some
25,000 mobile customers – and a similar number have land lines – you
very rarely see anyone walking along the streets of Mogadishu chatting
on their phone, in case this attracts the attention of a hungry
gunman. The phone companies themselves say they are not targeted by
the militiamen, even if thieves occasionally steal some of their
wires. Mahdi Mohammed Elmi has been managing the Wireless African
Broadband Telecoms internet cafe in the heart of Mogadishu, surrounded
by the bustling and chaotic Bakara market, for almost two years. “I
have never had a problem with security,” he says and points out that
they have just a single security guard at the front door. Mr Abdullahi
says the warlords realise that if they cause trouble for the phone
companies, the phones will stop working again, which nobody wants. “We
need good relations with all the faction leaders. We don’t interfere
with them and they don’t interfere with us. They want political power
and we leave them alone,” he says.

Selling goats on the net
While the three phone companies – Telcom, Nationlink and Hormuud – are
engaged in bitter competition for phone customers, they have co-
operated to set up the Global Internet Company to provide the internet
infrastructure. Manager Abdulkadir Hassan Ahmed says that within 1.5km
of central Mogadishu, customers – mostly internet cafes – can enjoy
service at 150Mb/second through a Long Reach Ethernet. Elsewhere, they
can have a wireless connection at 11Mb/s. He says his company is able
to work anywhere in Somalia, whichever faction is in charge locally.
“Even small, remote villages are connected to the internet, as long as
they have a phone line,” he says. The internet sector in Somalia has
two main advantages over many of its Africa neighbours. There is a
huge diaspora around the world – between one and three million people,
compared with an estimated seven million people in Somalia – who
remain in contact with their friends and relatives back home. E-mail
is the cheapest way of staying in touch and many Somalis can read and
write their own language, instead of relying on English or French,
which restricts internet users to a smaller number of well educated
people. Just two days after it was opened, the Orbit internet cafe in
south Mogadishu’s km5 was already pretty busy, with people checking
their e-mail accounts, a livestock exporter sending out his invoices
and two nurses doing medical research.

Video calling
And Somalia’s telecoms revolution is far from over. “We are planning
to introduce 3G technology, including live video calling and mobile
internet, next year,” says Mr Abdullahi. But despite their success,
the telecoms companies say that like the population at large, they are
desperate to have a government. “We are very interested in paying
taxes,” says Mr Abdullahi – not a sentiment which often passes the
lips of a high-flying businessman. And Mr Abdulkadir at the Global
Internet Company fully agrees. “We badly need a government,” he says.
“Everything starts with security – the situation across the country.
“All the infrastructure of the country has collapsed – education,
health and roads. We need to send our staff abroad for any training.”
Another problem for companies engaged in the global telecoms business
is paying their foreign partners. At present, they use Somalia’s
traditional “Hawala” money transfer companies to get money to Dubai,
the Middle East’s trading and financial hub. With a government would
come a central bank, which would make such transactions far easier.
Taxes would mean higher prices but Mr Abdullahi says that Somalia’s
previous governments have kept taxes low and hopes this will continue
under the regime due to start work in the coming months. Somalia’s
telecoms companies are looking forward to an even brighter future with
the support of a functioning government – as long as it does not
impose punitive tax rates or state control in a sector which obviously
needs very little help to thrive.

Ayn Rand Comes to Somalia
In the absence of government bureaucracy and foreign aid, business is
starting to boom in Mogadishu.
BY Peter Maass / The Atlantic Monthly / May 2001

The headquarters of Telecom Somalia is filled with the sights and
sounds of Mogadishu-style success. Customers pour through the
entrance, funneling past machine-gun positions that flank the front
doors. After a pat-down by security guards, who take temporary
possession of any guns and knives, they enter the lobby and line up at
the appropriate counters to pay their bills or order new service.
Clocks on a wall display the time in New York, Paris, London, Sydney,
and Karachi—reminders of an outside world that has pretty much left
Somalia for dead. Computer keyboards clatter as workers punch in
information. Customers chat and argue with one another in a gregarious
manner that makes the lobby feel like a town square—all the more so if
a goat that’s being herded down the street happens to stray inside.

Telecom Somalia is the largest company in Mogadishu. It has 700
employees, and it offers some of the best and cheapest phone service
in Africa. It also provides a clue to the possible resuscitation of
the world’s most famous failed state. In 1995, when the international
community decided to wash its hands of Somalia and the last United
Nations peacekeepers left the country, Mogadishu was a Hobbesian
horror show. It remains a miserable and unstable place, a city where
taxi drivers ruin their own vehicles, denting the body work and
smashing the windows, so that thieves will not bother to steal them.
But it is less dismal than it used to be, and better times may be on
the way, owing to a new generation of businessmen who are determined
to bring the lawless capital back to life.

Prime among the city’s entrepreneurial leaders is Abdulaziz Sheikh,
the chief executive of Telecom Somalia. When I visited him last
summer, in a small office on the fourth floor of the company’s
headquarters, he was being blasted by a hurricane-force air-
conditioner that nearly drowned out the constantly ringing phones on
his desk. “You need to be here twenty-four hours a day,” he said,
explaining that he lives as well as works on the premises. Sheikh had
the running-on-fumes look of a campaign chairman in a never-ending
race, but at least he appeared to be winning. Anyone can walk into the
lobby of his building, plunk down a $100 deposit, and leave with a
late-model Nokia that works throughout the city, in valleys as well as
on hilltops, at all hours. Caller ID, call waiting, conference
calling, and call forwarding are available. There are two other
cellular-phone firms in town, and the three recently entered into a
joint venture and created the first local Internet-service provider.
Not all battles here are resolved by murder.

Mogadishu also has new radio and television stations (one night I
watched the Somali equivalent of Larry King Live, in which the
moderator and his guest, one of the city’s leading Islamic clerics,
fielded questions from callers), along with computer schools and an
airport that serves several airlines (although these fly the sorts of
airplanes that Americans see only in museums). The city’s Bekara
market offers everything from toilet paper, Maalox, and Colgate
toothpaste to Viagra, sarongs, blank passports (stolen from the
Foreign Ministry a decade ago), and assault rifles. The international
delivery company DHL has an office in Mogadishu, where its methods can
be unorthodox: if a client has an urgent package that cannot wait for
a scheduled flight out of the country, the company will dispatch it on
one of the many planes that arrive illegally from Kenya every day
bearing khat, a narcotic leaf that is chewed like tobacco but has the
effect of cocaine.

Mogadishu has the closest thing to an Ayn Rand-style economy that the
world has ever seen—no bureaucracy or regulation at all. The city has
had no government since 1991, when the much despised President
Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown; his regime was replaced not by
another one but by civil war. The northern regions of Somaliland and
Puntland have stabilized under autonomous governments, but southern
Somalia, with Mogadishu at its core, has remained a Mad Max zone
carved up by warlords for whom fighting seems as necessary as oxygen.
The prospect of stability is a curious miracle, not simply because the
kind of business development that is happening tends to require the
presence of a government, but because the very absence of a
government may have helped to nurture an African oddity—a lean
and efficient business sector that does not feed at a public trough
controlled by corrupt officials.

Similarly, the lack of large-scale (and often corrupting) foreign aid
might have benefits as well as drawbacks. Somali investors are making
things happen, not waiting for them to happen. For example, on the
outskirts of town, on a plot of land the size of several football
fields and surrounded by twenty-foot-high walls, workers recently
completed a $2 million bottling plant. Everyone refers to it as “the
Pepsi factory,” even though Pepsi is not involved. The project’s
investors say the plant will become a Pepsi factory: they figure that
if they begin producing soft drinks, Pepsi or some other international
company will want to get in on the market.

Many of the larger companies in Mogadishu, including the bottling
plant, have issued shares, although there is of course no stock
exchange or financial authority of any sort in the city. Everything is
based on trust, and so far it has worked, owing to Somalia’s tightly
woven clan networks: everyone knows everyone else, so it’s less likely
that an unknown con man will pull off a scam. In view of Somalia’s
history, this ad hoc stock market is not as implausible as it may
sound. Until a century ago, when Italy and Britain divided what is
present-day Somalia into colonial fiefdoms, Somalis got along quite
well without a state, relying on systems that still exist: informal
codes of honor and a means of resolving disputes, even violent ones,
through mediation by clan elders.

Of course, the lack of a government poses problems, especially with
respect to the warlords. Sheikh and his fellow businessmen have kept
them at bay by paying them protection money and by forming their own
militias. Those manning the machine guns outside Telecom Somalia are
employees of the company, and when the firm’s linemen go out to lay
new cables (they used to string overhead lines, but those got shot up
by stray gunfire), they, too, are protected by company gunmen. All of
this is costly, so the business leaders have taken steps to bring
about a new government—one that will keep its hands out of their
pockets and focus on providing security and public services. The
process began two years ago, when Sheikh and other entrepreneurs got
fed up with the blight of checkpoints, at which everyone was required
to pay small tributes to armed teenagers affiliated with various
warlords. The businessmen decided collectively to fund a militia to
get rid of the checkpoints, resulting in an armed force that is
overseen by the city’s Islamic clerics. Having succeeded in its main
mission, the militia now serves as an informal sort of police force,
patrolling the streets in an effort to stop petty crime.

With the checkpoints gone and the warlords weakened by the loss of a
key source of income, the business elite is bankrolling a transitional
government that was appointed at a peace conference last August. The
government does not yet control much more than the heavily guarded
buildings that are its temporary headquarters, but it has begun
deploying its own policemen in some parts of the city. The businessmen
are pooling their company security forces to bolster the government
and are trying to lure the warlords’ gunmen to its side with cash
incentives. In February one of the leading warlords, Mohamed Qanyareh,
agreed to support the government in exchange for ministerial posts for
himself and his allies.

If the business community succeeds in returning Mogadishu to something
resembling normalcy, it will have shown that a failed state, or at
least its capital city, can get back on its feet without much help
from the outside world. This would constitute not an argument against
outside intervention but, rather, a lesson that intervention doesn’t
have to be of the UN-led, billion-dollar variety. Before leaving the
city I met with Hussein Abdullahi, a well-educated businessman who
fled Mogadishu in 1991 and wound up in Toronto, driving a taxi. Three
years ago, during a return visit, he was struck by the fact that his
Somali friends were living better at home than he was in Canada, at
the bottom of the immigrant ladder. He decided to move back and now
manages a thriving pasta factory, a bread factory, and a medical
clinic. Sipping an ice-cold Coke in his office, Abdullahi offered to
share a secret that, he promised, could make me rich. A chubby man
with a beatific smile, he leaned forward conspiratorially. “Everything
is possible in Mogadishu now, everything,” he said. “If you have the
money and the knowledge, you can do whatever you want. It is virgin
here.” Perhaps so, but only in the way of scorched earth.

BY Tatiana Nenova and Tim Harford / 11/1/2004

Telecommunications: networks link up
Many local companies have teamed up with international giants such as
Sprint (U.S.) and Telenor (Norway), providing mobile phones and
building new landlines. Vigorous competition has pushed prices well
below typical levels in Africa, and Somalia now has 112,000 fixed
lines and 50,000 mobile subscribers, up from 17,000 lines before 1991.
Yet not all is well. Calling every phone subscriber in Hargeisa, in
the Northwest, would require connections from four telephone firms.
But firms in Mogadishu have now agreed on interconnection standards,
and those in Hargeisa appear to be following suit. The negotiations
were brokered by the Somali Telecom Association, set up with the help
of the United Nations and International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
and head-quartered in Dubai.[1]

Electricity: simple solutions yield results
Entrepreneurs have worked around Somalia’s lack of a functioning
electricity grid, payment systems, and metering. They have divided
cities into manageable quarters and provide electricity locally using
secondhand generators bought in Dubai. They offer households a menu of
choices (daytime, evening, or 24-hour service) and charge per

Water: access but not cheap or safe
Public water provision is limited to urban areas, but a private system
extends to all parts of the country as entrepreneurs build cement
catchments, drill private boreholes, or ship water from public systems
in the cities. Prices naturally rise in times of drought.
Traditionally, destitute families have not had to pay for water, while
the slightly better-off borrow funds from relatives. Nevertheless,
after several years of drought the United Nations estimates that many
families in the Eastern Sanaag have debts of US$50–100 for water.
Moreover, access to safe water is low even by African standards
because neither regulators nor the market have been able to persuade
merchants to purify their water.

Air travel: outsourcing safety
In 1989 the national carrier (partly owned by Alitalia) operated just
one airplane and one international route.[2] Today the sector boasts
about 15 firms, more than 60 aircraft, 6 international destinations,
more domestic routes, and many more flights. But safety is a concern.
Airports lack trained air traffic controllers, fire services, runway
lights, and a sealed perimeter against stray animals, and checks on
aircraft and crew are inadequate. The makeshift solution:
international outsourcing. Somali carriers lease planes, often with
crews from Eastern Europe (the largest, Daallo Airlines, leases a
Boeing from the United Kingdom, to boost customer confidence). And
they operate out of Djibouti, Dubai, and Nairobi, using the facilities
there to check aircraft safety.

Private courts: quick but limited
A recent effort to endow Mogadishu with a functioning court collapsed
when the court tried to levy taxes and take over the privately run
port of El Ma’an. In any case Somalia lacks contract law, company law,
the concept of limited liability, and other key pillars of commercial
law. In some cases Somalis have used offshore registration of
businesses to import legal concepts and services. More commonly,
disputes are settled at the clan level, by traditional systems run by
elders and with the clan collecting damages. Such measures are free—
and fast by international standards. In a case involving the
oppression of minority shareholders in a large livestock company, out-
of-court talks were preferred, the company continued to operate
successfully, and the dispute was settled amicably. But clan-based
systems deal poorly with disputes outside the clan. In a dispute
involving the telecommunications company Aerolite, the interclan
committee of elders awarded the plaintiff from a weaker clan an
unfairly small settlement, and since it was not enforced, he received

Currency: perfect competition for dollars [2001]
Sharp inflation in 1994–96 and 2000–01 destroyed confidence in three
local currencies. U.S. dollars are harder to forge, do not need to be
carried around in large fragile bundles, and, most important, retain
their value. The feeble capabilities of the central bank have allowed
free entry into the currency exchange business, which is as close to
perfectly competitive as is ever likely to be possible.

International fund transfers: hawala system
The hawala system, a trust-based money transfer system used in many
Muslim countries, moves US$0.5–1 billion into Somalia every year. A
person in New York wishing to send money to his family in Tog-waajale
gives the hawala agent in New York the sum in cash, paying a 5 percent
commission. The agent deposits the cash in a local bank account to be
transferred to the company bank account in Djibouti or Dubai, then
alerts the clearinghouse in Hargeisa, which passes details on to Tog-
waajale. When the recipient shows up, the local agent quizzes him
about his clan lineage using questions provided by the relative
overseas as security against fraud. The transaction is usually
completed within 24 hours. Hawala networks are unregulated and do not
always keep records of transactions, but they are coming under
pressure from efforts to combat money laundering.[3]

Savings accounts and traveler’s checks
Somalia has adopted the widespread African institution of rotating
credit associations, which rely on clan links for enforcement and
provide a safe haven for savings. More innovative is the system of
traveler’s checks for the pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj. Nobody would
accept Somali checks, so Somali firms set up accounts in Saudi banks
and write checks to pilgrims that can be cashed in any branch.

Gaps in private sector provision
In some areas the private sector has made little progress. The Somali
road system, for example, is limited and in poor condition. For a
private supplier to build a road and collect fees to cover the costs
is apparently too hard, partly because of prohibitive transaction
costs and partly because fee-paying users are not the only ones who
benefit from roads. Primary education is another disappointing story.
Some 71 percent of primary schools are privately owned (typically by
parents or communities), but enrollment is just 17 percent. By
contrast, it is 82 percent in West Africa, where countries are richer
and more stable and the government is much more heavily involved in
the economy. Ideally, benevolent government would sort out both
problems. But government that is merely stronger might not help. Where
municipal governments along the Berbera–Hargeisa road have the power
to collect tolls, they do not spend them on maintenance. The failings
of the education system are partly because half of Somalis are nomads.
It is not clear that government would do much better, especially since
the private schools are locally acknowledged to be superior to those
run by local government. Rather than try to create a government system
from scratch, a better policy would be to improve the network of
higher-quality private schools.

The achievements of the Somali private sector form a surprisingly long
list. Where the private sector has failed—the list is long here too—
there is a clear role for government interventions. But most such
interventions appear to be failing. Government schools are of lower
quality than private schools. Subsidized power is being supplied not
to the rural areas that need it but to urban areas, hurting a well-
functioning private industry. Road tolls are not spent on roads.
Judges seem more interested in grabbing power than in developing laws
and courts. A more productive role for government would be to build on
the strengths of the private sector. Given Somali reliance on clan and
reputation, any measures allowing these mechanisms to function more
broadly would be welcome; credit and land registries would be a good
start. And since Somali businesses rely heavily on institutions
outside the economy, international and domestic policies supporting
such connections would help. For governments and aid agencies, the
capability of some business sectors to cope under the most difficult
conditions should give hope and guidance in other reconstruction
efforts. It may take less encouragement than is commonly thought for
stripped-down systems of finance, electricity, and telecommunications
to grow.

1. “Somalia Telecoms Boom without Government,” Somaliland Times, July
22, 2004.
2. United States Institute for Peace, Removing Barricades in Somalia:
Prospects for Peace(Washington, D.C., 1998).
3. Abdusalam Omer, “Supporting System and Procedures for the Effective
Regulation and Monitoring of Somali Remittance Companies
(Hawala)” (United Nations Development Programme, Nairobi, 2003).

Somaliland’s addict economy
BY Tristan McConnell / July 17, 2009

Somalia’s economy is dominated by trade in khat, a narcotic banned in the U.S. and much of Europe. Eye-popping, head-buzzing khat is loved by Somali men who chew the leaves for their stimulant effect. While most of war-torn Somalia’s economy is moribund, khat does a bustling trade estimated at well over $50 million annually. Doctors warn, however, that the drug is not only a drain on limited Somali resources but is also destroying lives.

Hargeisa is the capital of Somaliland, the northern territory nominally independent from Somalia which maintains peace and economic activity, especially the khat trade. Lounging on a rug on the second floor of an ostentatious glass and stone mansion overlooking Hargeisa, Mohamed Yusuf Moge, aptly known as “The Fat Mohamed,” lit up another cigarette. In front of him was a pile of leafless khat twigs. His eyes were wide and red-rimmed, a symptom of the leaves that have been chewed. “We bring in 80-tons of khat every day,” he said. “We have many vehicles and two airplanes for transporting our produce. We control the market: We are the De Beers of the khat industry!”

“We” is “571 Allah Amin,” a family business started 15 years ago that has grown to become Somaliland’s biggest khat importer. Moge is 571’s country rep. Although he would not reveal how much the company makes, it is estimated that its revenue is $320,000 a day. Downtown at the company depot, the second of the day’s trucks arrives from the highland farms of neighboring Ethiopia mid-morning. Thursday is the busiest day of the week because, as one man explained, Friday is the Muslim day of rest so everyone can sleep off their khat hangover.

As the khat truck pulled in, barrow boys and vendors crowded round the tailgate to unload the 70 kg sacks of khat wrapped in hay to keep it fresh. Inside are small bundles of shoots that are bought wholesale for $1 and sold retail for $1.50. “Business is good!” shouted Omar Hersi Warfa, 571’s depot manager, over the clamor. “We are working hard and people are chewing!” Khat vendor Shamis Abdullahi Nur, 50, squatting on the ground nearby, agreed. “Business is very good because of our security and peace,” she said as she directed a sack of khat to be loaded into the back of a beat-up station wagon for the drive across town to her stall. Others pushed smaller consignments away in wheelbarrows. “I’ve been selling khat for over 30 years and now is the best time. There was a time of war, a time when I was a refugee, but now you can see I am sitting here eating my mango,” she said with a sticky, happy smile

Street prices are highest in the early afternoon because this is gayiil time when most men chew the khat and shoot the breeze. They can be found sitting on carpets in shady spots close to khat kiosks, with an ashtray, a flask of sweet tea and a jug of water at their feet. Women often sell khat but are not invited to chew. But increasingly men are also chewing in the morning, the evening and throughout the night. The stoned man in a cotton wrap tottering in a daze along a crumbling potholed road with a fistful of green stems is a common sight. Some warn the national habit does psychological damage. In the mental wing of Hargeisa’s main hospital, a staff member walked past the patients, many of whom were chained to a bed or a post or sat staring vacantly on the floor. “The majority of the men here are affected by chewing khat, most are schizophrenic,” said Faisal Ibrahim.

Dr. Yassin Arab Abdi, the hospital’s chief doctor, said: “Chewing is part of it although there are many reasons for mental illness. Before they used to chew at a certain time for a few hours now there are four sessions 24-hours a day. These people are addicts.” Back at the khat mansion, “Fat Mohamed” Moge and his colleagues, however, extolled the virtues of the drug. “Khat plays a great role in our society. If there’s conflict people have to sit down, chew, talk about it,” Moge said. “It is not like a drug which destroys the mind. It is a stimulant. If you chew khat in the right manner it doesn’t affect you.” But, he admitted, “There are some guys who are addicted, this is because they are jobless and have nothing to do.”

Unfortunately this description applies to many Somali men. The last national government — a military dictatorship — collapsed in 1991. Since then the unrecognized state of Somaliland has declared itself independent while Somalia has descended deeper into war and chaos. Isolation on the one hand and war on the other have left the formal economy shattered with many surviving on remittances sent from relatives abroad. Yet it is not unusual for men to spend $5 or $10 a day on khat, making the habit a huge drain on very limited resources. The government’s entire annual budget is less than $50 million, around $14 a head for each of Somaliland’s 3.5 million citizens. Such is the love of khat that to outlaw it would be political suicide. Nevertheless a senior Somaliland politician, Musa Behe of the opposition Kulmiye party, said, “The Somali man works less because he chews khat. We won’t ban it but we need to raise awareness of the harm khat does.”

Profile : Somalia

Somalia has been without an effective central government since
President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. The self-proclaimed state
of Somaliland and the region of Puntland run their own affairs.
* Population: 8.7 million (UN, 2007)
* Capital: Mogadishu
* Area: 637,657sq km (246,201 sq miles)
* Major languages: Somali, Arabic, Italian, English
* Major religion: Islam
* Life expectancy: 47 years (men), 49 years (women)
* Monetary unit: 1 Somali shilling = 100 cents
* Main exports: Livestock, bananas, hides, fish
* GNI per capita: n/a

President: Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed
Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a former leader of the semi-autonomous Somali
region of Puntland, was chosen by Somalia’s interim parliament as
president of the Transitional Federal Government in October 2004. The
election took place in Kenya because the Somali capital was regarded
as being too dangerous. A former army officer and faction leader, Mr
Yusuf led a guerrilla movement in the 1970s aimed at ousting the
Somali dictator Siad Barre. In the 1990s he emerged as the pre-eminent
leader of his native Puntland region; he declared the territory
autonomous in 1998. He is said to have an authoritarian approach to

Somalia’s disintegration is reflected in its media, which is
undeveloped, fragmented and often partisan. Broadcasters and
journalists operate in an atmosphere which is hostile to free
expression, and often dangerous. In spite of this, diverse and more
professional media outlets have emerged in recent years – in
particular, FM radio stations with no explicit factional links. The TV
and press sectors are weak and radio is the dominant medium. There are
around 20 radio stations, but no national, domestic broadcaster. Many
listeners tune to Somali-language media based abroad, in particular
the BBC Somali service. In secessionist Somaliland and Puntland the
authorities maintain a tight hold on broadcasting.




“Due to its unrecognized status, The Republic of Somaliland has no
official contacts with any other nation. The current foreign policy of
Somaliland is to try to secure international recognition as a
sovereign, stable country, so that international aid can be more
readily secured. Somaliland was independent for a 3 day period in
1960, between the end of British colonial rule and its union with the
former Italian colony of Somalia which status then continued until the
unilateral declaration reestablishing its independence in 1991.
Somaliland’s claims to sovereignty rests on its former independent
status. In addition, the fact that the rest of Somalia is in a state
of chaos while Somaliland is under stable government also lends
credence to its claim. The attitude of the United Nations and the
African Union on the preservation of existing national borders has so
far prevented recognition of Somaliland, despite the examples of the
former status of British Somaliland, and the fact that Eritrea
successfully broke away from Ethiopia and became a recognized country.
An African Union fact-finding mission that visited Somaliland in early
2005 recently published a report that recommended favorable
consideration for recognizing Somaliland’s independence.”

“The population of Somaliland is estimated at around 3.5 million. The
average population growth rate is 3.1%. Population density is
estimated at approximately 25 persons per sq. kilometre. Fifty-five
percent of the population is either nomadic or semi-nomadic, while 45%
live in urban centres or rural towns. The average life expectancy for
the male is 50 and for females it is 55.

The Republic of Somaliland known as the Somaliland Protectorate under
the British rule from 1884 until June, 26th 1960 when Somaliland got
its independence from Britain. On July 1st 1960 it joined the former
Italian Somalia to form the Somali Republic. The union did not work
according to the aspirations of the people, and the strain led to a
civil war from 1980s onwards and eventually to the collapse of the
Somali Republic. After the collapse of the Somali Republic, the people
of Somaliland held a congress in which it was decided to withdraw from
the Union with Somalia and to reinstate Somaliland’s sovereignty.

The country has a republican form of government. The legislative
assembly is composed of two chambers – an elected elder’s chamber, and
a house of representatives. An elected President and an elected Vice-
president head the government. The President nominates the cabinet
which is approved by the legislature. There is an independent

One of the provisions of the National Constitution of the Republic of
Somaliland is the establishment of a Bank to carry out Central Banking
functions. The bank of Somaliland (Baanka Somaliland) was thus
inaugurated in 1994 together with appropriate Banking Laws, to insure
that Banking regulations are carried out to the letter. Board of
Directors has accordingly been appointed together with a Governor of
the Bank, Vice-governor, and a Director General. In addition, the Bank
of Somaliland besides its functions as Central Bank, runs the
activities of Commercial sector.

The Bank’s main objectives are detailed in Article 3 of the
Constitutive Law of Somaliland Bank as follows: Fostering Monetary
stability maintaining the internal and external values of the
Somaliland Currency and promoting credit and exchange conditions
conductive to the balanced growth of the economy of the Republic and
within the limits of its powers, it shall contribute to the financial
and economic policies of the state.”





“Our foreign service hang-ups about recognition are getting in the way
of us… to build adequately on the efforts of the Government of
Somaliland to create a modern, democratic state. In effect, we are
putting the interests of the warmongers in the south ahead of those of
the peace-builders in the north.”

Democracy comes of age in Somaliland
BY Stefan Simanowitz / Contemporary Review / Dec 2005

The rising sun reveals two long lines of people snaking towards a
small concrete polling station in Gabiley, a town in rural Somaliland.
Many of them have walked considerable distances and queued all night
in order to vote in these, the first parliamentary elections held in
the territory for nearly forty years. But although voters across the
country have turned out in force, and although the election is deemed
free and fair by international observers, the result will not be
officially recognised beyond its territorial borders. Indeed, in the
eyes of the international community, Somaliland is a country that does
not exist.

Since its unilateral proclamation of independence in 1991, Somaliland,
an area the size of England and Wales in the north of Somalia, has
struggled to gain international recognition. Whilst neighbouring
Somalia has all but ceased to function as an administrative, judicial
and territorial entity, Somaliland has taken important steps towards
creating a stable working democracy in one of the poorest and most
dangerous regions of the world. A new constitution was adopted in 2001
following a referendum. In 2002 local elections passed off peacefully,
and in 2003 free and fair presidential elections took place. Having
thus laid the foundations of a functioning democracy, the
parliamentary elections of 29th September 2005 were seen as the final
step in the democratisation process and an important milestone in the
transition from a traditional clan-based, single-party-dominated
political structure to a stable multi-party democracy. Many
Somalilanders also regarded them as the final prerequisite for
international recognition.

However, despite the fact that Somaliland may fulfil the requirements
necessary for recognition as a sovereign state, the question of
recognition will be determined by a number of external geo-political
factors. These factors include the African Union’s position on the
sanctity of colonial borders and Somaliland’s role in the so-called
‘war on terror’.

Somaliland was a British Protectorate for over eighty years during the
colonial period. In 1960, it gained independence but formed a hasty
union with the former Italian Somaliland to create the Somali
Republic. In 1969 Mohamed Siad Barre’s military coup brought Somalia’s
flirtation with democracy to an end and planted the seeds of a
secessionist struggle in Somaliland. This struggle culminated in a
brutal three-year civil war in which 50,000 people were killed and
half a million refugees fled. Between 1988 and 1991, Barre’s forces
massacred civilians, laid over two million mines and reduced cities to

In 1991, the overthrow of Barre’s regime plunged Somalia into a state
of anarchy from which it is yet to emerge. Somaliland, however, was
quick to declare independence and, over the years, it has managed to
establish itself as a model of stability, good governance and economic
discipline. Rival militias have been demobilised, mines have been
cleared and refugees have been repatriated. The war-ravaged
infrastructure has been rebuilt and Somaliland now boasts modern
airports, hospitals, ports, power plants and universities. There is a
free press and the central bank manages an official currency with
relatively stable exchange rates. An unarmed police force and
independent judiciary maintain order.

What is most remarkable about this progress is that it has been
achieved with virtually no external help. Whilst economic development
has been heavily supported by Somalilanders in the Diaspora, lack of
international recognition has meant that Somaliland does not qualify
for bilateral aid or support from international financial
institutions. This international isolation has not, however, resulted
in isolationism. Lack of access to external aid has forced this
country of 3.5-million people to become more self-reliant than many
other African states. This self-reliance is reflected in what is
perhaps the most significant of Somaliland’s achievements: its system
of government.

Rather than having a Western democratic model of governance imposed
on them from outside, Somaliland has managed to fuse Western-style
institutions of government with its own traditional forms of social
and political organisation. Its bi-cameral parliament reflects this
fusion of traditional and modern, with the Senate consisting of
traditional elders, and the House of Representatives consisting of
elected representatives.

However, with its history of ‘tribalism’ and internecine fighting, the
key challenge for Somaliland’s new parliament is to try and replace
clan-based politics with party politics. For its first twelve years,
Somaliland had no political parties but instead followed more
traditional clan-based forms of political organisation. Political
parties were introduced during the presidential elections and it was
hoped that the recent parliamentary elections would help to usher in a
representative system without allowing representation to be overtly
clan-based. Clearly, if clan loyalties were to take precedence over
party loyalties, parliament would be seriously weakened. The
traditional clan-based political system had resulted in an under-
representation of some clans and it was hoped that having just three
non-clan-based parties would reduce the extent to which clan
allegiance affected the selection of candidates and the way in which
people voted. A limited number of political parties would force
alliances between clans to develop thereby increasing integration and

In the traditional clan system it is the male elders who make
decisions, and during the nomination process, many candidates were
indeed selected by elders along clan lines. The male-dominated nature
of the selection process was reflected in the fact that only seven of
the 246 candidates were female. There was also evidence that political
parties often chose candidates based on their perceived popularity and
support base. Whilst the absence of voter registration makes it hard
to analyse voter patterns, it would seem from the results that there
is some evidence that regional voting patterns reflect clan
preferences. There is also evidence however, that alliances were
sought between subgroups of different major clans across regions under
the different party umbrellas. This would indicate that, although
tribalism inevitably played some part in the election, it has been

The election itself was very tightly fought. At one stage it seemed
inevitable that the president’s Democratic United National Party
(UDUB) would lose to the Solidarity Party (Kulmiye). However, UDUB was
able to use its powerbase as the governing party to maintain its
percentage of the popular vote, while Kulmiye lost considerable ground
to the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID). The close nature of the
result means that parliament will not be dominated by clan or party,
but will require much greater consensus-building coalitions. It will
nevertheless be interesting to see how party loyalties will be
negotiated against clan interests in the new parliament.

Election Day
Lack of international recognition meant that Somaliland was not able
to access forms of governance support commonly received by post-
conflict areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the
elections were well organised and successfully conducted with over
800,000 voters turning out to the country’s 985 polling stations to
elect 82 members of parliament. This represents a turnout of over 90
per cent.

Like all elections in infant democracies there were some inevitable
teething problems of a practical, administrative and logistical
nature. The absence of a census and voter register meant that a
decision was made to allow voters to vote in any of Somaliland’s six
regions: the only requirements for voting being that voters were 16
years of age and spoke Somali. Inevitably, this led to widespread
attempts at underage and multiple voting. Due to the tradition of
women decorating their hands with henna it was decided that invisible
ink (and black lamps) should be used instead of indelible ink. This
generally proved an effective barrier to multiple voting; however
punishment for those caught varied. In some polling stations those
attempting to vote more than once were merely turned away, often only
to rejoin the queues. In other polling stations people had their shoes
and belts taken away and were made to sit outside the polling station
awaiting detention by the police. Whilst the fact that 30 per cent of
the population are nomadic makes census taking and voter registration
more difficult, there is confidence that both will be in place before
the local elections in 2007.

With illiteracy rates as high as 80 per cent and with many people
having had little or no experience of voting, substantial voter
education was attempted prior to the elections. In addition, ballot
papers had symbols beside the name of each candidate to make it easier
for those that could not read. On the day however, many voters, not
even knowing which way up to hold the ballot paper, chose to announce
their choice to the local chairperson, who marked the paper for them.
Whilst this compromised the secrecy of the voting process, it did not
seem to bother voters who were generally eager to talk about whom they
had voted for.

Shadow of Terror
The shadow that hung over the elections and continues to darken
Somaliland’s future is that cast by the threat of terrorism. On 25th
September the atmosphere in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s impoverished but
relaxed capital, changed. With the elections only days away, several
suspected Islamic militants were arrested following a shoot-out with
police. The following day a cache of arms, including heavy anti-tank
weapons, was discovered in the city. According to the Interior
Minister, one of the men arrested was a senior al-Qaeda operative
allegedly in the region to organise attacks on local leaders and
foreigners. This incident heightened fears of violence especially as
it coincided with the arrival of 76 international election observers
including potentially high-profile targets such as parliamentarians
from South Africa and Europe as well as a former US Ambassador. It
also provided a stark reminder of Somaliland’s precarious position in
the global war on terror.

Whilst Somaliland has managed to avoid the violent lawlessness and
extremism of Somalia, the discovery of Islamic militants in Hargeisa
does not come as a great surprise. Over the last two years, extremists
have murdered four foreign aid workers in Somaliland. Last month four
men were sentenced to death for murdering a British couple in 2003 in
a school they had built. Although the predominantly Sufi form of Islam
practised in Somaliland does not lend itself to extremism, concerns
have been raised by the presence of an increasing number of radical
clerics as well as the porous nature of the border with Somalia.
Mogadishu has become something of a haven for al-Qaeda-affiliated
fighters and Somalia was used as a transit point for the terrorists
who carried out the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania, as well as the 2002 suicide bombing in Mombasa.

Whilst the threat of terrorism is clearly a problem for Somaliland, it
also presents an opportunity. Ironically, the discovery of al-Qaeda
operatives in the territory might do more to make Western governments
take notice of Somaliland than the free and fair conduct of their
elections. Somaliland is strategically positioned on the Gulf of Aden
and is also home to what could be an important navel base in Berbera.
Currently the only location in Africa where the US has a military base
is neighbouring Djibouti, and Somaliland is seen by the Americans as a
potentially important ally against the spread of extremism.

Somaliland is conscious that too close a relationship with the
Americans might not be popular with its population, but it also
recognises the advantages that collaboration with the US could bring
in terms of finance, security and long-term stability. By promoting
itself as a non-threatening strategic partner in the ‘war on terror’,
Somaliland could fast-track its entry into the international

Recognition and beyond
Even if the US were to support Somaliland’s right to self-
determination, it is unlikely that they or any other country will
recognise Somaliland without the approval of the Organisation of
African Unity. One of the OAU’s central principles is that African
colonial borders should not be redrawn. This is based on a well-
grounded fear that recognition of ‘separatist’ states could cause the
continent to descend into chaos. However, there is a strong argument
that by breaking a union that it had entered into as an independent
state, Somaliland would be reverting to, rather than redrawing its
colonial borders. It is also worth noting that despite its reluctance
to acknowledge secessionist states, the OAU has recently recognised
the newly formed nations of Eritrea and Western Sahara. It is also
important to note that thirty new countries have been internationally
recognised since 1990, although most of these emerged from the
dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia.

Despite OAU intransigence, Somalilanders remain optimistic about the
possibility of recognition and the benefits it will bring. As well as
giving Somaliland access to bilateral aid, recognition would finally
give access to the mining and oil companies eager to exploit
Somaliland’s proven natural resources. Large-scale extraction of oil,
coal, gemstones and minerals could transform this country where 43 per
cent of the population are living in extreme poverty. Whilst
international recognition is not a panacea that will lift Somaliland
out of poverty or eradicate its problems with health, education, food
insecurity, water supply, and HIV/AIDS, it would undoubtedly speed

Although there is still a distance to travel, Somaliland’s
accomplishments are impressive. It has created effective institutions
of state and attained a level of political maturity well beyond its
years. Somaliland provides a useful model of democracy that offers
lessons to us all. It reminds us that democracy is not a static,
prescriptive system but a living idea that is constantly adapting and
taking new forms. In Hargeisa, reminders of how far this small nation
has come are all around. When the rains come, a mass grave beside the
river is exposed. Bones protrude from the red earth, some still tied
at the wrist. Beside the airport road, a rusting Russian tank is
plastered with election posters: a reminder of Somaliland’s war-
ravaged past and a symbol of hope for a democratic future.

{Stefan Simanowitz is a writer and researcher. He was part of the
International Election Observer mission to Somaliland in September


“Following the pattern of the Booroma National Charter, which
formalized the birth of Somaliland during 1993, a new entity – the
Puntland State of Somalia – was established in July 1998 out of a long
Constitutional process that lasted more than two months. The
institutional recognition of the role played by the traditional
leadership in Puntland in the seven-year period of peaceful self-
government in a stateless situation, has come only at the end of this
process. However, the mediation role of the elders has not been so
successful in other regions of Somalia for several reasons. Generally
speaking, outside the Majeerteen context, Somali society lacks a
stable hierarchy of paramount chiefs, and it follows that mediation
can achieve only a local dimension. Nevertheless, in the northwestern
regions (Somaliland) a regionalist feeling has widely spread in the
last thirty years. In this part of Somalia, after the collapse of the
State, the elders have collectively expressed this feeling better than
the SNM, frequently paralyzed by leadership competition.

The local concept of State sovereignty does not naturally match with
the rigid concept of State territory. Instead, it should expand in the
‘official’ territory of other countries in a flexible way and wherever
members of its community are found. This is exactly one of the options
offered to end the conflict and to reconstruct Somalia by the LSE
consultant to the European Union during 1995. Today, is effectively
put into effect in all Somali regions without respect of internal and
external borders. From another point of view, it is a slide back to a
legal status of the community group, confirmed by a citizenship which
corresponds to kinship. These are new elements of extreme importance
to those who are directly or indirectly committed to developing
alternative solutions in the African context, split up between State
sovereignty and ethnic allegiance. What is advancing in Somalia is a
more flexible and a more restricted idea of what the State is and
means in Africa (and elsewhere).”


Badhan, Somaliland, August 18, 2007 – The semi-autonomous regional
state of Puntland (Majeerteenya) declared this week that the recent
formation of `Makhir state’ by eastern Sanag residents is `a load of
hoo ha and a dream’. In a press statement, The Puntland Minister of
Information, Mr Abdirahman Banga in recent press statement strongly
condemned last week’s declaration of a new state in eastern Sanag. Mr
Banga said that the people behind the declaration of Makhir State are
dreaming because it doesn’t exist.

The minister stressed that this area is 100% in the hands and control
of Puntland, though the area recently saw bloody clashes between
forces loyal to Puntland and Somaliland. Soon after the minister’s
statement, the self-appointed President of `Makhir’ state, Mr Jibril
Ali Salad, who used to be a Somaliland parliamentarian, spoke to the
local media in response to the minister’s statements. Mr Salad said,
“Puntland has no business to talk about our new state, and they are
powerless to stop us, and do not have the ability to even come here”.

“Makhir state is acknowledged by its people as a fully-fledged state
independent of Puntland and Somaliland,” added Jibril Ali Salad.
Makhir state was established last week in the Badhan district of
eastern Sanag and its president is Jibril Ali Salad, who up to early
this year was a member of Somaliland’s parliament House of
Representatives. Somaliland’s government has not made any comment
regarding this newly-established enclave inside its border.

Environmental Protection Corps in Maakhir State of Somalia

The roots of the destructive nature of the charcoal trade in Sanaag
region was due to lack of rules and regulations stemmed from the
collapse of the central Somali Government. This finally came to an end
since the declaration of Maakhir State. The Environmental Protection
Corps (EPC) of Maakhir State is growing in numbers and contributing to
a larger slowdown of charcoal trade and illegal gaming of wild

The authority in Maakhir State has banned charcoal trade because of
the environmental destruction and desertification that it does to the
fragile Somali environment. Traders drastically cut entire swaths of
forests, and as a result the trade was flourishing due to the high
demand for charcoal in the Arab Gulf States and other countries in
Asia. These are the reasons why the Environment Protection Corps are
confronting the charcoal profiteers and their militia that have been
menacing the Gebi Valley and Sool Plateau.

It is important to highlight that the newly established Maakhir
Authority did not receive any international aid for this effort. This
largely local effort has made an immediate impact on preserving and
protecting the environment in the Gebi Valley and Sool Plateau. As
indicated by the President of Maakhir Jibril Salad in last Thursday’s
press release; ” Maakhir Administration used traditional conflict
resolution methods to stop the traders and their militia, however
these militia are heavily equipped with automatic firearms who would
not cooperate, but the most effective and successful method for
limiting the harmful distress of our environment was creating and
using the EPC forces.”

The EPC in Maakhir apprehended more than 80 criminals over the past 4
months and jailed them in the district of Dhahar. The administration
constructed a new program of materials, structures, and training to
educate militia while they are held in jail. Jama Dahir Kodah, one of
the program directors of the EPC, told the media that their next
sustainable occurring project is to implement a plantation program in
the region.

The EPC is divided into three forces in the following areas of Maakhir
State and the main base is in city of Dhahar, the capital city of
Boharo region, the new region in Sanaag that Maakhir created:
1) The first battalion is responsible for the protection in vast areas
which stretches from Baragaha-Qol in Southern Sanaag to Eilbuh in
Central Sanaag.
2) The Second Battalion is responsible for an area which stretches
from Dhahar to Western Part of Bari region of Somalia near Boosaaso.
3) The Third and most important battalion have bases along the highway
that links Maakhir to Puntland and does stop and search in suspected




African Union replaces dictators’ club
BY Paul Reynolds / 8 July, 2002

A new wind of change is blowing through Africa. The move from OAU
(Organisation of African Unity) to AU (African Union) is supposed to
be more than the dropping of one letter. It is supposed to represent a
shift from a “dictators’ club” to a people-based grouping. Everything
of course depends on implementation. And given the sad record – and
current problems, such as AIDS – there must be doubts about how much
can be achieved. AIDS alone is reducing life in some countries,
especially in southern Africa, to nothing more than an existence. Life
expectancies are being cut to levels unknown since the 19th Century.
The OAU was set up to develop Africa after colonialism – and to help
liberate Southern Africa from white rule.

The African Union reflects the developments in many parts of Africa in
recent years, as democracy has started to take hold and a new emphasis
has emerged which concentrates less on the battles of the past and
more on the need to improve the lives of ordinary people. The key
shift is that the principle of state sovereignty has been abandoned.

It was the central belief of the OAU that nobody should interfere in
anyone else’s business. That was especially convenient for dictators.
Now the AU has as one of its aims the promotion of “democratic
principles and institutions, popular participation and good
governance.” It will have the right to initiate a so-called “peer
review” of a country’s record, intervene if there is genocide and war
crimes and impose sanctions. Everything of course depends on

High hopes
Nobody is mourning the end of the OAU. Yet when it was founded in
Addis Ababa in 1963, Africa was full of pride and hope. Its leaders
were giants of their day. Africa was coming out of colonial rule and
many had led their nations to independence. It was a time to be bold.
One of the key figures was Dr Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana which
became independent (and dropped its colonial name the Gold Coast) in
1957. He believed that the African continent should be “united.” But
defining that unity was the problem. The OAU solved the problem by
praising unity in its language, but avoiding it in its practice. The
differences across the continent were just too many and the principle
which the OAU adopted, of non-interference and non-intervention,
simply meant that member states turned a blind eye to their

When one of the founding members, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia
gave a speech to the OAU, he was praised in its formal thanks for his
“wisdom.” When the man who overthrew him in 1974 (and later murdered
him and buried him under a latrine), Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam,
subsequently welcomed delegates back to Addis Ababa, he was thanked
for his “warm and generous hospitality.” Colonel Mengistu went on to
declare his “red terror” in which tens of thousands of opponents were
slaughtered by his neighbourhood committees. It was one of the
tragedies of the OAU that all that happened in the city where it was
founded. There were coups all over the place – including Nigeria
(which had been the jewel in the British colonial crown in Africa and
the hope for parliamentary democracy), Libya (which brought Colonel
Gaddafi to power) and Uganda (in which Idi Amin rose to fame). Kwame
Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup himself. It symbolised the problems
Africa was having in developing stable government. The OAU could say
little and did nothing.

Even after the recent elections in Zimbabwe, it was still bringing
forth its usual kind of statement when it objected to possible
American sanctions: “We are dismayed by this report, which amounts to
interference in the internal affairs of a member state.” It was more
successful over the years in trying to mediate in conflicts between
states. It helped mediate a border dispute between Algeria and Morocco
and between Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. One of the ironies was that
the OAU insisted on preserving the borders drawn by the colonial
rulers which often reflected spheres of influence rather than natural
divisions. The view at the time was also that Africa needed time to
settle down. And after all, it was achieving good economic growth of
about 5% a year in the 1960s. And the crisis in Southern Africa, where
white rule was being confronted, was regarded as more of a priority
for the OAU.

Faith lost
But Africa began to fail. Economic growth gave way to debt repayments;
the pioneering efforts to improve public health were swamped by AIDS,
wars were unending and famine stalked the land. The people lost faith
in governments and governments lost interest in the people. According
to Bernard Otabil of West Africa magazine: “The people did not feel
that the OAU satisfied their aspirations. It did not involve people on
the ground. It was top heavy.” The Secretary General of the OAU, Amara
Essy, who has helped to bring the new African Union about, was
scathing about the old grouping: “The OAU is the most difficult
organisation I have ever seen”, he told New African magazine. Mr
Otabil believes that the African Union is on the right course because
it is less grandiose and hopes to be more community based. It is also
offering an economic dimension and seeks African integration into the
world economy. One of the main tasks for the AU will be to push
forward with Nepad, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. This
offers a bargain with the West – you give us aid and we will put our
house in order. It is a long way from 1963.

African Union supports Somali split
BY Jean-Jacques Cornish / Feb 10 2006

Hopes of recognition for Somaliland’s 15-year independence have been
raised by the favourable report of an African Union mission that
visited the territory last year. The report, a copy of which the Mail
& Guardian has obtained, comes at a time when signs of a new
flexibility in African thinking on boundary issues are emerging. It
suggests that official African aid be tapped by this country of
3,5million people that was effectively destroyed by the Somali
dictator Siad Barre. With the fall of Barre in 1991, the former
British colony broke its union with southern neighbour, the former
Italian colony of Somalia. Since Barre’s departure, Somalia has been
without an effective government.

But Somaliland has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. It has had a
referendum to adopt a democratic Constitution and has organised
presidential and parliamentary elections. Independent international
observers have endorsed all of these. The Organisation of African
Unity refused to recognise Somaliland’s independence, citing the maxim
that there would be chaos if colonial boundaries were not observed in
post-independence Africa.

Unions between Senegal and Gambia, and Egypt and Sudan, among
others, have been broken without affecting the recognition of these
countries. The AU mission accepts this, stating in its report that
Somaliland’s “case should not be linked to the notion of ‘opening a
Pandora’s box’. As such, the AU should find a special method for
dealing with this outstanding case. “The lack of recognition ties the
hands of the authorities and people of Somaliland, as they cannot
effectively and sustainably transact with the outside to pursue the
reconstruction and development goals.

“Furthermore, given the acute humanitarian situation prevailing in
Somaliland, the AU should mobilise financial resources to help
alleviate the plight of the affected communities, especially those
catering for the internally displaced persons and the returnees.
Finally, given also the high potential for conflict between Mogadishu
and Hargeisa, the AU should take steps to discuss critical issues in
the relations between the two towns. That initiative should be taken
at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Iqbal Jhazbhay, an Africa analyst at the University of South Africa,
says the report illustrates a new mood in the AU, an organisation
Somaliland has officially applied to join. “The AU-sponsored peace
deal in Sudan allows for a referendum, five years from now, on whether
the south wants to go it alone. This could not have happened if it
were business as usual. The AU now goes for results, and takes account
of subjective facts and practical realities,” says Jhazbhay. “The AU
clearly recognises the stability created in Somaliland and the
infrastructural development. It is determined to bring peace to the
horn. It is looking at post-conflict reconstruction and it has the
capacity to handle these issues.”


Revealed: The ghost fleet of the recession anchored just east of Singapore
BY Simon Parry  /  28th September 2009

The tropical waters that lap the jungle shores of southern Malaysia could not be described as a paradisical shimmering turquoise. They are more of a dark, soupy green. They also carry a suspicious smell. Not that this is of any concern to the lone Indian face that has just peeped anxiously down at me from the rusting deck of a towering container ship; he is more disturbed by the fact that I may be a pirate, which, right now, on top of everything else, is the last thing he needs.

His appearance, in a peaked cap and uniform, seems rather odd; an officer without a crew. But there is something slightly odder about the vast distance between my jolly boat and his lofty position, which I can’t immediately put my finger on. Then I have it – his 750ft-long merchant vessel is standing absurdly high in the water. The low waves don’t even bother the lowest mark on its Plimsoll line. It’s the same with all the ships parked here, and there are a lot of them. Close to 500. An armada of freighters with no cargo, no crew, and without a destination between them.

My ramshackle wooden fishing boat has floated perilously close to this giant sheet of steel. But the face is clearly more scared of me than I am of him. He shoos me away and scurries back into the vastness of his ship. His footsteps leave an echo behind them. Navigating a precarious course around the hull of this Panama-registered hulk, I reach its bow and notice something else extraordinary. It is tied side by side to a container ship of almost the same size. The mighty sister ship sits empty, high in the water again, with apparently only the sailor and a few lengths of rope for company.

Nearby, as we meander in searing midday heat and dripping humidity between the hulls of the silent armada, a young European officer peers at us from the bridge of an oil tanker owned by the world’s biggest container shipping line, Maersk. We circle and ask to go on board, but are waved away by two Indian crewmen who appear to be the only other people on the ship. ‘They are telling us to go away,’ the boat driver explains. ‘No one is supposed to be here. They are very frightened of pirates.’

Here, on a sleepy stretch of shoreline at the far end of Asia, is surely the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history. Their numbers are equivalent to the entire British and American navies combined; their tonnage is far greater. Container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers – all should be steaming fully laden between China, Britain, Europe and the US, stocking camera shops, PC Worlds and Argos depots ahead of the retail pandemonium of 2009. But their water has been stolen.

They are a powerful and tangible representation of the hurricanes that have been wrought by the global economic crisis; an iron curtain drawn along the coastline of the southern edge of Malaysia’s rural Johor state, 50 miles east of Singapore harbour. It is so far off the beaten track that nobody ever really comes close, which is why these ships are here. The world’s ship owners and government economists would prefer you not to see this symbol of the depths of the plague still crippling the world’s economies.

So they have been quietly retired to this equatorial backwater, to be maintained only by a handful of bored sailors. The skeleton crews are left alone to fend off the ever-present threats of piracy and collisions in the congested waters as the hulls gather rust and seaweed at what should be their busiest time of year. Local fisherman Ah Wat, 42, who for more than 20 years has made a living fishing for prawns from his home in Sungai Rengit, says: ‘Before, there was nothing out there – just sea. Then the big ships just suddenly came one day, and every day there are more of them. Some of them stay for a few weeks and then go away. But most of them just stay. You used to look from here straight over to Indonesia and see nothing but a few passing boats. Now you can no longer see the horizon.’

The size of the idle fleet becomes more palpable when the ships’ lights are switched on after sunset. From the small fishing villages that dot the coastline, a seemingly endless blaze of light stretches from one end of the horizon to another. Standing in the darkness among the palm trees and bamboo huts, as calls to prayer ring out from mosques further inland, is a surreal and strangely disorientating experience. It makes you feel as if you are adrift on a dark sea, staring at a city of light. Ah Wat says: ‘We don’t understand why they are here. There are so many ships but no one seems to be on board. When we sail past them in our fishing boats we never see anyone. They are like real ghost ships and some people are scared of them. They believe they may bring a curse with them and that there may be bad spirits on the ships.’

As daylight creeps across the waters, flags of convenience from destinations such as Panama and the Bahamas become visible. In reality, though, these vessels belong to some of the world’s biggest Western shipping companies. And the sickness that has ravaged them began far away – in London, where the industry’s heart beats, and where the plummeting profits and hugely reduced cargo prices are most keenly felt. The Aframax-class oil tanker is the camel of the world’s high seas. By definition, it is smaller than 132,000 tons deadweight and with a breadth above 106ft. It is used in the basins of the Black Sea, the North Sea, the Caribbean Sea, the China Sea and the Mediterranean – or anywhere where non-OPEC exporting countries have harbours and canals too small to accommodate very large crude carriers (VLCC) or ultra-large crude carriers (ULCCs). The term is based on the Average Freight Rate Assessment (AFRA) tanker rate system and is an industry standard.

You may wish to know this because, if ever you had an irrational desire to charter one, now would be the time. This time last year, an Aframax tanker capable of carrying 80,000 tons of cargo would cost £31,000 a day ($50,000). Now it is about £3,400 ($5,500). This is why the chilliest financial winds anywhere in the City of London are to be found blowing through its 400-plus shipping brokers. Between them, they manage about half of the world’s chartering business. The bonuses are long gone. The last to feel the tail of the economic whiplash, they – and their insurers and lawyers – await a wave of redundancies and business failures in the next six months. Commerce is contracting, fleets rust away – yet new ship-builds ordered years ago are still coming on stream.

Just 12 months ago these financiers and brokers were enjoying fat bonuses as they traded cargo space. But nobody wants the space any more, and those that still need to ship goods across the world are demanding vast reductions in price. Do not tell these men and women about green shoots of recovery. As Briton Tim Huxley, one of Asia’s leading ship brokers, says, if the world is really pulling itself out of recession, then all these idle ships should be back on the move. ‘This is the time of year when everyone is doing all the Christmas stuff,’ he points out. ‘A couple of years ago those ships would have been steaming back and forth, going at full speed. But now you’ve got something like 12 per cent of the world’s container ships doing nothing.’

Aframaxes are oil bearers. But the slump is industry-wide. The cost of sending a 40ft steel container of merchandise from China to the UK has fallen from £850 plus fuel charges last year to £180 this year. The cost of chartering an entire bulk freighter suitable for carrying raw materials has plunged even further, from close to £185,000 ($300,000) last summer to an incredible £6,100 ($10,000) earlier this year. Business for bulk carriers has picked up slightly in recent months, largely because of China’s rediscovered appetite for raw materials such as iron ore, says Huxley. But this is a small part of international trade, and the prospects for the container ships remain bleak.

Some experts believe the ratio of container ships sitting idle could rise to 25 per cent within two years in an extraordinary downturn that shipping giant Maersk has called a ‘crisis of historic dimensions’. Last month the company reported its first half-year loss in its 105-year history. Martin Stopford, managing director of Clarksons, London’s biggest ship broker, says container shipping has been hit particularly hard: ‘In 2006 and 2007 trade was growing at 11 per cent. In 2008 it slowed down by 4.7 per cent. This year we think it might go down by as much as eight per cent. If it costs £7,000 a day to put the ship to sea and if you only get £6,000 a day, than you have got a decision to make. Yet at the same time, the supply of container ships is growing. This year, supply could be up by around 12 per cent and demand is down by eight per cent. Twenty per cent spare is a lot of spare of anything – and it’s come out of nowhere.’ Stopford explains: ‘Globalisation and shipping go hand in hand. Worldwide, we ship about 8.2 billion tons of cargo a year. That’s more than one ton per person and probably two to three tons for richer people like us in the West. If the total goes down by five per cent or so, that’s a lot of cargo that isn’t moving.’

Three thousand miles north-east of the ghost fleet of Johor, the shipbuilding capital of the world rocks to an unpunctuated chorus of hammer-guns blasting rivets the size of dustbin lids into shining steel panels that are then lowered onto the decks of massive new vessels. As the shipping industry teeters on the brink of collapse, the activity at boatyards like Mokpo and Ulsan in South Korea all looks like a sick joke. But the workers in these bustling shipyards, who teem around giant tankers and mega-vessels the length of several football pitches and capable of carrying 10,000 or more containers each, have no choice; they are trapped in a cruel time warp.

A decade ago, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (who died last month) issued a decree to his industrial captains: he wished to make his nation the market leader in shipbuilding. He knew the market intimately. Before entering politics, he studied economics and worked for a Japanese-owned freight-shipping business. Within a few years he was heading his own business, starting out with a fleet of nine ships. Thus, by 2004, Kim Dae-jung’s presidential vision was made real. His country’s low-cost yards were winning 40 per cent of world orders, with Japan second with 24 per cent and China way behind on 14 per cent.

But shipbuilding is a horrendously hard market to plan. There is a three-year lag between the placing of an order and the delivery of a ship. With contracts signed, down-payments made and work under way, stopping work on a new ship is the economic equivalent of trying to change direction in an ocean liner travelling at full speed towards an iceberg. Thus the labours of today’s Korean shipbuilders merely represent the completion of contracts ordered in the fat years of 2006 and 2007. Those ships will now sail out into a global economy that no longer wants them. Maersk announced last week that it was renegotiating terms and prices with Asian shipyards for 39 ordered tankers and gas carriers. One of the company’s executives, Kristian Morch, said the shipping industry was in uncharted waters. As he told the global shipping newspaper Lloyd’s List only last week: ‘You have a contraction of oil demand, you have a falling world economy and you have a contraction of financing capabilities – and at the same time as a lot of new ships are being delivered.’

Demand peaked in 2005 when, with surplus tonnage worldwide standing at just 0.7 per cent, ship owners raced to order, fearing docks and berths at major shipyards would soon be fully booked. That spell of ‘panic buying’ has heightened today’s alarming mismatch between supply and demand. Keith Wallis, East Asia editor of Lloyd’s List, says, ‘There was an ordering frenzy on all types of vessel, particularly container ships, because of the booming trade between Asia and Europe and the United States. It was fuelled in particular by consumer demand in the UK, Europe and North America, as well as the demand for raw materials from China.’

Orders for most existing ships to be delivered within the next six to nine months would be honoured, he predicted, and the ships would go into service at the expense of older vessels in the fleet, which would be scrapped or end up anchored off places like southern Malaysia. But, says Wallis, ‘some ship owners won’t be able to pay their final instalments when the vessels are completed. Normally, they pay ten per cent down when they order the ship and there are three or four stages of payment. But 50 to 60 per cent is paid on delivery.’

South Korean shipyard Hanjin Heavy Industries last week said it had been forced to put up for sale three container ships ordered at a cost of £60 million ($100 million) by the Iranian state shipping line after the Iranians said they could not pay the bill. ‘The prospects for shipyards are bleak, particularly for the South Koreans, where they have a high proportion of foreign orders. Whole communities in places like Mokpo and Ulsan are involved in shipbuilding and there is a lot of sub-contracting to local companies,’ Wallis says. ‘So far the shipyards are continuing to work, but the problems will start to emerge next year and certainly in 2011, because that is when the current orders will have been delivered. There have hardly been any new orders in the past year. In 2011, the shipyards will simply run out of ships to build.’

Christopher Palsson, a senior consultant at London-based Lloyd’s Register-Fairplay Research, believes the situation will worsen before it gets better. ‘Some ships will be sold for demolition but the net balance will be even further pressure on the freight rates and the market itself. A lot of ship owners and operators are going to find themselves in a very difficult situation.’ The current downturn is the worst in living memory and more severe even than the slump of the early Eighties, Palsson believes. ‘Back then the majority of the crash was for tankers carrying crude oil. Today we have almost every aspect of shipping affected – bulk carriers, tankers, container carriers… the lot. It is a much wider-spread situation that we have today. China was not a major player in the world economy at that time. Neither was India. We had the Soviet Union. We had shipbuilding in the United Kingdom and Europe. But then, back in those days the world was a very different place.’

Stranded Russian sailors go on a hunger strike in Dubai
Shipping News / October 4, 2009

Three Russian seamen from a vessel stranded in the port of Dubai began a hunger strike on Friday, an International Transport Workers’ Federation official said. The Magdalena, owned by a German company and flying the flag of Antigua and Barbuda, has been anchored in Dubai since early August. The vessel’s owner reportedly owes the crew $230,000 in wage arrears. Onboard are nine Russians, two Ukrainians, four citizens of the Philippines, and one Estonian. “The captain of the vessel said that three crew members… went on hunger strike. The vessel’s owner has also been informed,” Pyotr Osichansky said.

The seamen demand repatriation and the repayment of wage arrears, and refuse to perform their duties. In early September the crew asked for international aid as they were running out of food and water. A week later two weeks’ worth of water supplies, provisions for three weeks, and fuel for 50 days were provided. A total of 23 Russian sailors are currently in a similar situation on two other vessels – the Piryit bulk carrier, which is stranded near the port of Cristobal in Panama, and the Southern Pearl vessel is anchored off the Bulgarian coast.

Crew of Ukrainian Freighter Stranded in New York Harbor
BY Robert D. McFadden / August 3, 1999

For three and a half months, a Ukrainian freighter has been stranded in New York Harbor, her cargo holds and fuel tanks empty, her master awaiting orders that never come, her 26-member crew idle and recently unpaid, food and supplies dwindling — a ship dead in the water, caught in a ghostly maritime limbo. Riding at anchor in Gravesend Bay off Brooklyn, a mile southeast of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the 458-foot merchantman, Banner of October, has repeatedly requested supplies from its owner’s American representative but has received inadequate stores of food, water and medicine, and no shipping orders.

”I said to owners, please, please, people like eating,” the master, Capt. Aleksandr Golub, 62, said in a shipboard interview last night. A seamen’s welfare organization, alerted earlier by the Coast Guard to the ship’s plight, had brought aboard an emergency two-day supply of chicken, beef, fruits and vegetables for the crew of 23 men and 3 women, all Ukrainians. ”It’s bad,” said Valery Ignatov, the seafarers’ union representative, when asked about conditions aboard the weather-beaten black and red freighter, which had carried used cars and trucks from New York and Miami to the Dominican Republic and Haiti in recent years. ”No food. No water. No oil. Pay late.”

Captain Golub attributed the problems of his ship to the financial troubles of its owner, the state-run Azov Shipping Company, of Mariupol, Ukraine. He also attributed the suicide of his predecessor as ship’s master to depression over company turmoil that had left the crew unpaid for more than a year. The Coast Guard, which went aboard for a routine inspection on Saturday and found provisions running out, had known of the ship since Jan. 13, when Captain Ivan Kozlov, the previous master, was found hanged in his stateroom, off Sandy Hook, N.J., touching off a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry that found no foul play.

Douglas Stevenson, a lawyer for the Seamen’s Church Institute and its affiliated Center for Seafarers’ Rights, nonprofit organizations that have long sought to protect the welfare of seafarers, went aboard last night to meet with the crew and said afterward that the Banner of October was only one of a half-dozen Azov ships that are stranded around the world, off Europe, Asia and Africa. He said the crews of those and many other stranded ships had been caught in the backwash of recent years’ economic turmoil in Ukraine, other former Soviet states and third-world countries whose troubled economies have affected shipping.

The Coast Guard said that Azov Shipping, based in a port on the Sea of Azov, connected by a narrow inlet to the Black Sea, is represented in the United States by Azov Shipping International, based in Secaucus, N.J. Captain Golub identified the company’s local representative as Captain Vladimir Shamshin, who could not be reached at the company’s offices last night. Mr. Stevenson, who is also the director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights in New York, said he intended to go to Ukraine later this month to talk with government officials about the problems of vessels that have been stranded, abandoned or inadequately supplied by financially troubled shipping companies.

The plight of the Banner of October is not unusual. Merchant crews, especially those on ships flying so-called flags of convenience from nations that have lax health and safety standards, are often exploited by employers who force them to labor hard in dangerous conditions for low pay, Mr. Stevenson said. A check of international commercial shipping that was reported in February found at least 10 ships, with crews totaling more than 200 members, that had been stranded in ports around the world, left by owners who could not, or would not, spend money for wages and for the maintenance and provisioning of ships that their companies considered temporarily or permanently unproductive.

The Banner of October, built in the Soviet Union in 1977, had been chartered for two-week trips carrying about 500 used vehicles — trucks from New York and cars from Miami to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, and Port au Prince, Haiti. It usually returned to New York without cargo, Captain Golub said. The ship’s last voyage from the Caribbean ended in New York on April 13, the captain said, and since then, there have been no more shipments and no further orders. As the ship lay at anchor, various requests for supplies were made over the last three and a half months, he said. One shipment — a 22-day supply of food — was received on July 1, and the captain said the crew had made it last until now, stretching it out over more than 30 days. The last pay was received in June, he said.

There was also no Freon for air-conditioning, he said, and the crew had to swelter though July’s record-setting heat without coolants. Most remained below deck during the day to escape the heat and slept on deck at night to catch a breeze. The crew continued to maintain the ship, which the Coast Guard found to be well kept in its inspections, one last spring and another on Saturday. ”Things checked out O.K., except we were concerned about the amount of food they had on board,” said John Hillin, a civilian who is the Coast Guard’s official in charge of foreign vessels in the port. He and Mr. Stevenson said the Ukrainian consul in New York had been notified and had pledged to contact Azov officials and try to resolve problems by getting funds to purchase supplies.

Captain Golub said that Captain Shamshin, the Azov official in Secaucus, had told him that the ship would be reprovisioned on Friday at a dock in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but he also noted that arrangements to pick up a cargo in the port today had fallen through and that no new cargoes had been lined up. ”All contracts are canceled, and they’re just sitting there and don’t know what to do,” Andreas Krenz, a port chaplain for the Seamen’s Church Institute, said after helping to deliver emergency supplies of food and water to the ship yesterday. ”The fridge is actually empty, and they have just a little butter left and a couple of pieces of meat.”

The ship’s radio operator, Valery Kostenko, 33, was lounging in a day room last night with Anatoly Lichkatyn, 30, the fourth engineer. Both wore shorts, T-shirts and sandals and were watching a video of ”Lethal Weapon,” translated into Russian. Like other crew members, Mr. Kostenko spoke a broken English. Asked about the supply situation, he said: ”No provisions on the ship. No supplies.” Captain Golub added: ”Nothing medicine also.” The crew had not been ashore since the ship arrived in New York Harbor three and a half months ago, the master said, but most of its members seemed last night to be less frustrated than glumly resigned to their situation.

Stranded Pakistani seamen pray for Texas deliverance / December 4, 1998

Five miles off South Padre Island, Texas, a Pakistani freighter is anchored in a seafarer’s limbo. “Please, for God’s sake, help us. We are dying,” pleaded Maqsood Ahmed, the desperate captain of the Pakistani-flagged Delta Pride. The captain and his crew, 22 men in all, have been stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for nearly five months after the ship’s owner, Star Shipping Lines, went bankrupt. For most of that time, the 738-foot Delta Pride, which has no cargo, was anchored off Tampico, Mexico, before moving last week to the Texas Gulf coast.

Provisions exhausted
There is little fuel or water on board. For a time, the only food was rotting potatoes and mildewed cabbage. Most of the crew are suffering from sores and skin rashes. In addition, they have not been paid in almost two years. The Coast Guard says the crew radioed on November 24th that its provisions were exhausted. The message called for food, water and medical attention. A doctor and emergency provisions have been sent.

Crew members don’t have passports so, for now, they are barred from U.S. shores and the Coast Guard will not allow the Delta Pride to dock in nearby Brownsville. “Without knowing the condition of the vessel, we’re not going to bring in a vessel that could endanger the port or the other users of the port until we think it’s safe to come in,” Coast Guard Captain Dan Guerrero told CNN. However, the Coast Guard said any crew member who has a medical emergency will be brought ashore immediately.

Help and prayers
The bankruptcy of the ship’s owners has left the crew without a way to get home. The Allied Bank of Pakistan holds the lien on the craft. A ship service company hired by the bank has paid for a small amount of fuel. Brownsville maritime organizations have donated food and water to last for a few weeks. Five times a day, the ship’s Muslim crew spreads prayer mats on the rusty deck and prays to Allah. Captain Ahmed also recalls looking at his last $10 bill on a nightstand as he asked for guidance. “It’s written, IN GOD WE TRUST, and I said, ‘Thank God I got my answer. You told me to go to America.'”

Help for stranded shipmates / 20 September, 2001

A seamens’ charity in north-east Lincolnshire has come to the rescue of a crew on a Maltese ship left without food, water or money. The “Black Sea Star” brought cargo from the Middle East to Immingham a month ago. The Maltese vessel was arrested temporarily over fuel bills unpaid at another port. It then emerged that the crew from Georgia in the former Soviet Union had not been paid for up to 18 months and was surviving on a diet of potatoes. The ship was carrying road construction machinery to the UK from the Suez Canal.

It was arrested by the Admirality Marshall Officer on 5 September 2001. The welfare of the 11 crew members then became the responsibilty of this authority. But when the arrest order was lifted a few days later after their employers could not be contacted, the men were left without any support. Workers from the Immingham Seafarers Commission discovered them in a sorry state. Padre David Craig, the centre’s cleric, said: “The men were really depressed. They hadn’t seen fresh food for a while. “They were desperate to contact their families. The captain is 70 years old.”

Bankruptcy claims
The Maltese authorities cannot find the ship’s owners. Telex messages received from Georgia claimed bankruptcy on their behalf. The men refused to hand over their cargo to the Dutch company who commissioned its delivery until they had been paid. The firm gave them a bonus payment as a gesture of good will which they accepted. This has enabled six of them to get a flight back to their families from Humberside airport this weekend.

The remaining five continue to get provisions from the Immingham charity while the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) attempt to get their back-pay. The vessel has navigational defects and is not allowed to leave the port. The Associated Ports Authority can petition another arrest order if port fees remain unpaid. The ship will then be sold by tender to cover these expenses. Padre Craig said this was one of the worst rescue missions he had ever been involved with. “They’d been living on variations of potato soup. There is no welfare state in Georgia and the mens’ families have been without any money for all this time.”

SAILOR’S FUND,c,33,3,0
Sailors from Ukraine Thank Supporters

The following was published in the The Ukrainian Weekly

Dear Editor:
Thanks from Ukraine for the help and support provided by The Ukrainian Weekly readers during a desperate situation of this past summer. On September 20, the stranded group of Ukrainian sailors from the 650-foot cargo ship Epta left Houston and returned to Ukraine. They were deported without any of the six months’ pay that was owed them for the repairs and maintenance they were hired to do on the Epta. The sailors left Houston disheartened to face the grim realities of the mounting debts that their families had incurred while they were stranded in Houston. The U.S. Marshall’s Office had seized the ship and forced the issue into bankruptcy court, and the matter was to go to court in May of 1999.

However, on December 24, a settlement of the case involving the sailors’ wages was reached with the other creditors of the ship Epta. A judge’s order allowed the distribution of the funds for the sailors’ wages (approximately $76,000) to take place immediately. This amount represents only a portion of their back pay, but it will help them repay the tremendous debts their families had acquired in order to survive. It is a happy ending to an unpleasant situation that occurred this summer in the Port of Houston.

The Ukrainian sailors want to thank all the organizations and individuals, both Ukrainian and American, in Houston and beyond, who were instrumental in helping them survive under difficult circumstances. The Sailors’ Fund, organized by the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Pokrova in Houston, coordinated the collection of money (approximately $30,000), food, clothing and telephone cards while this situation was being resolved. The Ukrainian American Cultural Club and the Ukrainian National Women’s League of Houston also provided valuable help and generous contributions to the Sailors’, Fund.

The Ukrainian sailors were abandoned thousands of miles from home by ruthless ship owners and operators. They were left penniless to fend for themselves. To their rescue came many Ukrainian Americans and their organizations. The Ukrainian American community should be proud of the kindness and generous support it provided to solve this problem for these sailors.

Greg and Nadia Buchai
Sugar Land, Texas

{Greg Buchai, a Houston financial adviser, and attorney Dennis McElwee negotiated a settlement for the sailors.}

REPO MAN, INTERNATIONAL WATERS–%20Patric%20M%20Recovery.pdf
This repo man drives off with ocean freighters
BY Dan Weikel / March 1, 2007

If repossessing a used Chevrolet can be tricky, consider retrieving the Aztec Express, a 700-foot cargo ship under guard in Haiti as civil unrest spread through the country. Only a few repo men possess the guile and resourcefulness for such a job. One of them is F. Max Hardberger, of Lacombe, La. Since 1991, the 58-year-old attorney and ship captain has surreptitiously sailed away about a dozen freighters from ports around the world. “I’m sure there are those who would like to add me to a list of modern pirates of the Caribbean, but I do whatever I can to protect the legal rights of my clients,” said Hardberger, whose company, Vessel Extractions in New Orleans, has negotiated the releases of another dozen cargo ships and prevented the seizures of many others.

His line of work regularly takes him to a corner of the maritime industry still plagued by pirates, underhanded business practices and corrupt government officials, waters the Aztec Express sailed right into. The saga began in 2003 when the vessel’s Greek owner died and his company did not keep up payments on a $3.3-million mortgage. Bahamian court records show that an American businessman who had used the vessel to haul 235 used cars from the northeastern United States to Haiti did not pay the charter fee, contributing to the loan default. Once the ship arrived in the Haitian port of Miragoane, the businessman bribed judicial officials to seize the vessel and sell it to him in a rigged auction, according to court records.

Meanwhile, a violent rebellion threatened to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, making it impossible for the lender or the owner’s relatives to contest the sale. The condition of the Aztec Express further complicated matters. Its main engines were out of commission, having been idle and untended for months. Hardberger was hired by the New Jersey-based mortgage holder. He flew to Haiti and drove with an armed bodyguard to Miragoane. He gathered two important pieces of information. Watchmen stationed on the Aztec Express sold fuel from the vessel on the black market. Second, port authorities had a cellphone, but they could use it only at the harbor’s soccer field, where cellular service was reliable.

Hardberger managed to get the guards off the ship by offering to buy fuel. When they came down to the dock to discuss the transaction, off-duty Haitian riot police hired by Hardberger held them at bay. Meanwhile, an oceangoing tugboat also hired by Hardberger slipped into port and backed up to the Aztec Express. Under a full moon, the crew began cutting the anchor chains with blowtorches. In case harbor officials noticed and tried to call for help on their cellphone, Hardberger had paid a witch doctor $100 to cast spells on the port’s soccer field. The witch doctor marked the field with gray powder, a clear warning to believers in voodoo, the nation’s dominant religion. No call ever went out.

Once the freighter was freed, the tug hauled the ship out of port and headed for the Bahamas, where British-based maritime laws give a high priority to lenders’ claims. The next day, however, another tug intercepted the ship. Its captain said he had been sent to take over the operation. Hardberger’s team checked with the marine towing company hired for the repossession and found that no relief boat had been sent. It then summoned the Bahamian coast guard, which detained the other tug on suspicion of attempted piracy.

Hardberger said the second tugboat had been sent by the American businessman when he learned that the Aztec Express had been pulled out of Haiti. In the Bahamas, a court upheld the ship’s repossession and ordered its sale to settle the lender’s claim. “Haiti has a corrupt legal system where cronyism and corruption are the order of the day,” Judge John Lyons wrote in his decision. “Justice is dispensed according to who can pay the going rate.”

Hardberger said small-to-medium-size cargo ships such as the Aztec Express are among the most vulnerable to chicanery and illegal seizures. Often operated by small shipping lines, these modern-day tramp steamers regularly visit developing countries plagued by unstable and corrupt governments. In the worst-off nations, Hardberger said, it is possible to seize a $10-million ship with a $100 bribe to a justice of the peace. “You need more than what an attorney can do in some of these countries,” said John Lightbown, a ship owner who recently sought Hardberger’s help to avert a seizure in Haiti. “Deals can be bought and sold under the table. Max gets into the middle of things. He’s been around the block,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who does this, except for Max,” said Jonathan S. Spencer, a New York-based maritime adjuster who determines the monetary losses of shipping accidents. “It’s hard to say how much people like him are used. They work in gray areas of the law. They are very discreet, and the people who hire them are discreet as well.”

With his graying hair, walrus mustache and moderate build, Hardberger doesn’t fit the profile of a swashbuckler. He taught history and English at parochial schools in Louisiana and Mississippi after graduating from the University of New Orleans and earning a master’s degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Outside the classroom, he worked on Gulf Coast oil rigs and the vessels that served them. For several years in the 1980s he skippered a cargo ship in the Caribbean and later wrote “Freighter Captain,” a novel based on the experience.

In 1998, after a four-year correspondence course, he passed the California bar exam on the first try. He now practices maritime law, mostly in the Caribbean, but regularly comes to Southern California to handle cases. Hardberger fell into the ship extraction business in 1991 while managing two freighters for Morgan Price & Co., a wastepaper exporter in Miami. Morgan Price had chartered one of the vessels, the Patric M, to a Peruvian company that used it to carry steel to Venezuela.

When the company refused to pay Morgan Price $80,000, the Miami firm instructed the captain to dock at Puerto Cabello in Venezuela, its destination, but not unload the cargo. In retaliation, Hardberger said, the Peruvian firm bribed court officials to detain the Patric M in port and allow the company to operate it. A judge even jailed the master and chief engineer, but not before the engineer was forced at gunpoint to power up the vessel’s cranes so unloading could proceed. Hardberger flew to Venezuela. He says he persuaded court officials to put the captain and chief engineer under house arrest at a hotel. Hardberger then met with the two men. The captain refused to participate in the repossession, fearing for his safety. When the chief engineer agreed to help, he and Hardberger slipped out of the hotel through a laundry room.

In the evening, they took a taxi to the waterfront and walked along the port wall that was topped with barbed wire, finally gaining entry by crawling under a railroad gate. Once inside the port, Hardberger said, they hid in doorways, culverts and the shadows of shipping containers to elude guards and stevedores. “Extractions are a big risk. If you get caught, you are looking at a very serious charge,” Hardberger said. “In some countries, you could wait two or three years for trial and end up with a 20-year sentence.”

At the unguarded ship, both men climbed the gangway, and Hardberger found the first mate, a heavy-set Panamanian, who agreed to cooperate. The Patric M’s crew, which had not been replaced by the Peruvian company, was assembled in the mess for a briefing. Everyone signed on to the plan. Later in the evening, the crew cut the ship’s lines from the deck. The main engine came to life with a few deep thumps. Proceeding at “dead slow ahead,” Hardberger steered the 340-foot cargo ship past a naval base and through the narrow harbor entrance. En route to Aruba, Hardberger said, he received a radio message saying Venezuela had notified Interpol – the global police agency – that the ship had departed without permission.

He soon found an isolated anchorage off the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. The crew ground off the original name and identification numbers that are stamped into the steel of every cargo ship when it is built. All the Patric M’s documents – plans, ledgers, log books and certifications – were copied and altered to reflect its new name. The originals were destroyed, including its Panamanian registration forms. Then, Hardberger said, he found a country willing to register stateless vessels, no questions asked. He declined to name the country, but there were only a few at the time, such as Honduras, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands. International regulatory agencies have since banned the practice. About a year after acquiring its new identity, the Patric M was sold by Morgan Price.

“International waters,” Hardberger said, “are worse than the Wild West. In many ways, there is little or no opportunity to avenge the wrongs people have done to you.” For the last 3 1/2 years, Hardberger has operated Vessel Extractions with Michael L. Bono, an admiralty law attorney and one of his former high school students. Before repossessing a ship, they make sure the vessel has been seized illegally and the claims filed against it are fraudulent.

If negotiations and legal methods fail, the company will proceed with an extraction, a step that might include payments to local officials if a nation’s government is corrupt. Those payments, Hardberger said, are made under exceptions in the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from bribing foreign officials to retain or obtain business. “In a rogue state, you can’t tie your hands behind you,” Hardberger said. “It is common to find that the court system is rife with corruption.”

Extracting a ship can cost a client $100,000 or more. If a repossession is requested, Hardberger and his team quietly enter the country involved. They seek out friendly officials and trusted local contacts such as ship agents who tend to a vessel’s logistical needs in port. “You need to pick up clues about the ship and what is said in the bars, at the ship chandlers and in the local whorehouses,” Hardberger said. “Crews are not that sophisticated and talk about their orders and departure times. You can really keep track of a vessel this way.” Hardberger said he does not carry a firearm, though he has hired bodyguards, as he did with the Aztec Express. Stealth and trickery are the preferred methods. “I do not want my face seen,” he added.

Such tactics were employed in April 1999, when Hardberger was asked to extract a 280-foot cargo ship that had put in for repairs at Drapetsona, a part of the Greek port of Piraeus. “It’s a place,” he says, “where ship names are repainted quickly.” The small freighter was Hungarian and, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, was still equipped with a commissar’s office. It contained a secret radio room and the complete works of Lenin. When the repair company charged four times the agreed-upon price to fix a huge dent in the stern, Hardberger said, the owner refused to pay. Port officials then denied the vessel a clearance to leave.

Hardberger and the ship’s agent got permission to move the ship to a port anchorage under the ruse that she needed refueling. The new location would make it possible for a crew to reach the vessel by launch. Then, with everything in place, Hardberger waited for the weekend of Greek Easter, a religious festival marked by rich pageantry and widespread celebration. To help the coast guard enjoy the event, Hardberger arranged for the ship agent to drop off several cases of ouzo at the station, which overlooked the port.

At 2 a.m. on a Sunday, a crew boarded the unattended freighter and sailed it out of the harbor unnoticed. Hardberger, who coordinated the operation from shore, sat in a seaman’s bar in Piraeus with friends, including the ship’s agent. In the ancient port, they toasted their success with vodka.

Thanks to recession, Gujarat’s ship-breaking yards are booming, but impact on environment is toxic
BY Andrew Buncombe /  31 August 2009

It is known as the graveyard of ships, a place where ageing vessels are torn apart by unskilled labourers and the metal then sold on as scrap. In recent years these often deadly and dangerous ship breakers’ yards, which stretch a full seven miles along the coastline of the Indian state of Gujarat, have themselves been a little on their uppers. Booming demand for freight meant that it made sound economic sense to keep even older ships in operation, and many of the labourers in the Gujarati yards were laid off.

But now, by no small irony, these workers in the world’s largest ship-breaking yard have been saved by the global recession. The economic downturn and a subsequent fall in demand for cargo ships has meant that for many ship owners it makes better sense to send an ageing ship to the scrapyard rather than to keep her maintained but idle. But while the recession may have been good news for the owners of the ship-breaking firms, it is very bad news for the environment. The scrapping of ships in South Asia – Bangladesh and Pakistan are also major scrappers – is a rudimentary, almost medieval affair. Ships are allowed to beach on the sands and then armies of men with little or no training pull apart the ships with hand-tools. Toxic substances such as mercury and asbestos are allowed to seep into the environment.

One of the attractions to the ship owners of having their vessels dismantled here is that the ship breakers in this part of the world receive little of the regulatory oversight that takes place in Europe or the US. For the ship owners, it means they can dispose of their ships more cheaply, while for the scrappers it means bonanza-time. Over the last 10 months, the scrappers at Alang in Gujarat have received and dismantled around 280 ships, up from 163 during the same period a year earlier. Some breakers believe that over a 12-month period from January, they might reach a total of 400 ships.

“The costs of a laid-up vessel are considerable. It costs a lot to keep it empty. If there is no cargo, it is better to lose them,” said Nikhil Gupta, owner of the Hare Krishna Steel Corporation and a senior official with the breaker’s trade organisation, the Ship Recycling Industries Association of India. Speaking by telephone, he added: “After 35 or 40 years these ships are not as safe, and the insurance premiums go up. In the past there was a lot of trade and it made sense to keep them.”

Pat Swayne of the Baltic Exchange, the London-based maritime trading house, said there is no question that increasing numbers of older ships are being scrapped. “Previously many ships that were able to make a lot of money [for the owner], are now facing rising costs,” he said. “If you decide to lay up a ship then you have to find somewhere to lay it up and the question is where do you lay it up? The older a ship is, the more costs are associated with it. Scrapping becomes a very viable option.”

Since the mid-1980s, the vast breakers’ yards at Alang have developed, under only loose regulation, along a stretch of coast that enjoys a tidal range of around 13 metres, making it easier to beach a condemned vessel directly onto the shoreline. Previously the industry was based in Mumbai, but gradually it moved to Alang and continued to expand. Now, Alang accounts for than half of all the ships scrapped worldwide, followed by Pakistan and Bangladesh, which each scrap almost a quarter of the remainder. Mr Gupta said that as a result of upturn in scrapping, up to 40,000 workers are now directly employed by the breakers at around 170 plots along the coast. Around 130 plots are in use today, up from just 25 in 2006.

For those directly and indirectly involved in breaking, the cash tills are jingling and many breakers have recently been tempted back into the industry. In the surrounding area there has already been a visible impact on the area. New homes are sprouting along the 35-mile stretch of road that links Alang to the city of Bhavnagar, and the local roads are awash in what some call “snazzy sedans”. On the edge of Alang a huge flea market has sprung up, selling multifarious equipment and fittings taken from the ships.

Locals say that when an owner decides to scrap a vessel, they rarely have the time or opportunity to make a full assessment of the value of such things. As a result, the flea market sells everything from ships motors and cutlery sets to fridges and lifeboats at bargain prices. “Last year I bought a torque wrench here for about 3,500 rupees (£44), which would have cost me 50,000 on the open market,” Vasant Pachal, an engineering workshop owner from the city of Vadodara, recently told The Hindustan Times while browsing at the market. “Apart from the great deals, I get to see the latest in technology every time I come here.”

Yet for environmentalists and labour campaigners, the upturn in business means something else. Campaigners point out that the working conditions for the often undocumented migrant labourers from India’s poorest states, can be highly dangerous and there are regular reports of injuries and fatalities. Earlier this month, six workers died when a fire broke out at one of the plots. Activists say the impoverished workers have no bargaining power.

Dwarika Nath Rath, a Gujarat-based activist and member of the Socialist Unity Centre of India, a small Communist party, has for many years been monitoring the human toll of the operations. “These workers, coming from places like Orissa and Bihar, say that if they want to save their families they have to die themselves,” he said. “The main problem is that there is no regulation, there is no law. These people need to be given ID cards and registered as workers. When an accident happens these people are not in the log-book.” Ingrid Christiansen, a Delhi-based official with the International Labour Organisation, the UN body that oversees working conditions, said that there had been some advances in working conditions at the breakers’ yards but that there was “room for improvement”.

In May, an international convention meeting in Hong Kong agreed new rules that sought to regulate the worst of the industry’s excesses, but campaigners say it has made little difference. Indeed, the convention rejected a proposal supported by over 100 human rights and environment protection organisations to phase out beaching operations – where ships are dumped at high tide and then drift to beaches to be taken apart. “Beach breaking would never be allowed in Europe,” said Ingvild Jenssen, director of the Belgium-based campaign group Platform on Shipbreaking. “When a vessel is broken without containment on a tidal beach there is bound to be pollution of the coastal zone. Experience with ship repair pollution in Europe and the US, and consequent rules for how these activities must be dealt with in contained environments, illustrates the problems.”

The booming market on the Gujarat coast has brought back an old customer – to the consternation of campaigners. They claim that among the ships that will be hauled onto the beaches and pulled apart in the coming weeks are two US vessels, MV Pvt James Anderson and MV 1st Lt Alex Bonnyman. They will be the first such US ships scrapped in south Asia since 1998, when the Clinton administration – under pressure from campaigners – ordered a moratorium on the scrapping of US government-owned ships in south Asia. “This is really shocking,” said Jim Puckett, of the Basel Action Network, another campaign group. “Now we have elected an environmental President, and his administration for the first time in 10 years is willing to ignore the law and dump toxic waste from US flagged ships on developing countries.”


Floating city conceived as high-tech incubator
by Michael Posner  /  Feb. 24, 2012

You’re a Canadian businesswoman, let us say, with a brilliant idea for a high-tech startup. All you need is a year in Silicon Valley – time to network, sell the concept, raise capital and gain liftoff. Only one problem: You can visit, but you can’t stay. U.S. immigration officials won’t let you. Enter Blueseed, an enterprise that is the brainchild of two immigrants to the United States, Max Marty from Cuba and Dario Mutabdzija from the former Yugoslavia. They hope to launch America’s first experiment in seasteading, the creation of permanent, politically autonomous floating cities. Although skeptics consider the project impractical and the estimated cost of startup is at least $25-million, Blueseed’s basic plan to convert a cruise ship into a complex that will incubate high-tech innovation has attracted interest and money.

To avoid the reach of maritime law, the Blueseed boat would be parked in international waters, 22 kilometres from San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley, terrestrial magnet for innovators and venture capitalists. “Unfortunately, foreigner entrepreneurs have a hard time getting visas to stay legally,” explains Blueseed’s president, Mr. Mutabdzija, a 32-year-old lawyer who emigrated to the U.S. with his family from Serbia in the 1990s. “A standard three-month work permit does not give you enough time to raise money, network, find talent or do anything significant.” A floating city, operating outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard and American port or immigration authorities – and offering daily ferry boat or helicopter runs into Silicon Valley – could be the answer.

If its plans proceed on schedule, Blueseed would acquire and moor its ship by the fall of 2013. Rent would constitute Blueseed’s primary source of revenue from a potential of up to 1,000 tenants, each paying about $1,200 a month. But the company also intends to claim small equity stakes in the businesses it houses. Blueseed residents would simply need a B-1 business visa. Relatively easy to acquire, they permit travel to the U.S., are valid for up to 10 years, and allow overnight stays. The ship would provide the venue for what the visa does not allow – actually doing business on American soil. Blueseed already has at least one deep-pocketed backer. Billionaire libertarian Peter Thiel – co-founder of PayPal – has injected some $500,000 in seed money. It’s one of more than a dozen investments he’s made in innovative startups, some of which (Facebook, Yelp, Zynga, LinkedIn) have become game-changers.

In principle, building semi-permanent colonies at sea is less implausible than it might seem. Small cities of people now effectively reside on vast, ocean-going cruise ships. Sizable communities also live for months on off-shore oil rigs, outfitted with basic housing and recreation facilities. And there have been a few attempts at sea-based colonization. Since 1967, for example, a retired British major, Paddy Roy Bates, and his extended clan have occupied the so-called Principality of Sealand, a Second World War U.K. naval encampment 10 kilometres off the coast of Suffolk. Laying claim to sovereign status, the Bates community has adopted all the trappings of nationhood – a flag, a currency, passports and a national anthem. But no state has yet conferred formal recognition.

In the early 1970s, Las Vegas libertarian millionaire Michael Oliver imported boatloads of sand from Australia and established the Republic of Minerva – essentially a glorified sandbar – in the South Pacific, near Tonga. Alas, Mr. Oliver’s idyll of an independent fiefdom was quickly shattered. Tonga laid claim to the “territory,” and invaded. But the seasteading ambition remains, and nowhere more prominently than at the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute, which also claims Mr. Thiel as a benefactor.

Founded in 2008 and chaired by Patri Friedman, 35-year-old grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, the non-profit SI springs from the libertarian assumption that current political systems are sclerotic and beyond meaningful reform. Only new frontiers, it maintains, can catalyze new experiments in democratic governance. Because habitable land is largely spoken for by the world’s nation states, what remains of virgin territory is the deep, blue sea. And, outside territorial waters, it is theoretically claimable. “We’re not about creating libertarian utopias or billionaire playgrounds,” SI president Michael Keenan said. “The goal is to have a variety of floating cities, with different political systems and social ideas. We no longer believe that one ideology, one form of government, is right for everyone.”

In fact, the potential appeal of seasteading lies in what Mr. Freidman has called “dynamic geography” – a principle that would allow any given seasteading colony to join or secede larger units within the whole. That reasoning “is deeply flawed,” said Timothy B. Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. “In a real-world seasteading community, powerful economic forces would…leave seasteaders no freer than the rest of us.” For now, the Seasteading Institute is nowhere close to realizing its ambitions. The obstacles – legal, financial, environmental and technical – are profound, if not insuperable. That’s why Mr. Mutabdzija, who is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., thinks Blueseed’s for-profit model represents a faster track for testing the idea, even though the project will need to navigate a minefield of U.S. regulatory agencies. “It’s like building a bridge,” he says. “You need to create segments of the bridge before you can connect them and prove the viability of the whole.” “The Institute is a useful organization,” allows Mr. Mutabdzija – until a year ago, he served as its director of legal affairs – “but it may be decades before the various hurdles are overcome.”

The engineering issues alone – designing an ecology-friendly, floating city able to absorb the ocean’s wave action and more than occasional storms – are daunting. There are ancillary questions about electricity generation, sewage and a desalinated water supply. Then there’s the potential legal quagmire. A nation’s territorial waters extend 12 kilometres offshore, although many countries claim the right to enforce criminal laws 24 kilometres out, while others claim a 322-kilometre economic exclusion zone.

If seasteads became bases for business operations, which Mr. Keenan says they must, they’d be in violation. But even 50 nautical miles away from land is likely too far to maintain logistical supply lines. Also unclear is how seasteads would protect themselves from marauders, pirates and would-be terrorists. Despite the obstacles, Mr. Keenan believes the political vacuum is urgent enough to yield solutions. “We need more experimentation and opportunities for people to live in different ways,” he says. “Let’s try a variety of ideas – libertarian, communist, direct democracy. Most startups fail – and that’s okay. We’ll find out what doesn’t work.” In the meantime, the organization’s founder, Mr. Friedman, may be hedging his bets. He is also CEO of Future Cities Development Corp, which hopes to build land-based urban centres governed by libertarian principles. The first one would be located in a special autonomous zone recently established by the government of Honduras. Mr. Keenan calls this “seasteading on land,” though another word for it might be homesteading.


“The Seasteading Institute is sponsoring a design competition to see who can most interestingly visualize a permanent, microsovereign architectural state at sea. “A seastead,” they write in the competition brief, “is a floating platform that allows people to permanently settle the ocean as they do land. Professional naval engineers have already designed a bare platform – a structure about 400×400 feet, roughly the size of a city block. What you build on the platform is up to you. It may be a hospital, a casino, a residential community, a cricket stadium, or something entirely different.”

There are some basic engineering constraints that participants will have to heed, as explained both in the call-for-entries and in this forum, and a sample design has been supplied. But I think it’d be absolutely fascinating to annualize this, and launch a kind of eVolo competition for offshore platform design. The skyscraper designs that come out of eVolo might gravitate a bit too strongly toward the biomorphic/diagrid/arbitrary fractal tiling end of contemporary architectural design, but each year’s results are always worth checking out. So if architects were asked to rethink the spatial design of offshore libertarian self-rule, and to do so as part of a high-profile annual competition, what sorts of structures might we see?

For a little more background, Wired’s Chris Baker covered the Seasteading Institute last month. Baker wrote that the Institute “doesn’t just want to create huge floating platforms that people can live on,” they are “also hoping to create a platform in the sense that Linux is a platform: a base upon which people can build their own innovative forms of governance. The ultimate goal is to create standards and blueprints that can be easily adapted, allowing small communities to rapidly incubate and test new models of self-rule with the same ease that a programmer in his garage can whip up a Facebook app.” Here, architectural design would actually help to catalyze new forms of political sovereignty. The cultural possibilities for these offshore spaces are effectively without limit – and they would be self-policed, falling outside the bounds of international law. This opens up a number of legal (not to mention moral) quandaries.

Baker reports that Patri Friedman, the Institute’s co-founder and executive director, speaking at a Bay Area conference held last fall, “notes that some enterprises – like euthanasia clinics – would incense local authorities, but almost all the ideas attendees [at that conference] come up with would capitalize on activities that skirt existing laws and regulations: Fish farming and aquaculture. Prisons. Med schools. Gold warehouses. Brothels. Cryonics intakes. Gene therapy, cloning, augmentation, and organ sales. Baby farms. Deafeningly loud concerts. Rehab/detox clinics. Zen retreats. Abortion clinics. Ultimate ultimate fighting tournaments.” So what might these platforms look like? Submissions are due by May 1.”




Seasteading Institute Interview w/ Patri Friedman
by Michael Anissimov  /  May 14 2008

Some of you may have heard of the Seasteading Institute, which announced its existence with a press release a month ago. Basically, Peter Thiel is giving them $500,000 to get started on building an awesome seastead right here in the Bay Area. Sounds like a great idea, I’d love to visit, but it could take a decade or so until we have hundreds of people living on these things. (Even so, it’s a worthy cause!) I caught up with the Executive Director, Patri Friedman, an acquaintance of mine, and asked him a few questions about this new org.

Michael Anissimov: Will $500,000 be enough to build a “safe, cost-effective, gorgeous” seastead? If not, how much will it cost?
Patri Friedman: Nope. But it should be enough to do the design and engineering work for a small (bay/coast-sized) seastead, and get our research program started. We think it will cost another $500K – $1.5M to build a nice Baystead. We’ll know a lot more about the costs after we’ve hired an engineer and done some initial design work.

MA: How many people will live on the first seastead?
PF: It depends on what the best initial application turns out to be. If it looks viable to build small seasteads as replacement yachts (much roomier, safer, and slower), then it could be as small as one family. If the initial business is aquaculture, perhaps a crew of a dozen. If it’s a resort, then more like hundreds.

MA: How many people will need to be there before it’s economically self-sustaining?
PF: This is tough to answer because seasteads are a form of real estate, so it really depends how they are used. We don’t expect our houses to be economically self-sustaining, after all. I’m also not sure that it’s a good way to evaluate success. If one person lives on a seastead and makes a living telecommuting, that’s technically economically self-sustaining. If 100 people live there as a retirement community, and pay for it with investment income, then it’s technically not economically self-sustaining. Yet the latter would look much more like success to me. I’d rather evaluate success by average population and the number of people who are able to make a living onboard.

MA: You say the notion of seasteading will be useful as a testing ground for various political systems, and that’s true, but historically, the concept is associated with libertarianism. Will the first seastead have a libertarian form of government?
PF: It seems likely, at this point, since the initial group is mainly libertarians. However, I think it will be quite awhile before seasteads are large enough to be truly thought of as countries with forms of government. For example, the single-family seastead mentioned earlier doesn’t really have a “government” per se, nor does an aquaculture farm with a dozen crew. Even a resort with hundreds of people will most likely be owned and operated by a single corporate entity. That entity will want to have a system for administering justice and resolving disputes, and that system is likely to be pretty libertarian, but I’m not sure I’d call it a government. It’s more like Neal Stephenson’s Franchise-Owned Quasi-National Entities from Snow Crash. I’d say the first place you are likely to get something like a government is when you have the first residential/multi-use seastead (or gathering of seasteads). And that’s far enough off in the future that it could be a different group of people.

MA: In 1971, a group of people calling themselves the Republic of Minerva brought sand from Australia and dumped it on a reef until it rose above the water level, creating new land. Why is this not the Seasteading Institute’s approach?
PF: Well, they did fail, after all :). But more importantly, our vision is much more ambitious. We don’t want to just make one sandy island, we want to bring competition to the governing industry by creating an affordable technology so that anyone can buy/build a seastead and start their own new country. Their method has two major flaws from this viewpoint:
1) It doesn’t scale. Every piece of rock which is above water at high tide is claimed by a current nation (because it extends oil, mineral, and fishing rights). There are very few places where reefs get high enough to make good island bases, yet are low enough to not count as existing land. So there are very few places where this technique works. Whereas if we can make seasteads affordable, there are tens of millions of square miles of empty oceans available for them.
2) It doesn’t take advantage of the ocean’s dynamic geography. We think it’s important for any new country venture to think about why the government will be better than it is on land. The US started with limited government, but there seem to be very robust effects which make small government not an equilibrium for large countries. Modular seastead communities fundamentally change the incentives facing government. Fist, they loweri the barrier to entry for starting new countries. Second, they reduce customer lock-in (since you can leave by floating your home away at any time). Together, this means they are almost guaranteed to make government work better (any government, not just a libertarian one). A new island has no such properties.

MA: In a few sentences, summarize how a seastead might get electricity, food, and generate money.
PF: Two words will suffice: “Cruise Ship” :). Floating cities are already real – millions of people take cruises every year, and they’re cheaper than the cost of living in some US cities. We have many differences in mind, but cruise ships prove that the idea is possible. Now we just have to make something safer, stabler, more spacious, more modular, incrementally built, cheaper, permanent, and worth visiting even though it mostly stays put!

MA: On your site, all the pictures of seasteads show them suspended above the water. Why is this? What if I want to go to the edge and dip my feet into the water?
PF: We have two designs in mind. The one you saw uses tall spars to elevate the living space above the waves. This minimizes waterline area which helps disconnect the structure from the waves, making it safer and more stable. We currently believe this is the best shape for a permanent structure in areas with big waves. This is how most oil platforms are designed, after all. If you don’t have to deal with waves, you can just make simple platforms, like hollow concrete boxes. This could be done near the equator (the doldrums), where waves are much smaller. Or for a large community, it could be done inside a circular breakwater.

MA: The practice of using a “flag of convenience” is frowned upon politically. Do you plan to use them for your seasteads?
PF: Wait, why is making politicians frown a bad thing? Besides, if flags of convenience are good enough for half of the world’s tonnage, they’re good enough for us! Seasteading may be a weird idea, but we think our chances of success are highest if we use as little innovation as possible. Flagged vessels are an existing category in international law which will give us a simple, clear legal status that should get us pretty much left alone. At least, that’s what our preliminary research shows – we have a volunteer who worked on the Law of the Sea treaty negotiations for the US under Reagan who is researching the subject for us.

Seasteading: engineering the long tail of nations
by Timothy B. Lee  /  June 9, 2008

New competition for sovereign nations
Until the 1960s, Europe had few commercial radio stations. Broadcasting was a government monopoly in many European countries, and listening options were limited to a few staid government stations such as the BBC. But as Erwin Strauss tells it, that changed when enterprising “pirate radio” ships began dropping anchor off the shores of European countries and blasting the latest pop music in violation of those countries’ laws. The governments were not amused, but because the ships were in international waters, there was little they could do. Most European governments began refusing the pirate radio ships access to their harbors, but the ships were able to find harbor elsewhere.

European governments finally succeeded in shutting down the pirate radio stations in the late 1960s by passing laws prohibiting their subjects from doing business with the broadcasters—including purchasing advertising from them. But the episode created a political constituency for private radio stations and the broadcast of more pop music. In the UK, for example, private, commercial radio broadcasting was finally legalized in the early 1970s. History has many examples of hierarchical institutions being disrupted by technological advances. The invention of the printing press helped undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. Today, the Internet is undermining traditional copyright industries.

An audacious new project aims to achieve a similar result by creating new competition for the world’s sovereign nations. The Seasteading Institute, the brainchild of two Silicon Valley software developers, aims to develop self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of the cozy cartel of 190-odd world governments and start their own autonomous societies. They envision a future in which any group of people dissatisfied with its current government would be able to start a new one by purchasing some floating platforms—called seasteads—and build a new community in the open ocean.

History is littered with utopian schemes that petered out after an initial burst of enthusiasm, something the Seasteading Institute’s founders readily acknowledge. Indeed, they chronicle these failures in depressing detail on their website. With names like the Freedom Ship, the Aquarius Project, and Laissez-Faire City, most of these projects accomplished little more than receiving a burst of publicity (and in some cases, raising funds that were squandered) before collapsing under the weight of their inflated expectations.

There are many reasons to doubt that the Seasteading Institute will realize its vision of floating cities in the sea; but there are at least two reasons to think that seasteading may prove to be more successful than past efforts to escape the grasp of the world’s governments. First, the project’s planners are pragmatic—at least by the standards of their predecessors—pursuing an incrementalist strategy and focusing primarily on solving short-term engineering problems. Second, they recently announced a half-million dollar pledge from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, giving them the resources to begin serious engineering and design work. While there are many obstacles to be overcome before they will have even a functioning prototype—to say nothing of a floating metropolis—their project doesn’t seem as obviously hopeless as most of the efforts that have preceded it. Ars talked to Seasteading Institute co-founder Patri Friedman about the seasteading project and the engineering and political problems it will face.

Dynamic geography
Friedman describes himself as an “enthusiastic libertarian,” a description that would fit Thiel as well. Their libertarian convictions are a major source of inspiration for the seasteading project. Frustrated with the size and intrusiveness of existing governments, they view the sea as a frontier that will allow people more freedom to experiment with different ways of organizing human societies.

They depict government as an industry that suffers from unreasonably high barriers to entry. At present, experimenting with a new form of government requires winning an election or starting a revolution, prohibitively expensive options for small groups. As a result, they argue, even democratic governments are insufficiently responsive to their customers, the voters. The seasteaders seek to lower barriers to entry in the government business in order to create more competition and choice.

While his own convictions run in a libertarian direction, Friedman is quick to emphasize that the core value of seasteading is the diversity it would allow. Not all seasteading communities would be libertarian. For example, some seasteads might be founded by environmentalists interested in more sustainable lifestyles. Others might be owned by religious communities seeking to separate themselves from the broader society. Still others might be founded as egalitarian workers’ communes.

A key advantage of seasteads is what Friedman calls “dynamic geography,” the fact that any given seasteading unit is free to join or leave larger units within seasteading communities. Seasteading platforms would likely band together to provide common services like police protection, but with the key difference that any platform that was dissatisfied with the value it was receiving from such jurisdictions could leave them at any time. He argues that this would “move power downward,” giving smaller units within society greater leverage to ensure the interests of their members are being served.

The spar platform
Friedman founded the institute with retired Sun engineer Wayne Gramlich, who coined the term “seasteading” in an essay and who serves as the institute’s engineering director. Along with Andrew Houser, they have penned an in-depth treatise on seasteading. The book-length manifesto includes an impressive depth of technical detail, with discussion ranging from the best construction materials to the the most efficient platform geometry. After considering several options, they conclude that the best design is a “floating spar” design. Under their preferred approach, the living space is lofted several dozen feet above the surface of the water.

The open ocean is an unforgiving environment, and the biggest hazard comes from waves. Ordinarily, waves on the open seas are a few feet high—small enough to pose little threat to larger boats. But under certain circumstances, waves can be as high as 100 feet, which can be difficult for even the largest ocean-going vessels to withstand. The spar platform design neatly sidesteps this difficulty by presenting only a slender concrete pillar at sea level, allowing waves to pass by largely unimpeded. The living space is hoisted high enough that waves pass harmlessly beneath it even in stormy conditions. Supporting this platform requires a large underwater system of flotation and ballast, giving the overall system a dumbbell shape. Another advantage of the small cross-sectional area at sea level is that the platform would not rock noticeably in response to waves.

In order to keep costs down, the proposal uses standard building techniques, with reinforced concrete as the primary building material. Friedman and his co-authors estimate that the early prototypes could cost as little as $100,000 per occupant—expensive, but within the reach of many a Silicon Valley millionaire. Because banks are unlikely to accept seasteads as collateral, the first participants would need to be largely self-financing, requiring them to have most of that cash in the bank before they could sign up. Initially, at least, seasteading would not be an option for those of modest means.

Nor would it be for people who are attached to creature comforts. Achieving the long-term goal of near-self-sufficiency will require significant lifestyle compromises. Seasteaders would have only a few hundred square feet of living space each and would have to carefully limit the water they consumed and the waste they produced. Vegetarianism would also be an advantage, as meat requires significantly more resources than fruits and vegetables and would almost certainly need to be imported. Diets might also be supplemented by fishing or aquaculture.

Perhaps most painful for geeks, seasteading would require significant technological sacrifices. Power would need to be tightly conserved, and Internet connectivity would be primitive. Laying fiber optic cables would be prohibitively expensive, so seasteaders would be limited to wireless communications. Smaller seasteads might be close enough to land to employ microwave links, but the larger deep-sea platforms would be limited to satellite connections that can cost hundreds of dollars a month and currently top out at 1.5 mbps, with high latencies. Telecommuting might be an option in some cases, but weekend frag-fests with landlubbers would be out of the question.

Will anyone seastead?
The seasteaders have amassed an impressive body of work on the practical aspects of living on the high seas. Dozens of details about the seasteading experience—food, water, power, transportation, waste disposal, household appliances, bad weather, anchors, piracy (both copyright and the real kind), barnacles, ocean currents, and much more—have been hashed out in detail and practical solutions offered. While many of the specifics would doubtless have to be revised once the first seasteaders have gained some experience, there is little doubt that most of the practical obstacles could be overcome with sufficient resources and determination.

However, the project faces a fundamental constraint: whether there are enough real people willing to make the required sacrifices. The first few dozen full-time seasteaders would need to be wealthy enough to make a six-figure down payment, and skilled enough to find a significant source of income that could be pursued from the middle of the ocean, yet willing to endure the privations that come with living for weeks at a time on a cramped ocean platform. There are doubtless many moderately wealthy individuals who would be interested in taking a week-long vacation on a seastead. And the response to projects such as the Free State Project suggest that there are a significant number of libertarians who are willing to pick up roots to pursue their political ideals. But the number of people who are wealthy and willing to move thousands of miles from home to live in cramped quarters to promote their political ideals is likely to be pretty small.

Friedman and his partners are counting on life in seasteading communities to grow less harsh as the communities expand. As seasteading communities grow, fixed expenses can be spread across more people, and some seasteaders can find work providing services to other seasteaders. Moreover, larger communities allow increased division of labor, which could allow seasteading communities to produce more complex manufactured goods and offer more sophisticated services. But the number of seasteaders required to create a substantial “internal market” in seasteading communities is likely to be significant—in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds. Even relatively simple manufacturing operations depend on a complex network of suppliers, employees, and distributors. This complex economic infrastructure would have to be replicated within seasteading communities before manufacturing would be viable.

Providing services, such as computer programming, legal advice, or accounting, might be somewhat more feasible, since modern communications technologies allow such services to be performed over great distances. But here, too, seasteaders would face significant challenges. It is no accident that the highest-paying service professions often require frequent travel. Most clients want to meet their lawyers, accountants, and other service professionals face-to-face on a regular basis, and that requirement would be a major disadvantage for seasteaders for whom a trip to the mainland is a multi-day ordeal.

Even software development, the quintessentially telecommuting-friendly occupation, tends to require face-to-face meetings between the developers and key users during the design and testing phases. Moreover, seastead-based software developers would face stiff competition from Indian developers willing to do the same work at a fraction of the cost.

This isn’t to say that making a living on a seasteads would be impossible. There would surely be some viable market niches that the kind of highly skilled and ambitious people likely to try seasteading could fill. But moving to a seastead will involve an enormous economic sacrifice for the foreseeable future, even in the extremely optimistic case that several thousand people can be persuaded to sign up. Hundreds of thousands of people are likely to be needed in order to produce the degree of specialization that would be required to match the standard of living of Western nations. And ideological zeal is not going to be sufficient to attract that many inhabitants.

Will governments leave seasteads alone?
An even bigger challenge to successful seasteading is convincing the world’s governments to allow new members into the cartel of nations. Several recent efforts to assert the sovereignty of new nations located in international waters have been thwarted by existing countries who have shown little regard for diplomatic niceties. Past efforts to establish sovereign nations in international waters have typically faced the active opposition of nearby governments, which have either asserted jurisdiction by force of arms or destroyed the would-be nation entirely.

Conscious of this danger, Friedman’s seasteaders do not plan to seek formal sovereignty for seasteading communities any time soon. Rather, Friedman prefers the term “autonomy,” and advocates a strategy of compromise with the world’s governments, seeking the maximum amount of freedom that can be obtained without invoking the wrath of the world’s navies. That means that despite their founders’ libertarian convictions, the first seasteading communities are likely to restrict activities such as drug trafficking, copyright infringement, tax evasion, and secretive financial transactions that might attract the attention of foreign governments.

A seastead would also seek protection by flying a flag of convenience, a maritime custom that allows a ship to adopt the flag of a foreign country and subject itself to that country’s maritime law. Because nations compete for the revenue that comes with ship listings, a flag of convenience can be had for a few thousand dollars, and many nations exercise minimal oversight over the ships under their supervision. However, it’s unclear if this will be sufficient to protect seasteading communities from interference by world governments in the long run. The legal fiction that seasteads are ships flying the flag of a foreign country may provide adequate protection when a seastead consists of a few dozen people with no assets to speak of, but a country may not feel so generous if it is someday confronted with a seastead containing hundreds of its former citizens who are earning incomes without paying taxes on them. Such a country may begin demanding that its laws be enforced within the seastead. With no military, the community may have little choice but to comply.

Cost matters
Seasteading seems unlikely to take the world by storm any time soon. The concept faces monumental challenges—both economic and political—and the Seasteading Institute will struggle to convince enough people to get on board to make the effort viable. However, cost is a major wildcard. The Seasteading Institute’s current estimates suggest that the first seasteaders will be required to make a commitment in the low six figures for a relatively cramped spot in a seastead. That transaction is unlikely to appeal to any but the most ardent ideologues.

But it’s possible to imagine these costs coming down substantially. Cheaper and more versatile building materials could be discovered. Better solar panels, desalinization technologies, and wireless Internet connections could be developed. And with each seastead that is completed, engineers are likely to discover ways to cut costs.

If viable seasteads could be built for tens, rather than hundreds, of thousands of dollars per occupant, it would open the concept to a whole new audience. Buying a spot on a seastead would be less like buying a second home (and paying for it in cash) and more likely buying an RV or a boat. It could create a thriving market for seasteads as vacation homes, which in turn would create a demand for full-time workers in the seasteading hospitality industry. As seastead technology became more advanced, seasteads would become more comfortable, and it would be easier to convince people to stay on them for longer periods.

History suggests that technologies don’t have really revolutionary effects until they become cheap enough for ordinary people to buy them. Computers have been around since the 1950s and packet-switched networks have existed since the 1970s, but their really disruptive social effects—such as the emergence of peer-to-peer file sharing—came only when a computer could be had for a few hundred dollars and an Internet connection could be had for less than $50 per month. If seasteading is to have the revolutionary effects that Friedman envisions, it will require seasteads that can be made cheap enough that they are affordable to a large number of ordinary people.

Friedman regards cost as the most pressing challenge facing the seasteading effort. He and Gramlich scorn past proposals that required raising billions of dollars before they could achieve the first tangible results. The half-million dollars that Thiel has pledged to the project will be used largely for design and engineering work on the initial prototype, which they’re hoping to splash down in San Francisco Bay within the next few years. Any effort to start new countries is bound to be a little bit crazy, but the Seasteading Institute’s relentless focus on overcoming practical engineering obstacles could make it more likely to leave a mark on the world than the starry-eyed utopian experiments that preceded it.

from the first annual Seasteading conference, held in Burlingame California on October 10th.

Floating Utopias on the Cheap
by Chris Baker  /  01.19.09
Patri Friedman wants to make it easy for anyone to build an independent country: “If we make one seastead, there’s room for thousands.”

Several dozen conference-goers are filing into the Mendocino Room of the Embassy Suites Hotel in Burlingame, a San Francisco suburb, arming themselves with coffee and muffins as they shuffle to their seats. It’s the kind of scene that occurs daily—if not hourly—in the Bay Area, where techies and businesspeople forever squeeze into drab meeting rooms to discuss how they are going to change the world. But even by local standards, the attendees gathered here are chasing a dream so grand and exotic it makes the typical Internet confab look like an OSHA seminar. Anyone can build a game-changing social-network platform or a virtual community or a set of open APIs. But the people here want to start a nonmetaphorical revolution by creating their own independent nations. In the middle of the ocean. On prefab floating platforms.

At 9:12 am, Patri Friedman stands up to address the group. A former Google software engineer, Friedman is 32 but comes off much younger, with close-cropped hair and a slightly nasal voice. He is executive director of the Seasteading Institute, the nonprofit he founded in April 2008, and this is the group’s first major event. He surveys the room, taking in a cross section of Silicon Valley culture: A white-haired nanotech millionaire in a suit sits next to a grad student in a Transformers T-shirt. If you were to break down the audience into high school classifications, you’d find a couple of hippies and goths, a few hipsters, and several preppies. The rest would definitely be at the nerd table. The male-female ratio is 7 to 1. “This isn’t enough to create a whole new civilization,” Friedman says. “But this is a seed.”

Friedman and his followers are not the first band of wide-eyed dreamers to want to build floating utopias. For decades, an assortment of romantics and whack jobs have fantasized about fleeing the oppressive strictures of modern government and creating a laissez-faire society on the high seas. Over the decades, they’ve tried everything from fortified sandbars to mammoth cruise ships. Nearly all have been disasters. But the would-be nation builders assembled here are not intimidated by that record of failure. After all, their plans are inspired by the ethos of the modern tech industry, where grand quixotic visions are as common as BlackBerrys, and they see their task not as a holy mission but as something like a startup. A couple of software engineers came up with an innovative concept, then outsourced it to a community and let the wisdom of the crowd improve on it. They scored financing from a top-tier venture capitalist and assembled a board of directors. They will be transparent, blogging their progress. If they fail—which, let’s face it, is the most likely outcome—they will do so quickly, in time-honored Valley fashion. But if they succeed, they have one hell of an exit strategy.

Friedman launches into what he calls “my standard rant”—a spiel about government’s shortcomings and why they’re so hard to repair. In his eyes, government is a sclerotic monopoly that can count on high customer lock-in thanks to inertia and the lack of alternatives. “Government is an inefficient industry because it has an insane barrier to entry,” he says. “To compete with governments on existing land, you have to win a war, an election, or a revolution.” He points to the democracy that emerged from the American Revolution as the last successful rollout and attributes the subsequent dry spell to the lack of uncolonized space on the map. “We’ve run out of frontier,” he says. But there’s still one virgin realm left, and it covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface.

The purpose of the Seasteading Institute—and of this gathering—is to figure out how to make aquatic homesteads a reality. But Friedman doesn’t just want to create huge floating platforms that people can live on. He’s also hoping to create a platform in the sense that Linux is a platform: a base upon which people can build their own innovative forms of governance. The ultimate goal is to create standards and blueprints that can be easily adapted, allowing small communities to rapidly incubate and test new models of self-rule with the same ease that a programmer in his garage can whip up a Facebook app. “You could roll your own government out of pieces copied from all the societies around you,” Friedman says. “Google set my standards for how fast something should grow. This has potential to exceed those standards—if we make one seastead, there’s room for thousands.”

Friedman’s optimism is easier to buy into if you ignore the history of previous would-be nation builders. There was Operation Atlantis, created by Ayn Rand admirer Werner Stiefel in the late 1960s. Stiefel, who made a fortune selling dermatology products, devoted his life to creating a sovereign society with the freest markets imaginable. He started with a ferro-cement boat that made a single successful voyage on the Hudson River. He erected a system of seabreaks near the coast of Haiti but was run off by president Franè7ois Duvalier’s gunboats before he could put land on it. He bought an oil rig and tried to anchor it between Cuba and Honduras, where it was destroyed by a storm. Stiefel died in 2006 with little more than a sporadically published newsletter to show for his efforts.

In 1971, real estate millionaire and committed libertarian Michael Oliver dumped large quantities of sand on two coral reefs in the South Pacific and dubbed it the Republic of Minerva, a land with “no taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism.” Minerva was soon invaded by the nearby kingdom of Tonga, and it dissolved back into the ocean shortly thereafter.

The Oceania city project, a plan for a vast floating settlement off the coast of Panama, emerged in 1993. The founders took out a two-page ad in Reason, a libertarian magazine, promising to free prospective residents from governments “entangled in bureaucracy, corruption, and the free lunch philosophy.” The project was disbanded the following year due to lack of interest and funds. “The Libertarian party is small in number and too few members have the financial resources to bankroll their beliefs,” founder Eric Klien wrote on Oceania’s Web site.

Other projects still exist as hypothetical concepts. There’s the Freedom Ship, a mile-long floating tax haven, which will come into being just as soon as its organizers can drum up the $10 billion needed to build it. (They’ve accused their former president of absconding with the first $400,000 they raised.) The concept of failed aquatic libertarian havens has even entered the pop consciousness, providing the setting for the blockbuster videogame BioShock.

Wayne Gramlich will never move to the middle of the ocean—his wife forbids it. But when the former software engineer, who has been “on sabbatical” since the late 1990s, stumbled across the Oceania Web site about a decade ago, he was both enthralled by the vision and dismayed at the execution. An early Sun Microsystems employee who worked on browser security at the dawn of the World Wide Web, he thought what was needed was a dispassionate perspective—a realistic plan to build floating autonomous countries. “Oceania had a lot of pretty pictures, pretty concept art, but that was it,” he says. In 1998 he wrote a modest proposal, SeaSteading—Homesteading on the High Seas, to get beyond the grandiloquence. “Big and expensive projects will have a very difficult time attracting the requisite capital,” Gramlich wrote. An engineer at heart, he tried to devise a way to build islands on the cheap. His report outlined how thousands of empty 2-liter soda bottles could be used to create a floating platform.

That sounded like paradise to Friedman when he saw the paper on Gramlich’s site. He had always been interested in big-picture socioeconomic theories. The son of libertarian legal theorist David Friedman and grandson of the Nobel Prize-winning free-market economist Milton Friedman, Patri had until then expressed his worldview mainly through his lifestyle: engaging in “radical self-expression” at Burning Man, experimenting with drugs, living in intentional communities with several other families, and maintaining a polyamorous relationship with his wife. His BMW 328i has a customized license plate: FRRREAK.

Friedman had read about money holes like Oceania and considered them too fantastical to bother with. But the relative practicality of Gramlich’s ideas appealed to the software engineer in him. Here was a simple kludge for a floating platform that might be affordable. And if it could work, Friedman would love to be among the first settlers to live on the open sea. “My dad and grandfather write about stuff,” he says. “What interests me is doing something.” He sent an email to Gramlich, and the two discovered that they lived a few miles apart in Sunnyvale, California. In late 2001, they began to collaborate on a new paper on seasteading. They posted everything online, including their notes to each other. (Friedman coded a Perl script that would allow anyone to submit comments on each paragraph.)

Over the next couple of years, Friedman and Gramlich assembled a 150-page book on the logistics of seasteading. Their guidelines were intensely pragmatic, explaining everything from how to fend off barnacles (a “continuous discharge of low-level chlorination”) to how to fend off foreign navies (“sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles like the Chinese Silkworm are fairly cheap and quite effective”). They described the least far-fetched, least expensive design for a safe seastead they could find—the floating spar. The hypothetical dwelling looks like a giant dumbbell standing on end, with a large steel ballast underwater and a 48,000-square-foot platform suspended above, where 120 people could live. They estimated it could be built for about $3 million. “That’s the same price as a nice house in San Francisco,” Friedman says. (Their design has since evolved, as shown at above.)

Gramlich and Friedman’s online tome captured the imagination of like-minded geeks, who peppered it with suggestions and criticisms. It was also brought to the attention of millionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, who shared Friedman and Gramlich’s dissatisfaction with land-bound governments. Thiel was a cofounder of PayPal, and he viewed that company as a way to further his libertarian ideals—a way to move money around the world as 1s and 0s without the involvement of nations or their currencies. After selling PayPal to eBay and walking away with a reported $55 million, Thiel started the hedge fund Clarium Capital, which made a fortune earlier this decade by correctly betting that oil prices would rise and the dollar would weaken.

Thiel has invested in Facebook, Friendster, LinkedIn, and Slide. He has also donated $3.5 million to Aubrey de Grey’s Methuselah Foundation, which seeks to extend longevity, and given money to the campaigns of small-government conservatives like Ron Paul. “Peter wants to end the inevitability of death and taxes,” Friedman says. “I mean, talk about aiming high!” Last April, Thiel pledged a $500,000 investment and installed his right-hand man, Joe Lonsdale, as chair of the Seasteading Institute. “Decades from now, those looking back at the start of the century will understand that seasteading was an obvious step toward encouraging the development of more efficient, practical public-sector models around the world,” Thiel said in a statement at the time. Three months after the wire transfer went through, Friedman left his job at Google.

Friedman is quick to acknowledge that not everyone will share his vision. “At first blush, this all sounds kind of crazy, and to see the potential beyond that—that’s pretty awesome,” he tells his fellow enthusiasts at the seasteading conference. “There’s a lot of good craziness in this room!” But good craziness alone will not make seasteads work, and most of the day is spent discussing the nuts and bolts of creating a floating community. First is the question of structure. “The ocean is a harsh and corrosive environment,” Friedman says. In addition to rust and barnacles, there’s wave motion, which is disorienting in the best of times and potentially fatal during a storm. The Seasteading Institute hired Marine Innovation & Technology as a consultant to solve these problems. Naval architect Alexia Aubault takes the lectern to describe the results of wave-motion analyses her engineering firm performed. To protect the organization from frivolous infringement lawsuits, she is barred by the institute’s lawyer from showing off the refined design until a patent gets filed. (That has since been done.)

And that’s just one of the legal torpedoes that seasteaders must dodge. According to the UN’s Law of the Sea, the jurisdiction of traditional nations extends up to 200 miles from shore, an exclusive economic zone within which countries can control fishing and mineral rights and police polluters. Friedman hopes there will someday be self-sufficient seasteads that can thrive on the high seas, beyond the purview of any country. But for the near future, he concedes, they’ll probably need to remain near shore and operate like cruise ships, which are bound by the laws of the country where they’re registered. Most governments won’t attack these kinds of vessels as long as they behave. “At this point, it matters who you piss off,” he says. (Raymond Peck, a former Reagan administration official, has agreed to do further research for the institute on the Law of the Sea.)

At 11 am, attendees break up into small groups to brainstorm business models. Seasteaders can depend on like-minded benefactors for only so long. Ultimately, these nations will need to pay the bills. Friedman notes that some enterprises—like euthanasia clinics—would incense local authorities, but almost all the ideas attendees come up with would capitalize on activities that skirt existing laws and regulations: Fish farming and aquaculture. Prisons. Med schools. Gold warehouses. Brothels. Cryonics intakes. Gene therapy, cloning, augmentation, and organ sales. Baby farms. Deafeningly loud concerts. Rehab/detox clinics. Zen retreats. Abortion clinics. Ultimate ultimate fighting tournaments. (Lonsdale has his own ideas. “Bazooka bikini bachelor parties,” he says. “You get there and a Lithuanian model hands you a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.”)

But in the end, the seasteaders may face an even more fundamental challenge. During an afternoon session, Friedman asks, “How many people here know how to sail?” Few hands go up. He says plans are under way to offer group instruction at discount rates.  The first annual seasteading conference adjourns at 6 pm. A kayaking trip around the bohemian houseboat community just off Sausalito has been scheduled for the following morning, but it is canceled because of high winds.

Forbes Island isn’t really an island at all but a 5,000-square-foot, 700-ton sea vehicle decked out with palm trees, a white-sand beach, and a lighthouse. A houseboat designer named Forbes Kiddoo, inspired by the science fiction of Jules Verne, spent five years building it. In 1999, he converted it into a restaurant that today floats near San Francisco’s kitschy Pier 39, serving $35 rack of lamb to tourists who watch sea lions flop around on the nearby docks. Tonight, the eatery is hosting the Seasteading Institute’s post-conference dinner.

Kiddoo himself ferries the seasteaders from shore to restaurant in a tiny pontoon boat. On the way over, he explains that obtaining clearance for his island was a nightmare. “I had to get city, county, state, and federal permits,” he says, shouting to be heard over the bellowing of sea lions. “I had to deal with the ADA, the ABC … I had to become a merchant marine captain.”  Afterward, in the island’s bar, Friedman seems happy with how the event went, though he says some of his plans will have to be scaled back. He had wanted to hold a floating festival dubbed Ephemerisle on Fourth of July weekend; it was to be a sort of Burning Man on the high seas, where everything is permitted. But several conference attendees expressed concern about the logistics—and advisability—of a free-floating bacchanal of guns and drugs. He’ll still host some sort of gathering to test a few miniature floating-island prototypes but expects it to be held in San Francisco Bay, not out on the open sea. “It’ll probably take a few iterations to get there,” he says. “But at least we’re doing something.”

Eventually, the seasteaders move to the Tahiti Room, which has a lovely moonlit view of Alcatraz. Chatter around the table gets louder as the wine flows, but the subject matter remains wonky. “The interesting issues are social and legal,” says Mikolaj Habryn, a site reliability engineer at Google. “You’ll get slavery. You’ll get drug dealing. Maybe there’ll be polygamous Mormons. The first people involved will inevitably be those who want to do things they can’t do on land, and we have to deal with that.” A ship passes, and even though Forbes Island is firmly moored a few hundred feet from shore and separated from the bay by a breakwater, the restaurant sways so much that some diners have to breathe deeply and focus on the horizon to settle their stomachs.

At the other end of the table, Patri Friedman raises his glass to make a toast. “I want to see us all at the 10th Annual Seasteading Conference,” he says, implying that he expects it to take place on an actual seastead, not in an Embassy Suites or a floating theme restaurant. “It’ll be in a bigger room, there will be a better view, it won’t move up and down as much, and there’ll be a better wine selection and better things to smoke!” Friedman is joined by a raucous round of toasts. “To Peter Thiel for financing this!” “To having more women here!” “To being on the water!” “To freedom!” Friedman wraps it up: “To being crazy in a good way!”







FORBES ISLAND,,20097006,00.html


The next frontier: ‘Seasteading’
by Declan McCullagh  /  February 2, 2009

Palo Alto, Calif.–This chic, tree-lined California town might seem an unlikely place to begin the colonization of Earth’s oceans. Palo Alto is known for expensive modernism, Stanford University, al fresco dining, and land prices so high a modest cottage still sells for well over $1 million. If Patri Friedman gets his way, the area will also be remembered for birthing a political movement called seasteading. The concept is as simple to explain as it will be difficult to achieve: erecting permanent dwellings on the high seas outside the territorial waters claimed by the world’s governments. “Innovation in society and serving marginalized groups has always happened on the frontier,” Friedman said in an interview last week. “We don’t have a frontier anymore. The reason our political system doesn’t innovate anymore is that there’s no place to try out new things. We want to provide that place.”

Designing an offshore place to live is one of the first tasks of the Seasteading Institute, which Friedman, 32, founded last year and moved into shared office space near the Palo Alto Caltrain station two weeks ago. Another task is attempting to legitimize living on the seas as practical–and perhaps, given possibilities for offshore businesses, even profitable. Friedman previously worked in Google’s Mountain View headquarters as a software engineer, identifies himself as a Burning Man aficionado, and counts himself as an unabashed libertarian. (His father, David Friedman, is a well-known libertarian law professor, and his grandfather, the late Milton Friedman, won the Nobel Prize in economics.)

Given the large number of like-minded souls in Silicon Valley circles, including at the Googleplex, it should be no surprise that a few dozen have coalesced to form a core group of would-be seasteaders, some of whom met last week for a social gathering inside downtown San Francisco’s Metreon entertainment complex. “I’d say that libertarian geeks are our most common audience so far. But in order to succeed, we’ll have to branch out beyond that,” Friedman said. “I think people are a lot better at inventing technology than changing human nature or changing social organizations. This is a technological solution to the problems of politics…I’m a libertarian, but I’m not a libertarian who believes that everyone should want to live in the same kind of society as me.”

The Seasteading Institute plans to gather a kind of ad-hoc flotilla, called “ephemerisle,” in the San Francisco Bay near Redwood City over the Fourth of July weekend. The plan for July 2010: find a way to hold the gathering off the coast in the Pacific Ocean. Other supporters of the project include PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who runs a hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management and donated $500,000 to the Seasteading Institute. Former Sun Microsystems engineer Wayne Gramlich is the group’s director of engineering; former Paypal manager James Hogan is its director of operations; Liz Lacy of now-defunct Excite@Home heads its development efforts.

While their affection for seasteading has varying origins, the broadest theme is to allow people to escape overreaching governments and replace conventional political systems with something of their own creation. (A section of their Web site is titled: “Land = Crappy Government” and says that terrestrial governments do a “terrible and sometimes horrific job” at serving the taxpayers that are their customers.) Yet the Seasteading Institute’s official position is, to put it in terms that Washington politicians might employ, thoroughly nonpartisan. Once the engineering work is complete and groups can purchase, outfit, and launch their own platforms, Friedman and his colleagues predict that some of the first ‘steaders will not be nudists, recreational drug users, pacifists, environmentalists, or religious groups hoping to create an enclave far away from secular influences.

A history of failure
One way to look at the prospect of colonizing the oceans is that it represents the continuation of a westward trend that began with Greece and continued through Rome, Gaul, Britain, and the North American continent. “When people got to California that was as far west as they could go,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C. “Maybe this will turn out to be an opportunity to revive that search for a frontier.” Boaz questions whether the United States is sufficiently repressive to prompt enough people to move offshore. “In a prosperous, comfortable society, it might be hard to get people to take those kinds of risk,” he said, referring to “the risk aversion of a wealthy society.” Plus, colonizing land even at the wilderness’ edge is trivial compared with the technical and engineering challenges of colonizing the ocean. Can a floating platform weather typhoons and so-called rogue waves that can swell to more than eight stories tall? Should it be stationary or mobile? Will food be grown, harvested, or imported? And what about more prosaic matters, such as communications and waste disposal?

History is littered with examples of similar projects that failed. There was Marshall Savage’s Aquarius Project, which wanted to start by colonizing the ocean’s surface and then move to the stars. A Las Vegas real estate tycoon behind the Republic of Minerva wanted to form a no-tax utopian society by reclaiming land on a Pacific atoll; alas, the colonists were given the boot by a few troops from the island nation of Tonga. The free-marketeers behind Laissez-Faire City who wanted to found the next Hong Kong were never able to find a sympathetic government to lease them land. An engineer named Norman Nixon has been trying for years to find investors for a so-called Freedom Ship, which would be a colossal project three times longer than any existing ship, with 25 stories above the waterline and a fully functioning airport. Nixon acknowledged last July that the project was on indefinite hold because his business partner “turned over our entire bank account to a man who promised him a ‘Peruvian Gold certificate’ worth a billion dollars.”

The current crop of seasteaders is acutely aware of their predecessors’ failings and has gone so far as to draft a critical history of the movement as part of a larger Internet-published book. “I’d like to see lots of different things tried in lots of different places and we’ll see what works,” Friedman said. “We want to create a turnkey system by which any committed organized group can go out and make their own country and try out some new system.”

Jason Sorens, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, specializes in the study of secessionist movements. His dissertation was titled “The Political Economy of Secessionism,” and he was the founder of the Free State Project, an effort to convince freedom-loving Americans to move to New Hampshire. (Some 700 have taken the leap so far.) Sorens said the seasteading concept reminds him of microstates like Monaco and Tuvalu. “They sustain their government budgets and their economies on niche economies that are based on commercialized sovereignty,” he said. “Many of them sell top-level Internet domains, and that’s a source of their revenue, or they’re financial or data havens, or they raise money through philately (selling stamps). They use all these trappings of sovereignty to bring revenue into their coffers.”

That raises the obvious question: assuming the engineering questions can be answered, and assuming that adequate capital can be raised, what about the legal and diplomatic challenges? Friedman’s answer is that in the short term, seasteads can pay money to purchase a vessel registration from Panama, Liberia, or the Bahamas, in the same way that most merchant ships do. Eventually, seasteads could assert their own sovereignty–something that likely will be met with something less than enthusiasm on the part of terrestrial governments. (Floating pseudo-cities could choose to remain within a nation’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, or sail deeper waters further offshore.) “They may need to establish some sort of sovereignty of their own, and that’s where the secessionist aspect comes in, to protect themselves from legal or military maneuvers,” Sorens said. “Those are really uncharted waters. We don’t have any other examples in international law of man-made structures becoming sovereign.”

One case study can be found in HavenCo, an Internet hosting business created nine years ago atop a windswept gun emplacement six miles off the coast of England. The rusting, basketball-court-size fortress was abandoned by the British military after using it during World War II to shoot down Nazi aircraft, and was claimed in 1967 by Roy Bates, the self-described “crown prince of Sealand.” A HavenCo executive said in 2003 that the business was failing, and the hosting service went offline last year. Meanwhile, no member of the United Nations appears to have recognized Sealand as a sovereign state, and it lies within the territorial boundary of 10 miles claimed by England.

The Seasteading Institute candidly admits floating platforms will be outgunned by a modern navy, concluding the wiser option is to “avoid angering terrestrial nations enough to provoke an attack.” That means that, ironically, seafaring communities created by liberty-loving libertarians may ban businesses from their platforms that dabble in controversial practices such as offshore banking with complete privacy. (Medical tourism–think hip replacement surgery at 80 percent discounts–coupled with gambling, on-platform use of recreational drugs, adult prostitution, and genetic engineering may prove sufficiently profitable.) “As long as what happens on seasteads stays on seasteads, then terrestrial governments hopefully will not feel too threatened,” Friedman said. “The whole nature of seasteading is that it’s a very experimentalist, very diverse world we’re trying to create. People are welcome to create seasteads that violate any of my recommendations. I could be wrong: if they want to take that risk, we’ll see what happens and we’ll learn from it.”


The Oil Rig Resort : Luxury adventure + environmental stewardship
“The challenge: Create a truly unique hospitality experience. Given Morris’ commitment to environmental stewardship, our solution went beyond high-end design – we showcased how sustainable strategies can inform the luxury resort experience. The Rig Resort’s aesthetics evoke an ocean reef with modern flair. Views include ocean vantages – even through the lobby’s glass floor – as well as of the roof-top white sand “beach” and infinity pool beyond. Spaces are organized around a core of water that stabilizes the rig while serving as a venue for aquatic shows. To explore the lush habitats often spawned at rig sites, resort amenities highlight ocean-going and undersea sports. Morris’s emphasis on sustainability mandated maximum re-use of the existing rig infrastructure. Pre-fabricated guest-room modules “close up” for protection during adverse weather. The resort harnesses wind, waves, and sun to generate energy miles from shore. Grand Prize, Radical Innovation in Hospitality. National Design Award of Excellence, SARA.”

OIL RIGS as LUXURY HOTELS,713732.shtml

(Business Wire) Morris Architects, a 70-year design firm with offices in Houston, Orlando, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, announces major awards in hospitality design. Morris Architects took top honors for its two entries to Radical Innovation in Hospitality, an international design competition co-sponsored by the John Hardy Group and Hospitality Design magazine. Projects from around the world were submitted by hospitality brands, designers, and consulting professionals. Morris Architects captured the competition’s $10,000 Grand Prize for design of the Oil Rig Resort, Spa, and Aquatic Adventure. The concept refits one of the Gulf Coast’s 4,000 oil rigs into an exclusive resort, creating an eco-luxe oceanic experience. According to Morris Architects Director of Design Douglas Oliver, “In a twist on the symbol of oil dependence, the rig is transformed from obsolete industrial infrastructure into a vibrant component of the biosphere’s ecosystem and a destination for discerning travelers.”

“As the adaptive reuse of an abandoned oilrig,” added John Hardy, president and CEO of the John Hardy Group, “the Rig Resort offers a potentially commercially viable solution to an environmental hazard by providing alternative adventure travel opportunities based on a natural setting, simultaneously creating new jobs previously non-existent in the area.” In addition to attracting the adventurer and luxury traveler, this destination resort will also draw conferences, business retreats, and can serve as a cruise ship’s main port of call en route to other locations in Mexico and the Caribbean. Miles from shore, the Rig Hotel will function autonomously through the use of alternative energy. Upon entering the “reef lobby,” guests enjoy spectacular views of the Gulf — including vantages through the lobby’s glass floor. Spaces are organized around a core of water that serves as ballast while also providing a deep-water venue for evening shows similar to Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas ‘O’.

The Morris Architects entry titled Extreme Birding was named one of the contest’s finalists and received an Honorable Mention. Bird-watching, also known as birding, presents tremendous untapped potential for the hospitality industry. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, bird-watching is a hobby for over 47.8 million Americans, and that number is growing. Explaining the concept, Oliver stated, “There is a strong connection between bird-watching and travel. Up until now, hospitality offerings for birders tended to be ad-hoc. This design proposes to integrate luxury hospitality into the birding experience, creating a methodology that can be adapted for sites around the globe.”

In receiving both the Grand Prize and an Honorable Mention, Morris Architects is the first firm to have been nominated for two of the four finalist positions in a single year. Said Michelle Finn, vice president of Hospitality Design Group, publisher of Hospitality Design magazine, “Innovation deserves a platform. This award offers a glimpse of what is truly cutting-edge thinking.”

The Rig Resort also received the SARA National Design Award of Excellence, the highest design honor awarded by the Society for American Registered Architects. According to Chris Hudson, Morris Architects President and CEO: “These entries exemplify the firm’s commitment to ADVANCEDESIGN, expanding the boundaries of what design and architecture can do for our clients and our communities.” Under the leadership of Design Director Douglas Oliver, the team responsible for the Morris Architects hospitality concepts included Yoonah Chang, Dallas Felder, Sandra Guerrero, Melanie Herz, Paul Kweton, Shawn Lutz, and John McWilliams. Continued Chris Hudson, “The firm’s experience with top hospitality developers and hotel brands, as well as our commissions at some of the world’s most innovative entertainment and performance venues, has enabled us to create a truly unique experience that embodies the best in luxury, sustainability, and adventure.”

Viking and Danish London

“Vikings from Denmark launched raids on London during the 9th and 10th
centuries. The Danish King Cnut became King of England in 1016 and
Danish merchants came to London to trade.  Viking raiders from Denmark
attacked London in 842, 851 and many times afterwards as part of a
sustained campaign of plunder and settlement. This led the Anglo-
Saxons to retreat to the remains of the Roman walled city of London
for protection. The Vikings spent the winter in London in 871-72. By
the 880s, Vikings were settling in eastern England. The English King
Alfred made an agreement with the Viking leader Guthrum to partition
the country. However, renewed attacks from the late 10th century
resulted in the Danish leader Cnut becoming King of England in 1016.
Twenty five years of Danish rule followed, with Danish merchants
trading in London. This period of Scandinavian influence on London
life finished when Edward the Confessor was crowned king in 1042. The
age of invasions ended in 1066 with his successor, William the

Viking mice conquered much of British Isles
BY Ewen Callaway  /  01 October 2008

They may not have raped and pillaged, but “Viking” mice conquered the
outer reaches of the British Isles all the same. Rodents living in
Wales, Scotland and Ireland can trace their ancestry to Norwegian
house mice, presumably stowaways on Viking ships. Because grain-eating
house mice – Mus musculus domesticus – depend on dense human
populations, they serve as a reliable proxy for human settlement and
migration, says Jeremy Searle, an evolutionary biologist at the
University of York, UK, who led the new study. “It’s just a completely
different angle to look at and potentially add new pieces of evidence
that historians and archaeologists can use,” he says. The discovery
that mice made the journey to the northern and western British Isles
at the time of the Vikings isn’t much of a surprise in itself. The
Orkney Islands served as a major Norwegian Viking settlement in the
11th and 12th centuries, and rodents probably sailed between
Scandinavia and Scotland.

Earlier settlers
What surprised Searle’s team was the difference in mitochondrial DNA
from these “Viking” mice and those recovered in other parts of
Britain. When they examined the ancestry of rodents from elsewhere in
the British Isles, they found a link to Bronze Age human migrations,
beginning about 2300 BC. This probably means that the Vikings were the
first humans to live densely enough in Scotland and Ireland to support
house mice, Searle says. “If a place is empty of mice the first that
come are the winners,” agrees François Bonhomme, an evolutionary
biologist at Montpelier University, France, not involved in the study.
“One boat with three mice – that’s sufficient to start a population.”
Other such human and house mice populations should prove more
interesting and enlightening, Searle says. “Now that we’ve got a
Viking mouse, if you like, we can actually focus on much more specific
aspects of Viking history.”

For instance, mice could solve two puzzles about the settlement of
Iceland. Some historians think that Iceland was home to multiple
Viking settlements, each with a different home base in the Viking
kingdom, a contention that mice could bolster. Also, the Hebrides may
have served as a pit stop from Norway to Iceland, where Viking men
picked up women for second leg. This theory might be confirmed if DNA
from Icelandic mice most closely matches that of Hebridean mice.

Jeremy Searle
email : jbs3 [at] [dot] uk

Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological
Sciences, (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0958)
“The west European subspecies of house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus)
has gained much of its current widespread distribution through
commensalism with humans. This means that the phylogeography of M. m.
domesticus should reflect patterns of human movements. We studied
restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) and DNA sequence
variations in mouse mitochondrial (mt) DNA throughout the British
Isles (328 mice from 105 localities, including previously published
data). There is a major mtDNA lineage revealed by both RFLP and
sequence analyses, which is restricted to the northern and western
peripheries of the British Isles, and also occurs in Norway. This
distribution of the ‘Orkney’ lineage fits well with the sphere of
influence of the Norwegian Vikings and was probably generated through
inadvertent transport by them. To form viable populations, house mice
would have required large human settlements such as the Norwegian
Vikings founded. The other parts of the British Isles (essentially
most of mainland Britain) are characterized by house mice with
different mtDNA sequences, some of which are also found in Germany,
and which probably reflect both Iron Age movements of people and mice
and earlier development of large human settlements. MtDNA studies on
house mice have the potential to reveal novel aspects of human


Bronze Age mouse offers clues to royal shipwreck  /  9.11.2008

Remains of a long dead house mouse have been found in the wreck of a
Bronze Age royal ship. That makes it the earliest rodent stowaway ever
recorded, and proof of how house mice spread around the world.
Archaeologist Thomas Cucchi of the University of Durham, UK,
identified a fragment of a mouse jaw in sediment from a ship that sank
3500 years ago off the coast of Turkey.

The cargo of ebony, ivory, silver and gold – including a gold scarab
with the name of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti – indicates it was a
royal vessel. Because the cargo carried artefacts from many cultures,
its nationality and route is hotly debated, but the mouse’s jaw may
provide answers. Cucchi’s analysis confirms it belonged to Mus
musculus domesticus, the only species known to live in close quarters
with humans (Journal of Archaeological Science, vol 35, p 2953). The
shape of the molars suggests the mouse came from the northern
Levantine coast, as they are similar to those of modern house mice in
Syria, near Cyprus. And, when generations of rodents live aboard
ships, they evolve larger body shapes. Yet this mouse was roughly the
same shape and size as other small, land-dwelling mice of the time,
suggesting it boarded just before the ship set sail.

The presence of the mouse indicates that the Royal vessel was
carrying, as well as its riches, a large shipment of grain, either to
trade or feed the crew. And the most likely place to load up on grain
was the port of Minet el Beida, which served the ancient city of
Ugarit, the largest international trade emporium between the 14th and
13th centuries BC. “A seemingly insignificant discovery within a
vessel crammed full of exquisite and exotic goods provides a useful
piece of evidence for the ship’s route 3500 years after its final and
fateful journey,” says Cucchi. What’s more, “this single tiny mandible
of a house mouse represents the earliest direct evidence for the
stowaway transport of commensal rodents,” he says, highlighting how
important Bronze Age shipping helped spread an invasive species around

Thomas Cucchi
email : thomas.cucchi [at] [dot] uk

Beastly tales: Rewriting human history
BY Bob Holmes  /  19 January 2008

According to the history books, the Madeira archipelago 600 kilometres
west of Africa was discovered in 1419 when Portuguese mariners were
blown off-course by a storm. In Roman times Pliny and Plutarch wrote
about islands that might be Madeira, but there is no definite account
of the islands, nor any signs of people, prior to the arrival of the
Portuguese. The mice of Madeira Island, however, tell a different and
unexpected story.

The mice are not native to the island and must have arrived on
European ships. Genetically, they most closely resemble the mice of
Portugal. However, some of their DNA has strong similarities to that
of mice found in Scandinavia – a strong hint that Viking ships found
Madeira long before the Portuguese. “It might have been a temporary
occupation, or just a few boats landing for a short period of time,”
says Jeremy Searle, an evolutionary biologist at the University of
York in the UK and an author of the study (Heredity, vol 99, p 432).
“But the mice are telling us something that no artefact so far has
told us.”

Madeira’s mice are not an isolated case. Like spies in the halls of
history, our animal and plant companions hold lost secrets about our
past. Through their genes we can trace the paths of ancient migrations
and trade routes, and sometimes unpick the knot of successive waves of
colonisation. Plants and animals can also help archaeologists date the
origin of some of the major innovations of human culture, such as the
first use of clothing and the beginning of high-density urban living.
They can even help researchers glimpse the motives of ancient peoples
as they laid the cornerstones of civilisation.

For instance, anthropologists have long been fascinated by one of the
greatest seagoing migrations ever undertaken – the colonisation
thousands of years ago of the remote islands of the south Pacific.
Where did these ancient colonists come from? Did they spread through
Polynesia in a single, rapid sweep, or was it a gradual move
undertaken in several waves? The most obvious way to answer questions
like these would be to study the DNA of Polynesian people. If they
carry genetic variants shared only with, say, natives of Taiwan, that
would point to a likely origin for the migration.

Ancestral DNA
However, this kind of study is not as simple as it sounds. Any clear
genetic patterns that may once have existed would have been blurred
over the past few centuries, making comparisons among modern people
uncertain. A better alternative would be to extract DNA from human
remains that pre-date European contact, but such remains are
relatively scarce and, understandably, most communities do not want
the bones of their ancestors ground up to extract DNA.

“If people don’t want their ancestors to be studied, then you just
don’t do it,” says Lisa Matisoo-Smith, a molecular anthropologist at
the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “So I said, how can we get
at this in another way?”

She knew that the early colonists did not travel alone in their
canoes. They brought pigs, chickens, dogs and even rats along with
them. Perhaps, she thought, these domestic animals held the answer:
the relatedness of the animals on different islands should be similar
to that of the humans who brought them.

The rats proved especially helpful. Unlike the European rat, the
Pacific rat, Rattus exulans, dislikes water and would not have
scuttled aboard a boat of its own volition. Instead, the colonists
took them for food. “The rats on the islands today are the direct
descendants of the rats that arrived with the pre-European human
population,” Matisoo-Smith says. This means there has been no later
genetic “blurring”, so she could simply study modern rats rather than
searching out ancient rat DNA.

Matisoo-Smith and her colleagues collected rat tissue from islands
throughout the Pacific as well as from mainland Asia, and sequenced a
short part of their mitochondrial DNA. This revealed two separate
lineages of rats: one type in the Philippines, New Guinea and other
islands of the western Pacific; and another on the more remote islands
further to the east. Such a pattern is unlikely to be the result of a
single wave of human migration, so the researchers concluded that
there must have been at least two separate waves of colonisation
(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 101, p 9167).

Bone of contention
Similar genetic analyses of pigs, chickens and dogs – using ancient
DNA to avoid the blurring caused by the extensive trade in these
animals – has turned up evidence of even more intricate settlement
patterns. “It’s not that people came once and then there’s isolation,”
says Matisoo-Smith. “It’s a much more dynamic process. The Pacific
really is a highway. Once you have people moving, and you have
knowledge of the island world, then everybody’s going to take
advantage of that.”

Last year, the team turned up a big surprise: a single chicken bone,
taken from a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Chile and dated to
about AD 1400, yielded DNA sequences identical to those of prehistoric
chickens from Tonga and Samoa in the south Pacific. This is the
strongest evidence yet that Pacific islanders’ journeys took them all
the way to South America on at least one occasion (PNAS, vol 104, p

It might not be time to rewrite the history books yet, though.
“There’s only one bone, and there’s one sequence, and there’s one
date, which is just old enough. I’m happy with the data, but they need
more of it,” says Keith Dobney, a zooarchaeologist at Durham
University in the UK.

The worry is that because so little DNA remains in ancient specimens –
especially in the warm, damp tropics – attempts to sequence it can be
ruined by contamination with modern DNA. “One has to be sure there’s
no other explanation for the chicken DNA in the bone. It could be
something as ridiculous as that the archaeologist who handled it had
chicken for lunch that day,” says Tom Gilbert, a specialist in ancient
DNA at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Trade routes
With more samples, careful handling and the latest techniques, though,
studies of ancient DNA can yield solid results. Several research
groups have now used this technique to track human migrations. Similar
approaches can also be used to unravel ancient trade routes, for
instance by tracing the weevils found in Roman granaries in England
back to their roots in the Mediterranean, a study which Gary King at
the University of York is now beginning. If the same genotypes of
weevils also turn up in medieval English granaries, it will show that
the English were producing and storing grain throughout the Dark Ages.
If, on the other hand, medieval weevils are different, it will confirm
the idea that there was a period when grain was produced and stored
only sporadically, causing the original colonists to die out.

The use of genotypes to study ancient trade routes has already thrown
up one surprise. Anders Götherström, an evolutionary geneticist at
Uppsala University in Sweden, has found African cattle genotypes in
Bronze Age archaeological sites in Spain. This suggests that, even
thousands of years ago, trade across the Strait of Gibraltar was
extensive enough to include live cattle (PNAS, vol 102, p 8431).

Before Götherström’s study, people had noticed the presence of African
genotypes in Spanish cattle, but assumed that they had arrived with
the conquering Moors in the 8th century. “Nobody expected it to be any
earlier than that,” says Götherström. “As long as we were relying on
modern cattle DNA, we made the wrong conclusion. When we go back in
time, we can see when it really came. It was there during the Bronze

Our companion species can reveal even more subtle things about our
history. The human head louse, for example, lives only in scalp hair.
A closely related subspecies, the body louse, lives only in clothing,
and so must have evolved from the head louse sometime after early
humans created a new niche for them by wearing clothing regularly.
Assuming this did not take long, dating the divergence of the two
louse subspecies should give us a rough idea of when clothing became

Recent invention
To do this, Mark Stoneking and his colleagues at the Max Planck
Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced
DNA fragments from 40 head and body lice, and counted the genetic
differences between the two. They then compared this with the number
of genetic differences between human and chimpanzee lice, which are
assumed to have diverged when proto-humans and chimps went their
separate ways about 6 million years ago. Based on this comparison, the
researchers estimate that human head and body lice must have diverged
about 72,000 years ago, suggesting that clothing is a relatively
recent human invention (Current Biology, vol 13, p 1414).

While this work shows that much can be learned simply by looking at
how closely plant or animal populations are related, some researchers
are delving deeper. The latest trend in the growing field of genetic
archaeology is to look at variations in the genes for specific

One of the best examples comes from a study of flax plants led by
Robin Allaby, a molecular archaeobotanist at the University of Warwick
in the UK. Flax is unusual among crop plants because it provides two
products – oil from the seeds, and fibre. Archaeologists disagree on
which came first, so Allaby decided to read the genes directly. He
collected a wide variety of flax lines and sequenced portions of a
gene called sad2, which plays a role in the production of unsaturated
fatty acids in the seeds. From these sequences he was able to
reconstruct the genetic history of flax, which revealed that the
ancestral form of sad2 was similar to the form typical of modern
oilseed flax. Variants typical of fibre flax only appear relatively
recently, suggesting that ancient people domesticated flax for its
oil, rather than its fibre (Theoretical and Applied Genetics, vol 112,
p 58).

As this shows, focusing on particular genes can sometimes tell us more
than conventional archaeological artefacts. Applying the same approach
to domestic animals should reveal, for example, when ancient people
first began breeding cattle for milk or meat, Götherström says. He is
now looking at DNA extracted from bones and teeth found in horse
graves in the hope of determining whether certain colours of horse had
greater ceremonial value in ancient times.

And this is just the start. As we sequence the genomes of more and
more organisms, we will get ever better at reading the genetic runes,
and researchers like Götherström should be able to uncover many more
stories hidden within DNA of our plant and animal companions.
Undoubtedly there will be many more surprises to come.

Lisa Matisoo-Smith
email : e.matisoo-smith [at] [dot] nz

Robin Allaby
email : R.G.Allaby [at] [dot] uk

Vincent S. Smith
email : vince [at] vsmith [dot] info / v.smith [at] [dot] uk

David L. Reed
email : dreed [at] flmnh.ufl [dot] edu

Lice from mummies provide clues to ancient migrations
BY John Noble Wilford  /  February 6, 2008

When two pre-Columbian individuals died 1,000 years ago, arid
conditions in the region of what is now Peru naturally mummified their
bodies, down to the head lice in their long, braided hair. This was
all scientists needed, they reported Wednesday, to extract well-
preserved louse DNA and establish that the parasites had accompanied
their human hosts in the original peopling of the Americas, probably
as early as 15,000 years ago. The DNA matched that of the most common
type of louse known to exist worldwide, now and before European
colonization of the New World.

The findings thus absolve Columbus of responsibility for at least one
unintended tragic consequence to the well-being of the people he
discovered and called Indians. The Europeans may have introduced
diseases, most notably smallpox and measles, but not the most common
of lice, as had been suspected. Of possibly greater importance,
evolutionary biologists say, the new research technique may become a
tool in studying other mummies for valuable insights into human
migrations and the spread of disease. Lice have been found on Egyptian
mummies, for example, but these have yet to undergo genetic

The analysis of lice from the Peruvian mummies is described in a paper
to be published Feb. 15 in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. The
principal authors are Didier Raoult of the National Center for
Scientific Research in Marseille, France, and David Reed of the
Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. The scientists
conducted independent studies on samples from the two mummies, which
were among those collected between 1999 and 2002 in the high coastal
desert of southern Peru by Sonia Guillen, a Peruvian anthropologist.
Looters had destroyed the bodies, leaving only the heads of people who
had died around the year 1025. Lice have also been recovered from New
World mummies as old as 10,000 years.

The results of the DNA tests by the two laboratories were identical,
the researchers said. They showed that 11th-century Americans already
hosted the prevalent type-A strain of lice. Currently, the researchers
said, “the most likely theory” is that type-A head and body lice
originated in Africa and were distributed worldwide long ago. Type-B,
which infests only the head, is also common, and type-C is rare, known
primarily in Ethiopia and Nepal. Pubic lice are an entirely different

Lice from other mummies with hair still intact, the scientists said,
may “help us understand the distribution of types A and B in the
Americas and the Old World before globalization.” Diseases spread by
lice include epidemic typhus, trench fever and relapsing fever, which
are now treatable with antibiotics.  Reed, an evolutionary biologist,
said in a telephone interview that, despite the discovery of type-A
lice in pre-Columbian America, early European explorers might still be
implicated in spreading a louse-borne disease back to the Old World.
“The typhus bacterium may be native to the Americas,” he said. “There
are no records of typhus in Europe until the 1500s.”

In another example of the uses of lice in science, Mark Stoneking, a
scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in
Leipzig, Germany, recently examined the assumption that body lice
evolved when humans started wearing clothes. An analysis of louse
genetics appeared to put that date at about 72,000 years ago.

Mark Stoneking
email : stoneking [at] eva.mpg [dot] de

Head lice key to clothing history
BY Kat Arney  /  29 September, 2003

An evolutionary comparison of human head and body lice has shed light
on the history of clothing. A team based in Germany has worked out
that humans probably first began wearing clothes 72,000 years ago –
give or take 40,000 years.

Their calculation is based on the fact that as species evolve, they
become distinct by inhabiting different environments and gradually
changing to suit them. While head lice live solely on the human scalp,
body lice prefer to inhabit those areas covered by clothing.

Molecular clock
Dr Mark Stoneking’s team, from the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, worked out when the two
organisms began to diverge and became distinct species. They compared
DNA sequences from both types of lice, arriving at their result by
counting the number of DNA mutations.

“DNA mutations occur at a roughly constant rate over time, so if you
know what that rate is, you can use the number of mutations between
head and body lice to estimate when body lice arose,” explained Dr
Stoneking. They also analysed the DNA from chimpanzee lice, and found
that the human and chimp bugs became separate species around 5.5
million years ago – not far off the time their hosts’ lineages are
thought to have diverged.

Margin of error
The calculation that clothing appeared about 72,000 years ago points
towards it being a relatively new invention, given that Homo sapiens
has probably been around for less than 200,000 years. “A large time
window is inevitable with any molecular clock approach to dating, but
even if you take the extremes of the range, the result still
associates clothing specifically with modern humans,” said Dr

Given that Homo sapiens are generally believed to have expanded out of
Africa about 100,000 years ago, perhaps clothing was invented to cope
with the cooler climes of their new habitats. Dr Stoneking’s next
project is the DNA analysis of pubic lice, using the molecular clock
to work out when humans lost the majority of their body hair.

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]








“Government is an industry with a really high barrier to entry,” he
said. “You basically need to win an election or a revolution to try a
new one. That’s a ridiculous barrier to entry. And it’s got enormous
customer lock-in. People complain about their cellphone plans that are
like two years, but think of the effort that it takes to change your

Peter Thiel Makes Down Payment on Libertarian Ocean Colonies
BY Alexis Madrigal  /  05.19.08

Tired of the United States and the other 190-odd nations on Earth?

If a small team of Silicon Valley millionaires get their way, in a few
years, you could have a new option for global citizenship: A
permanent, quasi-sovereign nation floating in international waters.
With a $500,000 donation from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a Google
engineer and a former Sun Microsystems programmer have launched The
Seasteading Institute, an organization dedicated to creating
experimental ocean communities “with diverse social, political, and
legal systems.”

“Decades from now, those looking back at the start of the century will
understand that Seasteading was an obvious step towards encouraging
the development of more efficient, practical public-sector models
around the world,” Thiel said in a statement. It might sound like the
setting for the videogame Bioshock, but the institute isn’t playing
around: It plans to splash a prototype into the San Francisco Bay
within the next two years, the first step toward establishing deep-
water city-states, or what it calls “seasteads” — homesteads on the
high seas.

Within the pantheon of would-be utopian communities, there’s a
particularly rich history of people trying to live outside the nation-
state paradigm out in the ocean. The most ambitious was Marshall
Savage’s Aquarius Project, which aimed at nothing less than the
colonization of the universe. There was also Las Vegas millionaire
Michael Oliver’s attempt to create a new island country, the Republic
of Minerva, by dredging the shallow waters near Tonga. And the Freedom
Ship was to be a mile-long portable country costing about $10 billion
to construct.

None of these projects has succeeded, a fact that The Seasteading
Institute’s founders, Google’s Patri Friedman and the semi-retired
Wayne Gramlich, are keenly aware of throughout the 300-page book
they’ve written about seasteading. Instead of starting with a grand
scheme worthy of a James Bond villain, the Institute is bringing an
entrepreneurial, DIY mentality to creating oceanic city-states.
“There’s a history of a lot of crazy people trying this sort of thing,
and the idea is to do it in a way that’s not crazy,” said Joe
Lonsdale, the institute’s chairman and a principal at Clarium Capital
Management, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund.

The seasteaders want to build their first prototype for a few million
dollars, by scaling down and modifying an existing off-shore oil rig
design known as a “spar platform.” In essence, the seastead would
consist of a reinforced concrete tube with external ballasts at the
bottom that could be filled with air or water to raise or lower the
living platform on top. The spar design helps offshore platforms
better withstand the onslaught of powerful ocean waves by minimizing
the amount of structure that is exposed to their energy. “You have
very little cross-sectional interaction with waves [with] the spar
design,” Gramlich said. The primary living space, about 300 square
feet per person, would be inside the tube, but the duo envisions the
top platform holding buildings, gardens, solar panels, wind turbines
and (of course) satellites for internet access. To some extent, they
believe the outfittings for the seastead will be dependent on the
business model, say aquaculture or tourism, that will support it and
the number of people aboard. “We’re not trying to pick the one
strategy because we think there will be multiple people who want one
for multiple reasons,” Gramlich said.

Dan Donovan, a long-time spokesman for Dominion, an energy company
that operated Gulf of Mexico-based gas rigs, including Devils Tower,
the world’s deepest spar structure, said the group’s plan wasn’t too
far-fetched. His company’s off-shore rigs, which are much larger than
the institute’s planned seasteads, provided long-term housing for its
workers. “They were sort of like mobile homes. We could move them from
one place to another,” Donovan said. “People did live on them.” But
even the institute members admit that their plans aren’t far enough
along to stand up to rigorous engineering scrutiny. Some engineers,
Gramlich said, have been skeptical of their plan, particularly their
desire to do it on the cheap. “We have some legitimate doubting
Thomases out there,” Gramlich said.

But if the idea turns out to be just crazy enough that it works,
Friedman, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the Nobel
Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, envisions transforming the
way that government functions. “My dad and grandfather were happy
arguing their ideas and were happy influencing people through the
world of ideas,” Friedman said. “I see a real need for people to go
out and do something and show by example.” True to his libertarian
leanings, Friedman looks at the situation in market terms: the
institute’s modular spar platforms, he argues, would allow for the
creation of far cheaper new countries out on the high-seas, driving
innovation. “Government is an industry with a really high barrier to
entry,” he said. “You basically need to win an election or a
revolution to try a new one. That’s a ridiculous barrier to entry. And
it’s got enormous customer lock-in. People complain about their
cellphone plans that are like two years, but think of the effort that
it takes to change your citizenship.”

Friedman estimates that it would cost a few hundred million dollars to
build a seastead for a few thousand people. With costs that low,
Friedman can see constellations of cities springing up, giving people
a variety of governmental choices. If misguided policies arose,
citizens could simply motor to a new nation. “You can change your
government without having to leave your house,” he said. Of course,
one major role of government is to provide security, which would seem
to be an issue on the open sea. But Friedman’s not worried about
defense beyond simple firearms because he thinks pirates will lack the
financial incentive to attack the seasteads. “More sophisticated
pirates will take entire container ships that have tens of millions of
dollars of cargo and 10 crew [members],” he said. “On a seastead,
there’s a much different crew-to-movable assets ratio.”

In fact, his only worry is that a government will try to come calling
and force their jurisdiction upon them. Toward that end, they are
planning to fly a “flag of convenience” from a country that sells
them, like Panama, to provide them with protection from national
navies. “If you’re not flying a flag … any country can do whatever
they want to you,” he said. Even if their big idea doesn’t end up
panning out, their story should live on in internet lore for
confirming the dream that two guys with a blog and a love of Ayn Rand
can land half a million dollars to pursue their dream, no matter how
off-kilter or off-grid it might seem. “Everything changed when we got
the funding,” Friedman said. “Before that, it was two guys with some
ideas writing a book and blogging about their ideas…. Now that we’ve
got some funding, it’s something I plan to make a full-time job out





Dynamic Geography: A Blueprint for Efficient Government
by Patri Friedman

This article briefly discusses the fundamental reasons why governments
function so poorly, and why many libertarian solutions are
insufficient to solve the problem. Government is modeled as an
industry which is shown to be lacking in competitive feedback. Based
on this, we examine ways of making government more efficient,
including an odd but elegant way of fixing this problem which has not
previously been analyzed in this context. So if you’re ready to get
your feet wet, read on!

The Problem
Those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to
repeat them.

Given how far all current governments stray from the libertarian
vision, it is natural that some of us have considered designing or
even founding a new nation. In doing so, we sometimes assume that the
major failing of present nations is the mental attitudes of their
residents. Thus to ensure that a political system works, we merely
need to start with libertarians. This is incorrect, because much of
what we don’t like about current states stems from the behavior of
systems – behavior which is to some degree independent of which humans
are involved. As an example, the USA started with liberty-minded
founders and degenerated anyway.

Alternatively, it is tempting to think that some structural problems
or lack of specificity in the constitution are the issue. If laws
required a supermajority to enact but a 1/4 vote to repeal, or if the
constitution made it clear that RKBA really means the right for anyone
to possess the most deadly weaponry available, maybe that would solve
the problem. While these issues matter, the approach is still too
superficial. Again, the USA started with a pretty darn good
constitution, and still degenerated. No matter what your starting laws
(and the Bill of Rights is pretty clear), judges must interpret them.

When we look at the empirical evidence of the twentieth century, the
libertarian case is bleak. However much we may admire it, small
government does not appear to be a stable equilibrium. Instead, the
clear pattern is growth of government spending, in absolute and
relative terms, in a variety of different first-world countries. The
budget-maximizing bureau and the ratchet of government appear to be
robust phenomena. We must not dismiss this evidence simply because it
is distasteful. Laissez-faire may be efficient, but if it is
inherently unstable there can be no Libertopia.

This stability problem is a crucial one for libertarians, perhaps the
most fundamental issue we face. We know a great deal about how things
would/should/could/did work in our vision of society. But why are such
societies so rare? Why aren’t they forming? Why do they disappear? How
can we create one that lasts? Some excellent analysis has been done on
this topic (thanks, public choice economics!). But these pressing
questions seem to receive little attention compared to minor technical
issues, despite the fact that we must answer them if we are ever to
create a stable libertarian society.

The Governing Industry
Traditional government consists of a monopoly on the use of force in
some geographic area. Generally it is extended to include monopolies
on a large number of services as well, such as courts, police,
military protection, roads, and licensing. We’ll consider all of these
as government services, and call the provision of these services the
governing industry. There are two aspects which make this industry
uncompetitive: a high cost of switching and a high barrier to entry.

High Cost of Switching
Government service providers have monopolies over wide areas. Most
people live in buildings and own lots of physical property. They are
likely to have family and friends in the surrounding geographical
area, and to work at a nearby job. While there may be people who live
in RV’s, only have friends on the internet, and telecommute every day,
they are surely rare. Thus if an individual wishes to switch
providers, they must physically relocate to a new country. This
involves an onerous series of steps: sell their house, pack up all
their possessions, quit their job, move to a new country, deal with
immigration requirements, buy a new house, get a new job, make new
friends, learn a new culture. This is an extremely costly process.

Because it is so expensive to switch service providers, the industry
has little market feedback. Jurisdictional arbitrage is ineffective
because the difference to an individual between two governments must
be higher than the cost of switching – and that cost is huge. Thus its
a great temptation for residents to stay and hope things get better,
or perhaps try to change them despite slim odds.

If it is not clear why this leads to poor service, consider a business
example. Suppose there were many competing phone companies with no
interconnection, so that you could only call people subscribed to your
provider. It is likely that your friends, family, and coworkers all
use the same provider, because convenience of communication is so
important. In fact, they’ve probably all used the same provider for
their whole lives. Once a provider had many customers signed up, it
would not have to treat them very well to keep them as customers,
because it would be so difficult for them to switch. When all phone
networks are interconnected and it takes only a few minutes to change
providers, service is vastly more efficient. The effect with
government is even stronger because physical proximity is more
important and all-encompassing than the phone network, thus people are
willing to bear higher costs to maintain it.

High Barrier to Entry
Consider two industries. One has few economies of scale, thus small
firms can enter easily. In the other, high economies of scale mean
that only a huge, highly-funded new venture can be competitive with
current firms. The first might be the computer applications market and
the second the computer operating system market. When the barrier to
entry is low, many innovative firms will compete to provide the best
product. When it is high, a small number of entrenched firms fight to
maintain their position.

The barrier to entry in the government market is gargantuan. While it
is possible to control small parts of a democracy without great
expenditure, creating a new system or taking over the existing one are
very difficult. Bloody revolution is the usual route, and those
attempting it must risk death with little chance of success. All land
is claimed, and its current possessors have a great deal of interest
in maintaining the status quo. The recent US invasion of Iraq
demonstrates the tremendous expense and difficulty of regime change.

This high barrier means that the governing market contains a small
number of large firms. The industry lacks the continual growth,
innovation, and energy produced by a constant stream of small
experiments and ventures. Currently, small groups of people cannot
readily experiment with new systems. This deprives the world of useful
information about improved ways of governing – as well as letting
people keep their illusions about methods which would prove disastrous
in practice.

Further evidence that these two conditions are key to the poor
provision of services is found by examining the few governmental
services with a much lower cost of switching and barrier to entry. For
example, incorporation and ship chartering do not require physical
presence, and both are among the minority of profitable government-run
businesses. It is no surprise that for this small subset of “virtual”
services, jurisdictional arbitrage is alive and well.

Aside: applying these two criteria to the Windows OS explains why it
is of low quality, while Microsoft makes much better products for more
competitive industries.

Now that we have considered government as an industry and realized
that it is a very uncompetitive one, we should be unsurprised that
existing governments do such a poor job. Without competition and
market feedback, we should not expect significant improvement –
regardless of superficial reforms. Changing one part of one system is
not enough, we must change the meta-system under which systems evolve.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is
striking at the root.
— Henry David Thoreau

Industries are not made competitive by rhetoric, and the governing
industry is no exception. Instead, we must change the incentive
structure which leads to stagnant, exploitative governments. The above
analysis suggests that lowering the barrier to entry and the cost of
switching is likely to be effective. How can this be done?

One answer is a heirarchical system of alliances like medieval
feudalism. Each unit can choose which higher-level unit it is
affiliated with, and thus shop around for the best deal. This actually
created a competitive system, as Robert Wright describes in Non-Zero

Why were these ruling elites more open to change than Rome’s
ruling elites? One reason, some historians say, was the decentralized
nature of feudalism. Feudal lords often had the leeway to rewrite the
rules in their territory, and they also had the incentive –
competition with neighboring lords. As savvy lords tried to foster
more prosperity than their neighbors, the many fractal units of
feudalism became, in effect, laboratories for non-zero-sumness,
competing with each other to raise productivity. [1]

He also reports that this competition in the governing industry may
have contributed substantially to Europe’s technological advantage.
Unfortunately, there are problems with this method. For example,
stable units in feudalism tend to be geographically compact, and
geographic features constrain the possible configurations. So a unit
will often have only 2 options for affiliation – or if its not on a
border, no options at all.

One system fairly well-known in libertarian circles is called anarcho-
capitalism. The idea is that all of the services of government are
provided by private businesses. No one provider has a monopoly on any
service or area. For example, police functions would be the domain of
“protection agencies”, and disputes would be settled in private
courts. We will not examine the system in detail here (see [2]).
Instead, we will examine how AC fits into our model.

AC lowers the barrier to entry, because a new firm would only have to
enter a specific industry (like fire protection) in a certain area.
Some governing service industries may have high economies of scale and
be natural monopolies, but it is unlikely that all are. Unlike
monolithic governments, anarcho-capitalism allows for competition in
the non-monopolistic fields. AC also dramatically lowers the cost of
switching because people would not have to physically move in order to
change service providers – it would be like changing insurance agents
is today. Additionally they are free to choose a different provider
for each service. Thus to stay in business a provider must be
competitive, or its stream of customers will dry up. It is not merely
protecting a rent-generating resource like a traditional state.

The main objection raised to AC is stability – whether the power
vacuum of having no central government will inevitably lead to one
forming [3]. Critics say the protection agencies will just join
together to tyrannize the population. While the scant historical
evidence does not support this prediction of failure via swift descent
into totalitarianism, it does not point towards long-term stability
either. Rather, situations such as an external threat to the anarchy
cause centralized control to develop. Once in place, regardless of
what happens with the original threat, government gradually
strengthens its hold. This is a typical example of the so-called
ratchet effect which is a major contributor to the continual growth of
government [4].

Dynamic Geography
In The Machinery of Freedom, David Friedman used the following
metaphor to show the benefits of anarcho-capitalism:

Consider our world as it would be if the cost of moving from one
country to another were zero. Everyone lives in a housetrailer and
speaks the same language. One day, the president of France announces
that because of troubles with neighboring countries, new military
taxes are being levied and conscription will begin shortly. The next
morning the president of France finds himself ruling a peaceful but
empty landscape, the population having been reduced to himself, three
generals, and twenty-seven war correspondents. [2]

Taking this metaphor literally suggests an alternative strategy.
Suppose that the cost of physically switching countries really could
be dramatically reduced. Even though each country retained a monopoly
on its geographic territory, governments would be forced to compete
for citizens by providing services more efficiently. Governing would
be more like long-distance phone carriers less like operating systems.
But how?

While the answer is not to put wheels on our houses, some may find it
equally counterintuitive – to build floating cities from detachable,
modular units. The general concept is by no means an original idea, as
floating cities have long been a part of the nation-founding fringe.
Because all land is under the control of nations with no interest in
selling sovereignty, nation-founders have been forced to consider the
oceans. Yet far from being a booby prize, it appears that the sea may
be ideally suited to sustaining free societies.

The geography of land is fixed, and the cost of transporting things
over it is high. Moving buildings is rarely feasible. Buildings and
heavy possessions are valuable and important, which makes control over
physical territory important. Water, however, is a fluid medium. Even
large buildings, if floating, could be towed to new locations quite
cheaply (think cruise ships). So the geography of the oceans is
dynamic – pieces of territory need not maintain a fixed spatial

The consequences of this geography should be clear from Friedman’s
story. If an individual structure can cheaply relocate to another
jurisdiction, the cost of switching governments is low. The streets
which make up a town, the towns which make up a county, the counties
which make up a state – each level can switch its affiliation to get a
better deal. This switch is not merely virtual as in feudalism, since
it can involve physically moving the entire area. If the state tries
to impose a sales tax on Monday, the capitol building may be all
that’s left of the city by Tuesday. When leaving is easy, exploitation
is difficult.

The barrier to entry is much lower on the ocean as well, because the
geography of floating cities can be dynamically grown as well as re-
arranged. A new government no longer has to fight a war over some
already-claimed piece of land. It can simply take some small bit of
the vast empty oceans as its own. While location does matter, the
oceans are far more homogenous than land, and so there will be less
contention for prime real estate.

As mentioned earlier, one of the major factors bloating governments is
the ratchet effect. Because dynamic geography can also be shrunk, it
provides a potential “reset button” to help counter ratcheting.
Imagine a platform city where the government has become too repressive
or inefficient. A single platform decides to disengage and anchor a
mile away, forming a new government. More follow. Eventually, the
entire city may have relocated to the new position, with exactly the
same set of platforms, but an entirely new government. In practice, it
is likely that the threat of this possibility will keep it from being
necessary. While a reset policy could be made part of a terrestrial
constitution, the powers-that-be will have great incentive to fight
the reset. When citizens can just walk out and take friends, family,
and office with them, resetting is harder to stop. This sort of reset
is incremental, so it has no single point of failure. Stopping a
terrestrial reset might just require winning a vote. Stopping a
dynamic reset requires limiting the freedom of movement of every
module in the city.

This solution can be foiled. If a government physically prevents
modules from leaving, they have terrestrialized the city – and can
proceed to terrorize it. But while this is a genuine danger, the
aquatic city is still relatively better off. On land, buildings and
land are inescapably trapped in place. On the ocean there is always
some chance that a platform might, through valour or stealth, make a
daring escape. Further, this restriction will have to be sprung quite
suddenly, as I believe that the freedom of physical association will
be considered the most fundamental right of a platform. It will be
revered as free speech and property rights are by libertarians today,
for it ensures explicit, voluntary participation in the social

Dynamic geography moves power downwards towards the smallest separable
unit. Depending on various factors, the smallest economically feasible
unit might be as small as a single residence, or it might have to
house some 10-100 people. Either way, this size will allow far more
individual influence and accountability than in current huge,
monolithic, winner-take-all political systems. Not only will
government be more efficient, but it is likely to be more diverse.
There seems to be a fair variety in people’s tastes for political
systems, so with a lower barrier to entry firms will arise to serve
many niche markets.

Part of why this idea is so powerful is that you don’t need to believe
in it for it to work. The governing market will have different
characteristics under a different incentive structure, regardless of
the particular political beliefs of its citizens. This avoids the weak
link of many utopian ideas, which require everyone to See The Light.
The only convincing required is to start the process, and since its
incremental only a few people need be persuaded at each step. As
floating cities grow, the additional evidence that they are nice
places to live convinces those on the margin, which produces more
evidence, and so forth.

A disadvantage to DG is that the oceans are a difficult and resource-
poor environment. One might ask whether the advantages of efficient
government are worth it. Empirically, the answer appears to be yes.
For example, consider cities like Hong Kong and Las Vegas. With few
natural resources, they have enjoyed tremendous economic growth by
providing an environment of freedom. In our complex global economy,
there is plenty of work to be done besides extracting natural

You can see why governing floating cities will be a dynamic,
competitive industry. As with any such industry, I have great
confidence that it will produce useful innovations I would never have
dreamed of. DG, like AC, produces good government through competition.
I don’t claim this will result in utopia, but it will increase both
private freedom and the efficiency of public efforts. Note that the
advantages of dynamic geography are not specific to libertarian or AC
politics – all kinds of government will be made more efficient by DG.
In fact, it may turn out that both communism and anarcho-capitalism
are infeasible on land but workable at sea.

Are such settlements technologically feasible? I have done a fair
amount of research on the subject and concluded that they are not only
practical but reasonably cost-effective. I am currently writing a book
on the subject, called Seasteading. For more detailed information, see
the draft, which is available on the web [5]. Note that even if the
technical problems are an issue, we have transformed a political
problem into an engineering one – and humans are good at solving
engineering problems.

Dynamic Anarchism
Under anarcho-capitalism, individuals are free to switch providers of
any individual service without physically moving. In dynamic
geography, modules can always choose an entirely different government
by switching location. There is no conflict between these ideas, and
in fact a great deal of synergy. An AC system seems much more likely
to form and remain stable under DG, for several reasons.

For example, governments currently have huge profits from their
monopolies on coercion. This gives them a great deal of incentive to
fight the emergence of an AC system, and a large pool of resources to
fight it with. In the competitive market of governing a dynamic
geography, the profit for providing services is dramatically
decreased. This will make it much it easier for AC (or other
alternative systems) to emerge.

As we mentioned earlier, a frequent criticism of AC is the stability
problem – what happens if all the protection agencies gang up to form
a government. This is much less of a worry when potential victims can
physically move away at low cost. Like the president of France, the
protection agency cartel may form a monopoly – only to discover that
its territory consists of its corporate headquarters and a few waves.
Its rank and file should be able to get new jobs easily, as the
protection agencies in the newly formed city on the horizon are hiring
like mad – but its executives will have a more difficult time.

Thus dynamic geography may finally strengthen anarchy’s weakest link.
It is difficult to seize hold of water – it tends to fragment into
tiny pieces and swirl away. Counterintuitive though it may be, this
apparently shifty foundation will provide a stable base for anarchy.

Dynamic geography leverages the peculiar nature of the oceans to
create a free society. It is interesting to consider how broadly
applicable this technique is. Well, the next frontier will be space.
Space contains planets, some of which have static geographies, and
others (gas giants, worlds with liquid surfaces) have dynamic ones.
But most of space consists simply of…space – which is clearly an
environment of dynamic geography. Gravity wells do place severe limits
on movement, but the utter lack of friction means that gigantic
objects can be moved cheaply. In other words, dynamic geography is not
merely a local quirk, it holds for most of the universe.

So the bad news is that our current residences are unlikely to ever
enjoy high levels of freedom or support stable anarchy. The good news
is that 70% of the earth’s surface and 99.9999…% of the universe
have the necessary characteristic. The landlubbers and groundhogs can
keep their monopoly-inducing dirt – we’ll take everything else.

Mark Twain once said “Buy land. They’ve stopped making it.” When he is
finally disproved, I predict that a great deal of political change
will result.

Thanks to Wayne Gramlich and David Friedman for their inspirational
ideas, and to the Libertarian Nation Foundation for giving me a reason
to write this up.

[1] Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Pantheon
Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-679-44252-9.
[2] Friedman, David D: 1973. Machinery of Freedom: Guide To A Radical
Capitalism (New York, NY, Harper & Row).
A few chapters are webbed at:
[3] For an example of an article arguing that AC is unstable, see Paul
Birch’s Anarcho-Capitalism Dissolves Into City-States
[4] Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Epsiodes in the Growth of American
Government, Robert Higgs, Oxford University Press.
[5] The seasteading website and book can be found at:







Shipping Out U.S. Jobs — to a Ship
BY Michael Hiltzik  /  May 2, 2005

The public reaction was predictable when word first got out of SeaCode
Inc.’s proposal to house 600 foreign software engineers on a cruise
ship moored three miles off the California coast, thus undercutting
U.S. wage rates and circumventing local labor rules. The veteran
technology columnist John Dvorak described the vessel as a “slave
ship.” Other critics preferred the label “sweatshop.” The words
“exploitative” and “inhumane” caromed around the Web. The image that
first leaped to my own rather more literary mind was of the floating
prison hulks that housed the convict Abel Magwitch in “Great
Expectations.” Roger Green tried to take the rhetoric philosophically.
“We know we’ll be a lightning rod,” Green, 58, a co-founder and chief
operating officer of the San Diego company, told me. “But my hope is
we’ll get our story out.”

The story is SeaCode’s plan to help clients overcome the drawbacks of
outsourcing sophisticated engineering work overseas. The chief benefit
of offshoring — the low pay scales in India and elsewhere — often is
offset by the cost of flying executives out to monitor progress, the
time difference (you have to be awake at 10:30 p.m. in California to
reach India at noon) and the doubtful security of intellectual
property abroad. When a mutual friend hooked up Green, a manager of
corporate software projects, with David Cook, 42, a former tanker
captain who had moved into the information technology business, their
complementary skills suggested a way to bring low-cost offshore labor
near to hand. (The mutual friend, Joe Conway, is SeaCode’s third co-

For all the skepticism that has greeted this proposal, it hardly
sounds like the launch of a slave ship. SeaCode says it will pay two
to three times the going rate for foreign IT workers, which works out
to as much as $24,000 for lower-level jobs and $60,000 for senior
programmers. They’ll work in two shifts of 12 hours each, spending
four months on board and two months off, with flights home provided by
contract. Assuming they’re cleared by immigration authorities, they’ll
be able to take shore leave whenever they’re off duty.

Clients, meanwhile, will gain an inexpensive workforce no farther away
than a coast-to-coast flight, allowing for more direct supervision of
projects than they could achieve at longer range. SeaCode also
promises to provide better security for client data than can be
offered abroad. The company says that the cost of maintaining a
floating software lab requires it to look for high-value software
development, not grunt work; it expects most of its employees will
have master’s degrees or better. The actual recruiting of engineers,
along with the acquisition of a ship, won’t take place until it signs
one or two major clients, which it hopes will happen in the next few

The ship’s location just outside the three-mile limit will exempt it
from California labor and environmental regulations, but not
international maritime labor rules or federal regulations forbidding
the dumping of fuel, trash and sewage. Because the ship will be
registered under the Bahamian flag or another foreign registry, the
workers won’t need H-1B visas, unlike foreign employees housed
temporarily on U.S. territory. SeaCode’s U.S. clients might consider
that a plus because H-1Bs have become extremely scarce since 2003,
when the government slashed the annual quota by more than half, to

Plainly, one’s opinion of the scheme depends on one’s opinion of
offshoring — whether it’s a scourge to be fought from every battlement
or a fact of life to be made the best of. If the former, then it’s
easy to view SeaCode as threatening to hasten the disappearance of
decent-paying jobs for American professionals. The drawbacks of
offshoring “are real, and this may be a way of addressing that,” says
Ron Hira, author of “Outsourcing America: What’s Behind Our National
Crisis and How We Can Reclaim American Jobs.” If the latter, then it’s
a means of salvaging some domestic profit from the inevitable shift of
certain work overseas. The firm expects to spend millions of dollars a
year on fuel, food and supplies in local communities. Indeed, Green
and Cook say only 10% of SeaCode’s total revenue will be spent on
foreign labor, with the rest staying in the U.S. “We’ll be creating a
lot of jobs on the mainland,” Green says. Even a small onboard cadre
of 200 engineers will require support from 35 or more workers on land.
The engineering jobs, he says, “are ones that have already gone out of
country. We’ll be taking jobs from Indians over there and bringing
them back here.”

In any event, while the founders dream of eventually running multiple
ships off the U.S. coast and even expanding to Europe, their initial
goal of 600 jobs won’t make a ripple in the overall employment
picture. The biggest Indian outsourcing company, Infosys, employs more
than 30,000 workers outside the U.S. Still, offshoring is bound to
remain a hot-button issue. Some researchers say the share of global
information technology jobs domiciled in low-cost locations like India
could double to 7% over the next three years. Most of that work will
be for American companies.

Accordingly, SeaCode’s big challenge may not be logistical but
political. While the company’s plans appear to conform to existing
law, says James P. Walsh, a maritime lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine,
critics might charge that classifying software engineers as maritime
crew and using a temporary mooring as a long-term anchorage amount to
exploiting legal loopholes. “Someone in Congress might say these
people are taking advantage of a set of rules that never were designed
for them,” Walsh says. Protectionist legislation has been enacted on
far less provocation. Green says he hopes that once SeaCode lines up
some major clients, its model’s economic logic will become clearer.
“The very definition of a brilliant idea,” he says, “is that it’s
obvious after you know it.”


ROBOT VS. PIRATES,15240,158732,00.html?
Pirate Hunting Drone Boats Unleashed

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have expressed interest in the 30-ft.-
long Protector, which comes mounted with a machine gun and could be
retrofitted for commercial use. Robots versus pirates — it’s not as
stupid, or unlikely, as it sounds. Piracy has exploded in the waters
near Somalia, where this past week United States warships have fired
on two pirate skiffs, and are currently in pursuit of a hijacked
Japanese-owned vessel. At least four other ships in the region remain
under pirate control, and the problem appears to be going global: The
International Maritime Bureau is tracking a 14-percent increase in
worldwide pirate attacks this year.

And although modern-day pirates enjoy collecting their fare share of
booty — they have a soft spot for communications gear — they’re just
as likely to ransom an entire ship. In one particularly sobering case,
hijackers killed one crew member of a Taiwan-owned vessel each month
until their demands were met.

For years now, law enforcement agencies across the high seas have
proposed robotic boats, or unmanned surface vessels (USVs), as a way
to help deal with 21st-Century techno Black Beards. The Navy has
tested at least two small, armed USV demonstrators designed to patrol
harbors and defend vessels. And both the Navy and the Coast Guard have
expressed interest in the Protector, a 30-ft.-long USV built by BAE
Systems, Lockheed Martin and Israeli defense firm RAFAEL.

The Protector, which comes mounted with a 7.62mm machine gun, wasn’t
originally intended for anti-piracy operations. But according to BAE
Systems spokesperson Stephanie Moncada, the robot could easily fill
that role. “Down the line, it could potentially be modified for
commercial use as well,” she says. Instead of being deployed by a
warship to intercept and possibly fire on an incoming vessel, a non-
lethal variant of the Protector could be used to simply investigate a
potential threat.

A favorite tactic of modern-day pirates is to put out a distress call,
then ambush any ships that respond. The unmanned Protector could be
remote-operated from around 10 miles away, with enough on-board
sensors, speakers and microphones to make contact with a vessel before
it’s too late. “Even without the machine gun, it could alert the crew,
give them some time to escape,” Moncada says. The 55-mph Interceptor
could become the long-range patrol boat of the future, while the
jetski-size Sentry could help prevent a terrorist plot such as Al
Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in December 2000.


In international waters, are you beyond the reach of the law?  /  23-

Dear Straight Dope:
I have heard that in international waters you can commit endless
crimes with no jurisdiction to prosecute you. Is this true? Do such
ungoverned spaces exist? I am in no way interested in going to them,
but I know they exist and my friends say they don’t. Please help
settle this argument. –Michelle

SDSTAFF gfactor replies:
Nope, it doesn’t work that way. Freedom of the seas is a fundamental
principle of the law, but it only applies to countries. At sea
ordinary folks remain subject to at least one nation’s jurisdiction–
sometimes more. Freedom of the seas is often credited to the Dutch
jurist Grotius. In the early seventeenth century the Dutch wanted part
of the East Indies trade. Several nations, especially Spain and
Portugal, claimed control over all the oceans, which prevented the
Dutch from reaching foreign ports. The idea that a country could claim
control of the sea was called mare clausum (closed sea). Grotius, a
pioneer in international law, argued for the right of innocent passage
(or navigation) on the high seas. He noted, “the sea is called
indifferently the property of no one (res nullius), or a common
possession (res communis), or public property (res publica).” Grotius
contended that the sea could not be owned, and that no country could
deny another country’s ships innocent passage right up to the

Grotius didn’t dream up freedom of the seas on his own. He relied on
Roman law and the maritime customs of Asian and African countries
dating back to “before history was ever recorded,” according to Ram
Anand, in his essay, “Freedom of the Seas: Past, Present and Future.”
Spanish theologians of the sixteenth century had argued for freedom of
the seas as well. Grotius’s work, Mare Liberum, didn’t make much
headway at first. Welwood argued against him in Abridgment of all Sea
Lawes (1613). So did Selden in the unoriginally-titled Mare Clausum
(1635). Grotius himself changed his mind about it. Anand summarizes:

“[N]either Grotius nor Holland were in favour of the freedom of
the seas as a principle. . . . as soon as the Dutch defeated the
Portuguese and seized the profitable trade of the Spice Islands, they
sought to create their own monopoly . . . . Grotius conveniently
forgot his freedom of the seas principle propounded in 1609 with such
fervour, and went to England in 1613 with a Dutch delegation to argue
in favour of a Dutch monopoly of trade . . . . In fact, he was
surprised that his own book, published anonymously . . . was being
quoted by the British against him.”

Nevertheless, the idea of a sea where no vessel could interfere with
another one took hold. America fought the War of 1812 partly to
vindicate the principle and entered World War I in part because of its
violation. Woodrow Wilson relied on it in his Fourteen Points, and
Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted it in 1941. The United States
Supreme Court traced the doctrine to “no later than the latter half of
the 18th century.”

The notion that freedom of the seas should extend up to the beach
never worked out in practice. Fear of smuggling and armed attack led
coastal nations to claim control of the water immediately offshore.
There was a lot of disagreement about how far out territorial waters
extended. According to the Head Department of Navigation and
Oceanography of the Russian Federation of Ministry and Defence:

“At the beginning of the 18th century, a widespread doctrine
proclaimed that “the authority of the coastal nation terminates where
she can no longer control it with her weaponry.” From that time, the
limit of sovereign authority of the maritime countries over coastal
waters has become to limit by a swath, the width of which does not
exceed distance of the flight of a cannonball from the shore. The
average distance of flight was about 3 miles.”

Outside this limit, no country could claim the seas. As we will see,
this rule survives today, although the 3-mile limit has been extended.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC) lays
out the current rules. As of April 2006, 149 nations had ratified the
LOSC. The U.S. played a major role in the drafting of the LOSC, but
then decided not to sign it. Never fear: the rules we’re discussing
here apply to the U.S. The U.S. is party to other treaties with
similar provisions, has asserted rights available only under the LOSC,
and has said that its provisions are part of existing international
law. So it’s the best place to start looking for answers.

You asked about ungoverned spaces. Technically they exist–the LOSC
calls them the high seas: “No State may validly purport to subject any
part of the high seas to its sovereignty.” But that doesn’t mean you
can avoid prosecution for crimes committed there. For one thing, every
ship is subject to the jurisdiction of the country whose flag it
flies. So are its occupants. And you can’t just pick the flag of a
country whose laws are most favorable to you, either. The LOSC says
there must be a “genuine link” between the ship and the state. If you
want to fly a country’s flag, you have to ask the country’s permission
and provide it with your ship’s “name and particulars.”

The idea that there is no jurisdiction on the high seas comes from
confusion about the meaning of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction describes
the limits of the legal power of a nation (international lawyers call
them States) to make (prescriptive jurisdiction), apply (adjudicative
jurisdiction), and enforce (enforcement jurisdiction) rules of
conduct. One basis of jurisdiction is territory–a State can make and
enforce laws in its own territory. The confusion arises from the
assumption that this is the only basis of jurisdiction. It isn’t.
There are five:

(1) The territorial principle, which we’ve already covered.

The other categories are forms of extraterritorial jurisdiction:

(2) The nationality principle, also sometimes called the active
personality principle. That’s the one involved where ships are
concerned. LOSC says, “Ships have the nationality of the State whose
flag they are entitled to fly.” The nationality principle says that
states have the right to regulate the conduct of their nationals. One
example of this principle at work is section 4 of the Indian Penal
Code, which says, “The provisions of this Code apply also to any
offence committed by (1) any citizen of India in any place without and
beyond India; (2) any person on any ship or aircraft registered in
India wherever it may be.” Another example is the U.S.’s application
of its civil rights laws to Americans employed abroad by American

(3) The passive personality principle, which is jurisdiction based on
the nationality of those injured by the conduct. This kind of
jurisdiction is controversial. An example is 18 USC §7, a statute by
which the U.S. asserts jurisdiction “[a]ny place outside the
jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense . . . against a
national of the United States.”

(4) The protective principle. According to Amnesty International:
“National law in most states permits courts to exercise
jurisdiction over conduct by persons abroad which harms the national–
particularly the security–interests of the forum state in violation
of its own national criminal law (protective or security principle or
compétence réelle ou compétence du protection). This principle has
been used to prosecute national security offences; currency offences;
counterfeiting currency, stamps, seals and emblems; desecration of
flags; economic crimes; forgery, fraud or perjury in connection with
official documents, such as passports and visas; immigration offences
and political offences.”

(5) Universal jurisdiction. According to Henry Kissinger, “the
doctrine of universal jurisdiction asserts that some crimes are so
heinous that their perpetrators should not escape justice by invoking
doctrines of sovereign immunity or the sacrosanct nature of national
frontiers.” Under the relevant treaties, any State can board a ship on
the high seas if the ship is suspected of piracy, transporting slaves,
or broadcasting illegally. A ship and its occupants can be arrested
for piracy and illegal broadcasting by a warship of any State. For
other crimes, the arresting State must get the consent or assistance
of the flag state. Also, a ship that flies two flags (flags of
convenience) or a ship flying no flag may be visited for further
inquiry by any State’s ships. Ships without flags, and those that fly
flags of convenience are subject to the jurisdiction of any State.
While some scholars disagree, national courts have upheld convictions
based on such arrests.

Territory still plays a big part in the law of the sea. States’
territorial claims have expanded considerably since the 18th century.
Two hundred miles offshore (when I say mile, I mean the nautical mile,
which is 6076 feet, or 1.150779 statute miles) is the limit of a
State’s potential exclusive economic zone. I say potential because
States must claim the territory they want within this limit, and not
all of them do so. In this zone the State has some exclusive rights to
exploration and resources. However, other States’ ships have a right
of innocent passage through the EEZ, just as Grotius argued.

The next territorial boundary marks the State’s potential contiguous
zone, which extends 24 miles offshore. Within this zone, a coastal
state can stop and inspect vessels and act to punish (or prevent)
violations of its laws within its territory or territorial waters. The
contiguous zone solves a vexing problem. As Malcolm Evans describes

Traditionally, where the territorial sea ends, the high seas began
and the laws of the coastal State no longer apply. However, policing
maritime zones is no easy matter and, unlike land boundaries, they are
simple to cross. It would therefore be easy for vessels to commit
offences within the territorial sea but to evade arrest by moving just
a little further seaward. The answer is to permit coastal States to
arrest vessels outside their territorial seas in connection with
offences that either have been committed or which it is suspected are
going to be committed within their territorial sea.

In 1999 President Clinton extended the U.S.’s contiguous zone from 12
to 24 miles.

The potential territorial sea extends 12 miles off the coast. Here the
State has territorial jurisdiction, but only up to a point–the right
of innocent passage still applies. The LOSC says:

1. The criminal jurisdiction of the coastal State should not be
exercised on board a foreign ship passing through the territorial sea
to arrest any person or to conduct any investigation in connection
with any crime committed on board the ship during its passage, save
only in the following cases:

(a) if the consequences of the crime extend to the coastal State;
(b) if the crime is of a kind to disturb the peace of the country
or the good order of the territorial sea;
(c) if the assistance of the local authorities has been requested
by the master of the ship or by a diplomatic agent or consular officer
of the flag State; or
(d) if such measures are necessary for the suppression of illicit
traffic in narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances.

Because coastal State jurisdiction is limited, even in its territorial
waters, the flag State’s laws still apply aboard its ships. U.S.
courts adjudicate crimes committed aboard ships flying U.S. flags,
even if the crime was committed in foreign territorial waters.

In the territorial waters of the United States, ships can be subject
to the jurisdiction of individual U.S. states, too. Under federal law:
“The seaward boundary of each original coastal State is approved and
confirmed as a line three geographical miles distant from its coast
line or, in the case of the Great Lakes, to the international
boundary.” In Skiriotes v. State Of Florida, 313 U.S. 69 (1941), the
United States Supreme Court held that within the three-mile limit,
“[w]hen its action does not conflict with federal legislation, the
sovereign authority of the State over the conduct of its citizens upon
the high seas is analogous to the sovereign authority of the United
States over its citizens in like circumstances.” At the time, the
U.S.’s territorial sea was three miles wide, so the states had the
same territorial jurisdiction as the federal government. In 1988,
President Reagan extended the U.S.’s territorial sea to 12 miles. The
states’ territory was left at the three mile mark. For historical
reasons, Texas and Florida’s claims in the Gulf of Mexico are three
marine leagues, which is about nine miles.

Individual U.S. states can apply their laws to their citizens aboard
U.S. flag ships, even in foreign territorial waters. In State v. Jack
(2005) the Alaska Supreme Court upheld Alaska’s right to prosecute the
defendant for a sexual assault committed on the Alaska state ferry
while it was in Canadian territorial waters. The court based its
decision on the power of a sovereign state to regulate its citizens
(the nationality principle) and the effects doctrine (an application
of the territorial principle when conduct outside the state has
effects within it).

The right of innocent passage ends at the coastline of the State–you
need permission to enter the State’s internal waters. Once there,
ships and their passengers are subject to all of the State’s laws.
Even on the high seas, a foreign flag vessel isn’t completely exempt
from the jurisdiction of other States–vessels are subject to
”visit” and arrest under certain circumstances. LOSC also provides a
right of hot pursuit. According to Article 111,

“The hot pursuit of a foreign ship may be undertaken when the
competent authorities of the coastal State have good reason to believe
that the ship has violated the laws and regulations of that State.
Such pursuit must be commenced when the foreign ship or one of its
boats is within the internal waters, the archipelagic waters, the
territorial sea or the contiguous zone of the pursuing State, and may
only be continued outside the territorial sea or the contiguous zone
if the pursuit has not been interrupted.”

As a nod to the territorial principle, “The right of hot pursuit
ceases as soon as the ship pursued enters the territorial sea of its
own State or of a third State.” States can also agree to permit
another state to arrest vessels flying their flags. Even if none of
these exceptions apply, U.S. courts have held that arrest in violation
of international law doesn’t necessarily bar prosecution. For example,
in United States v. Postal, the defendants were U.S. nationals
arrested on board a vessel registered in the Grand Cayman Islands, 16
miles from shore (which at the time was the high seas). The United
States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that though the
arrest violated the Convention on the High Seas (1958), the treaty
violation didn’t impair the court’s jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals
for the Third Circuit followed suit in 2002. So on the high seas not
only are you not beyond the reach of any nation, sometimes you’re with
the reach of two.

–   Anand, Ram, “Freedom of the Seas: Past, Present, and Future,”
reprinted in Caminos, Hugo, ed., Law of the Sea (2001)
–   Bryant, Dennis, The U.S. Territorial Sea and Other Lines in the
Water, Holland & Knight, November 14, 1997:
–   Churchill, R. and Lowe, A., The Law of the Sea (1999)
–   CIA World FactBook, Field Listing – Maritime claims (listing of
most States’ maritime jurisdictional claims):
–   Evans, Malcolm, “The Law of the Sea,” in International Law,
(Malcolm Evans, ed., 2003)
–   Grotius, Hugo, The Freedom of the Seas, or the Right Which Belongs
to the Dutch to Take Part in the East Indian Trade (1608) (Ralph Van
Deman Magoffin, transl., 1916):
–   Head Department of Navigation and Oceanography of the Russian
Federation of Ministry and Defence, untitled web page available at:;
(tracing ancient history of maritime claims and their resolution)
–   Kissinger, Henry, “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction: Risking
Judicial Tyranny,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2001:
–   Molvan v. Attorney-General for Palestine (The Asya), [1948] A.C.
351 (stateless vessel subject to jurisdiction)
–   Reagan, Ronald, Statement on United States Oceans Policy, March
10, 1983:;
–   Skiriotes v. Florida, 313 U.S. 69 (1941) (states have criminal
maritime jurisdiction to the three-mile limit):
–   State v. Jack, 125 P.3d 311, 2006 A.M.C. 206 (Alaska 2005) (Alaska
had criminal jurisdiction over sexual assault committed aboard ferry
operating in Canadian waters)
–   Stewart, Robert, Our Ocean Planet: Oceanography in the 21st
Century–an Online Textbook (work in progress, rev. 2006):
–   The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (A Historical
Perspective), United Nations:
–   United State v. Best, 304 F.3d 308 (3d Cir. 2002) (approving
prosecution of foreign national seized on foreign flag ship outside
the territorial waters of the United States):
–   United States v. Conroy, 589 F.2d 1258 (5th Cir. 1979) (upholding
conviction where defendants were arrested on American vessel in
Haitian waters)
–   United States v. DeLeon, 270 F.3d 90 (1st Cir. 2001) (arrest and
prosecution for attempted immigration violation in international
waters were based on United State’s effects jurisdiction despite lack
of authorization in relevant treaty):
–   United States v. Flores, 289 U.S. 137 (1933) (United States had
jurisdiction to prosecute murder committed aboard American vessel in
Belgian territory):
–   United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1 (explaining the basis for
Texas and Florida”s claims in Gulf of Mexico) final decree, 364 U.S.
502 (1960):
–   United States v. Maine, 475 U.S. 89 (1986) (part of Nantucket
Sound was United States territorial waters and part was high seas;
rejecting Massachusetts’ claim that it was part of the state’s
internal waters based on claim of “ancient title” because
Massachusetts did not effectively occupy the territory before the
freedom of the high seas became a part of international law):
–   United States v. Marino-Garcia, 679 F.2d 1373 (11th Cir. 1982)
(upholding arrest of stateless vessel found 300 miles from Florida).
–   United States v. One Big Six Wheel, 166 F.3d 498 (2d Cir. 1999):
(Congress did not intend to extend the three-mile limit for gambling
cruises under the Gambling Ship Act)
–   United States v. Postal, 589 F.2d 862, 874 (5th Cir. 1979)
–   United States v. Rodgers, 150 U.S. 249 (1893) (United States had
jurisdiction to prosecute assault committed on ship bearing its flag
despite fact that assault occurred in Canadian waters):
–   United States v. Suerte, 291 F.3d 366 (5th Cir. 2002) (Due process
does not require a nexus between foreign citizen and US where flag
state has consented or waived objection to the enforcement of United
States law by the United States):
–   “Vice President Al Gore Announces New Action To Help Protect And
Preserve U.S. Shores And Oceans: Extension of Federal Enforcement Zone
in U.S. Coastal Waters Will Help Prevent Violations of Environmental,
Customs, or Immigration Laws,” press release (September 2 1999):
–   Wildenhus’s Case, 120 U.S. 1 (1887) (United States had
jurisdiction to prosecute stabbing committed aboard Belgian steamship
docked at port of New Jersey):

Though buccaneering is back with a vengeance, stepped-up law
enforcement and high-tech tools are helping protect shipping on the
high seas
BY Paul Raffaele  /  August 2007

The attack came after daybreak. The Delta Ranger, a cargo ship
carrying bauxite, was steaming through the ink-blue Indian Ocean in
January 2006, about 200 nautical miles off Somalia’s coast. A crewman
on the bridge spied two speedboats zooming straight at the port side
of his vessel. Moments later, bullets tore into the bridge, and vapor
trails from rocket-propelled grenades streaked across the bow:

A member of the Delta Ranger’s crew sounded the ship’s whistle, and
the cargo ship began maneuvering away as bullets thudded into its
hull. The captain radioed a message to distant Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,
where the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) operates the world’s
only pirate reporting and rescue center. In describing the attack, he
added that the pirates seemed to be using a hijacked Indian dhow, a
fishing vessel, as their mother ship.

The center’s duty officer immediately radioed an alert to all ships in
the Delta Ranger’s vicinity and found that two other cargo ships had
escaped similar attacks in recent days. The duty officer’s next
message went to the USS Winston S. Churchill, a Navy guided-missile
destroyer on patrol about 100 nautical miles from the pirates’ last
reported position. Soon after, the Churchill headed for the dhow.

Pirates have been causing trouble ever since men first went down to
the sea in ships, or at least since the 14th century B.C., when
Egyptian records mention Lukkan pirates raiding Cyprus. A millennium
later, Alexander the Great tried to sweep the Mediterranean clear of
marauding bandits, to no avail. In 75 B.C., ship-based cutthroats took
Julius Caesar hostage and ransomed him for 50 talents. The historian
Plutarch wrote that Caesar then returned with several ships, captured
the pirates and crucified the lot of them.

That hardly spelled the end of pirating. At the beginning of the 13th
century A.D., Eustace the Monk terrorized the English Channel, and the
European colonization of the Americas, with all its seaborne wealth,
led to the so-called golden age of piracy, from 1660 to 1730—the era
of Blackbeard, Black Bart, Captain Kidd and other celebrated pirates
of the Caribbean. The era ended only after seafaring nations expanded
their navies and prosecuted more aggressively to deal with the threat.

Now the seedy romance of the golden-age legends may be supplanted by a
new reality: as governments cut their navies after the cold war, as
thieves have gotten hold of more powerful weapons and as more and more
cargo has moved by sea, piracy has once again become a lucrative form
of waterborne mugging. Attacks at sea had become rare enough to be a
curiosity in the mid-20th century, but began to reappear in the 1970s.
By the 1990s, maritime experts noted a sharp increase in attacks,
which led the IMB to establish the Piracy Reporting Centre in 1992—and
still the buccaneering continued, with a high of 469 attacks
registered in 2000. Since then, improvements in reporting, ship-
tracking technology and government reaction have calmed the seas
somewhat—the center counted 329 attacks in 2004, down to 276 in 2005
and 239 last year—but pirates remain very much in business, making the
waters off Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Somalia especially
perilous. “We report hundreds of acts of piracy each year, many
hundreds more go undetected,” says Capt. Noel Choong, head of the
Piracy Reporting Centre, in Kuala Lumpur. “Ships and their crews
disappear on the high seas and coastal waters every year, never to be
seen again.” Even stationary targets, such as oil platforms, are at

Global commerce would collapse without oceangoing ships to transfer
the world’s fuel, minerals and bulk commodities, along with much of
its medicines and foodstuffs. According to the U.S. Maritime
Administration, about 95 percent of the world’s trade travels by
water. Boston-based Global Insight, a forecasting company, estimates
the value of maritime trade for 2007 to be at least $6 trillion.
Estimates of the pirates’ annual global plunder range into the

Unlike the galleons of old, which sat low in the water and were easily
boarded, the supertankers and bulk carriers of today may rise several
stories—and yet they pose no great obstacle to thieves. Bullets and
rocket-propelled grenades have persuaded many a captain to stop at
sea; at that point, almost any pirate can climb to the deck by tossing
grappling hooks over the rail.

Today’s pirates range from villainous seaside villagers to members of
international crime syndicates. They ply their trade around the globe,
from Iraq to Somalia to Nigeria, from the Strait of Malacca to the
territorial waters off South America. No vessel seems safe, be it a
supertanker or a private yacht. In November 2005, pirates in two
speedboats tried to attack the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit off
Somalia. The liner’s captain, Sven Erik Pedersen, outran them while
driving them off with a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD—a sonic
weapon the United States military developed after the USS Cole was
attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen in 2000.

If you enter an anonymous office 35 floors above Kuala Lumpur’s lush
tropical streets and pass through a secured door, you will come to a
small room dominated by maps of the world taped onto two of the walls.
This is the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre, which operates round-the-
clock. When pirates attack anywhere in the world, this office almost
always receives the first report of it and radios out the first alert.
Tens of thousands of vessels depend on the IMB’s information.

Red pins mark the latest attacks. On the day I visited, the pins
looked like a rash covering much of the world. Another wall was
covered with thank-you plaques from the admirals of many nations,
including the United States. Noel Choong, who ushered me through this
command center, spent more than ten years on oceangoing ships as a
mariner. Now, in a dark suit, the soft-spoken Choong looked more like
a corporate middle manager than a supersleuth of the seas.

Choong showed me the center’s reports on the 239 major pirate attacks
it recorded in 2006. One hundred eighty-eight crewmen were taken
hostage and 15 were killed—9 in Asia, 4 in Africa and 1 each in the
Middle East and South America. “Modern-day pirates can be just as
merciless as the Caribbean buccaneers,” Choong told me. He recalled
the 13 pirates—12 Chinese and 1 Indonesian—who hijacked the Cheung
Son, a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, off China in 1998. “They
blindfolded the 23 crewmembers, beat them to death with clubs and
threw their bodies overboard,” he said. Then they sold the vessel to
an unknown party for $300,000. But they were caught, convicted of
piracy and murder in a Chinese court, and sentenced to death.

On their way to the firing squad, Choong said, the 13 sang Ricky
Martin’s bouncy 1998 World Cup soccer theme, “La Copa de la Vida,”
jumping up and down in their chains as they bellowed the chorus: “Go,
go, go, ale, ale, ale.” (Afterward, Choong said, “the Chinese charged
their families the cost of each bullet” used in the executions.)

Because much of Choong’s work is under cover, and because he’s been
the target of assassination threats, he’s careful to protect his
anonymity. He has a wide network of informants—usually members of
pirate gangs or corrupt government officials looking for a fat payoff—
and when a big ship goes missing, he will jet to distant cities at
short notice to launch recovery operations. The pirates’ going rate
for the return of a hijacked ship, he said, is about $800,000. “If I
can get it back by paying an informant a fraction of that, then the
owners and underwriters are happy.”

Recently, an informant called Choong’s cellphone to say he knew where
pirates were holding a hijacked ship. The next day Choong flew to
Bangkok and, in the bar of an airport hotel, listened to the man’s
offer: the ship’s whereabouts in exchange for $50,000.

Choong forwarded the offer to Chinese authorities, who found the ship
at anchor in the South China Sea, sporting fresh paint, a new name and
a fake registration. After the ship was in hand—Choong said he never
pays without results—he arranged a $50,000 deposit to an account the
informant kept under a false name. The entire transaction—from phone
call to payoff—took no more than a week.

But Choong doubted that the man got to enjoy his loot. “I heard he was
murdered by the gang not long after,” he said.

Between rounds of whiskey in a plush Kuala Lumpur bar, a ship broker
who asked not to be named because of security concerns told me that
besides buying and selling ships for his clients, he sometimes
arranges ransoms to get their vessels back from hijackers, for about
the same sum that Choong had mentioned. “The owners usually pay up
without question,” he said. Bringing in the authorities “might tie up
the ship for weeks, even months, at a port while they investigate the
crime. That could lose them millions of dollars.”

Of course, not all negotiations go smoothly. Along the coast of Somalia
—which Choong pinpointed as one of the world’s likeliest areas for
pirate attacks—brigands can, and often do, drag out negotiations for

“Somalia is chaotic, with gangs of heavily armed men roaming around
the land and its seas,” James Mriria, a strapping sailor, told me in
the Kenyan port of Mombasa. He said he had spent four months in 2001
as a hostage of Somali pirates as they haggled with the Italian owner
of a fishing trawler they had hijacked. The bandits, he said, fed
their guests just enough food to keep them alive, and often beat them
with rifle butts. “It was hell,” Mriria said.

The pirates who tried to take the Delta Ranger would head for Somalia

In pursuit of the hijacked dhow, the Churchill had the advantage of
surprise. The pirates “couldn’t see us over the horizon” during the
night, the ship’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Erik Nilsson, told me
in a telephone interview. But at first light the destroyer
deliberately showed itself to the crew of the dhow, and the pirates
took off to the west. Somalia’s territorial waters—from which the
Churchill was barred by international law—were 80 nautical miles away.

Nilsson had no doubt this was the right ship. He had gotten a
description of it from the captain of the Delta Ranger. In time he
would see through his binoculars the 16 Indian crewmembers, on the
fo’c’sle, holding up a piece of plywood on which they had spray-

“We repeatedly radioed and asked [the dhow] to halt,” Nilsson said.
When the pirates refused, the U.S. sailors called to them over an
amplified megaphone, without effect. The chase went on all morning and
into the afternoon. With Somali waters only four hours away, the
Churchill closed to within 500 yards of the dhow and fired across its
bow with its 25-millimeter chain guns. “That got the pirates’
attention, and they stopped,” Nilsson said.

Some of the Churchill’s crew boarded the dhow and took everyone on it
into custody. Aboard the destroyer, a Hindi-speaking member of the
Churchill crew questioned the dhow’s captain. “She found that the
pirates had captured the dhow six days earlier and had beaten and
imprisoned the crew,” Nilsson said. “They’d given the Indians no food
during that time and had threatened to kill them if they resisted.”

Nilsson said that he had seen the Somalis throw unidentified “objects”
over the side during the night. Many pirates try to ditch their
weapons in the belief that it would provide less evidence for
prosecution, but if that were the case aboard the dhow, it didn’t
work: the boarding party found an AK-47 stashed in the wheelhouse.

Later that afternoon, the USS Nassau, a 40,000-ton amphibious assault
ship and the flagship of the expeditionary strike group to which the
Churchill was attached, caught up with the destroyer. Ten Somali
pirates were taken to the brig of the larger ship. After consulting
with the U.S. Central Command, the Nassau took the Somalis to Mombasa,
where Kenyan authorities arrested them and charged them with piracy.

Keeping the world’s sea lanes safe for commerce is one goal of what
the Navy calls Maritime Security Operations, or MSO. Another is to
prevent sea-based terrorism. Choong had told me that piracy was
prevalent even in the hazardous waters off Iraq in the northern
Persian Gulf.

To get there, I flew to the desert kingdom of Bahrain, headquarters of
the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which operates in the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Gulf
of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean. From there I caught a Navy
Desert Hawk helicopter for a two-hour flight to the guided-missile
cruiser USS Philippine Sea, my base for a three-day visit. Along the
way, the chopper flew fast and low over a sparkling green sea dotted
with coral islands, fishing dhows and oil rigs. With the cruiser
steaming along, the pilot put us smoothly down on the aft deck.

On board, Australian Navy lieutenant commander Tish Van Stralen, a
maritime lawyer, said that the cruiser was the flagship of an eight-
ship coalition task force guarding Iraq’s nearby Al Basrah and Khawr
Al Amaya oil terminals, which were pumping up to 1.6 million barrels a
day into the holds of supertankers. “They provide up to 90 percent of
Iraq’s GDP, and so the coalition forces have set up a pair of adjacent
two-mile-wide exclusion zones around the oil terminals,” Van Stralen
said. “We challenge and check every vessel wanting to enter them,
primarily on the watch for terrorists intent on blowing up the oil
terminals, but also for pirates and smugglers.”

The pirate hunters patrolling the zones were a Coast Guard crew aboard
the cutter Aquidneck. The next morning I rode a half hour across a
flat sea in a rigid inflatable speedboat to meet them.

Lt. Jonathan Carter and his 22-man crew had spent six months on these
volatile waters. Assault rifles were nestled in a rack, and on the
small bridge, four sailors hunched over radar and sonar equipment,
looking for any vessel trying to enter the exclusion zones.

As the Aquidneck edged up the Shatt Al Arab waterway toward Basra,
Carter pointed to an empty stretch of desert about 200 yards on our
left. “That’s Kuwait,” he said. About 200 yards to the right was Iraq—
more desert with no sign of life. The cutter passed several rusting
hulks resting half out of the water, casualties of Gulf warfare.

“Pirates have been active in these waterways for centuries. There’re
still plenty of them here, and we call them Ali Baba,” Carter went on.
“They mostly prey on the fishing dhows, especially during the prawning
season when the dhow captains carry plenty of money on board after
selling their catch to traders….We’ll hear a plea over the radio,
‘Ali Baba! Ali Baba!’ But by the time we reach the dhow, the pirates
have usually escaped. If we surprise them, they throw their weapons

Coalition naval forces are trying to train Iraqi marines to board,
search and, if necessary, seize suspicious vessels. From the north, I
saw two patrol boats roaring along the waterway toward us. On board
were Iraqi marines under the guidance of a pair of Royal Australian
Navy officers. The marines were taking part in a training exercise,
and five Coast Guardsmen and I volunteered to play potential
terrorists or pirates.

Several grim-faced Iraqi marines clad in camouflage fatigues climbed
aboard and forced us up to the front of the Aquidneck. Some pointed
their guns at us even though their trainers had ordered them not to,
and others searched us and checked our ID. I grimaced when a marine
yanked my arms above my head and I tensed as he roughly searched my
body for hidden weapons.

They made us sit on the uncovered deck in brutal heat for more than an
hour, refusing our requests for water and keeping their guns trained
on us. But for all that, our captors failed to detect a knife one of
the Aquidneck crew had secreted, and they never searched my camera
bag. Had we been actual bad guys, who knows what might have happened.

Last October I drove an hour north of Mombasa, past a string of Kenyan
luxury seaside resorts, to talk to any of the ten accused Somali
pirates who would speak with me in the maximum-security jail where
they were being held. As I waited outside the stone walls, grim-faced
prisoners in striped pajamas with short pants came and went, under

By then, the Somalis’ trial was under way; the defendants were due in
court the following day. Inside the jail, armed guards escorted two of
them as they shuffled toward me, handcuffed to each other.

We moved to a bare room with a barred window. The guards followed us,
while others crowded the window outside to stare and listen.

Moktar Mohammed Hussein and Abdi Fadar, clad in sarongs and T-shirts,
squatted in front of me but did not make eye contact. They were 17 and
18, respectively. “We’re fishermen, and our boats broke down on the
ocean,” Hussein said. “We sought help from the Indian dhow.”

Then why were they carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled
grenades, I asked them. “Every man in Somalia carries such weapons for
protection,” Hussein said, turning his dark eyes on me. That much was
corroborated later by the BBC’s Mombasa-based correspondent, Peter
Greste, who often visits Somalia.

But why did they try to escape when they spotted the American warship?
“We thought they suspected us of being Al Qaeda. We were frightened,
and so we tried to get away,” Fadar said.

“We just want to go home,” Hussein added softly.

I reminded them that Indian crewmembers had testified that the Somalis
had hijacked their ship and beaten them? Hussein shook his head.
“They’re lying,” he said.

Did they even know any Somali pirates? Both shook their heads no, but
stared silently at the floor.

At 3 o’clock the next afternoon, all ten defendants crowded into the
dock in a small courtroom to face a senior magistrate, Beatrice Jaden,
seated high above us on a pedestal in the British manner. The
prosecutor, Margaret Mwangi, read out the charge, accusing them of
committing “acts of piracy on the high seas,” and ran through the
evidence, based on statements from the Indian crew aboard the dhow and
the U.S. sailors who had rescued them.

The Somalis’ lawyer, Hassan Abdi, argued that because no one involved—
neither the victims, the accused nor the alleged perpetrators’ captors—
was Kenyan, Kenya had no right to try this case in its courts.

Mwangi countered that the U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea
allows Kenya to prosecute pirates of any nationality under the
corresponding section of the Kenyan penal code. Should the Somalis be
found guilty, Mwangi went on, they should be sentenced to death to
deter piracy.

Ten days later, Jaden handed down her verdict and the sentence.
Guilty. Seven years in prison for each man.

By then, the pirates might have considered themselves lucky. At the
time, Somalia was ruled by a fundamentalist Muslim movement called the
Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which sought to impose sharia, or Islamic
law, when it took over the capital of Mogadishu from its notorious
warlords in June 2006. Piracy was one of several crimes punishable by

Noel Choong told me that after the ICU takeover the IMB noted a lull
in piracy in the waters off Somalia. But the ICU was overthrown and
replaced by a transitional government at year’s end. Since then,
pirate attacks have surged off the Somali coast, from 10 reported to
the IMB in all of 2006 to 14 in the first six months of 2007.

In February, pirates off the coast boarded and hijacked the merchant
vessel Rozen, which had just delivered food for the U.N. World Food
Programme. They held its 12 crewmembers for 40 days until an
undisclosed ransom secured their release. Another merchant vessel, the
Mariam Queen, was hijacked and held for 24 days before it was freed
May 27 after the ship’s owner reportedly paid a $100,000 ransom. At
the end of that month, the IMB recommended that vessels keep 200 miles
offshore unless they were calling into Somali ports.

“We’ll never see the end of piracy, just as we’ll never see the end of
robbery on land,” Choong said. “But we’re doing everything we can.”