'Pirates have sophisticated equipment'

Read our exclusive interview with Shojaa al-Mahdi, director-general of the Yemen coast guard authority, who explains how Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden are so effective.


FRANCE 24: How have pirates operating in Somali been able to develop a maritime arsenal? Where do they get funding?

Shojaa al-Mahdi: In the mid '90s, pirates, who were mostly Somali, began attacking tourist boats and smallwooden  fishing boats. They started off by asking for small ransoms, especially watches and money found on the boats. They later became more ambitious and targeted commercial boats. The ransoms then became more significant, determined by the value of  the merchandise transported on the ships.

These ransoms subsequently allowed the pirates to buy faster, better-equipped boats. But we don't know who was providing the boats. We musn't forget that Somalia has over 300 kilometres of coastline. The coast is ungoverned by a country that is completely lawless itself.

FRANCE 24: How do the pirates manage to get on the boats?

Al-Mahdi: The pirates survey the boats with sophisticated equipment. As soon as they find a target, they send out two or three boats to surround the ship. They fire a few times at the captain's cabin. Generally, the crew on these commercial ships is unarmed.

Medium and large-sized commercial ships operate slowly through the Gulf of Aden because it’s an area with a lot of maritime traffic. Petrol vessels can only travel at 8-15 knots, whereas the pirates have no problem reaching 40 knots with their motorboats.

Medium-sized ships stand a chance of escape. The captain can change direction frequently to create choppy waters and destabilize the pirate boats. But  pirates can fire missiles at the ship. In April 2008, a Japanese ship managed to out-maneuver a pirate boat, but it was then struck with a missile that left a hole in its shell. It managed to make it  to Yemen.

In the case of the Saudi supertanker taken hostage on November 15 with about two million barrels of petrol on board, the captain couldn’t do anything because pirates with arms could have caused grave damage if they had fired into the petrol tanker.

FRANCE 24: Along with Somalia and Djibouti, Yemen is one of three countries bordering the Gulf of Aden, which joins the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. How can Yemen contribute to making the region safer from piracy?

Al-Mahdi: The Yemeni coast guard authority was created in 2002, after the attack on the US destroyer Cole and another attack against a French petrol ship, the Limburg. When we get a distress signal from a boat under siege, we can come to their aid as long as they are not very far from our coasts. But we haven’t the infrastructure to rescue boats at great distances.

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