When Siad Barre’s government collapsed in 1991 Somalia was plunged into violence and left without a central government capable of defending it. Thats when foreign vessels began fishing illegally en masse off the country’s Indian Ocean coast. Piracy rose when impoverished, unemployed fishermen thought they had no option but to seize the illegal boats and release them for ransom. Soon enough, criminal gangs realised how lucrative piracy can be and it turned into a profitable criminal industry. At its height, Somali piracy was cost the global economy an estimated $8 billion every year.
The image of Somali pirates captured the imagination of the West. So much so that Hollywood turned the real life story of the 2009 hijacking of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama into “Captain Phillips,” a blockbuster starring Tom Hanks. The film brought the thrill of highjacking on the high seas to life but glossed over the historic reasons why piracy happens in the first place.
And now, it seems, history is repeating itself. When we were in the town of Eyl on Somalia’s coast with the Indian Ocean earlier this month, fishermen there told us they are again spotting Iranian and other illegal boats in Somali waters on a weekly basis. Some said that yesterday’s pirates have become today’s armed escorts, contracted by foreign boats to help them fish illegally and thwart any resistance to them by the local community.
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