Bandit Bourse? Somali pirates hijack oil tanker, organize 'stock market'

Somali pirates have seized a U.S.-bound tanker carrying $20 million worth of crude oil and taken it to a pirate harbor along the barren desert coast of central Somalia in one of the most audacious pirate strikes ever, U.S. naval officials said.

"She's a big ol' girl, almost a quarter million tons. They're not speedy, they sit low in the water ... so a determined pirate like this one can be successful," Rear Adm. Peter Hudson said in Kenya on Tuesday, according to the AP. Hudson said it was the second-largest ship ever hijacked by pirates. The tanker's 30-member crew was also kidnapped. The stunning seaborne heist comes as Somali pirate gangs have set up a kind of stock exchange to fund their banditry, according to an extraordinary report from Reuters.
Nine pirates hijacked the Greek-flagged tanker Maran Centaurus carrying 275,000 metric tons of Saudi Arabian black gold Sunday about 800 miles offshore and have taken it to a pirate port along the coast, where they typically hold the boats for ransom.

Pirate's Playground: 2.5 Million Square Miles of Sea

It appears that after a brief lull over the summer, the pirates -- mostly impoverished Somali fisherman who prowl the waters off the lawless African state under the direction of competing warlords -- have returned in full force, this time venturing farther from the Sea of Aden, which has seen increased patrols in light of 2008's spate of attacks.

The Maran Centaurus was traveling outside of the recommended E.U. naval corridor, Hudson said. The boat was heading to New Orleans from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, according to European naval officials.

In the past two months alone, 38 ships have been attacked and 10 hijacked, the International Maritime Bureau said. The pirates' modus operandi appears to be to lie in wait aboard motherships in the middle of the ocean, and then send out much smaller ships to attack maritime vessels.

U.S. naval officials described the difficulty of protecting such a vast area. "It's 2.5 million square miles we're dealing with," said Lt. Matt Allen, a spokesman for the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, according to The New York Times. "It's a very large area. It's a daunting task."

Inside the Bandits' Bourse

Meanwhile, the Somali pirates have begun to put all of that ransomed lucre -- tens of millions of dollars in recent years -- to work for them, setting up a stock exchange "that has drawn financiers from the Somali diaspora and other nations," according to a startling Reuters dispatch from Somalia published Tuesday.

The bandits' bourse is a small building in the once-small fishing village of Haradheere, about 250 miles northeast of Mogadishu. "Now it is a bustling town where luxury 4x4 cars owned by the pirates and those who bankroll them create honking traffic jams along its pot-holed, dusty streets," the wire service reports. Somalia is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Western journalists.

"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," Reuters quotes a "wealthy former pirate named Mohammed" as saying.

"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."

Also quoted is "piracy investor" Sahra Ibrahim, a 22-year-old divorcee, who 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'."

Piracy Attracting New Groups

In November, Somali pirates opened fire on the Maersk Alabama -- an American ship that was hijacked just months ago. The crew first responded by deploying an LRAD or Long Range Acoustic Device, which emits a directional stream of ear-splitting noise. But the ship's four-man armed crew was forced to return fire on the pirates, who fled.

The pirates also are holding a British couple taken hostage during a cruise around the world; they have threatened to kill them unless they receive a seven-figure ransom.

Piracy used to be dominated by two clans, according to Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times: "the Saleban, based in Xarardheere [Haradheere], and the Majeerten, who brought hijacked ships back to a small beach town called Eyl. Now, according to witnesses in Somalia, many other clans are involved, even Bantus, a minority group best known as farmers."

(Download a very helpful Google Earth map of piracy on the Somali coast here.)

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