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9 Dec, 2008 17:23

Interview with Mohammed Mahmud Handule

Somalia’s Ambassador to Russia, Mohammed Mahmud Handule, says the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden is vast. He says pirates can find accomplices everywhere, including on the ships they target.

RT: It’s common talk that piracy is due to cause some damage to the economy of the whole world. How can this happen do you think? How can this impact the prices, for instance?

[M.H.] As you may know, Somalia’s coastal lines are the longest in Africa. Also, a major maritime transport route lies near Somalia – its coastal areas, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, with the Indian Ocean nearby. For example, I can say that most of oil from Arab countries, including the Persian Gulf countries like Iran, Iraq and others, goes through our territorial waters. Consequently, if it’s small ships, they go through the Gulf of Aden, or Somalia’s territorial waters, or they go around Africa, that is through Cape Town – through the Indian Ocean.

It’s not only about oil, which is one of the main issues at present, but also other goods supplied from Europe or Latin America to Africa or Asia, or from Asia – where goods are manufactured en masse, they go to Europe or America also through our seas. So, if there is a problem with the transport routes, it is one of the most crucial for the economy – it’s the arteries for the economy. The sea transportation is the main one in the world, and the cheapest.

RT: Whereas much is affected by this in the economy and business, some analysts believe that this piracy emerged spontaneously. Some, however, are of the opinion that it is not spontaneous. Can you believe this theory presented by analysts and logistics specialists, that this may involve ship owners, or insurance companies who may be sponsoring the pirates in order to gain something eventually?

[M.H.] As a matter of fact, we do believe that “Somali pirates” are just hired for the job and get their salaries. They are being provided with information. It’s clear for any analyst that a small cutter not more than two metres long can go far into the Indian Ocean and find any ship it wants. It is only through knowing beforehand its precise location and time provided to them by someone else. We also have reports there are ships used for insured accidents. There are insurance companies interested in that, because as a result the insurance rate grows.

RT: What else?

[M.H.] Concerning the economy, the ships hired to protect the commercial ships evoke additional transportation costs, which is again expedient for the countries that provide military protection. All this increases commodity prices. I would like to add that Somalia is rich in oil resources, and if we have both oil producers and those who control the oil transportation routes, there will be someone who is not happy about it. So it is not only a politico-economic question.

We believe also that some ships have illegal goods smuggled on board. They use our territorial waters as open sea. So it’s convenient to write everything off to the pirates’ presence. There is illegal arms trade assisted by pirates. There are a lot of armaments in the country now, in spite of the arms embargo. Even our government does not give weapons to cutters to protect our borders from pirates, but the Islamic opposition does give arms to them.

Without disclosing the details as to when and how it was done, I can say we have reports that our ships did go there, were insured, and got the money after the accidents – they had not only ordinary goods, but AK-47s and landmines for instance. So, the Islamic extremists got the weapons, the pirates got their ransom, and the companies got the insurance payment.

RT: It appears that you back this theory. And I have something more to ask you.

[M.H.] Let me tell you that it is not expedient to have a one-sided approach, because the phenomenon of piracy in Somalia is unique in itself – it is artificially created. Somalia never had piracy, both domestic or from abroad. There were no domestic pirates because we have not had maritime traditions or fishing, and no pirates from abroad because although Somalis are hospitable they do not accept strangers who violate the homeland traditions. Therefore, whereas there were piracy cases reported from elsewhere, Somalia did not have this – due to the fact that strangers were not allowed and there were no domestic pirates, too. So, this phenomenon is artificially created to cover certain economic, military or political issues.

RT: Can it be linked to the financial crisis and the lack of money which urged certain companies to raise their money in such a way?

[M.H.] Both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘No’ because there was no such thing as a financial crisis, and ‘yes’ because I know how someone can think as to how to gain profits from unlawful financial operation. It is particularly important when it comes to humanitarian aid within international projects. It is not clear how this money is allocated and spread. Pirates can serve as a good cover for that.

I won’t say that all that aid is used for speculation, but from time to time it does take place.

RT: Some analysts from a shipping company say that it is next to impossible to seize a vessel like it was with the Sirius tanker without the assistance of the crew. Do you think it is possible to capture such a boat?

[M.H.] We don’t have well-developed security services in Somalia – we’re just restoring them. So, I don’t have precise reports about this. However, it seems to me that Somali pirates who appeared in the past several years – those young people who can’t even swim and have to climb on board the ship as high as a ten-storied building – without proper tools. There can hardly be any serious tools held on the small boats they use – it is impossible. It is impossible that one or two boats, with 12 to 24 people in them can seize a huge ship.

For instance, when the Russian container ship performed two manoeuvres and the pirates failed to do anything. I am still sceptical, having read much about it, that pirates can seize a ship without assistance – to know its location and to approach it. If you can’t prevent an approach of pirates, it means you may not prevent your ship from being stranded on a rock. It would only be possible if the crew sleeps or has its navigation function automatically. Any vessel can technically detect any other vessel approaching.

RT: What can they do if another ship approaches, when the crew has no weapons?

[M.H.] It is very simple. They may use water cannons available. So such capturing is just not possible. There are so many military ships around there – that area is perhaps the densest for ship navigation. The international community is spending so much money for the military ships. And we must take into account that tankers play a significant role for the oil prices that have been affected already, at least for a while. Can a ship with weapons – 33 tanks, be captured? What’s most interesting, the crew is more than the number of the pirates.

RT: So you think it is a kind of mafia?

[M.H.] Piracy is an international mafia phenomenon, and the young Somalis employed are on the payroll.

RT: Is it a financial structure?

[M.H.] It’s a financial, economic and military structure dealing with the smuggling of goods and drugs trafficking. It’s all interconnected, including various extremist manifestations. As you know, any crime has connections to other criminal activity around that area.