Root Causes of Somali Piracy: Nuclear Dumping and Seafood Looting

There has been a lot of discussion in the media about how to address piracy off the coast of Somalia. Much less attention has been given to the complex sources of political turmoil, poverty and pollution that have led many Somalis into piracy. In order to prevent more violent hijackings, Washington needs to understand the root causes of piracy.

What follows is a collection of recent reports and writing by investigative journalists and experts on the topic of piracy in Somalia. These reports focus on the fact that foreign shipping companies have been dumping nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia and looting the country’s fishing industry. Many of Somalia’s "pirates" initially organized to defend their coast against this pollution and robbery.

The above is a video interview of the Somali-Canadian Hip Hop artist K’naan with HardKnock TV discussing the context of what is being called Somali "piracy." Obviously, this was recorded before the current incident, but K’naan offers a perspective that is being systematically omitted by the corporate media in its coverage. Also, check out his song, "Somalia," on his latest album Troubador, which also addresses the issue. [From Jeremy Scahill at]

In an article entitled "You Are Being Lied to About Pirates" Johann Hari of the The Independent writes:

In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters."

This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".

No, this doesn’t make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But in a telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali: "We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas."

Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote on his website Rebel Reports:

Consider what one pirate told The New York Times after he and his men seized a Ukrainian freighter  "loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition" last year. "We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits," said Sugule Ali:. "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." Now, that "coast guard" analogy is a stretch, but his point is an important and widely omitted part of this story. Indeed the Times article was titled, "Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money." Yet, The New York Times acknowledged, "the piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago… as a response to illegal fishing."

Take this fact: Over $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are "being stolen every year by illegal trawlers" off Somalia’s coast, forcing the fishing industry there into a state of virtual non-existence.

In an article entitled, Why We Don’t Condemn Our Pirates in Somalia, Somali Hip Hop artist K’Naan writes in Alternet that

Now Somalia has upped the world’s pirate attacks by over 21 percent in one year, and while NATO and the EU are both sending forces to the Somali coast to try and slow down the attacks, Blackwater and all kinds of private security firms are intent on cashing in. But while Europeans are well in their right to protect their trade interest in the region, our pirates were the only deterrent we had from an externally imposed environmental disaster. No one can say for sure that some of the ships they are now holding for ransom were not involved in illegal activity in our waters. The truth is, if you ask any Somali if they think getting rid of the pirates only means the continuous rape of our coast by unmonitored Western vessels, and the production of a new cancerous generation, we would all fly our pirate flags high.

It is time that the world gave the Somali people some assurance that these Western illegal activities will end, if our pirates are to seize their operations. We do not want the EU and NATO serving as a shield for these nuclear waste-dumping hoodlums. It seems to me that this new modern crisis is a question of justice, but also a question of whose justice. As is apparent these days, one man’s pirate is another man’s coast guard.

In "The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other?" on, journalist Mohamed Abshir Waldo quotes one Somali fisherman who has been repressed by fish robbers:

"They are not only taking and robbing us of our fish, but they are also trying to stop us from fishing," said Jeylani Shaykh Abdi, a fisherman in Merca, 100km south of Mogadishu. "They have rammed our boats and cut our nets", he added. Another Merca fisherman, Mohamed Hussein, said [Our] existence depends on the fish. He accused the international community of "talking only about the piracy problem in Somalia, but not about the destruction of our coast and our lives by these foreign ships." Jeylani noted that the number of foreign ships had increased over time. "It is now normal to see them on a daily basis, a few miles off our shores"

For some background into how the US created instability in Somalia, see this article by Rebecca Macaux and Philip Primeau on Counterpunch – What We Have Sown: Somali Piracy and American Foreign Policy 

Also see this interview with Somali Pirates by the New York Times: Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money

For more analysis and background information on piracy in Somalia and the US response, visit Jeremy Scahill’s Rebel Reports website.

(Photo from Flickr larryzou@)