Act II, Scene 2

We’re about to get everybody’s idea of how best to cure modern piracy, from “nuke Somalia” to “the pirates are just misunderstood”, to some variation in between.  There are some things to keep in mind.

According to the Sunday Telegraph’s Colin Freeman[1], these pirates are Islamic but not Islamists, and that is an important difference.  They seek profit not martyrdom.  This makes them for more amenable to threats of force than to threats of arrest[2].  Piracy is currently Somalia’s only real booming industry.  Up to 2,000 pirates are now believed to be sailing forth from its lawless coastline, carrying out anything up to half a dozen attacks per week and earning ~$30 million in ransoms last year alone.  They operate mainly along a traditional clan basis – the system of close family loyalties that has made Somalia all but ungovernable as a nation, but which provides a perfect social template for crime Mafias.  As a bitter Somali joke puts it, the warlords only went into robbing foreigners at sea because there was nothing left to rob from their own people on land.  And here is the important lesson from Mr Freeman, being arrested and caught by any international piracy force is little deterrent.  At least they will get three square meals a day.  If really lucky, they may get taken to a European or American jail, where they will have a chance of applying for asylum upon release.  Treating piracy as a law enforcement problem will make defense lawyers happy the world over, but as long as Western jails are better than Somali streets, it won’t be a deterrent to pirates.

As long as Somalia is ungoverned, it will have a predatory economy, making crime as legitimate a career option as any other.  Al Qaeda does have some shipping, but they are far more interested in using it for smuggling than piracy, and at present, aren’t a factor.  They have sold weapons, technology and explosives to pirates, but that’s about it.  Somalia hasn’t had a functional government for 16 years, and the clans, gangs and warlords are well established and well organized.  Solving piracy by “fixing” Somalia is not an option – it will take too long (this will be one of the do-nothing choices the politicians will talk about).

There a dozen or so ships and 237 hostages in Somali hands right now, so “cleaning out” the strongholds presents dangers that only a massive human intelligence program can guide, and while something like that is possible, it also would take too long to establish and mature.  The shipping and cargo assets are collateral to the problem, but the hostages are not. If a series of kinetic operations could stop the piracy, the insurance losses would be tolerable, but killing non-Somali nationals would not.

Some grand coalition of navies is probably the only thing that would take longer to mount than fixing Somalia (the world is still fumbling around with its “swift, serious consequences” for last month’s DPRK missile launch).  Because of the great photo ops and the utter lack of having actually to do anything other than schedule an endless train of “important” conferences, this is probably the route the politicians will take.

The shippers and insurers can get together and solve this thing before the politicians get involved.

“Billions of dollars of goods move through the Gulf of Aden each year,” says Bill Mathews[3], and North Carolina-based Blackwater announced last October that its 183-foot ship, the McArthur[4], stands ready to assist the shipping industry as it struggles with the increasing problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere[5].  “We have been contacted by ship owners,” Mr Mathews continued, “who say they need our help in making sure those goods get to their destination safely.  The McArthur can help us accomplish that.”  Blackwater could also place armed personnel on board ships transiting troubled waters.  It wouldn’t take much – most of these gangs use Zodiacs or some cheaper copy, which are inflatable and extremely vulnerable to well-placed gunfire.  As are the pirates sitting in them.  The biggest barrier is the number of ports that do not allow armed commercial vessels, but this can be circumvented by boarding and de-boarding the security teams at sea, where necessary.

This situation has nothing to do with America “taking the lead in fighting piracy”, it has everything to do with Americans protecting American shipping and lives.  How the rest of the world deals with their nationals being kidnapped for ransom is the rest of the world’s business.  Having the Untied States held up by four thugs in a rubber boat would be the final straw in the Europeanization of America, and shouldn’t be stood for by any of us.

The remedy to piracy is no different that it was in the 18th century, it isn’t arresting them, it’s killing them.


[1] A former hostage victim, Mr Freeman was kidnapped in Somalia and held for six weeks.

[2] See Colin Freeman, Why Somali piracy is booming, in Sunday Telegraph [London], April 12 2009.

[3] Executive Vice President, Blackwater Worldwide. Founded in 1997 by former US Navy SEALs Erik Prince and Al Clark, the company has a 50,000-person database of former military and law enforcement professionals, and has recently focused on expanding operations and services.

[4] A refurbished National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel, she has what the company has described as state-of-the-art navigation systems, full Global Maritime Distress and Safety System communications, SEATEL broadband satellite communications, dedicated command and control battle-management air support, helicopter decks, a hospital, multiple support vessel capabilities, and a crew of 45 highly trained personnel. Blackwater’s aviation affiliate can provide the helicopters, pilots and maintenance required to support escort missions.

[5] See Jerry Seper, Blackwater joins fight against sea piracy, in Washington Times, December 4 2008.

6 thoughts on “Act II, Scene 2

  1. Libby says:
    When they commandeered the Maersk Alabama, I wondered why the cargo ship didn’t turn their water cannon on the small pirate vessel and drive them off before they could board the ship? Then we heard from the first mate of the Maersk that they had been doing just that for about a week before the pirates finally succeeded in boarding the Maersk. I’m still not clear on how the pirates managed to out-maneuver the water cannon. Do you know the details?

    Another strategy that I considered is arming the cargo ships with the same device that the Cruise ships have … That electronic high frequency noise-emitter. It produces some kind of booming noise I believe[?]. Do you know what I’m talking about? It was used last year by a cruise ship to drive off the pirates’ vessels and was successful. I wonder why it isn’t installed on commercial vessels too?

    And then there is always the “convoy” strategy which was used in WWII to cross the Atlantic … I think it would work, but I’m betting the merchant shipping companies wouldn’t be in favor of it? Because it would take longer to deliver the goods and cut down on the number of runs a ship could make – thus cutting into the profit margin? Plus, it would require naval vessels to surround and protect the convoy, and no one navy would want to volunteer their services.

    Of course, most everyone agrees that the real solution to the pirate problem is to establish a viable working government in Somalia itself. The only problem is so far no country wants to commit military forces to mount an invasion. Even a coalition of countries doesn’t seem to be a popular option at this point. If the pirate situation continues to escalate, I’m betting that an invasion into Somalia will become an option that will receive serious consideration. I just hope we don’t get suckered into leading it.

  2. I don’t know the details, but I’m not sure that the water cannon/hoses have compete coverage of the outside of the vessel. I do know that the pirates came aboard at night by using grappling hooks in the bow area of the Alabama. Yes, I remember the cruise ship’s use of the acoustic cannon last year. I think it would be a good idea for commercial vessels to be equipped with them as well as electrified fencing around the gunwales, although both can be defeated rather easily (noise-dampening headphones and rubber mats).

    Convoys are a good example of counter-piracy tactics that in fact do work. One of the reasons that the pirates moved from the Gulf of Aden around the Horn to the East coast of Somalia was that shipping was “convoying” out of the Gulf with a military escort. You’re right that, in general shippers resist the idea for the economic and scheduling reasons that you mention (although that may change). One destroyer or frigate is all you need (they all have armed Zodiacs these days) there being no submarine threat as there was during WWII.

    Lacking in the coverage of all of this is the invisibility of the African Union, which was formed in large part as a counter to US-led efforts in Africa. Like most non-Western multinational organizations, they form among great fanfare and photo ops, and then fade into the woodwork. We should pressure the AU to live up to their hype and lend assets and personnel to anti-piracy, and to provide diplomatic support and expertise to formulating the institutions of a Somali government. Overall, however, as I said, resurrecting a functioning Somalia will take far longer than I would be willing to wait to eradicate piracy (whose patrons will, of course, actively resist the formation of a functioning government). This, like the other items on my list of non-answers to piracy, should be pursued in parallel to a more activist approach to combating piracy. They need to be done – they are just not practicable answers to piracy.

    If we were to meaningfully participate in kinetic operations inside Somalia, while we would submit to British or NATO leadership, the effort would probably wind up being American-led. This is because there is a great resistance to placing American combat troops under foreign command, as they don’t tend to understand how best to deploy the rich pallet of technologies, capabilities and logistics that American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen bring to the fight.

    Eventually, someone is going to have to go in and “drain the swamp”. I would prefer to see it be African-led, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm in African capitols for the effort.

  3. I am in complete agreement with you that the future of Somalia should be placed in the hands of its African nation neighbors. They should be the ones to invade [if necessary] and restore and maintain order in Somalia. Unfortunately, they each have their own problems with corruption, lawlessness and starvation to focus on anything but their own situation. So inevitably it will be left to stable countries who [sadly] are not on the continent of Africa to resolve the problem. As usual. I would think that the few stable countries on the continent such as South Africa, Egypt, and even Libya could take a more prominent role, here.

  4. For starters, Muammar Qadhafi is President of the African Union as well as Libya, and is on an “Islamic superiority” campaign.  As such, he is ill-disposed to take on the warlords and terrorists who are running things in Somalia.  Qadhafi is on as good a behavior as he is capable since the invasion of Iraq (fearing he could be next), so his approach to terrorism has been to ignore it (let’s not forget that the Barbary pirates operated of Tripoli when the Marines cleaned them out in the 19th century).  Neither Libya nor the AU will of much help in cleaning out Somalia.  

    Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, likewise, is not enthusiastic about confronting Islamist terrorists (who would actively resist any attempt to restore order) in Somalia, as he has his hands full trying to keep Hizbollah from co-opting the Muslim Brotherhood (an Egyptian-based group that spawned Hamas and is right on the edge of hostility to Mubarak’s rule).  He has so far been unwilling to assist in stopping the genocide going on next door in Sudan, let alone go abroad into Somalia.  

    South Africa doesn’t currently have a problem with apocalyptic Islam, and doesn’t have the desire or political will to risk starting it up.  In other words, Africa, like Europe, has been effectively intimidated by Islamist extremists, and will be of little help in confronting it.  

    As to Somalia’s immediate neighbors – Kenya, Eritria, Ethiopia and Djibouti – you are right, they are themselves too unstable or weak to do much.  European navies will be (and have been) of help at sea, but as mentioned, they have no appetite for going ashore in Somalia.  

    The United Nations will endlessly talk about it.

  5. I can’t help but wonder when shippers will start picking up Blackwater personnel (or some similar contractor) in international waters, keeping them on board through the danger area, then letting them off before they get to port. So far the Somali pirates have shown themselves to be less then enthusiastic about attacking any vessel with a crew that shows any real signs of armed resistance.

  6. I’m hearing rumblings that this may happen.

    More shippers are beginning to realize that the government of their flagging is totally uninterested in inserting themselves into this situation, and except for the French and Americans (so far), none of the other navies involved in patrolling the area are willing to actually intercede.

    This is a near-perfect scenario for CIA involvement, but Obama decided to throw them under the bus, and I doubt they will be of much use to him during his tenure. With any luck he can keep Congress from doing real structural damage to them as happened with the Church Commission, which decimated our human intelligence capability (from which we are yet to recover).

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