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, 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. 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, and North Carolina-based Blackwater announced last October that its 183-foot ship, the McArthur, stands ready to assist the shipping industry as it struggles with the increasing problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. “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.
 A former hostage victim, Mr Freeman was kidnapped in Somalia and held for six weeks.
 See Colin Freeman, Why Somali piracy is booming, in Sunday Telegraph [London], April 12 2009.
 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.
 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.
 See Jerry Seper, Blackwater joins fight against sea piracy, in Washington Times, December 4 2008.