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Piracy News & Commentary

Somali Piracy Finally a US Issue

The recent pirate attack on the US-flagged Maersk Alabama--whose captain and crew courageously resisted the pirates--has finally brought the issue of Somali piracy to the forefront in the US. The attention is well-deserved, for Somali piracy has become a significant threat to the shipping along one of the great world trade routes. It is well-understood that the only permanent solution to piracy in the Gulf of Aden is to make the failed state of Somalia viable again. Unfortunately, given the complexity of the situation and the understandable reticence of nations to commit the necessary military resources, this will not happen anytime soon. The stopgap solution so far has been to establish of naval patrols and limited naval escorts. Unfortunately, throughout history such patrols and escorts alone have been inadequate to suppress well-organized piracy, and the Somali pirates have proved this still to be true. Convoys, although an effective means of protecting merchant fleets, are not viable in the modern world, except in wartime: navies are stretched too thin to support this measure, and the associated shipping delays are too costly.

Adding to the problem is the natural progression of tactics and counter-tactics. It was predictable that, as naval patrols increased, Somali pirates would range farther out to sea, use tactics of distraction, and engage in night attacks. Only when the cost of piracy becomes too high to those engaging in it will piracy cease to be a significant menace. Eradicating the Somali pirates is not an option, given their fluid nature and the potential consequences of attacking pirate bases: we cannot afford to drive the pirates into the hands of Somali Islamist extremists.

There is, however, an intermediate solution to the limitations of naval patrols and escorts, one used throughout history until the nineteenth century and recommended almost unanimously by naval personnel and naval and maritime security analysts: merchant vessels must arm themselves with lethal weapons and defend themselves when attacked. Contrary to many media reports which hype the armament and capabilities of Somali pirates, the pirates are in fact only lightly armed and their numbers at sea are small. Further, and most importantly, their purpose is profit, and as such, they have little to gain by engaging in a firefight with a crew or attached security forces who are well-armed and willing to put up a strong defense. Throughout history, pirates have typically retreated from significant resistance and sought easier pickings, except in the case of pirates armed and manned as heavily as warships. The Somali pirates lack such capacity. Ruse and intimidation will remain their principle weapons, and they will continue to prey on the weak.

As to the drama that played out between the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama and a handful of Somali pirates, it is one that has played out many times before, over three or more thousand years, along every shipping route, and in every maritime culture. Thankfully, due to the efforts of the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama, of the US Navy warships on scene, of FBI hostage negotiators, and especially of the US Navy SEAL snipers who killed the three pirates holding the Alabama’s captain for ransom, the situation has been resolved to the satisfaction of everyone but the Somali pirates. Someone should have warned them that piracy can be a high risk venture. Captain and crew of Maersk Alabama are to be commended for their extraordinary courage, for their willingness to stand up to the “enemies of all mankind” who would take their property, liberty, and possibly even their lives. They remind the world that the defense against piracy--and for that matter, the defense against crime, and against oppression in general--begins with ourselves. The writer of an eighteenth century book on how merchant vessels should defend themselves against attack by pirates and privateers put it well: “[T]he necessity of Fighting is evident; for no Man is so devoid of Reason as not to know, that it is his peculiar Interest to defend his Property, unless he will toil and labour for others, and like the Sheep patiently endure the Shearing of his Fleece.”

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