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Piracy News & Commentary

Where Some Reporters and Commentators on Somali Piracy Have Got It Wrong...

It is not uncommon lately to find reporters and other commentators, in print and on television, proclaiming with obvious admiration about how “heavily armed” and “bold” are the Somali pirates. Often these well-intentioned media members refer to Somali pirates in very romantic terms, “modern buccaneers” for example, even claiming occasionally that they have taken to the sea because their livelihood as fishermen has been taken from them. However, all of this is largely sensationalistic hyperbole.

Regarding armament, the Somali pirates are not heavily-armed, in spite of common claims to the contrary. Rather, they are lightly armed, primarily with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Occasionally they carry a few machine guns. They are heavily-armed only as compared to their quarry: merchant ships that travel unarmed, except for the occasional ship armed with private security forces, and some of these are armed only with a non-lethal sonic weapon. The Somali pirates do not mount the heavier weapons, including heavy machine guns, naval guns, and missiles, that warships and naval patrol craft mount. Indeed, the smallest modern naval patrol boat is more than a match for an entire flotilla of Somali pirates, including their mother ships. The Somali pirates have been defeated every time they have engaged a warship or tried to defend themselves from one. Nor have they put any significant resistance when French naval commandos have attacked and captured some of them on two separate occasions. In most instances, when confronted by a warship, Somali pirates have immediately surrendered. Of the few occasions when they have resisted, they have regretted it--assuming they lived to regret it.

As for the romantic notion of the daring it takes to commit piracy, there is some truth to the idea that it takes a certain panache to take to the sea in a small open craft to commit piracy, just as it would take a certain panache and courage (or foolhardiness) to attack a well-armed vessel. But the prey the Somali pirates seek are not armed at all. It takes no more guts to attack an unarmed, unescorted merchant vessel than it does to commit armed robbery on a public street when no one but the victim is around. It is vital to remember that piracy is about profit, and being so, pirates of all ages have typically been reticent to attack targets capable of putting up significant resistance. Most pirates will flee when faced with a stout defense, wisely saving their vessels and skins for a better opportunity. The exceptions to the rule historically have invariably been pirates with well-armed vessels or with crews large enough to quickly overwhelm small armed merchant crews, or both. In some cases, pirates have used ruses to enable them to attack large, armed vessels. But the Somali pirates lack the vessels and armament to enable them to engage in the former tactic, not to mention that the arming of larger vessels would make them easier to track and even more vulnerable to warships. The pirates also lack the opportunity and numbers to use deception as a means of countering the defenses of an armed merchant vessel. Ships traveling in the Gulf of Aden or otherwise near Somalia are now for the most part too wary to fall for pirate ruses, and large ships are not so easily boarded as were the old merchant ships and flutes of the age of sail.

As for the notion that Somali pirates have taken to “fishing” for merchant ships in reprisal for the loss of their livelihood as fishermen by the encroachment of foreign commercial fishing vessels in Somali waters, it is largely pretense. Some fishermen may have considered attacking foreign “pirate” (illegal) commercial fishing vessels in reprisal or as a political statement, but the Somali piracy we are currently experiencing is mere opportunism, as piracy inevitably is. The Somali pirates are in it for the money, and for no other reason. (See my guest post on MountainRunner.com for related comments.)

The suppression of Somali piracy should not be as difficult as sensational hyperbole makes it out to be. Indeed, a mere recent increase in naval patrols has significantly reduced the number of successful Somali pirate attacks, although of themselves naval patrols will not solve the problem. Only the stabilization of Somalia itself will provide a permanent solution. The biggest hindrance in addressing the issue has been the general unwillingness of shipping companies to pay for security, and the general unwillingness of maritime nations to commit significant naval forces. As ever in the history of piracy and pirate hunting, economics plays the central role. Nonetheless, there is much that can be done to attack the problem, and a realistic look through the sensationalistic hyperbole is a good place to begin. (For ideas on reducing Somali piracy, see my post of October 19, 2008.)

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