Sea Transportation: The Virtue of Fighting Back


August 6, 2014: The Somali pirates are a problem again, mainly because they are no longer a problem. It works like this. Armed guards and aggressive naval and air patrolling off the Somali coast have reduced pirate activity to the lowest level in a decade. That means only (seven attacks so far this year with no ships seized. Most shipping companies and governments paying for their warships and aircraft to patrol the coast agree that the main deterrent was finally allowing armed guards on merchant ships. This increases costs a few thousand dollars for ships that pass near the Somali coast, but shipping companies note that just firing warning shots will cause pirates to turn away 90 percent of the time and when the pirates keep coming having a few shots hit their boats has always caused persistent attackers to turn and flee. It’s not just gunfire that has caused the pirates to disappear lack of income has done the same. All the Somali pirates still operating are small time operators hoping to strike it rich with a long-shot success. In the last year all the larger pirate organizations have shut down. Two of the major pirate gang leaders publicly announced that they had gotten out for the simple and obvious fact that no one was capturing large ships and earning multi-million dollar ransoms anymore.

This has led many countries to consider halting their support for the international anti-piracy patrol. If the armed guards are so effective why bother spending several hundred million dollars a year in additional costs incurred by sending warships and patrol aircraft to the Somali coast rather than keeping them at home. Some naval commanders point out that these naval operations are an excellent way for navies to perfect techniques for operating with allies and getting to know other who might become allies, or opponents and doing so under realistic (similar to wartime) conditions. Naval analysts admit that the only risk of withdrawing from the Somali coast would be the possibility that a major warlord would again finance a large piracy operation and develop some new tactics that could overcome the armed guards. That is a long shot (but still a real possibility) and in the near term the pirates are likely to remain dissuaded by the armed guards. Absent the armed guards the pirates could return in a big way. 

The sharp reduction in pirate activity off the Somali coast since 2010 has cut the annual cost (for anti-piracy measures off Somalia) to shipping companies in half (to about $3 billion). The ships still move at high speed (more fuel burned) when near Somalia and have additional security equipment installed. The reduced costs are a huge relief to the shipping companies, the sailors on those ships and the people of East Africa who saw imports get a bit more expensive to pay for the increased security costs.

This is all a big change from just a few years ago. In 2010 pirate activity had reached levels of activity not seen in over a century. In 2011 there were 237 attacks and over 1,200 sailors, and their ships, were taken. But over the next three years the problem was fixed. By 2013 attacks on ships by Somali pirates had declined 95 percent from the 2010 peak and the activity is going lower in 2014. It’s been over two years since the Somali pirates captured a large commercial ship, and even smaller fishing ships and dhows (small local cargo ships of traditional construction) are harder for them to grab. There are still a few sailors held captive by the pirates, most for over three years because there is no one willing or able to pay any ransom.

The situation off Somalia was a reminder that classic piracy could still exists. Piracy hit a trough from the late nineteenth century into the later twentieth. That was because the Great Powers had pretty much divided up the whole planet, and policed it. The pirates had no place to hide. Piracy began to revive in a modest way beginning in the 1970s, with the collapse of many post-colonial regimes. Note that what constitutes an act of piracy is often not clearly defined. What most people agree on is that piracy is non-state sanctioned use of force at sea or from the sea. This could include intercepting a speedboat to rob the passengers, but that's usually just thought of as armed robbery. And something like the seizure of the Achille Lauro in 1985 is considered terrorism, rather than piracy. In the past, some marginal states have sanctioned piratical operations, like the Barbary States, but that sort of thing has largely disappeared.

The international effort to suppress Somali piracy halted and reversed the increased piracy off the coast. But while there have been far fewer attacks off Somalia there has been a big jump in attacks in the Straits of Malacca (sevenfold increase since 2009) and off Nigeria (a similar increase). The big difference is that only off Somalia could ships and crews be taken and held for ransom for long periods. Everywhere else the pirates were usually only interested in robbing the crew and stealing anything portable that they could get into their small boats. Off the Nigerian coast pirates sometimes take some ship officers with them to hold for ransom or force the crew to move small tankers to remote locations where most of the cargo (of oil) can be transferred to another ship and sold on the black market.

Pirates usually function on the margins of society, trying to get a cut of the good life in situations where there aren't many options. This is usually in areas where state control is weakest or absent, in failing and "flailed" states. A flailing state is something like Nigeria, Indonesia, or the Philippines, where the government is managing to keep things together but is faced with serious problems with areas that are sometimes out of control. In a failed state like, where there isn't a government at all, pirates can do whatever they want. Somalia was, and largely still is, a failed state as are the two autonomous areas up north (Puntland and Somaliland).

The solution to piracy is essentially on land; go into uncontrolled areas and institute governance. This has been the best approach since the Romans eliminated piracy in the Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago. Trying to tackle piracy on the maritime end can reduce the incidence of piracy, but can't eliminate it because the pirates still have a safe base on land. In the modern world the "land" solution often can't be implemented. Who wants to put enough troops into Somalia to eliminate piracy? And flailing states are likely to be very sensitive about their sovereignty if you offer to help them control marginal areas. While there was much resistance to putting weapons on commercial ships, it eventually turned out that fighting back was the easiest way to defeat the Somali pirates.






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