The recent pirate attack on a 1,800 foot long, 300,000 ton tanker 700
kilometers off the Somali coast, has raised the stakes in the battle with the Somali
pirates. The piracy has been a growing problem off the Somali coast for over a
decade. The problem now is that there are hundreds of experienced pirates. And
these guys have worked out a system that is very lucrative, and not very risky.
For most of
the past decade, the pirates preyed on foreign fishing boats and the small,
often sail powered, cargo boats the move close (within a hundred kilometers) of
the shore. During that time, the pirates developed contacts with businessmen in
the Persian Gulf who could be used to negotiate (for a percentage) the ransoms
with insurance companies and shipping firms. The pirates also mastered the
skills needed to put a grappling hook on the railing, 30-40 feet above the
water, of a large ship. Doing this at night, and then scrambling aboard, is
more dangerous if the ship has lookouts, who can alert sailors trained to
deploy high pressure fire hoses against the borders.
Few big ships
carry any weapons, and most have small crews (12-30 sailors). Attacking at
night finds most of the crew asleep. Rarely do these ships have any armed
security. Ships can post additional lookouts when in areas believed to have
pirates. Once pirates (speedboats full
of armed men) are spotted, ships can increase speed (a large ship running at
full speed, about 40+ kilometers an hour, can outrun most of the current speed
boats the pirates have), and have fire hoses ready to be used to repel
boarders. The pirates will fire their AK-47 assault rifles and RPG grenade
launchers, but the sailors handling the fire hoses will stand back so the
gunmen cannot get a direct shot.
pirates take good care of their captives, the anti-piracy efforts cannot risk a
high body count, lest they be accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes or
simply bad behavior. The pirates have access to hundreds of sea going fishing
boats, which can pretend to fish by day, and sneak up on merchant ships at
night. The pirates often operate in teams, with one or more fishing boats
acting as lookouts, and alerting another boat that a large, apparently
unguarded, ship is headed their way. The pirate captain can do a simple
calculation to arrange meeting the oncoming merchant vessel in the middle of
the night. These fishing boats can carry inflatable boats with large outboard
engines. Each of these can carry four or five pirates, their weapons and the
grappling hook projectors needed to get the pirates onto the deck of a large
ship. These big ships are very automated, and at night the only people on duty
will be on the bridge. This is where the pirates go, to seize control of the
ship. The rest of the crew is then rounded up. The pirates force the captain to
take the ship to an anchorage near some Somali fishing village. There, more
gunmen will board, and stand guard over crew and ship until the ransom is paid.
Sometimes, part of the crew will be sent ashore, and kept captive there. The
captive sailors are basically human shields for the pirates, to afford some
protection from commando attacks.
Now that the
pirates have demonstrated their ability to operate far (over 700 kilometers)
from shore, it's no longer possible to use naval patrols. There is simply too
much area to patrol. What the naval commanders are considering is a convoy
system for any ships passing within a thousand kilometers of the Somali coast.
But with ocean going ships, the pirates can operate anywhere in the region.
Between the Gulf of Aden, and the Straits of Malacca to the east (between
Singapore and Indonesia), you have a third of the worlds shipping. All are now
at risk. Convoys for all these ships would require more warships (over a
hundred) than can be obtained.
the option of a military operation to capture the seaside towns and villages
the pirates operate from. This would include sinking hundreds of fishing boats
and speedboats. Hundreds of civilians would be killed or injured. Unless the
coastal areas were occupied (or until local Somalis could maintain law and
order), the pirates would soon be back in business.
Somalia is an unpopular prospect. Given the opprobrium heaped on the U.S. for
doing something about Iraq, no one wants to be on the receiving end of that
criticism for pacifying Somalia. The world also knows, from over a century of
experience, that the Somalis are violent, persistent and unreliable. That's a
combination that has made it impossible for the Somalis to even govern themselves.
In the past, what is now Somalia has been ruled, by local and foreign rulers,
through the use of violent methods that are no longer politically acceptable.
But now the world is caught between accepting a "piracy tax" imposed
by the Somalis, or going in and pacifying the unruly country and its multitude
of bandits, warlords and pirates.
tax is basically a security surcharge on maritime freight movements. It pays
for higher insurance premiums (which in turn pay for the pirate ransoms),
danger bonuses for crews and the additional expense of all those warships off
the Somali coast. Most consumers would hardly notice this surcharge, as it
would increase sea freight charges by less than a percent. Already, many ships
are going round the southern tip of Africa, and avoiding Somalia and the Suez
canal altogether. Ships would still be taken. Indeed, about a third of the
ships seized this year had taken precautions, but the pirates still got them.
Warships could attempt an embargo of Somalia, not allowing seagoing ships in or
our without a warship escort. Suspicious seagoing ships, and even speedboats,
could be sunk in port. That would still produce some videos (real or staged, it
doesn't matter) of dead civilians, but probably not so many that the
anti-piracy force would be indicted as war criminals.
On the plus
side, illegal fishing in Somali waters would diminish, because of the pirate
threat. Suez canal traffic in the Gulf of Aden would get used to waiting for a
convoy to form at either end of the 1,500 kilometers long route through pirate
territory. There would still be enough ship captains stupid or impatient enough
to make the "Aden Run" alone, and get caught by the pirates. The UN,
and the heads of major world navies, would continue to agitate for a large
peacekeeping force to go in. The UN because of the growing casualties among its
food aid staff, and the admirals because of the toll of keeping nearly a
hundred of warships and patrol aircraft stationed off Somalia in the endless
anti-piracy patrol. Eventually, public opinion might lean towards pacification,
rather than the endless anti-pirate patrol. Eventually, maybe. But for now the
piracy is definitely there, and will grow larger if nothing decisive is done.
Which is what has already been happening, and may continue to happen.