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April 15, 2009

Blogging Heads: Pirate edition

Military historian Robert Farley and foreign policy wonk Dan Drezner discuss the options for dealing with piracy. The general consensus is that there's not that much more the world community can do to police vast oceans against stateless pirates.

Destroying pirate infrastructure on land is out. There's not that much of it and it's not all that valuable. As Farley says, most pirate lairs are just "lairs of convenience" located in ordinary port cities. If you destroy the port, the pirates will relocate to another spot along the coastline and the local people will be deprived of their ports and their livelihoods.

International patrols are ongoing, but they are of limited value in preventing attacks because the ocean is vast and the pirates act very quickly. Farley says that a speedboat full of pirates can overrun a ship in less than half an hour. Typically, it's all over before a navy ship can react, Farley explains. Pirates don't always hold ships for ransom. Sometimes they just steal the cargo.

It's not legally feasible for many vessels to arm their crews because many countries including the United States balk at letting packs of armed foreign nationals into their ports. The U.S. Coast Guard is justifiably concerned that armed sailors could be a terrorism risk in the U.S..

Most ship owners don't want guns on their vessels. For one thing, they don't want to run the risk that people confined in close quarters for months at a time will turn on each other, or their officers.

There are also liability and safety concerns associated with arming people with no combat training.

Kennebec Captain writes:

Does it make sense to spend time and money training merchant crews in the use of lethal force? The reluctance to arm crews is not because of any squeamishness or some kind of misguided political correctness but practicality. I get ABs from time to time that can not be taught to steer. At safety meetings we still are trying to get the concept of wearing eye protection when using power tools across to the crew, with limited success. Where is the time to train and supervise crew armed with automatic weapons going to come from?

Piracy has been a problem off the Horn of Africa for years, but thanks in large part to the no arms rule, very few people have been killed.

Ship owners are also concerned about the well-being of their crews. Is it fair to expect merchant mariners to use lethal force to protect company property? That's not what they signed up for. On land, a boss would be considered insane or criminal for demanding that civilian employees fight off armed robbers.

Ultimately, ship owners are businesspeople. If it's less expensive to buy pirate insurance than to arm, train, and insure their people to carry guns, the owners are going to keep paying ransoms. We couldn't stop them from doing so, even if we wanted to. Piracy isn't new and neither is the idea of arming merchant ships, but there are good reasons why this trend hasn't taken off.

Hiring trained security guards might mitigate some of the liability and safety concerns, but it's expensive to hire enough security to fight off a pirate attack. The chances of any given ship being attacked are low low and the costs of having a meaningful private security contingent on every voyage would add up quickly.

There are plenty of measures that merchant ships already take to prevent pirate attacks. Even simple precautions like installing adequate lighting and posting a 24-hour watch can make a big difference. The crew of the Maersk Alabama successfully repelled pirates from their ship without guns, thanks to tactics they learned through their union. Various sub-lethal weapons are also used to deter pirates including fire hoses, piercing sirens, and tasers.

Farley thinks that helping Somalia become a functional state again might reduce piracy in the long run.


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"...there's not much more the world community can do to police vast oceans against stateless pirates. ...International patrols are ongoing, but ... of limited value in preventing attacks because the ocean is vast and the pirates act very quickly."

Why police "vast oceans"? Legitimate ships could register courses inside much smaller exclusion zones. The navies enforcing them would be on the qui vive for unregistered boats from the Somali coast intruding into the zone, and sink any they identified as pirates before they could reach their prey.

"Piracy has been a problem off the Horn of Africa for years, but thanks in large part to the no arms rule, very few people have been killed."

If I may relink and requote:

AP reports today:

"Pirate attacks in the region have rapidly increased lately, according to the International Maritime Bureau. In less than four months this year, there have been 79 attacks, compared to 111 for all of 2008. In 2003, there were only 21 attacks by Somalis in this expanse of water. Last year pirates took 815 sailors hostage and hijacked 42 ships."

It's worsening because it pays. Why not try killing the pirates instead?

"Farley says that helping Somalia become a functional state again might reduce piracy in the long run."

Wouldn't killing off Somali piracy contribute to that?

I doubt it.

Trying to kill pirates is like trying to kill insurgents. It's not like there's a fixed number of them. If you get rid of one set, more will spring up. The incentives are just too great and there are too many desperate people to expect that the problem will go away because we kill some pirates.

The oceans are vast relative to ships' ability to intervene. If pirates can seize a ship in 15-20 minutes, what are the chances that there's going to be a ship around when we need one?

I'm not saying we shouldn't try, but there's a point of diminishing returns. No matter how many escorts you have, you're not going to be able to prevent more than a fraction of the attacks. Conditions are desperate enough that many pirates will accept high levels of risk.


Such as you have always made the job of those who man the gulags, gas chambers and killing fields so much easer. Why bother fighting back, resistance is futile....Or maybe you yearn for dhimmi status, I don't know.

Furthermore, Somalia will never be a functioning state as we Westerners define the idea. The people aren't smart enough to maintain a modern state - average IQ of 84 - with Islam thrown into the mix...success not likely.

Solution: kill the pirates, destroy the boats, destroy the ports if necessary and then just LEAVE THEM ALONE. Don't worry about them. Let them live their lives as they see to it. Let them retreat to the desert and live as their ancestors have lived for millennia.

How about some context?In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged.

Arm the ships, not the crews. 30mm Goalkeeper/CIWS set to "auto" when transiting pirate-laden waters, and assume that everyone else is reasonable enough to answer radio or stop and hail at least 1nm out.

That's a very interesting article from the Independent, Seth. Thanks for the link.

Daniel, take your pompous racist crap somewhere else.

Eurosabra, that's one of the dumber ideas I've heard all day, and believe me there has been stiff competition.

What I don't get, is the bit about 30 minute pirate intercepts. Some of these attacks occur 100 miles offshore, or more. Are there so many itty-bitty boats hanging around out there, that the pirates can hide among them? 30 minutes is 15 miles, more or less.
(I am assuming ordinary boats, not cigarette boats, plus you take quite a beating going fast through ocean swell in a small boat.)

I also don't get the cost issues. We keep an eye on the Gulf of Mexico for our war on drugs and to fend off immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, and other places, and the G of M is a very busy place (to my knowledge, we use tethered blimps and P-3 airplanes). Reliably keeping track of which boats are which and where they are from seems like a plenty hard problem, yet we seem to generally do it. If the ships stay 200 or 300 miles offshore, is it really that hard to keep an eye out for anyone approaching within 30 miles? (This is different from don't-recall-where in the South Pacific, where the ships have no choice but to travel in a skinny place.) If you spot a likely pirate, you alert the ships, they have the option of turning away from the pirates (makes them much harder to catch), they have the option of deploying lights, hoses, or dazzling lasers (like the ones we use in Iraq to permanently damage people's eyesight in order to make them stop at checkpoints). When convenient (i.e., not expensive), arrest the pirates. I assume that they will not resist arrest, because that would be suicidal.

I don't think that it is a simple issue of ransom money as a cost of doing business. That money is flowing someplace that is likely to be a base for terrorism, and it could be "profitably" invested in schemes that are bad for us.

The width of the entire strip between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is about 200 miles at its widest.


Why is it "dumb"? There is fairly common protocol for approaching another vessel on the high seas, and the system only works out to about 1nm. Anyone approaching you for a legitimate reason will signal first, at a reasonable distance. As in many, many miles. One of the biggest problems facing modern navies is small suicide-boat swarms, and the "auto" setting in areas where there are no known friendlies could deal with that. Something like a Q-ship would be ideal.

Somalia is not Gaza, whose coast is plied by a constant swarms while there ARE going to be small legitimate fishing boats out there, they are not likely to be in shipping lanes, if you're a freighter being approached by a small boat that is closing rapidly (i.e. not a civilian in distress), you're being attacked by pirates.

One of the best replies to terrorists is "may God have mercy on your souls." Piracy is, has always been, in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, just another form of Jihad.

Eurosabra, piracy has cropped up in every good chokepoint, including Somalia and the Straits of Malacca, and previously the Caribbean and the East China Sea. Why do you think it's a form of Jihad?

We spend a lot of money policing the Gulf of Mexico because it's our own back yard. Several major U.S. cities are located on the Gulf. It's a major entry for drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S. It's home to critical U.S. oil and gas infrastructure and it supports a $20 billion tourist industry. Planes and boats can be based on U.S. soil.

Controlling piracy on the Horn of Africa is nowhere near as important to our national interests. It's also nowhere near as convenient for us to police.

The Economist has some very revealing statistics: The key shipping area we're seeking to protect is 1.1 million square miles of ocean. About 20,000 ships pass through that zone every year. In 2008, 111 were attacked and 42 were captured.

The Economist's expert estimates that it would take 140 warships to secure the Gulf of Aden alone, up from the 20 that are there now. But it's not just the Gulf of Aden that we have to worry about. Already, our progress in securing the GOA has pushed piracy further out into the Indian Ocean.

Ransoms have been up to $3 million a pop. Let's assume that that's $3 million per ransom, that's $126 million, tops. That's a lot less than the cost of 120 more warships. I have no idea how much it would cost to arm the crews of the 20,000 ships that passed through the area in 2008. If anything goes wrong with one of those guns, the company could easily be on the hook for $10 million per wrongful death suit, so they'll need insurance to cover those risks.

If it costs $X dollars today to outfit a ship with better weapons than the pirates, how much is it going to cost to reequip the ship when the pirates come back with bigger guns. How much extra will you have to pay to retain firearms trained sailors who are willing to commit to engaging in gun battles with pirates. Currently, the expectation is that if defense fails, the crew will surrender and nobody will get hurt.

I know drones are very chic right now and maybe there's some role for them. Unfortunately, the drones don't work unless you have good intel about where to send them. We have next to no intelligence on Somali pirates. The unmarked pirate vessels are mixed in with peaceful small vessels. No doubt some of the pirate vessels do double duty. The Somalis need to use their own coastline for sustenance and transportation.

It's absolutely unacceptable for the U.S. to tell Somalis where they can and can't go off their own coast on suspicion of being pirates. Piracy is the crime, not being out in a boat that looks like it might be a pirate vessel.

I'm sure there's a lot that could be done to make ships harder targets. This is the first time a U.S. ship has been captured, probably in no small part because the U.S. has higher standards for training and safety than a lot of the other boats on the water. For a fraction of the cost of sending more warships, we could help shipping companies upgrade their fleets. Maybe we even provide favorable financing terms to help them acquire American ship-defense technology. Win-win.

Well, the biggest problem is. The piracy really hasn't cost that much. It's not exactly dutch pirates sinking british merchant ships and obliterating entire colony's trade route.

We are talking about about hundred ships a year and most covered by insurance, costing the global shipping probably around hundred millions dollar. Chump change.

The only viable/cheap solution of course, to simply create "safe passage". a convoy of ship guarded by a battle ship, moving on scheduled rate.

But you know, that costs more in delay for entire lane than few ships getting stranded.

So, expect more of the same.

Note the geographical specificity: in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean (well, with the exception of some British pirates) imperialism crept east (Aden, Oman, Goa) in response to jihad in the form of piracy. And the Portuguese always mixed prize-taking and holy war, at least before mercantilism, which gets you 16th century Malacca. It's too culturally illiterate to claim all extortion-while-Muslim is rent-seeking in the form of unofficial jizya, but a lot of the diplomatic discourse between the early US and the Barbary States centers on that theme. At least in Western discourse, European pirates who operated for the Barbary States were "renegades", converts to Islam. European pirates who operated against their own states or other colonial powers in the Atlantic and the Caribbean were always labeled economic criminals.

What I don't get, is the bit about 30 minute pirate intercepts. Some of these attacks occur 100 miles offshore, or more. Are there so many itty-bitty boats hanging around out there, that the pirates can hide among them? 30 minutes is 15 miles, more or less.
(I am assuming ordinary boats, not cigarette boats, plus you take quite a beating going fast through ocean swell in a small boat.)

Posted by: dr2chase | April 15, 2009 at 10:59 PM

yes there are that many boats. we are talking about 10 foot fiber glass boats. Those doesn't show up on radar too well.

on top of that, the coast is pretty long. Kenya, Djibouti, Yemen are all major ports. It's not possible to do intense areal recon. The flight is long. Yemen, Kenya and Seychelles has friendly airstrips. the pirates has 2-300 miles range. That's pretty much near the middle of indian ocean.

see map here. you can see mogadishu port.

I actually visited Djibouti and was in those waters on the USS Blandy back in 1980.

It was a very short visit visit. No pirates then.

There is no good reason why the Somalis cannot govern themselves - if they choose to.

Until they do, the US/EU/China have a right and duty to kill destroy the pirates without mercy.

Lindsay, your comments on insurgents is spot off. Recent history in Iraq does not support your thesis. At some point people tire of fighting, and at some point the Iraqis realized that the "insurgents" were dictatorial sectarian criminals.

Oh, and if you're in a speedboat 100 miles offshore without fishing gear and with a rifle or grenade launcher - you're a pirate.

Phantom, we paid the insurgents not to fight us in Iraq, remember? The Anbar Awakening involved paying tributes to Sunni militias to reduce violence. Even that's not working now.

Also, it's flat-out not true that only pirates patrol the Somali coast with weapons. There's also a kind of coast guard militia that local fishermen have organized to protect the Somali coast from poachers, nuclear waste dumpers, and other threats. You can't tell them they can't police their own coast.

Also, think about it, if everyone is armed, then the presence of arms in a boat will no longer distinguish pirates from non-pirates. Why wouldn't fishermen arm themselves? You guys think being armed is such a great idea, wouldn't you expect the Somali commercial vessels to take the same precautions?

The problems with simply accepting piracy as a cost of business are, AFAICT:

(1) Rewarding crime generates more crime. Without some sort of pushback the rate of piracy will continue to increase.

(2) The pirates aren't small entrepreneurs, they are typically hired by people who stay on shore. These people are effectively warlords, and the ransom money goes into making them more powerful, to the detriment of the people of Somalia.

As far as solutions, I don't think there are any which are clean, simple, and effective. Obviously getting some sort of stability for Somalia and providing non-criminal ways of making money would be a huge help, but it's not clear how to do that.

Thing is, a coast guard is 12 miles out, at most. You seem to be treating this as a sort of consensual, "social contract" police question, where the treatment of someone armed depends on context and intent. It's not. NAVIES signal "Identify yourself" and "Alter course or we will fire" to small unidentified vessels that get too close all the time, post-USS Cole. Someone closing rapidly in a small boat is either a pirate or a terrorist, and naval forces practice coastal interdiction all the time. It's a pity, but Gazans don't get to fish too far out because a few men in rubber boats shot up hotels in Tel Aviv in the 70s, and tried to do it again in the 90s. Prevalently deadly piracy is already a problem in Southeast Asia, and crews there attempt to resist because otherwise they will not survive. Part of the "democratization of violence" made possible by the RPG, AK-47,and the end of the Royal Navy as world police is that cargo vessels in some parts of the world will have to fight their way through against pirates as they used to.

You can't tell them they can't police their own coast.

Under these circumstances, we can and should say just that. When the piracy does down to zero for 12 consecutive months, we can talk.

Phantom: even Ariel Sharon was humane enough to insist on only 7 consecutive days... and even that didn't prevent the Palestinian Territories from having the world's fastest economic contraction, year after year.

Lindsay: is there any source that corroborates the Independent's claim that there's a coast guard militia in Somalia formed to scare off illegal trawlers and waste dumps?

Alon, here's some information about pirates protecting against overfishing:

The piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago, Somali officials said, as a response to illegal fishing. Somalia’s central government imploded in 1991, casting the country into chaos. With no patrols along the shoreline, Somalia’s tuna-rich waters were soon plundered by commercial fishing fleets from around the world. Somali fishermen armed themselves and turned into vigilantes by confronting illegal fishing boats and demanding that they pay a tax.

The article goes on to say that these pirates crossed over from defense to plain old extortion. But since there's no functional government, somebody's got to be defending Somalia's coastline and armed volunteers are still filling the gap. They may also be pirates.

Al Jazeera has reported on the toxic waste angle in greater depth than most of the Western media.

Here's what Global Security has to say:

Four main pirate groups are operating along the Somali coast. The National Volunteer Coast Guard (NVCG), commanded by Garaad Mohamed, is said to specialize in intercepting small boats and fishing vessels around Kismayu on the southern coast. The Marka group, under the command of Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad (also known as Yusuf Indha'adde), is made up of several scattered and less organized groups operating around the town of Marka. The third significant pirate group is composed of traditional Somali fishermen operating around Puntland and referred to as the Puntland Group. The Somali Marines are the most powerful and sophisticated of the pirate groups. It has a military structure, with a fleet admiral, admiral, vice admiral and a head of financial operations.

So, it's complicated. There's definitely an ongoing tradition of volunteer coastguard activities and it's an open question the extent to which these particular criminal gangs are participating.

just a note. if you look at Somalia map (wikimapia) Its not a big country in term of population. Only 9 million people. With only one major city Mogadishu (size about 1m or so) There aren't that many people. Somalia population is the size of Houston + suburbs.

The piracy number annually is also about 100 or so.

To suggest "let's invade and bomb the suckers" is pretty outrage, if not downright stupid.

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