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April 9, 2009

Piracy - The Simple Yet Impossible Solution

The recent seizure of the US flagged ship Maersk Alabama off the horn of Africa has brought the issue home. Most of us who follow the news have been aware that there was a serious problem with piracy in the area, and have read about this or that nation sending a ship or so to help with patrols. But there's nothing like having your own citizens seized to make you sit up straight.

The solution is both simple and impossible. Steve Shippert, military affairs writer for National Review's The Tank blog and Threatswatch, explains

The only tenable solution is to put the prevention at the point of risk: Aboard the vessel.

It is the only solution -- sans magical liquidation of all pirates and their havens -- that is fast-reacting enough or cost effective enough. (Have you ever checked the expense tab of operating a US Navy destroyer for a 24-hour period of steaming? It's an expense only a stimulus's mother could love.)

What does the security team look like? Pretty simple, actually. 4-6 men from the contracting outfit, with small arms with enough reach and punch to introduce a speedboat to the ocean floor. There is an array of potent automatic rifles available. The team should possess at least one .50 caliber weapon for both range and punch. Certainly no 5.56mm M-16's. As well, some form of grenade weapons should be on hand (RPGs, grenade launchers and/or other shoulder-fired explosive weapons suitable for maritime use.) Night scopes and night vision goggles are essential as well. There are plenty of arms experts who know what would and would not work best. Point is, it isn't rocket science. Get it done.

There's more, but that's the gist of it. And it would work. It'll also never be done.

Not sure why it won't work? Consider this tidbit from a story in the Wall Street Journal from last November:

Last April the British Foreign Office reportedly warned the Royal Navy not to detain pirates, since this might violate their "human rights" and could even lead to claims of asylum in Britain. Turning the captives over to Somali authorities is also problematic -- since they might face the head and hand-chopping rigors of Shariah law. Similar considerations have confounded U.S. government officials in their discussions of how to confront this new problem of an old terror at sea.

Then there's the story of the navy that did shoot to kill:

One of the most controversial cases so far is the Indian navy's sinking of a suspected pirate vessel in November. India said at the time it had come under attack from a pirate "mother ship," ordinarily a vessel pirates have captured to use to travel long distances that their speedboats cannot. The International Maritime Bureau and the Thai owner later reported that the vessel was a fishing trawler with civilian sailors on board. The trawler had been hijacked by pirates hours before it was sunk by the Indian navy.

If nation-states are afraid to capture obvious pirates, and a fuss is made then they actually kill them and sink their ships, imagine what would happen to private contractors. At least nations have the protection of sovereignty. Even they are under assault, as consider the cas of the Spanish court which wants to indite former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez on five other Bush Administration officials, charging that they "violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay." The issue of this court is not the work of a bunch of nuts we can ignore, but rather part of a determined effort . We're told that we have nothing to worry about from the International Criminal Court, as it's charter makes it seem so innocuous, but given all that I know color me skeptical.

Googling for "blackwater human rights violations" gets 167,000 returns, and the first two that come up are Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

So call me cynical but if Shippert's solution is employed it won't be long before there is shooting and before long there will be accusations that innocent people were killed. Before lone someone will be paraded before the cameras who will tell the world that he was just out for a pleasure cruise and had his boat sunk and friends killed. You know the rest of that story.

The solution, then, is not really technical, but political. Private firms need political cover.

We need leaders who can take decisive action and have the will to withstand the inevitable assaults from the "human rights" crowd. George W. Bush didn't have that willpower. President Obama doesn't, and I don't see anyone in Europe with the moxie either. I'm happy that the Indians sank that pirate ship, but as Shippert explained it's like swatting flies with a sledgehammer; great that we got one but there are a zillion more swarming around.

I am wondering why Shippert didn't mention special operations troops instead of private contractors. I know that ours are tied up fighting the GWOT(it's still that despite what Obama says) around the world. The Europeans, Indians, Canadians, and other have some, but maybe not enough. I tried to leave a comment asking him this at Threatswatch but got an error message, so sent an email instead. If I get a response I'll post it or a summary of what he says here.

Folks, I really hope I'm wrong here. I'd like nothing more than to see dozens or hundreds of these security teams from dozens of nationalities put onboard ships, have them shoot up some pirates, and have the "international community" give a hip hip hurrah. I just doubt any of it will happen. And if you have your own ideas as to how do deal with the problem I'm all ears.

What Won't Work

One, relying on traditional naval forces. The pirates are coming out in large speedboats and the like, and even the smaller naval vessels are expensive to operate, meant for high-tech warfare, and as Shippert put it using them would be like "swatting mosquitoes with a sledgehammer."

Along with this, "international cooperation" and UN resolutions are most certainly not the answer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton typifies this attitude.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Wednesday for world action to "end the scourge of piracy" as U.S. warships raced to confront the pirates.

"Specifically, we are now focused on this particular act of piracy and the seizure of a ship that carries 21 American citizens. More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy," she said.

This sounds like something out of one of those sentence generators that paste together stock phrases. Note to Hillary; "the world" doesn't care enough to do anything.

The Barbary Coast Pirates

We've dealt with the issue or piracy before. If you're like me, you've often heard that the Barbary Coast pirates were attacking ships, the Europeans paid tribute, and we refused. President Thomas Jefferson sent the Navy and Marines and they took care of business. "To the shores of Tripoli" and all that.

In the end that's true, but it's all a bit more complicated and didn't go down quite that easy.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, pirates ("corsairs") operating Algiers were raiding ships in the Mediterranean. The entire story is long and complicated, but essentially Europeans powers were paying tribute to avoid having their ships seized. Nevertheless, some were seized, including some American ships, holding their crews as slaves for several years. After years of debate, we finally decided to build a navy to deal with this and other problems. We fought two wars with the pirate nations, the first lasting from 1801 to 1805 and the second in 1815. After much fumbling we eventually won and the pirates mostly ceased their actions, though it wasn't until the French invasion in 1830 that the problem was finally ended.

My guess is that the current problem will take the same route. It'll take more than the incident with the Maersk Alabama to provoke serious action. Until then we'll dither.

Posted by Tom at April 9, 2009 9:00 PM

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Nice comparison with the Barbary corsairs. Linda Colley writes a v. good book on 18th century pirating, called 'Captives'.

Of course, if you were to draw a solution from the historical comparison, it would presumably be, "colonise Somalia and turn it into an E.U. protectorate!" ;)

Posted by: Mylne Karimov at April 10, 2009 5:49 AM

---If you're like me, you've often heard that the Barbary Coast pirates were attacking ships, the Europeans paid tribute, and we refused. President Thomas Jefferson sent the Navy and Marines and they took care of business. "To the shores of Tripoli" and all that.---

Not really true. In the First Barbary war (1801-1805) Jefferson sent in William Eaton and his marines, but then sold then down river and actually then paid off the Pasha with a ransom of $60,000 for the return of the crew of the USS Philadelphia. Eaton and his Marines took the city of Derna (technically part of Tripoli) in 1805, but this effort was eventually in vain when Jefferson paid the ransom and made a truce with Pasha. The Barbary pirates continued to take ships from 1807 onwards. It wasn't until the Second Barbary war (1815), with the 'multinational' force of American, English and Dutch, that Barbary piracy was stomped out.
Check out the book "Pirate Coast", by Richard Zack. We can learn from history, but it must the real version of history, not a 'revised' version.

Posted by: jason at April 10, 2009 1:33 PM

I meant for the post above to supplement your summary, but posted it before I finished. In summary, I agree that the real solution was complex and drawn out.

I own a fair amount of stock in a Danish shipping company, but I'm no expert. However, I have learned in general that it's really stupid to put people with guns on any tanker ship (carrying gas, oil, natural gas or flammable chemicals). No shipping company wants a firefight that ends in the ship exploding due to an errant bullet, especially given the cost of cleanup that would be incurred by the firm, in addition to the lost of the ship and crew. It's not a viable option for tankers.

Posted by: jason at April 10, 2009 1:46 PM

Here is some seriously incorrect history, courtesy of Glenn Beck:

---"In 1801, just days after his inauguration as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson — who famously said "one war, such as that of our revolution, is enough for one life" — would not tolerate any more blackmail from the pirates. He tried to build an international coalition but, surprise, surprise, no one else was interested.

So Jefferson — realizing that America would never truly be free if it cowered to terrorists — dispatched the Marines.

Those Marines fought bravely against Islamic terrorists for 14 years far from home and as far as I know it was never described as a quagmire or a lost cause....

....That's why it's time these modern-day pirates meet the same people who ended the tyranny of their predecessors: the few, the proud, the United States Marines"---

Posted by: jason at April 10, 2009 2:10 PM

Thank you for your comments, Mylne and jason.

Rick Brookhiser] posted this today at NRO's The Corner which backs up the history jason cites:

The early republic's experience of piracy shows how long it can take to stamp it out. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dealt with the Barbary pirates — essentially a north African Muslim protection racket — when they were diplomats in the 1780s. The problem continued through the first four presidential administrations, until after the War of 1812.

George Washington negotiated, and John Adams signed, a treaty with the bashaw of Tripoli in which we agreed to pay protection money to spare our ships from attack and asserted that America "was not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Latter-day secularists often cite the Tripoli treaty, without seeming to realize that it was an attempt to blackmail thugs.

As President Jefferson tried a combination of war and negotiation, the fighting had some splendid moments — William Eaton, our consul in Alexandria, led a handful of Marines, mercenaries, and Arab allies across the Egyptian desert to Dirne, Tripoli's second-largest town, which they captured (hence "the shores of Tripoli" in the Marine Corps hymn). But then Jefferson settled for a rather unsatisfactory deal with the bashaw he had been fighting.

James Madison had to send the Navy back a second time — all business, no negotiating. Britain and Holland sent punitive expeditions of their own, and France conquered most of North Africa in the 1830s. Libya, the former Tripoli, resumed terrorism if not piracy in our day, though it changed its tune after the second Gulf War.

Moral: It's a long haul.

Posted by: Tom the Redhunter at April 10, 2009 8:43 PM

Well maybe 'the world' doesn't come together but the large developed nations with navies could come to a common understanding in regards to pirates. Considering how small scale these operations are it seems sensible that all navies could agree to come to the aid of any ship attacked by pirates, regardless of nationality (if such an agreement isn't already part of some type of 'code of the sea').

Also it seems to me the sensible thing to do would be to set up some 'honey traps'. Have some special forces hang out on large, slow moving cargo ships. When pirates attack they can kill/capture them and support craft in the area could identify 'mother ships'. I'm sure some shipping companies would love to see their cargo and crews so protected.

Basically make piracy more expensive and more risky. Another, what seems to me, more obvious solution would be to arm the crews more heavily. Why shipping companies don't do this, considering that a lot of international shipping operates in somewhat murkey legal territory, I don't know....unless lots of shipping companies simply don't trust their crews much more than the pirates?

In the long run, of course, a stronger gov't in Somalia would be the best solution since that would provide some type of check on pirates based there. Also with more legit. industries able to develop in Somalia, there will be more economic pressure from them for the local gov't to curb pirates.

Posted by: Boonton at April 13, 2009 10:21 AM

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