The Seven Ways to Stop Piracy

And why none of them will work as well as we might hope.

Now that the rush of excitement has subsided from the made-for-TV drama of the rescue of Captain Phillips, we are left with the more sobering long-term question of what to do about Somali piracy. Whether piracy constitutes a serious national security threat is a subject of debate. But there is no question that piracy off the Somali coast is now an important symbolic political issue for both the Obama administration and its critics. The Obama administration does not want conservative opponents to portray it as weak on defense or unwilling to use force to protect American interests, and so cannot afford to embrace passive policies on piracy. Yet the piracy issue is replete with traps, a seemingly simple problem with seemingly simple solutions, all of which could easily backfire and make things worse.

Indeed, some of the strategies that have the greatest appeal for the American public and punditry are also the most dangerous. And certainly, none of them offers a quick fix.

Lets look at the standard menu of options being discussed in Washington:

1. Live with piracy as an unavoidable nuisance. Approaching piracy as a chronic problem to be managed rather than a war to be won is a deeply unsatisfying position, and is easy to attack politically. Yet there is a case to be made that the United States and the international community have overstated the threat of Somali piracy. Somali hijackers earned between $30 and $40 million in ransom in 2008, a handsome sum of cash in one of the worlds most impoverished countries, but a paltry sum for international shipping — not even enough to appreciably raise insurance premiums for ships passing through the Gulf of Aden. To give this sum some perspective, for example, last week I attended a conference on piracy in Washington D.C., and stayed at a hotel that was proudly announcing a $140 million renovation project — a price-tag three to four times the pirates annual take.

Most shipping companies prefer to live with the current piracy modus vivendi. The risk of any one ship being pirated is still low; their crews, ships, and cargo are returned safely; and the ransom fees are manageable. A military rescue, by comparison, is much riskier to the crew and will raise insurance costs considerably, as insurance companies will have to factor in the possibility of injuries and loss of life to crew and ensuing lawsuits.

There are other compelling reasons to try to eliminate piracy in Somali waters — such as fear of copycat piracy elsewhere, fear of al Qaeda adopting the practice to capture Western hostages, and commitment to the principle of open seas. But the ransom amounts themselves do not justify a military response.

2. Prevent or deter piracy with naval patrols and convoys. This is the current policy, which has led to an impressive flotilla of naval vessels from more than a dozen countries around the world patrolling the waters. Cargo ships passing through the Gulf of Aden can even avail themselves of naval convoys for some protection.

So far, it hasnt worked as planned; naval patrols cannot stop, or even slow, piracy off the Somali coast. The waters are too vast, the cargo ships too numerous, and the risk-reward calculation too tempting for Somali pirates. Even in rare instances when naval vessels are close enough to interdict a piracy attack, there are enormous complications associated with firing on suspected pirate ships, especially when pirates use mother ships — captured dhows or fishing vessels with innocent fishermen aboard. There are also continuing complications revolving around the legal dispensation of suspects once captured. Though Kenya has agreed to consider handling trials of captured pirates, the ability of the already strained Kenyan judiciary to handle additional, complex case loads remains a matter of concern.

Virtually everyone agrees that naval interdiction alone cannot stop Somali piracy, and may not even be able to reduce incidents of piracy.

3. Arm the cargo ships. Giving sailors guns seems like an obvious solution. But this would face major resistance from shipping companies, who dont want to deal with the added security risks, costs, and legal liability that all follow from having armed security on board their cargo ships. There are many legal concerns involved here, not least of which is the prospect of having the ship impounded and the crew arrested and charged for firing on an innocent vessel. Insurance costs would escalate considerably if armed guards were placed on ships. And until shipping companies would rather insure against pirates than pay their ransoms (as is the case now), this option is simply not on the table.

4. Take the war to the pirate lairs on shore. We know where the pirates strongholds are — in several coastal villages in northeastern Somalia. Some are calling for the Obama administration to create disincentives for the pirates by bombing their land bases. This is very appealing as an offensive (rather than defensive) approach to the piracy plague, and it is particularly attractive to those who are trying to reshape the low risk, high reward calculus that drives piracy today.

Despite its theoretical appeal, bombing would be a terrible idea in practice. In the first place, airstrikes on the pirates lairs are unlikely to succeed; the pirates will simply reorganize, scatter into new locations, and return to work. Second, this tactic puts at severe risk the more than 250 crew members none of whom are American — currently held for ransom in Somalia. Any U.S. military action that endangers non-American hostages in such a way will create major diplomatic headaches. Third, land strikes on these villages will almost certainly result in civilian casualties among the many villagers living there. How many Somali lives should be sacrificed in an attempt to end a $30 to $40 million business? No doubt Somalis will come up with a figure different from our own.

But the strongest argument against taking the war on shore is that the United States has more important strategic interests in Somalia than piracy. At present, Washington is backing a unity government, led by moderate Islamists, in a delicate political situation in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Several years of fierce anti-Americanism and radicalism have subsided in Somalia (for now), precisely because the U.S. government is supporting a political process that privileges compromise, moderation, and an end to fighting. The dangerous jihadi movement, al-Shabaab, has lost its momentum and, for the first time since 2006, is on the defensive.

This is all very good news — but it could immediately be overturned if the United States starts plinking the pirates. Somalis react fiercely to foreigners attacking their own, especially on Somali soil. They do not share the view that the pirates are criminals. In fact, many Somalis see the pirates as a coast guard protecting their shores from illegal foreign fishing. A military response on shore risks enflaming anti-Americanism in Somalia again, playing right into the hands of al-Shabaab and its external patron, al Qaeda. Hence an on-shore military approach to piracy runs the strong risk of setting back broader U.S. objectives in Somalia. Combating terrorism and extremism is of much greater importance and needs to be privileged over attempts to halt the pirates.

5. Attack the commanding heights of piracy by going after the financiers, not the pirates. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced U.S. intent to track the flow of the pirate ransoms and freeze the accounts of Somali financiers. On paper this is an excellent idea. The pirates are, as Clinton suggested, funded by powerful financial backers who earn a lions share of the ransoms, and it would be ideal to squeeze them until they cease their involvement. Unfortunately, tracking the flow much of anything — let alone money inside Somalia is exceptionally difficult. In a country that depends so heavily on remittances, it also risks criminalizing a good portion of the population. Many Somalis also indirectly or directly see a cut of the ransom money flow through their hands in the residual coastal economy. Somalis are very adept at moving this cash informally and will evade efforts to track them.

6. Stop paying ransom. By depriving pirates of the financial gains accruing from their crime, the criminal behavior will stop. The trouble with this option is that the shipping industry wants its crew, ships, and cargo returned safely. Shipping companies compelled not to pay ransom would face huge losses and possible lawsuits. And who is willing to be responsible for placing all those hostages at risk? That combination of ransom refusal would have to be paired with military rescue in order to have an effect. But talk about risky; if it went awry and many hostages died, the consequences would be considerable. Finally, few of the type of ships in question sail under the stars and stripes; the United States has no real means to influence them.

7. Back a government in Somalia that will eliminate piracy as a matter of on-shore law enforcement. Everyone agrees that this is the only viable long-term solution. Most also concur, however, that it will be a slow, gradual process in a country that has had no functioning central government in 19 years. The U.S. public would surely prefer more immediate results.

The good news is that this option may not be as difficult as it sounds. In two separate instances, local Somali political authorities have put a quick end to piracy. One case is in Somaliland, the secessionist polity in northwest Somalia. There, authorities have been keen to prevent piracy off their shores as a way to demonstrate Somalilands utility and capacity to the international community, with the aim of earning international recognition. Likewise, in 2006 in southern Somalia, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government put an end to piracy during its six month reign, in part to demonstrate to the world that it stood for the revival of law and order in the country and deserved support. In both cases, powerful political motives animated local authorities to move against the pirates. The Transitional Federal Government in Somalia — currently a very weak government that exists mainly on paper — has asked for international support to improve its capacity to combat piracy on shore. Whether this reflects a genuine intent to end piracy or merely use of the piracy issue to secure foreign funding remains to be seen.

None of these options offers a sure-fire solution, but some — such as the call to attack the pirates on shore risk making things worse and generating unintended consequences. The United States has much bigger strategic concerns than piracy in Somalia, and though the buccaneers are the ones making news, the real threats are elsewhere.

Ken Menkhaus is a professor of political science at Davidson College, a specialist on Somalia and the Horn of Africa, and a senior fellow at the Enough Project, a project at the Center for American Progress to end genocide and crimes against humanity.