Pirate Droves

How to deal with ransom on the high seas.

U.S. Navy via Getty Images
U.S. Navy via Getty Images

On many a 15th century nautical chart, the margins were embellished with elaborate warnings to mariners of largely mythical dangers — from dragons to sea sirens to giant whirlpools. But the most feared warning was against something all too real: pirates. Amazingly, perhaps, this ancient scourge continues to plague mariners today.  The solutions to piracy are complex and interlocked, and solving them will require international coalitions and interagency cooperation — along with private sector cooperation.

Just a week ago, two Americans sailing on a U.S. flagged merchant ship may have been kidnapped off the coast of Nigeria in western Africa. While details remain sketchy, the Nigerian Navy spokesperson, Kabiru Aliyu, said, “Yes, we are aware that they are missing but we still do not have any information on the whereabouts of the men.” The Nigerians claim to be searching with teams in the coastal waters. Here in the United States, the State Department indicated in briefings that it believes this to be an act of piracy and that the safety of the mariners is a top concern.

At the same time, movie theaters are filled with viewers of the recently released film Captain Phillips, about the harrowing ordeal of merchant sea captain Richard Phillips, whose ship, SS Maersk Alabama, was pirated in April 2009. After offering himself as a hostage to protect his crew, he was held for weeks by Somali pirates on the east coast of Africa before being rescued by Navy SEALs in a dramatic raid launched from an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Most observers believe that the pirate activity in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, is more vicious than similar action on the east coast by Somali-based pirates.

Over the past decade, piratical activity on both coasts of Africa, in the Caribbean, and in parts of Southeast Asia has caused billions of dollars in disruptions to global transportation. Hundreds of ships have been attacked in the Indian Ocean alone, and at one point during my time as the NATO strategic commander in charge of the counterpiracy mission, Operation Ocean Shield, we had over 20 ships and several hundred mariners being held for ransom. Jay Bahadur’s excellent volume, The Pirates of Somalia, revealed a culture fueled by kat (a narcotic chewed by many of the pirates), Kalashnikovs, expensive villas, and high-powered SUVs. A ransom could fetch a pirate group over $10 million, and there was a creeping sense of involvement by al-Shabab, the east African al Qaeda affiliate.

The international community responded with a significant military presence in the waters off eastern Africa — NATO, the European Union, the Gulf States, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and even Iran all sent ships to fight pirates. Today, well over a thousand pirates are imprisoned, and piracy attacks off the Horn of Africa have dropped 70 percent from their highs only a few years ago. There have been only 11 attacks there so far in 2013, as compared to 70 attacks last year at this time and down from over 200 three years ago.

Unfortunately, the game is shifting west, and cases of piracy — like the one in which the two Americans have vanished — are up to 40 so far this year. But the modus operandi is different: more straight-up robbery than hostage-taking and negotiating for ransom. This is because in the west, it is far harder to find an isolated stretch of coast not under national control to hold a ship, and governments and their policing capabilities are stronger. The same holds true for the waters of Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca.

More needs to be done.

First, international cooperation along the model employed on the east coast of Africa should be used in the Gulf of Guinea. NATO and the European Union should offer to work with the nations of western Africa to counter piracy operations there, given the confluence of European and U.S. national interests in local shipping routes and hydrocarbon resources. The U.N. International Maritime Organization in London could help broker a dialogue.

Secondly, private-public integration is important. Shipping industry improvements that were effective on the east coast, including the use of armed private security teams, should be considered on the west coast and in Southeast Asia. To date, no ship equipped with such a security team (typically two to four trained operators with small arms) has ever been successfully pirated. Other so-called “best practices” of convoy sailing — keeping in close communication with shore authorities with geo-positioning information, hardening vessels with water cannon and physical obstacles, and crew training — are all smart precautions. Sharing information and intelligence between private and public sources is also important.

Third, and most important, we need to realize piracy will not be stopped at sea. That requires addressing the root causes ashore. This means better development of economies with alternatives to piracy, less corrupt and more capable coast guards, integrated international courts to prosecute and imprison pirates acting on the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, and surveillance infrastructure to find and destroy pirate facilities in coastal communities.

In the classic film Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Jack Sparrow crows, “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me! A toast to piracy and all its many shiny rewards! As a career, what could be more rewarding?” If we are to foil his significantly less charming 21st century descendants, nations, agencies, and businesses will need to work together well into the voyage ahead.

 Twitter: @stavridisj
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