Privateering the Pirates

Could the counterinsurgency tactics that helped pacify Iraq be used to stop piracy in Somalia? For more debate, please follow this

The Maersk Alabama, a Danish-owned, U.S.-operated cargo vessel, has become the latest victim of Somali pirates, only days after a British ship, a French yacht and a German container ship were also seized. The growing sophistication of these attacks, as pirates range farther afield rather than limiting themselves to targets off the immediate coast of Somalia, combined with the sheer number of targets (vessels either transiting the Gulf of Aden to reach the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, or plying the Indian Ocean on the way to rounding the Cape of Good Hope) means that the hopes that Somali piracy would somehow go away were misplaced.

Yes, there are naval vessels from an impressive coalition of nations on patrol: American, British, German, Italian, Chinese, Indian and Russian ships among them. But these forces cannot be everywhere at once to protect and safeguard every last ship. And the seizure of the Maersk Alabama highlights that the existing strategy-deterrence by presence-is not sufficient. Somali pirates reportedly set aside some 20 percent of ransom monies received to purchase new equipment and acquire new capabilities (such as GPS locators), and can rely on a diaspora network to provide intelligence about shipping movements. They are learning to avoid the areas where the multinational forces are deployed to strike at targets in other parts of the ocean.

The Gulf of Aden and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean are too important as global lines of communication to adopt a strategy of having ships avoid the area altogether. And the major naval powers of the world cannot commit the bulk of their assets to patrolling this one region to the exclusion of other missions.

But the status quo is also no longer tenable. And it is time to start thinking about more proactive measures.

One would be to shift the mission of the naval forces currently on station off the Somali coast. Instead of patrolling shipping lanes, the flotillas could enforce an exclusion zone around Somalia, attempting to blockade the main ports and pirate centers to make it much more difficult for ships to leave, or for captured vessels to be brought back to sanctuaries such as Eyl. Given the length of the coastline, no blockade would be foolproof, but it would certainly raise costs for the pirates.

Another is to examine whether the "sons of Iraq" model might be applicable to Somalia. Piracy flourishes because it is successful in bringing in income. Pirates perform a Somali version of trickle-down economics because ransoms that are paid for hijacked ships provide an income stream not only in terms of donations to clans and religious leaders, but also supporting the entire infrastructure for piracy, down to paying the families of those who guard, feed and house captured sailors. If clans, however, could be paid (in cash and services) for serving as "coast guard auxiliaries"-with a clear understanding that payments would continue only if there was a corresponding drop in the number of pirate attacks-this might help to undermine the economic rationale for piracy.

Given the failure, since 1991, of the international community to recreate a central Somali state, our diplomatic efforts have to take into consideration the existence of not just clans, but also two separatist governments which, up to this point, have remained unrecognized. We lament the failure of a central Somali government to restore law and order, yet are unwilling to recognize potentially more viable governing structures because we remain committed to the notion that there exists a Somali state whose territorial integrity needs to be preserved. Given the logic behind the U.S. recognition of Kosovo, it seems foolhardy to continue to insist on a united Somalia if entities like Somaliland might be able to help stem piracy, or at least reduce the number of ungovernable zones.

Piracy occurs because the benefits-large ransoms-outweigh the risks. Until that calculus is changed, the attacks will continue.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.