Why the Pirates are Winning
When four Somali pirates riding in a fast skiff veered their craft towards Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton-displacement merchant ship hauling 400 containers of food from Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya, they surely had no idea what they were getting into.
It was just after dawn, Monday morning, two years into an escalating conflict pitting hundreds of Somali sea bandits versus some 30 warships from more than a dozen of the world’s most powerful navies. Caught in the middle: the 25,000 commercial vessels every year that transit the Suez Canal, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean while travelling between Europe and Asia.
The pirates, armed with AK-47s, pursued for several hours before finally catching Alabama. They climbed over the side and briefly overpowered the 20 crew members, all Americans. It was the first successful hijacking of an American-crewed vessel in memory, but only the latest in a long string of ship captures by Somali pirates. The violent takeover made Alabama the 67th vessel attacked since the beginning of 2009, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and approximately the 200th since 2008. Captured vessels netted some $20m in ransom last year. Today some dozen vessels and 200 seafarers are still being held in rowdy pirate towns in lawless northern Somalia.
But Alabama’s American mariners were different than many other seafarers. Civilian crews are not allowed to carry lethal weapons, if they want to call at foreign ports, but that doesn’t mean they are defenceless. With their superior training and discipline, Alabama’s crew fought back, apparently with their high-pressure fire hoses. They re-took their ship, capturing one pirate. But the retreating bandits seized Alabama’s captain, and fled in a boat that subsequently ran out of fuel nearby. At the time of writing, the US navy destroyer Bainbridge was closing on Alabama at flank speed, primed to break the standoff. “One would hope, if American citizens are involved, the US navy would react in similar fashion [to the French],” said Martin Murphy, an analyst with the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington DC. Last year, on two occasions, French commandos staged daring interventions to free French nationals being held by pirates. But any singular, dramatic action by US forces is less important than a wholesale revamping of American strategy for defeating pirates. To best deter pirates, the US must push for improved cooperation by all the nations with a stake in the conflict. The Alabama incident should generate the political capital to make such change possible.
For the Americans, Alabama’s tale had a mostly happy ending. But the bigger picture is bleaker than ever. An unprecedented international naval coalition—the largest and most diverse since the Second World War, by some accounts — has not had any measurable impact on pirate operations. If anything, pirates are more active, more aggressive and more successful than ever. “Pirates are winning,” Murphy said last fall. His assertion is no less true today.
Piracy is apparently Somalia’s biggest industry—and individual pirates are among the troubled country’s wealthiest men. With every incentive to continue pirating, and little chance of ever facing justice or an effective military reaction, Somalia’s sea bandits will not cease their attacks. As bad as piracy seems, for the developed world the worst is yet to come.
It’s hard to quantify pirates’ effect on the regional and global economies, but anecdotal evidence abounds. Piracy has forced some shipping lines to abandon the Suez Canal altogether. Longer sea routes around Africa surely mean higher costs for shippers and consumers. The Seychelles reported this year that its tuna haul is down by half due to the loss of fishing grounds to pirates.
In December, Khalid Shapi, director of a tourism firm in Mombasa, in southern Kenya, warned that cruise ships were beginning to avoid East Africa owing to piracy, rendering jobless thousands of Kenyan tourism workers. Jemma Lembere, a logistics manager for the UN World Food Programme in Mombasa, said that ship owners have been reluctant to take on UN contracts hauling the food aid that feeds half of Somalia’s 8 million people. Only with the $10m deployment of a European Union naval force, in December, were ship’s crews willing to make the dangerous aid run into Mogadishu.
To be sure, no naval commander expects military force to solve the piracy problem, which has its roots in Somalia’s two-decade civil war and the related collapse of local law and order.
Command and control is part of the problem. There are no fewer than 10 separately operating naval fleets wholly or partially devoted to fighting Somali pirates, including those from the EU and NATO, plus two American-led task forces. Combined, these forces possess some three-dozen powerful warships. But even that is a proverbial drop in the bucket, considering that pirates range across 2 million square miles of ocean that are teeming with fishing boats and other legitimate seafarers, among whom the pirates can easily hide. But there is no one command for the warships in the region, according to US navy Lieutenant Nathan Christensen. McKnight said he had phone conversations with the EU force but only swapped emails with the Chinese. Considering the uncomfortable relations between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, a tighter command lash-up is unlikely any time soon, unless these governments make it a priority. Washington should make the initial overture.
In the absence of more efficient command and control, the US navy and its handful of close allies tried to reduce the area they must patrol. They established a secret “maritime corridor” through East Africa waters, through which they encourage commercial vessels to pass. Concentrating ships inside this avenue ñ reportedly located some 250 miles off the Somali coast and announced to incoming ships by radio ñ was supposed to make the warships’ patrol duties easier.
With the corridor breached, and command and control sure to remain diffuse, authorities have effectively told ship’s crews that they’re on their own. Those were tips that Alabama’s crew apparently took to heart, and bravely applied to defend their ship.
They are heroes. But they shouldn’t have to be. It’s time for the world’s governments to truly pool their military forces in the piracy fight, unify the command and pursue a single deterrence strategy, while awaiting the domestic political progress that is the only permanent solution to Somali piracy. As the biggest player in the region, Washington should take the lead in that effort, while the sting from Alabama is still fresh.
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