How to beat the pirates.

How to beat the pirates.

How to beat the pirates.

Military analysis.
April 15 2009 6:06 PM

How To Beat the Pirates

Let's start by treating them like the criminals they are.

Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (right) stands alongside Cmdr. Frank Castellano. Click image to expand.
Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips (right) with Cmdr. Frank Castellano

There's nothing like a rant by Kim Jong-il and an assault by pirates—all in the same week, no less—to highlight the strangeness of global politics in our times.

Scholars and strategists refer to these sorts of phenomena—tinhorn runts and teenage gangsters harassing the most powerful nation on earth—as "asymmetric threats" or the danger of "failed states." The puzzle, as yet unsolved, is what to do about them.

Piracy, of course, is nothing new, though its frequency is intensifying, and the attack on an American-flagged merchant ship, the Maersk Alabama, revealed an unusual degree of daring—and, as it turned out, at least this time, stupidity.


Last weekend's triumph over the Maersk's pirates—in which Navy SEAL snipers killed three of them, with a single shot for each, then rescued the American captain from their clutches—was a welcome relief as well as a model of political shrewdness and military professionalism. But it was also an exception, and it is likely to remain so given the vast areas of those waters. As if to prove the point, a few hours after the rescue operation, Somali pirates took control of three other freighters, just to show they remain undeterred.

Last year saw 293 incidents of piracy, 111 of them in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast—three times as many in that region as the year before. Pirates are currently holding 250 crewmen for ransom.

Some perspective is useful. Many have drawn comparisons between the Somalis and the Barbary pirates of yore. But the Barbary corsairs, as they were also called, were a far greater and more expansive threat, spanning from the North African coast out into the Mediterranean and sporadically the North Atlantic. Between the 16th and early 19th centuries, they captured more than 800,000 Europeans and sold many of them on the Algerian and Moroccan slave markets. In the early 1800s, the U.S. government—having won independence from Britain and thus having lost the British fleet's protection—found itself spending one-fifth of its annual budget for ransom to pirates who captured its ships and crewmen.

The rest of the story is well-known. President Thomas Jefferson, who had negotiated terms of ransom with the pirate-dominated Moroccan government while ambassador to France, built a navy and sent in the Marines. (The "shores of Tripoli," in the Marine Corps' anthem, refers to their rescue of merchant crews from pirates in Libya.) Meanwhile, the British and Dutch launched heavy bombardment campaigns in Algiers. Finally, in 1830 the French conquered Algeria, and that was pretty much the end of the Barbary pirates.


It's very unlikely that President Barack Obama or any other world leader would pummel, much less colonize, Somalia today. The scope of the threat, though not to be trivialized, is nothing like that of Barbary days. Memories of Black Hawk Down, as well as troop commitments elsewhere, should stave off fantasies of a "cake walk" through Mogadishu. Nor do Europeans seem to be hankering for a revival of foreign adventurism.

Some, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, say that the roots of Somali piracy lie in the lawlessness of Somalia itself and that the problem won't be fully solved until that country has a strong, stable government. This may be true, but it's a dead-end observation. What to do while waiting for a Mogadishu messiah?

There are some realistic options—SEAL snipers being one of them—and a less-remembered chapter of the Barbary saga offers a pertinent framework.

In 1815, the great nations of Europe—Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia—assembled the Congress of Vienna to forge a new balance of power in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. (More than 200 smaller states and principalities attended the session, as well.) One of the initial motives for holding the congress was to condemn, and coordinate a common policy on, the European slave trade along the Barbary Coast. It was after the congress formed that the Europeans and Americans stopped paying ransom and took action.


Perhaps it's time for another Congress of Vienna, this one amid the instabilities brought on by the end of the Cold War. The parallel is imperfect, to say the least. No Metternichs or Bismarcks strut the global stage today. Nor does any handful of nations seem willing or able to carve out and command "spheres of influence" that keep the rest of the world in subjugated equilibrium.

However, the new assemblage could at least begin by dealing with the Somali pirate problem. The framework for cooperation is already in place. International law has long regarded theft on the high seas as a scourge transcending the normal rules of national sovereignty. Piracy, in fact, inspired the concept of "universal jurisdiction," which allows any nation-state to take action against transgressors, even if it is not a victim of the crime. (In this case, any state is allowed to arrest and prosecute pirates, even if the ship they've pirated is flying another country's flag.) This principle has since been codified in the 1958 Convention on the High Seas and the United Nations' 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Every state has a vested interest in this cause. The Somali pirates have captured merchant ships owned not just by the United States and Western European nations but also by Ukraine, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

Nor is this issue complicated by ideology or sectarianism. The Barbary pirates at least saw, or justified, their actions as political struggle, stemming from Catholic Spain's conquest of Granada, which forced the exile of the Moors (the name at the time for Muslims), who retaliated by attacking Spanish boats, a practice subsequently supported—and gradually dominated—by the sultan of the Ottoman empire. The Moors and their descendants, in this sense, were the Islamist radicals of their time.


The Somali pirates, by contrast, are simply bandits. They are in fact held in contempt by most of the Islamist gangs that hang out elsewhere along Somalia's coast—though some of these gangs have formed mafia-style alliances offering protection in exchange for a share of the loot. (The extent, or durability, of these relationships is unclear.)

In other words, piracy could be a wedge issue in President Obama's quest for mutual interests between Western and Muslim nations.

One thing these nations could do is translate those interests into binding policy. International law on piracy—which reflects universal interests—is firm on principle but mushy on enforcement. It's not clear, for instance, whether a merchant ship's captain and crew have the right to shoot armed pirates boarding their ship, unless the pirates shoot first. This is lame—and it's one reason freighter companies don't want armed marshals onboard.

So here are some modest proposals for a fleshed-out legal code on combating pirates:

Allow authorized crewmembers to shoot pirates—the fact that armed outsiders are boarding a merchant ship in international waters should be deemed sufficient provocation. Declare a safety zone around merchant ships—anyone crossing into the zone is warned to cross back; those who proceed face the risk of getting shot. Armed marshals should be required onboard merchant ships traveling through straits declared to be dangerous, especially if they are carrying particularly sensitive goods; the marshals could be paid out of a common international fund.

In October, NATO announced that it was sending its Standing Naval Maritime Group—a flotilla of seven ships—to the waters off Somalia. The decision, made at a conference of defense ministers, was sparked by the rise in piracy and particularly by the capture of a Ukrainian cargo vessel that was carrying tanks and other military supplies. This concept should be taken well beyond NATO to include any and all countries that have navies and that sign on to this new anti-piracy regime. That way, the ships will not be seen as merely Western war vessels.

The fight against the Somali pirates is not, nor should it be presented as, a campaign in the "war on terror" or any euphemism that the Obama administration might want to substitute for the phrase. Nor is it a battle for Western civilization. In this sense, proposals to deploy naval convoys, as was done in World War II to defend trans-Atlantic freighters from Nazi submarines, similarly miss the mark. These pirates aren't Nazis; their acts aren't sowing a crisis of existential proportion; to suggest otherwise only puffs up their image and perhaps their prestige and bargaining power among other anti-Western outlaws. These pirates are nasty criminals, nothing more. And the fight against them should be treated, and seen, as a routine and legitimate procedure to stamp out nasty crime.