Update on Piracy

By Alan Greenblatt, freelancer, CQ Global Researcher

October is just around the corner and that can only mean one thing – maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa is about to pick up again.

The maritime security experts I interviewed for my August Global Researcher report "Attacking Piracy" agreed on one thing – the recent abatement in pirate attacks off Somalia was due more to wind patterns than to the presence of naval warships from some 15 countries patrolling the region. Once the seasonal winds died down in the fall, they predicted, the number of pirate attacks would quickly shoot up again.

The question of whether international navies can curb piracy was a major focus of my piece. Caleb Crain, in a recent New Yorker article examining the history of piracy (primarily in the 1700s) through an economic lens, concludes that they can and eventually will:

Piracy seems to thrive when capitalism is advancing—when it has put enough wealth in motion to tempt criminals to kill for it but not yet enough for sailors to die in its defense—and perhaps, as in Somalia, when government is retreating. In several ways, Somalia’s contemporary pirates resemble those of three centuries ago. Violent and dangerous, they nonetheless are careful not to hurt coöperative hostages; they look to piracy to take them from poverty to a life of leisure; they have been known to regulate their own behavior with written rules; and they believe that their cause is just. The timing of their end, too, will probably be similar, coming whenever a major power decides that a crackdown costs less than the nuisance.

The Economist sounds a skeptical note in a recent article about the role of navies in this fight:
But some naval types say tackling barefoot Somalis with bazookas is not the best use of large warships. “They feel that tackling a skiff is an odd thing to do with a ship costing hundreds of millions,” says Jason Alderwick, an analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Nor are warships always ideal for the job. A naval craft may take 20 minutes to send a helicopter to a nearby merchant vessel in danger. That is easily enough time for pirates to seize a ship; once that happens, there is no easy way to regain control.
Deterrence is important, the British magazine stresses, noting that seamen are now riding along on cargo ships – something that had previously been rare – and that private security firms are increasingly working the problem. The business of protecting ships off East Africa has trebled in the past year.

The article concludes, as many of the experts I’d interviewed stressed, that the only long-term solution is the creation of a stable and effective government in Somalia. Toward that end, I was interested to read in The New York Times recently that there appears to be some optimism regarding Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the latest president of that unstable, barely governed country.

Sheik Sharif’s regime is still highly dependent on foreign troops for security and, as has long been the case, barely controls much more than the presidential palace. Yet, the Times says
"his moderate Islamist government is widely considered to be Somalia’s best chance for stability in years.

For the first time in decades — including 21 years of dictatorship and the 18 years of chaos that followed — Somalia’s leader has both widespread grass-roots support inside the country and extensive help from outside nations, analysts and many Somalis say.

“This government is qualitatively different from the governments that came before it,” said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “But we shouldn’t fool ourselves; they need to act quickly.”
Indeed, kidnapping foreigners on land has become a problem parallel to piracy in Somalia, as this Los Angeles Times article about a French security consultant who managed to escape his captors indicates.

And not all Somali pirates have been waiting for a change in the weather to try their chances – at least near shore. On Sept. 25, according to Alshahid, a Somali-owned ship carrying cargo from Dubai escaped a pirate attack near Mogadishu, but its Syrian captain was killed. Earlier in the month, the New York Times reported that Somali pirates were turned back from a North Korean cargo ship when its crew members fought back with Molotov cocktails.

Meanwhile, the Straits Times reports that piracy has hit a five-year high in the South China Sea, with the number of attacks this year already surpassing the previous record set in 2005.

Here's an excerpt of the August CQ Global Researcher report on "Attacking Piracy".

To view the entire report, log onto the CQ Global Researcher [subscription required], or purchase the CQ Global Researcher PDF