The Magazine

To the Shores of Tripoli . . .

The place to stop pirates is on the beaches.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By SETH CROPSEY
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The November 15 hijacking 450 miles east of Mombasa, Kenya, of a thousand-plus foot oil tanker carrying more than two million barrels of crude oil forced international recognition that the seas have been dramatically added to the world's list of outlaw space. According to the International Maritime Bureau, recorded attacks by pirates in the Gulf of Aden area have more than tripled--to 92--in the past year. The million square mile swath of the Indian Ocean off, and south of, the Somali coast through which approximately 20,000 ships a year pass between Asia, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere is within hailing distance of smaller, but no less significant, portions of the Middle East and South/Central Asia whose lawlessness has produced important consequences around the world. The prospect of a large-scale meeting of lawless land and lawless sea would be especially troubling even if the possible failed state in the middle--Pakistan--didn't possess nuclear weaponry.

But for now, the problem is that Somali pirates who use global positioning devices to help identify potential targets, who deploy "mother" ships that can venture out to sea to launch and recover small fast boats, and who have mastered simple but effective tactics for capturing ships have transformed one of the world's strategic choke points into a watery version of the Cyclops' island home, a place without law. The consequences transcend what is already happening: spiking maritime insurance rates, significantly increased costs to international consumers as shipping lines reroute around the Cape of Good Hope, and a growing problem of captured ships' crews held hostage in Somali pirate havens--330 crew members from 25 nations at last count.

Worse outcomes are likely. Last year 70,000 vessels transited the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Sumatra, a choke point through which well over half of Japan's and China's energy passes. In February of this year pirates attacked the Bahamian-flagged supertanker Kasagisan as it sailed through the Malacca Strait, one of 71 incidents of piracy recorded so far this year in Asia. The perceived inability of powerful states to restore and maintain order on the high seas will encourage more piracy both in the Western approaches to the Indian Ocean, in the Malacca Strait, and at other international maritime junctures where a huge volume of valuable shipping squeezes through narrow spaces. Lawlessness breeds more lawlessness, especially when reward vastly exceeds risk.

A U.N. report released in the third week of November estimates at $25 million to $30 million the amount of ransom that has been paid this year alone to Somali pirates. Kenya's foreign minister places this figure at over $150 million. The pirates are emboldened not only by cash, but by the vanishingly small chance that they will be apprehended or imprisoned, either by a dysfunctional Somali government or by the states that contribute naval combatants to antipiracy operations in the area.

Deplorable in itself, the growth of piracy also raises the possibility that terrorists will be attracted both by financial incentive and by the international publicity that would result if a passenger ship were to be sunk with large loss of life. In November 2005 pirates in fast boats from a mother ship attacked the U.S.-based luxury cruise ship Seabourn Spirit as she sailed about 70 miles off the Somali coast. The ship's security personnel repelled the assault and an Explosive Ordnance Demolition Team from a U.S. Navy frigate boarded the ship following the incident to remove an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade fired in the attack. But the incident demonstrates a fraction of what terrorists could hope to achieve, a loss of innocent life at sea to equal or surpass the casualties of September 2001.

International response to the Somali pirates has consisted chiefly of seven NATO member-states' naval vessels, whose presence might make would-be pirates think twice if they weren't stretched thin patrolling an area the size of Kazakhstan. They protect as best they can the delivery of thousands of tons of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, while U.S. naval combatants are occupied preventing the off-loading of a hijacked cargo of tanks, antiaircraft guns, and rocket-propelled grenades in the hold of the Ukrainian ship MV Faina, hijacked off Somalia in late September. This is an important mission, but one that if successful will deny weapons to their intended end-users while allowing negotiations to proceed for ransom. Keeping tabs on Faina will neither deter nor stop future piracy. The payment of ransom guarantees more of the same.