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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

The Indian navy, meanwhile, found itself in a position to take more forceful action. The frigate INS Tabar did so with distinction answering in self-defense a pirate mother ship that challenged her in the Gulf of Aden on the night of November 18. The Indian frigate refused to stop and opened fire. Tabar sank the pirate vessel and chased the smaller accompanying vessels. The Indians acted sensibly and effectively. They deserve credit.

But the growing number of pirate attacks against shipping in a rapidly expanding area of international waters is unlikely to be deterred and will certainly not be stopped by a small or even a medium-sized naval force. The small fast boats that carry out the actual assaults can be loaded aboard fishing vessels, small freighters, and other unremarkable-looking merchantmen; new mother ships can always be found, especially when pirate coffers are filling with ransom. Nor are the pirates likely to be dissuaded by the air and naval blockade of the Somali coast that an international association of tanker owners proposed in the last week of November. Preventing a single large ship from slipping out of an enclosed sea is difficult enough--as the Bismarck's departure from Gotenhafen in May 1941 demonstrates. Culling the guilty few from the innocent many along a 1,900 mile coast would absorb the energies of several navies with no reasonable assurance of success.

Americans ought to know the limits of relying on naval power alone to stop piracy as a result of the nation's experience in the Barbary Coast wars. Years of paying tribute to government-sponsored North African pirates produced increasing demands--as Thomas Jefferson warned. Once inaugurated, he rejected Tripoli's demand for tribute. Naval warfare followed in which small, fast pirate boats darted out to capture valuable prizes. Notwithstanding the offshore victories of larger American frigates, a successful conclusion was only reached by combined naval, Marine, and mercenary action that captured the Tripolitan town of Derna. Rightly convinced that he was squarely in the Americans' sights, the Bashaw of Tripoli agreed to peace, thus concluding the First Barbary War in 1805.

The second Barbary War ended similarly as the threat of Commodore Stephen Decatur's nine-ship squadron's guns trained on various North African cities convinced rulers to withdraw their demands for tribute and recognize U.S. shipping rights. Patrolling the Mediterranean was not nearly as persuasive in stopping piracy as denying pirates the bases from which to conduct operations or threatening those who supported them with destruction. The reference in the Marine hymn is to "the shores of Tripoli," not to its bays or littoral or coastal estuaries. The shore is where the problem festered. The shore is where it was resolved. And the shore is where today's problem should be addressed if an end to piracy is the objective.

Trying to restore order to Somalia in the hope that a stronger government could control piracy is a worthy effort which Washington should continue and redouble. Successful diplomacy and effective local reconstruction efforts could indeed reduce the real possibility of a local Islamist takeover and offer relief for the country's unfortunate people. But Somalia's descent into turmoil began almost two decades ago, and is as unlikely to be reversed soon by soft as by hard power. The jihadist threat--in the form of the Islamic Courts Union which controls most of the country--has already been unleashed on the region. What sense is there in failing to stop a serious incipient threat--sea piracy--out of concern at exacerbating a terrorist threat that already flourishes?

The Russians have suggested attacking such pirate bases as Eyl in the northern Puntland region of Somalia. The idea deserves serious consideration. Naval patrols can reduce piracy, but they cannot stop it. So long as the risk of serious punishment is low and the ransoms that shipping companies pay are high, piracy will thrive and multiply. Failure in antipiracy efforts off the Somali coast is likely to encourage more piracy elsewhere and invite terrorists into the act. Adding international defeat at the hands of ingenious Somali pirates to the failure to find and kill Osama bin Laden increases the perception that states are powerless in the face of daunting challenges to international order.

This failure will increase the jihadists' contempt for us as it further weakens the currency of such accepted ideas as honoring treaties, respecting borders, and abiding by proscriptions against the use of force. The spread of chaos on the high seas threatens not only the commerce on which a globalizing world depends. It is an ominous step toward international chaos. A multilateral naval/amphibious operation that denies pirates the bases they need to operate would give powerful sinews to the idea that an international community can protect its endangered interests. If such agreement cannot be reached, the interest of the United States in untrammeled access to the world's seas requires that we act alone.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and was deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.