City of Brass

Everyone is talking about pirates, and it’s not even September 19th yet! Last Sunday’s dramatic rescue of the captain of the Maersk Alabama was just the latest chapter in a saga that as far as the public attention span is concerned, really began in November when those scrappy entrepreneurs hit the motherlode – a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million in oil. However with the events this past weekend, suddenly Somali piracy has seized the imagination of the collective media establishment (and distressed right-wing hacks as a bonus). 
What is worrying is the elevation of pirates into an Urgent and Very Serious Threat. Already we are seeing attempts to tie the pirates to Somali Islamists and suggest that they are natural allies. Frothy rhetoric about killing pirates on sight, declaring war on pirates, sending armadas of ships, etc is increasing among the pundit class. But the problem of piracy is not one that can be solved by force; the pirates are not a large organized group but rather a small number of independent “entrepreneurs”. They don’t have entrenched “bases” to bomb, and naval patrols just shift the piracy zone elsewhere. And Somalia itself is a failed state, dominated by barbaric militant Islamists, whose official government is forced to convene in neighboring Djibouti. Hence, there is no meaningful negotiation or sanction threat possible (unless we want to partner with Al Shabab, which is a repugnant idea). 
Even if such responses were possible, would they be proportionate to the threat? Certainly there’s a valid legal argument for treating terrorists like pirates under international law, but does the reverse analogy hold true? When you look more closely at the threat posed by pirates, some important differences become clear. First, the pirates only interested in the bottom line:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — U.S. and French naval attacks on Somali pirates raised fears Monday for the safety of scores of foreign sailors still held hostage and sparked a debate on safeguarding shipping. The most likely outcome, though, is business as usual for the bandits.

Pirate leaders in Somalia have vowed to retaliate for the killing of three pirates by U.S. Navy SEAL sharpshooters in the daring rescue of American captain Richard Phillips on Sunday. Two days earlier, a French naval attack freed four hostages but killed one Frenchman and four pirates.

The International Maritime Bureau said it supported the U.S. and French action, but also cautioned it may spark retaliation by pirates — a fear shared by many of the families of the 228 foreign nationals aboard 13 ships still held hostage.


The pirates’ primary concerns, however, are economic, and they have no interest in escalating violence.

Pirates armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades typically speed toward a ship in skiffs and use ropes and hooks to get aboard without shooting. Within days, a ransom of $1 million to $2 million is delivered, by sea or air, and the ship and crew are released.

No shot is fired. No one is harmed. Hostages have even told of being fed “sumptuously,” with pirates billing the shipping companies for the food and drinks. That, and the ransom, are paid by insurance companies. 

In fact, the pirates are already back to business as usual – three more ships were hijacked in the Gulf of Aden since the weekend shootout. Pirates are fundamentally different from terrorists in that their primary motive is money, not power or ideology; think Ferengi versus Klingons. Despite the bluster about vengeance, it’s extremely unlikely that they will pick a fight. 
The simple truth is that the actual impact of piracy is still negligible in terms of impact upon the world’s shipping industry. True, the ransom demands have been at least $40 million this year alone, but don’t cry for the insurance companies: they are now offering (pricey) piracy insurance which is sure to net fat profits, given that an estimated 160,000 ships ply those waters every year but this year so far only about 20 ships have been held for ransom. Even with unrealistic worst-case assumptions that the rate of piracy will quadruple, while shipping overall stays flat, piracy would only impact 0.15% of the (regional, not global) shipping industry. The premiums for the insurance would be passed onto the shipping companies, but given that those costs are then averaged across essentially the entire industrialized world’s population, it’s doubtful that it will amount to much tangible cost per capita. 
The far more important question is why pirates exist at all – and the answer is deeply linked to Somalia’s collapse, and exploitation of that collapse by other nations:

In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to
Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters.”

This is the context in which the “pirates” have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a “tax” on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence”.

These are not unfounded allegations. Last year, Somali pirates seized and then freed a Spanish tuna fishing boat, the Playa de Bakio. What was a Spanish fishing vessel doing in Somali waters? By some conservative estimates, illegal fishing in Somali waters costs the Somali people $94 million annually – and does tremendous environmental damage. It’s not the Somalis who are the real pirates as far as fishing is concerned.
Make no mistake: the Somali pirates are criminals and deserve to be prosecuted and jailed. However, any law enforcement action must focus on enforcement of all laws, not just anti-piracy ones, in Somali waters. Likewise, the economic devastation of Somalia calls for much-needed investment so as to reduce incentives for young men to turn to piracy as their source of income. In essence, this is a pure nation-building exercise, and Somalia is a clear example of how failed states are not “contained” but rather are a matter of global significance. 
Related: The BBC has a Q&A on Somali piracy that is pretty informative (and the source for the map above). We’ve also been discussing Somalia extensively at Talk Islam. Also, this UN Report on the State of the Environment in Somalia (PDF) provides a great briefing on all aspects of Somalia’s geography and economy in addition to spelling out the impact of illegal fishing and waste dumping. Finally, this long post from a Somali blogger makes the case for the pirates’ perspective in detail.
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