December 11, 2008 | Commentary on Democracy and Human Rights, Terrorism

Buccaneers are back: The challenges of modern piracy

The thought of pirates usually evokes Hollywood blockbusters involving swashbuckling buccaneers, tropical isles and buried treasure marked on a tattered map with an "X."

To those mindful of history, piracy might conjure up notions of the Barbary pirates, who sailed the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, raiding coastal towns, capturing merchant ships (some American), and ransoming or enslaving their crews in North African ports.

Strikingly, some two centuries later, piracy at sea is back -- with a vengeance.

Like their forebears, today's brigands are criminals, holding ship, crew and cargo hostage for payment; or forgoing that tedious arrangement, they'll simply commandeer a vessel, selling the goods -- maybe even the ship -- on the black market.

The recent incident off Somalia is case in point.

SOMALI SEIZURE

Indeed, the September seizure of the Ukrainian merchantman MV Faina off the coast of Somalia highlighted the existence of the modern-day Blackbeard. The ship, reportedly containing 30 T-72 tanks and other heavy weapons, was bound for Kenya when it was pinched by about 60 Somali pirates on the high seas. The boarders, clearly aware of the value of the booty in the ship's hold, initially demanded more than $20 million in ransom to free the ship and crew. (It was later reduced to $10 million.)

The predators promised to kill the crew if a rescue attempt was made and threatened to set the ship ablaze if the ransom wasn't paid.

Unfortunately for the raiders, the cargo's final destination was unknown, drawing the attention of the U.S., which feared the weapons were headed for radicals and extremists in Somalia, some with possible al-Qaida ties. The U.S. Navy and a handful of other ships quarantined the vessel at sea, ostensibly preventing it from delivering its lethal cargo into the wrong hands somewhere ashore.

Just like when the Barbary pirates made the most of the North African coast, an area then rife with lawlessness and criminally complicit rulers, Somalia provides a similarly supportive climate today.

Somalia is a failed, mostly ungoverned state slightly smaller than Texas with 2,000 miles of coastline, bordering the 200-mile-wide Gulf of Aden. Like the Barbary Coast of days past, it turns out to be an ideal place for piracy.

The Gulf of Aden, the shortest year-round sea route between Europe and Asia, connects the Mediterranean and Red seas with the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal and the 13-mile-wide Bab al Mandab Strait.

As one of the world's busiest waterways, as many as 20,000 ships transit it annually -- ahead of the Panama Canal at 15,000 ships per year, but behind the Strait of Malacca at 50,000 ships.

Not surprisingly, the Gulf of Aden is also now the world's most dangerous waterway for civilian shipping, according to the International Maritime Bureau, an International Chamber of Commerce group. Just this year, 80 ships have already been attacked by sea-borne bandits in the Gulf of Aden -- an increase of 75 percent over 2007 -- accounting for nearly one-third of the more than 200 reported pirate assaults in 2008 worldwide.

In just one week in mid-October, NATO reported that seven ships were attacked in the pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast. In late October, five attempts were made in just one day. More than 30 ships have been hijacked this year. In fact, the actual number of pirate strikes is probably unknown. While perhaps an overstatement, it's been suggested that as many as 90 percent of pirate attacks go unreported. (Many shipping companies don't report hijackings out of concern for increased insurance premiums or lengthy investigations, which could hold their ships pier-side, despite an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion in annual industry losses to piracy.)

In general, the Somali pirate is in it for the money. No surprise considering half of the Somali people are in need of food after nearly two decades of seemingly interminable conflict, instability and lack of governance. Pirates in these waters can easily net $1 million to $2 million in ransom for a seized ship, a figure that goes a long way in such an impoverished country. Piracy is socially accepted; those who fly under the skull and crossbones live like rock stars in comparison to kith and kin.

Within Somalia, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, strategically located on the Horn of Africa, is Jolly Roger headquarters, especially the port of Eyl. Piracy has become a pillar -- if not the pillar -- of the local economy, replacing fishing.

While dead men tell no tales, deceased hostages are worth less to shipping companies than live ones. As a result, special canteens have opened in Puntland to prepare chow for the crews held aboard pirated ships, according to the BBC. But it's not just this area that's afflicted by 21st century privateers. The Strait of Malacca had been considered the most pirate-afflicted waters in the world until it was recently outdone by the Gulf of Aden. Others have pirate problems, too: Tanzania, Bangladesh, Philippines, Brazil and Peru.

Of course, piracy isn't just for treasure. In the areas around Nigeria, Sri Lanka and southern India, local insurgents use acts of piracy to harass governments or gain fame for their movements.

But today's cutthroats don't just sail the Bounding Main, hoping to wander upon potential plunder. Among present-day predators, they're at the peak of the profession.

PIRATE PLOYS

In fact, today's Long John Silvers often get tip-offs from their network of spies ashore. Harbormasters and ship chandlers chat up skippers about their cargos and destinations before passing it on to the pirates. Some of these same people also help the pirates on the back end of their dirty dealings, negotiating for ransom, laundering money, selling pilfered personal property and cargo as part of an integrated criminal syndicate.

Attacks most often come while a ship is at anchor, but raids can also involve several small speedboats -- in some cases launched from larger "mother ships" -- that target underway vessels.

While many attacks seem to take place within 20 to 30 miles of shore because of the small size of the pirates' launches, the mother ship scheme allows the marauders a base from which they can operate hundreds of miles at sea.

The raiders, numbering seven to 10 per boat, are often armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, aided by satellite phones, GPS equipment, radar and powerful outboard motors.

Medium-sized ships with low freeboard are often targeted because they are the easiest to board and likely to be laden with cargo, since they're sitting low in the water.

While the pirates may try to get a skipper to slow or go dead in the water, threatening the ship in broad daylight with small boat swarming tactics and automatic weapons fire, some approaches aren't so direct. Clever Captain Kidds may even attempt to impersonate officials to get aboard. In fact, some of the sea wolves come from the ranks of corrupt "coastguardsmen," who freelance as criminals, robbing and hijacking ships.

At night, raiders may also try to board a ship at anchor or even while it's underway, using long, hooking ladders made of construction rebar or grappling hooks to hoist themselves over the rail.

Once on board, the pirates, sometimes numbering as many as 100, overwhelm the crew, which are relatively small on today's modern merchant ships. The crew could be held hostage, killed or even set adrift. (No reported incidents of walking the plank, so far ...)

Depending on their ultimate intent, some of the sea robbers head back to shore or the mother ship after the ship is seized, ready to provide land-based support to the operation or respond with force, if necessary.

Ship captains are warned by international agencies to post 24-hour watches and to use the ship's speed and maneuverability, such as "fishtailing," to swamp the smaller assault boats. Many ships don't carry weapons for fear of escalating violence, preferring to outrun their pursuers, blind them with searchlights or hit them with high-pressure hoses. Some may begin embarking private security teams.

Some shipping companies with deep pockets have actually installed electrical fences along the deck to discourage boarders, but some ships such as fuel carriers can't due to safety concerns.

But perhaps the biggest concern with today's pirate is terrorism ties.

While there have been no direct, publicly reported links between the pirates and terrorism or terrorist groups, the possibility gives security analysts and national security officials pause -- and rightfully so.

Indeed, one of the reasons U.S. warships surrounded the Faina was to ensure the weapons on board or any ill-gotten gains didn't fall into the wrong grips, especially Islamist extremists or terrorists with al-Qaida ties based in Somalia.

Moreover, some experts assert that because of international efforts to hinder terror financing, piracy, like narcotics or blood diamonds, could provide a potentially lucrative, alternative revenue stream.

Of course, we've already seen terrorism at sea: The seizure of the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in 1985 by the Palestinian Liberation Front; the 2000 al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in Yemen; and the Abu Sayyaf Group's 2004 strike on a ferry in the Philippines that led to more than 100 deaths.

While maritime terrorism and piracy aren't the same, they could overlap, especially when it comes to targets and techniques, providing opportunities for collaboration.

For instance, al-Qaida identifies the West's economy as a key target. It would come as no real surprise if it were to try to scuttle a ship in a narrow chokepoint, such as the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz, causing a disruption in global energy supply.

While this wouldn't be in the interests of most pirates, al-Qaida could certainly partner with them, using their means and methods to capture a ship in exchange for an appropriate sum.

While perhaps apocryphal, there is at least one report of "pirates" taking control of an underway ship in Southeast Asia, conning it through crowded shipping lanes in what some believe to be similar to the 9/11 hijackers' efforts to learn to fly a plane, but not take-off or land.

Analysts are also concerned al-Qaida now has a number of hijacked, re-registered and renamed "phantom" ships in its possession, including tug boats, which could be used for attacks on ports.

BACK TO BARBARY WARS?

Since governments infrequently negotiate or intervene on behalf of shippers, the UN Security Council recently passed resolutions requesting member states protect shipping off the Horn of Africa, reminiscent of the early 19th century Barbary Wars.

In addition to U.S. naval forces already present as part of multinational Combined Task Force (CTF) 150, conducting regional security operations, NATO deployed three ships to the area in late October.

The NATO operation, Allied Provider, consisting of Greek, British and Italian ships, will be primarily escorting ships supporting U.N. humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Somalia. Together, these maritime forces have already thwarted at least two dozen attacks since late August, according to CTF 150.

The European Union is also expected to launch its own escort operation in December, consisting of ships from eight countries. Russia and India have also dispatched vessels to the area to look after their interests.

Moreover, in November, the head of the U.N.'s International Maritime Organization called for the establishment of a United Nations force to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, according to the Financial Times.

Adding to the vast operational challenges are legal issues regarding the rights of military forces to conduct counter-piracy operations on the high seas or even in a state's territorial waters (within 12 nautical miles of the coast).

Indeed, the pirates often play upon the limits of sovereignty delineated in the U.N.'s Law of the Sea Treaty involving international and territorial waters, moving in and out of each, or across state jurisdictions, to elude capture.

Another matter is the apparent lack of clarity in international law about the handling of pirates should they be captured, including who has the right to bring them to justice.

The United States helped settle the Barbary pirate problem with military might nearly two centuries ago, in one of the young republic's first demonstrations of power projection abroad. But that sort of major effort isn't likely in the short term.

Due to other more pressing operational commitments such as Iraq and Afghanistan and potential contingences such as a strike on Iran's nuclear program, piracy isn't likely to get the attention it probably warrants.

Unfortunately, the political, economic and security conditions ashore -- which allow or drive piracy -- aren't likely to improve in the short term in many of these pirate hideaways, especially Somalia.

The problem in the end is that complacency over this emerging challenge, especially its potential to aid and abet terrorism, could prove damning to our national security if not confronted quickly and decisively.

Peter Brookes, Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First  Appeared in  Armed F orces Journal