Cliff May

Piracy has become an organized enterprise in Somalia. There are courses of instruction for apprentice pirates. There are elite pirates who specialize in attack and capture. There are “holders” who “look after the hostages during the ransom negotiations” – and who bring along their own cooks. Piratical staffs include translators, negotiators and accountants. There are “motherships”-- floating bases of operations that can tow fast skiffs far out to sea. There are financiers who demand strong return on investment. In 2005, the average ransom was $150,000. Last November it hit a new high: $9.5 million. A few months ago, $13.5 million was paid for the return of a ship and its crew. As the ransoms rise, so do the number of attacks: In the first six months of this year, more than three times as many compared with the same period last year.

Somalia is a collapsed state but Bahadur thinks it’s wrong to see it as a failed state. Rather, it currently comprises “a number of autonomous enclaves” dominated by rival clans. The Puntland State of Somalia, from which he reported, surrounds the tip of the Horn of Africa, including almost half its coastline.

Puntland was, he says, “the natural candidate to become the epicenter of the recent outbreak of Somali piracy” not because it is in chaos but because it is relatively stable. That means not too much crossfire for the pirates to worry about and not too many competing interests to pay off. It should be added: Puntland’s current president, Abdirahman Farole, who lived for about 20 years in Australia, claims to be an ardent opponent of piracy – though, so far at least, not an effective one. (Separately, Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council notes that “the U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and other authorities have charged that Farole “is a beneficiary of the pirates' largesse.”)

Somalia also is home to al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda. Bahadur is skeptical about reports of an “Islamist-pirate conspiracy” but he doesn’t rule out alliances of convenience, a different kettle of fish. Al-Shabaab militias have, on occasion, forcibly relieved pirates of their ransoms and weapons.

The challenge posed by Somali piracy should not be underestimated. Bahadur observes that NATO and the European Union naval forces have been “operating under procedures more befitting a civilian police force than a military. Just as it is unacceptable for police officers to make arrests based on shades and hooded sweatshirts, naval personnel are not allowed to detain any AK-47-toting ‘fishermen’ they happen to find floating in the Indian Ocean.”

Under what we credulously call international law, Somali pirates can claim to be “boat people” -- would-be immigrants. If taken to a Western country they can even ask for asylum, saying if they are sent home, they might face capital punishment. In other words, capture a pirate and bring him back to London in this day and age and there’s zero chance he will be hanged and a strong likelihood he will end up living on the dole in public housing.

It is possible to turn suspected pirates over to legal authorities in such neighboring countries as Kenya. But they can be prosecuted for terrorism only if sufficient evidence has been gathered. At the moment, conspiring to commit piracy is not a criminal offense.

In an epilogue, Bahadur offers his recommendations for mitigating – not eliminating – piracy. Among them: financing a local police force “capable of stopping the pirates before they reach the sea,” clamping down on illegal fishing, and encouraging or requiring “passive security measures aboard commercial vessels.”

I’m not persuaded this brave young reporter has the solutions but the ideas he puts on the table could be the start of a serious policy discussion. Defeating Somali pirates in the 21st century should not be much more difficult than was defeating Barbary pirates on a different African coast in the 18th century.

But back then the new government of the United States decided that paying off brigands would not do and that defending American citizens was essential. Now, too often, American officials bow to what we credulously call the United Nations and other multilateral organizations effectively controlled by regimes hostile to what we now generally refrain from calling the Free World. To borrow the pirate Boyah’s words, that’s “the root of our troubles. We are waiting for action.”


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.