Piracy Threatens Global Economy

June 2010
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Magazine
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The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Farragut disables a suspected pirate skiff. The ship is part of Combined Task Force 151, which conducts anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

These are not your great-great-grandfather’s buccaneers.

The attire may be different and the swashbuckling kept to a minimum, but for today’s pirates the aim is the same as in centuries past: loot and lawlessness. Piracy is a lucrative alternative for starving people who live in regions with no civil authority to provide economic or political stability. As a result, the populace in countries surrounding the Gulf of Aden—particularly Somalia—are turning to barons of corruption who now have a multitude of impressionable young men willing to fight extraordinary odds even to their deaths. Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is as complex as the cause.

Between 2008 and 2009, acts of piracy grew by 96 percent. During the first week of 2010, pirates successfully captured four ships, and a record in ransom was paid—between $5.5 million and $9 million—for the release of a crude oil tanker. At one point in early February 2010, 11 ships with approximately 270 people aboard were being held hostage.

Pirates take ships hostage for one simple reason: ransom. While the cargo may be worth millions of dollars, transporting and selling it involves unnecessary logistics when the entire ship and crew can be ransomed easily. The amounts and number of individual ransom payments that companies currently fork over are sketchy at best; however, experts estimate that they are certainly always in the millions of dollars.

Corporations now have become so accustomed to piracy that they simply accept ransom payments as the price of doing business, a practice that exacerbates the problem: The more cash companies are willing to pay regularly, the more lucrative piracy as a business becomes. In addition, insurance costs have skyrocketed to the point that companies would rather take a chance sailing through pirate-ridden waters and pay ransoms than repeatedly pay monumental premiums.

According to Dr. Virginia Lunsford, associate professor, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, it is no accident that the majority of piracy attempts take place in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. She describes it as the perfect storm: no organized government since 1991, an extremely poor population and an active criminal element. These three conditions are inextricably bound and will take efforts from a variety of sources to disentangle, Lunsford relates.

The pirate attacks of today actually began quite innocuously many years ago as an attempt to protect an economic way of life, she explains. The waters off the Somali coastline were teeming with fish, and the citizens used this natural resource to survive. However, anglers from other countries soon caught on to the financial prospects of the region, moved in and worked the waters using sophisticated equipment, reducing the number of fish significantly. To add insult to injury, some countries looked at the Somali coastal waters as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals that polluted the waters and killed the fish, Lunsford explains.

To fight for their economic survival, Somalis began boarding ships that were operating illegally off their coastline. However, once they and the region’s warlords discovered the fruitfulness of ransoming commercial ships, defensive actions turned into lucrative opportunities and the “business” grew, she relates. Now, the challenge of solving a problem off the coastline of one country has gone global. International corporations have blossomed and shipping continues to be 90 percent of how goods are transported.

Despite its current global reach, many still view piracy as a problem of the 17th and 18th centuries, not pervasive or life-threatening enough to warrant much attention. But, public interest in piracy was piqued in April 2009 with the capture of the M/V Maersk-Alabama, an event that made headlines worldwide. The U.S. military was called in to respond, and the pirate takeover ended when Navy SEALs killed three pirates who had held Captain Richard Phillips hostage for five days. This event led the company to the creation of ship security teams to respond immediately when pirates attempt to board the vessel.

In the public eye or not, U.S. troops are confident in their ability to take on the problem. Col. David W. Coffman, USMC, commander, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp Pendleton, California, experienced the thrill of victory as one of the U.S. military members who secured the safe release of Captain Phillips. But he also has experienced firsthand some of the frustration, particularly in terms of the lack of national will to take piracy on full force.

The ambiguous nature of national governments’ responsibility to ensure safety on the high seas complicates how the U.S. Navy in general and the U.S. Marine Corps in particular can operate in waters where piracy runs rampant. While many of the world’s countries are allowed to protect and defend their own military and commercial vessels sailing within 12 nautical miles from their shores, waters beyond this perimeter are considered the high seas. On the high seas, countries can protect and defend their own ships, but the waters of authority get a little murky when it comes to safeguarding ships from other nations, Col. Coffman explains.

Many believe that the U.N.’s resolutions that enable countries to intervene in acts of piracy are sufficient. On the other hand, suspicious ships cannot be detained and boarded merely because they appear threatening. While this approach certainly holds up free nations’ sense of justice, pirates are more likely to exploit rather than acquiesce to it.


The M/V Maersk-Alabama’s lifeboat—in which pirates held Captain Richard Phillips hostage for five days in April 2009—is hoisted aboard the USS Boxer. The attempt to hijack the ship off the Somali coast failed, and actions taken by U.S. Navy SEALs ensured the safe release of the captain.

The lack of governments’ will to direct their forces to take on and take down these lawless marauders exasperates many of those who have been trained to do so, Col. Coffman notes. In his opinion, defeating pirates is a matter of “pay me now or pay me later.” If allowed, U.S. troops can eliminate enemies before they have a chance to strike; this is what they have trained to do. If governments limit military action, pirates simply will continue to ransom ships and their crews, requiring that the military be called in to resolve an even riskier situation.

The colonel believes that a proactive stance could prevent such incidents. “Aren’t we [the U.S. Navy and United States] supposed to do this for a living? If we are allowing freely legal maritime commerce to have to run the gantlet, and we’re set up to let eight or 10 Somali teenagers aboard to drive the ship, all types of bad things can happen. We’re put at significant risk by losing the security of the sea lanes like that,” he relates.

The colonel believes that it will take some significant event to prompt the United States to be more aggressive in battling piracy, but it appears that the Maersk-Alabama incident was not striking enough. Public interest died when the headlines disappeared; pirates recognized the public’s short attention span and attempted to board the Maersk-Alabama again in November 2009; this time, they were met with security teams, and the attempt was foiled.

“I don’t know what that threshold is, but I think any loss-of-life threshold would get your interest. The other incident that would raise interest is a drawn-out episode with a ship that is carrying tanks and arms. There have been hazardous cargo issues. So I think if it crosses into a broader security issue, depending on what kind of cargo ends up in those pirates’ moorings, it seems to increase attention. The last threshold I don’t think we’ve crossed yet is what I would categorize as a catastrophic event, and that would be the oil tanker or hazardous cargo attack that results in a hole in the side of a ship and a spill running into ground,” the colonel says.

This is not to say that efforts of the Combined Maritime Forces, European Union and NATO have been useless. Slowly and consistently, their presence and security activities near coastlines have driven pirates farther out to sea. For example, in the past, spring’s calm weather in the region increased the number of attacks. However, early this spring, pirate actions groups, which include a mother ship and several attack skiffs, unsuccessfully attempted to attack 12 ships and successfully took hostage three ships. The difference is that rather than hugging a coastline, these groups were operating in an ocean area nearly the size of Australia, and the attacks occurred as far away from Somalia as Oman’s eastern coast and Tanzania’s southern coast.

The colonel is not naïve about the complexity of the international problems that both instigate piracy and make it so difficult to prevent. In this regard, he notes that discussions and agreement on an international level have not been enough to determine how to approach the assortment of problems.

For example, while piracy is a symptom of Somalia’s economic conditions, the question yet to be answered is whether the international community will collaborate to solve this problem, or if it is up to the United States alone. Experience in the region in the 1990s makes a U.S. solo endeavor unlikely, the colonel allows. On the other hand, the need for maritime safety for both national security and open commerce require that something be done, he says.

From a military perspective, the colonel notes that at one time, the Navy and Marines had the capability and the authority to board suspicious ships; however, the United States had since “gotten out of that business.” That said, beginning with the next deployment cycle, the Marines will have a maritime raid capability, he reveals.

But decisiveness is just one element of the enormity of the problem. The sheer size of the region that must be policed is an immense challenge. The number of U.S. and multinational ships available to patrol cannot nearly cover the millions of square miles of water that the pirates have made their place of employment.

To augment this effort, the U.S. military relies on aircraft as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies. Not only can these assets help patrol the seas, they literally also can follow a “money trail” to large residences with numerous expensive vehicles parked in the driveways. In a country as poor as Somalia, it is not a stretch to conclude that owners of large estates are involved in illegal activities. Pervasive poverty brings hundreds of Somali boys to their doorstep who are willing to risk their lives for as little as a few thousand dollars. Often high on illegal drugs, these young men take incomprehensible risks such as those actions taken by the three teenage Somalis who attempted to board and capture the frigate USS Nicholas in an area west of the Seychelles this April.

As the piracy attack area grows, the military will continue to count on technology to keep watch over the seas. Although ISR capabilities are useful, additional technical requirements continually need to be met, Col. Coffman says. Any technologies that contribute to maritime surveillance and tracking of commercial vehicles would be extremely helpful, and opportunities abound in this field, he maintains. ISR unmanned aerial system platforms could accomplish this task, but they must be equipped with command, control, communications and computer capabilities. In addition, without sufficient bandwidth, ISR-gathered data such as video cannot be transmitted fast enough to respond before a target moves. Without interoperability, coordinated attacks would be nearly impossible.

Even with these advanced technical advantages, however, the colonel maintains that dealing with piracy is difficult on a U.S. military policy level. The region itself is being influenced by decisions made both at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). While CENTCOM is responsible for ensuring security through use of the military in the area, AFRICOM has taken a different approach and is working on the diplomatic and humanitarian fronts to bolster African economies and goodwill. This dichotomy of tactics may not bolster piracy, but it can cause confusion in the troops’ understanding of their mission, Col. Coffman says.

The colonel does not dismiss the benefits of collaborating with other countries in the area. In fact, the U.S. government and military are building partnerships with countries such as Yemen and Djibouti to work toward a stable Somalia and ultimately a stable region. If successful, stability in the waters around the Horn of Africa as well as India and as far as Singapore could mean tremendous profitability for corporations and countries around the globe.

But the problem of curbing piracy does not end when pirates are caught. In fact, Lunsford explains that the authorities who detain these criminals have options about where to take them for trial, so they must determine their own policy. In the case of the United States, for example, the question becomes whether they should be taken to Somalia, where no official court system exists; to a nearby country such as Kenya, which has taken not only pirates but also Somali refugees; or brought back to the United States where they would be afforded the same rights as a citizen, including the presumption of innocence. The last time a piracy trial was conducted in the United States was 1901, so at this point, none of these options are optimum, she says.

13th Marine Expeditionary Unit: www.i-mef.usmc.mil/external/13thmeu
Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command: www.cusnc.navy.mil
ICC Commercial Crime Services: www.icc-ccs.org


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