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U.S. Counter-Piracy Policy


U.S. Counter-Piracy Policy

Somali pirates often attack in small boats brought to the scene by larger "mother ships." (Photo:

Andrew J. Shapiro, the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, has been making the rounds lately, speaking on the subject of pirates (not the intellectual-property kind, the old-fashioned kind). Addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce one week and the Center for American Progress the next, he adjusts his emphasis just a tad (a bit more potential disruption of “complex, integrated, and on-demand global supply chains” for the Chamber; slightly more emphasis on “diplomatic engagement” for CAP), but his message is simply to highlight the recent evolution of U.S counter-piracy policy.

Piracy, of course, has been a growing concern, especially (but not exclusively) in a rapidly growing region of the Indian Ocean east of Somalia. Fed by the Suez Canal, this heavily trafficked area is transited by some 20,000–30,000 ships a year. Somali pirates operate on a business plan that focuses on the seizure of ships and crews, which are then held for ransom. The fact that they hold hostages makes it difficult to rely on simple force to combat them.

Shapiro reviews a number of policies, most of which have been in play for the past four to five years. The older policies include diplomacy, naval patrols, promotion of the use of “best practices” by shipping companies, and prosecution and incarceration of pirates caught in the act.

Diplomacy takes place through the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which was established in January 2009. The Contact Group brings together seafaring countries, international organizations, and trade groups to work out effective policies and coordinate activities.

Naval activities involve not one, but three multinational task forces (organized by the U.S. Navy, NATO, and the European Union in its first overseas military operation) as well as vessels from several countries (such as Russia, China, and India) that are willing to cooperate but reluctant to subordinate their ships to multinational authorities. These vessels patrol the most traveled transit routes and, in some cases, organize convoys. They have been effective where they operate, but they cannot be everywhere. The pirates have adapted by extending their operations further out into the ocean, where they are harder to find and catch in time. Currently, pirate operations are carried out in a region of some 2.5 million square miles, roughly comparable in size to the continental United States.

The best practices have been developed by shipping companies, trade associations, and the International Maritime Organization, a specialized body of the United Nations family. Many ships have been able to avoid or escape attack through a number of simple procedures and precautions while transiting pirate waters. These involve maintaining a constant watch, operating at relatively high speeds (any ship that can keep up a speed of 18 knots will probably not have a problem), defensive maneuvering to disrupt boarding attempts, and in some cases, constructing impediments to boarding, such as barbed wire. An important precaution is to build a “citadel” into a ship, a secure room equipped with food, communications equipment, and possibly engine and navigation controls. Securing the crew in a citadel when a ship is boarded prevents the pirates from taking hostages and allows naval forces to recapture the ship without worry for the safety of the personnel. Some 20 percent of the ships traveling through pirate waters, however, fail to adhere to the best practices, and needless to say, 20 percent of 20,000 is a lot of ships. Thus there are numerous easy targets for pirates to concentrate their efforts on.

Prosecution and incarceration is self-explanatory. Sometimes, cases present themselves without much effort. A number of pirates have been caught because they attacked a frigate on patrol, having mistaken it for a freighter. Yet there are frequently obstacles to prosecution. Pirates must be caught in the act in order to be prosecuted. (Simply having a gun is not unusual in Somalia; it’s a lawless place.) It is difficult to keep track of witnesses who sail endlessly around the world and frequently change jobs. It is easiest and most efficient to try suspects within the region, but many East African countries are reluctant to take on the burden and their judicial and penitentiary systems can be quickly overwhelmed. Moreover, the pirates who are caught are often the “small fry,” not the organizers or financiers, and even the “small fry” are not necessarily deterred by the threat of prosecution because of the desperate conditions of life in Somalia.

In addition to these now long-standing policies, Shapiro’s remarks highlighted a new emphasis on certain practices. One is the promotion of civilian security teams, or Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel. These were once quietly discouraged, but Shapiro was quick to emphasize that they have proved to be much more professional than many people expected. There have not been widespread shootouts, since it is usually sufficient for the armed guards to make their presence known to divert attackers to easier targets. He stressed that no ship with armed guards has been hijacked.

Secondly, Shapiro appears (to me, at least) to give increased attention to the notion of not giving in to ransom demands, long the standard policy in terrorism cases. This may be difficult to carry out because, as always, there are human hostages involved, but also because both shipping and insurance companies often see the payment of ransoms as less onerous than the potential damages that could result from refusing. Consequently, ransom demands have escalated over the years. The average demand is now $4.5 million; the highest ransom paid is believed to be $12 million for a supertanker. The total paid in ransoms in 2011 was $135 million.

Another new track is an effort to target the organizers and financiers of pirate ventures for prosecution. This is likely to be a more effective deterrent if it can be accomplished. While it should certainly not be impossible, Shapiro gives few details on how it is going to be done. He does note, however, that two ransom negotiators have already been detained.

Shapiro finishes with a theme that has always been central to the issue of Somali piracy. The problem of piracy at sea must be settled on land. The issue will not be resolved until there is an effective and responsible government in Somalia, a country that has not had a meaningful central government since 1991. While this may be the surest solution, it is also likely to be a difficult, expensive, amorphous, and never-ending task, which is precisely why so much attention has been devoted to stopgap measures at sea. One should also point out that the government must be willing as well as able to stop piracy. After all, Puntland, the Somali region that is home to the most pirate bands, is far from the most chaotic part of the country. Indeed, it is secure enough that pirate organizers can operate a successful “stock exchanges” in which investors buy shares in various pirate ventures. It appears that the local clan-based authorities maybe protecting and even profiting from ongoing pirate operations, while limiting their publicly proclaimed counter-piracy efforts to those who break the “pirate code,” as by murdering hostages.

The issue of Somali piracy may be with us for quite some time, and it may spread to other areas. (A newer piracy wave, following a different business plan, has been developing in West Africa, off the coasts of Nigeria and Benin.) The situation is not hopeless, though. While the number of attempted pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia continues to grow, the number of successful attacks has fallen off drastically. In January 2011, pirates in Somalia were holding 31 ships and 710 hostages. In March 2012, the numbers were 8 ships and 213 hostages—not acceptable numbers, yet a 70 percent decline. A good deal of this improvement—more than most people would expect—is due to the spread of best practices by shipping companies. With continued effort and adaptation, continued improvements can be made.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.