Somalia's piracy problem is everyone's problem
'Arrghh matey' isn't so funny when you know what's at stake.
Humor has its place, but today's piracy is no laughing matter. Piracy permeates our cultural ethos – it's in children's stories and movies both tragic and comical. In recent months, as pirates off Somalia have proliferated and widened the scope of their capability, newspapers, television newscasts, and bloggers have invariably invoked the terms "arrghh," "avast," and "Pirates of the Caribbean." One essay casually suggested building a Jack Sparrow wing at Guantánamo.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But maritime piracy involves criminal elements using force against innocent prey whose only interest is safe passage. Little more, little less. The problem of piracy is as ancient as when mankind first traversed open waters. Thucydides notes in his history of the Peloponnesian War that piracy was rampant until Minos built a navy to secure the sea lanes. We've mostly endured it until it reached a certain threshold, such as when the US finally sent ships to address the threat to legitimate commerce during the Barbary war in the early 1800s. But recent Somali piracy has caused the international community to take notice. And for good reason.
Pirates have increased the stakes. No longer are just yachts, fishing boats, and small freighters at risk; now there are attacks on cruise ships (the Nautica), military cargo (the freighter Faina), a chemical tanker (the Biscagila), and an oil carrier. The Sirius Star, hijacked last month, contains a reported two million barrels of crude oil. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, which accidentally grounded in Prince William Sound nearly 20 years ago, could hold 1.2 million barrels and spilled one-third of that, resulting in one of the top environmental disasters.
There is some precedent for using oil as a weapon – at the start of the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein ordered an estimated 11 million barrels of crude oil to be poured into the Gulf. What ecological damage could a criminal or terrorist organization effect with such a ship?
Last month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its report, "Global Trends 2025 – a Transformed World," which suggested, in part, that "some states might wither away as governments fail to provide security and other basic needs." While not all potential failed states are located in proximity to major shipping lanes, as Somalia is ies with the Gulf of Aden, port facilities or oil and gas fields might be at risk to future stateless areas and/or nonstate actors.