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.
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.
With the exception of private pleasure craft attacked on occasion in the Caribbean, piracy no longer occurs around North America. In distant waters, few US built, flagged, or manned commercial ships ply their trade; therefore few US ships are affected. But while piracy may not present an immediate or direct threat to US national security interests, its consequences can affect everyone.
Insurance rates for ships transiting the Gulf of Aden are increasing 10-fold. The risk to personnel and cargo if a ship is hijacked is escalating, and tens of millions of dollars have already been paid out in ransom to pirates this year.
Piracy can affect local economies, too. Egypt, for example, earned $5 billion in the past year from ships transiting the Suez Canal. Some shipping companies have already begun diverting their ships around the Horn of Africa, further increasing their costs due to a longer transit and reducing revenue for Egypt. But as the hijacking of the Sirius Star far from the Gulf of Aden demonstrated, even the longer transit may not be as safe now.
Although speculation has been raised about ties between terrorist organizations and pirates, experts agree that it is just that – speculation. That said, an act of piracy may have occurred last week before the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) when a Pakistani fishing vessel, the Kuber, was allegedly hijacked by the terrorists, its crew killed, and the boat used to convey the attackers to India.
The issue is not whether piracy is tied to terrorism, but rather how terrorists or others might employ piratical tactics. If nonstate actors find the tactic is sound and the defense against it untenable, then it will be used to conduct similar or more spectacular operations. How would nonstate actors or other future belligerents interpret any success by the pirates? Absent an effective response to lawlessness, Somali piracy may be a prism to view potential copycat killers.
The United Nations Security Council is rightly addressing this 21st-century incarnation of the age-old maritime challenge. Resolutions have been passed and coalitions made, individual state forces are patrolling the region, enhanced private maritime security is being explored, and long-term methods of appropriate state-level response being debated. While all the answers may not be here yet, everyone is at least asking the questions.
Claude Berube teaches at the US Naval Academy. His opinions are his own.