The dramatic Navy rescue Sunday that freed an American cargo ship captain from his Somali captors could begin to change the calculus of the rampant piracy in some of the world's most traveled and dangerous waters.
Snipers aboard the USS Bainbridge shot the three pirates aboard a lifeboat with Capt. Richard Phillips 100 feet away. Mr. Phillips was seen to be in "imminent danger" – with at least one of the pirates pointing an AK-47 at his back, said Vice Adm. William Gortney in a Pentagon briefing. A fourth pirate surrendered and was taken into custody.
The operation apparently brought to a close the remarkable story of the Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged cargo vessel that was set on by pirates Wednesday hundreds of miles east of Somalia. Though the crew of the Alabama fought off the pirates, Mr. Phillips offered himself as a hostage to save his crew, according to several news reports.
His rescue amid snipers' bullets could entice Somali pirates, who have so far largely refrained from violence, to consider retribution. "There are second- and third-order effects," said Admiral Gortney. "This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it."
At the same time, the incident could escalate efforts by shipping nations to respond to the problem in a more effective way. A key question is now how much the higher profile of the issue, due to the Alabama affair, will prod nations into action. To date, the economics of the issue alone have not compelled a strong coordinated response. The owners of merchant ships have calculated that the risk of having a ship hijacked by pirates is small enough that paying a ransom – and seeing insurance costs rise – is cheaper than arming themselves to deter the problem.
"That should tell us something about just how low the threat of a pirate attack is," says Peter Leeson, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of "The Invisible Hook," a book on modern piracy.
Experts wonder, however, if the fallout from the failed hijacking of the Alabama will begin to change that. The solutions are not easy. Though 16 nations have warships in the Gulf of Aden – the elbow of water between the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa – pirates are moving out into the open ocean east of Somalia. This is much larger area to patrol. It is roughly equal in size to the eastern half of the United States.
This is where the Alabama was attacked. When pirates first began to harass the Alabama, the nearest warship – the Bainbridge – was 200 nautical miles away, with a top closing speed of 22 m.p.h. By the time it arrived, the pirates had already boarded the Alabama, been repelled, and taken Phillips hostage.
One answer would be to step up the Navy's presence in the area. "You publicly capture more pirates" as a disincentive, says Karin von Hippel, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Until now, Somali pirates have for the most part left the crews of hijacked ships unharmed – preferring to keep them healthy in order to extract ransom money. Yet after Sunday's US rescue mission – and a raid by French Special Forces that killed two pirates Friday – Somali pirates vowed revenge.
"The French and the Americans will regret starting this killing," a pirate who gave his name only as Hussein told Reuters by satellite phone. "We do not kill, but take only ransom. [But] we shall do something to anyone we see as French or American from now."
Few expect that death of five pirates in three days will make Somali pirates think twice. Dire poverty and the collapse of the Somali state mean piracy is "a business model that works for them," said Rear Adm. Rick Gurnon of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne – the school that trained Phillips – during a press conference Sunday.
"I don't think this will have any deterrent value at all," he added.
Instead, he quoted Thomas Jefferson, who spoke of the scourge of piracy at the beginning of the 19th century – and the need to hit the pirates in their home bases on land. "It was said, 'It's easier to go after the wasps' nest than swat the wasps.'" Admiral Gurnon said.
Others agree that the root of the problem is Somalia's status as a "failed state" without effective governance. That will take time to resolve, but some interim steps could include having any foreign aid to the current government tied to demands for new antipiracy efforts, says Ms. Von Hippel of CSIS. She suggests joint Somali-international patrols of the coastal waters, and perhaps an antipiracy public-relations effort – as would be part of a counterinsurgency campaign.
Curiously, the conditions in which the Somali pirates flourish today are not so different from those of Blackbeard and a clique of other famous buccaneers, says Colin Woodard, author "The Republic of Pirates," a book on the "golden age" of piracy in the 18th century.
- The Bahamas was, for a time, a failed state that provided a haven for pirates.
- It was near key shipping lanes.
- The pirates cast themselves not as bandits but as freedom fighters.
In Blackbeard's day, the activities were partly a social revolt against ship owners, says Mr. Woodard. In Somalia, the pirates pit themselves against alleged practices such as illegal dumping of toxic waste by international ships in Somali fishing waters.
He's not sure if the past holds lessons for the future, but he notes that the golden age of piracy did end.
A divide-and-conquer tactic helped. Some pirates accepted an amnesty bargain and jointed the fight against their former brethren.
Says Woodard: "It was all about successfully bringing governance – bringing down the pirates' sanctuary by restoring … the rule of law."