The Pirates are Winning

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 2 months ago

In Response to SOF and Piracy I linked Andrew Exum’s disagreement with me over the proper response to piracy.  Exum advocated the use of SEALs, and I advocated the use of large quantities of U.S. Marines in a long term presence.  When the Maersk Alabama was retaken by the U.S., it was with SEAL teams.  Andrew did a victory dance, and his commenters lambasted my views at Abu Muqawama.  One commenter made the observation that while I addressed a larger issue than just this situation, this situation was indeed unique in that there were hostages – as if the problem of piracy and ransom payments isn’t comprised by the aggregate of multiple hostage situations.

It is frankly rather puzzling to me how someone can so badly misinterpret my views.  It betrays the prose for either sloppy or dishonest, and Exum isn’t dishonest.  John Nagl of CNAS refused to correspond with me after this post, and Andrew Exum has exchanged only one short e-mail since then.  The whole exchange really was rather bizarre for fully grown men.  My points all along pertained to the use of SEAL teams as a remedy for the problem of piracy.  There simply aren’t SEAL teams, aren’t enough aircraft and aren’t sufficient logistics for the use of SOF to be a remedy to the problem of piracy.  And the SEAL teams are needed elsewhere and for other things.  In the grand scheme of things, it makes little difference whether the Maersk Alabama was rescued or not.

I had further said that I talked with one Marine Scout Sniper (on the 26th MEU, before this incident) who had a boatload of pirates in the sights of his Sasser .50 sniper rifle from a Helicopter, and he refused to take the shot because, well, “Hell, who wants to get tangled up with the lawyers when he gets back to the ship?”  In fact, taking the shots to save the Maersk Alabama required approval of the POTUS.

Folks, pirates aren’t that hard to find.  The Marines of the 26th MEU did it frequently in the Gulf of Aden.  While in the Persian Gulf, they also had an Iranian helicopter virtually land on board the deck of the USS Iwo Jima with Iranian gunners laughing at the Marines, and the U.S. Navy ordering the Marines NOT to engage for fear of creating an “international incident” (how’s that for “rules of engagement”?)  One of my points was that with aircraft, radar, LCACs and other sea-based craft, there is adequate means of locating and interdicting pirates, regardless of the size of the Gulf of Aden.

The problem isn’t finding them.  The problem is what happens then.  Now with that background, let’s cover recent data concerning pirates.

The Somalian pirates seized another big ship the other day. This time it was a large oil tanker. I spoke with a friend who owns ships and lives in Athens about the latest attack. He provided some interesting information. My notes from the conversation:

The seized tanker is owned by a large and successful family owned Greek shipping company. Pirates have hit Greek ships before, but this is the largest ship to be captured. There is $200mm worth of crude on board. The vessel is worth $100mm – 200mm. There was a crew of 25 of which eight were Greeks, most of whom were officers.

The Greek shipping world is PISSED at this one. The combination of the money and the fact that Greek crew members are involved makes this a very big deal.

I got a status on the bigger picture in pirate land:

There are currently 20 ships of all sizes and uses currently being held by Somali pirates. There are approximately 700 prisoners being held. It generally takes two to three months to negotiate and pay a ransom. My guy estimated that in the past year nearly $300mm in ransom has been paid to pirates.

There have been attempts to thwart the pirates but they are (obviously) not working. NATO has warships in the region as does the United States. The problem appears to be the “rules of engagement”. The Western powers have the ability to stop and search suspected pirate ships. But when the pirates see them coming they dump their arms overboard. Therefore they are released as only armed ships and crews can be seized and taken out of commission. The pirates are well aware of these rules.

This article goes on to make an important observation.

The final consideration is what is happening within Somalia. There is a group called al Shaabab. They are Muslim extremists. They too are highly armed. They have been fighting with the Somali pirates. Al- Shaabab wants to take over the job the pirates are doing. They want the money and the power that comes from pirating ships.

My guess would be that the Islamic militants will win, and the pirates will lose (the pirates will become Islamic militants).  I have previously recommended something like the following concerning pirates: tell the lawyers to go home, find the pirates, line them up on the deck of the ship, and shoot each and every one of them.  Dump their bodies into the sea, and videotape the entire event.  Post the video to YouTube as a warning to future pirates.  Thus, an end to piracy.

Of course, this seems brutal and uncivilized to many.  Indeed it is.  But value judgments have a way of being nuanced, difficult things that eventually turn on you and create unintended consequences.  My recommendation is brutal, but consider the alternatives.  Hostages continue to be taken, ransoms are paid, lives are lost in a continual drip and drain of violence in the Gulf of Aden, and – perhaps best of all – yes, the world funds Islamic militancy with the ransoms.

A similar example might be the problem of illegal immigration.  This problem is easy to solve, but the U.S. doesn’t yet want the solution.  The more violent method would be to line the border with troops and fire on sight at anyone crossing the border.  The less violent method would be to imprison any CEOs or company owners who hire (knowingly or not) illegal aliens.  But for a whole host of reasons (mostly related to providing corporate welfare), America isn’t yet ready for any solution to illegal immigration. Maybe one day it will be.

So we have made the judgment to appear civilized to the world – and us.  This kicks the can down the road, but it feels good for the time being unless it’s our relative who has been taken hostage.  We don’t recognize the increased cost of goods because of ransom payments and increased costs of security.  We don’t acknowledge that wealth has a moral component, i.e., God demands that we use of it wisely, something that would militate against funding Islamic militancy.  We are civilized, and that’s all that is important at the present.

But let those numbers wash over you again.  Seven hundred prisoners are being held at the moment.  Some $300 million has been paid in ransoms to Somali pirates.  There aren’t enough SEAL teams and logistics isn’t sufficient to conduct cloak and dagger operations to free them all.  Oh sure, it can be interesting, reading about guys doing HALO jumps with re-breathers on, dropping their parachute just before the water, swimming to destination and engaging the target.  Things like this are what guys play in video games like Call of Duty 4.

But this just isn’t reality in the Gulf of Aden with 700 hostages being held and Islamic militants wanting to muscle in on the action.  And concern for pirates dropping their weapons into the sea just before being captured won’t win the day.  We can win the war on piracy, but currently we are not.  As these things go, it’s fairly straight forward and easy given what we have dealt with in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

To date we have chosen not to deal with the problem.  As I have pointed out before, just as with illegal immigration, we want piracy more than we want the solution.  Piracy (and illegal immigration) exists because we want it to.  Those value judgments are indeed complex things, no?


Response to SOF and Piracy

Somalian Piracy

Piracy: The Only Solution

Pirates?  Call the Marines … Er, the Lawyers

UPDATE: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link.

UPDATE #2: Ah … isn’t this fun?  Fark has a discussion thread up with one commenter responding thusly: ” … If I can’t kill someone for laughing at me, I don’t want to kill anyone anymore.”

Poor fellow.  It has nothing to do with that.  It has everything to do with force protection, and the Iranians were laughing at the U.S. because they knew we wouldn’t take it seriously regardless of our military doctrine.

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  1. On February 15, 2011 at 8:06 am, Tom said:

    Wow. You are apparently an immoral idiot. Imprison any CEO who even unknowingly hires an illegal alien? So much for the U.S. Constitution. You will now be guilty of a crime that you have no way of knowing you committed.

    Companies will have to stop hiring all Hispanics- might be illegals from Mexico. Stop hiring blacks- might be illegals from the Carribbean. Stop hiring whites- might be illegals from Ireland. I doubt there is a single company anywhere in America with more than 50 employees that doesn’t have at least one hidden illegal alien.

    And what are those illegal aliens guilty of? Trying for a better life because they happened to be born in a lousy place? I guess for a crime like that they need to be lined up and shot like pirates, right Captain?

  2. On February 15, 2011 at 8:24 am, RDG said:

    Illegals are guilty of breaking our immigration laws, Tom. They are not guilty of being born in a third world craphole. However, they tolerate the third world craphole and do nothing about it while they are there. Many of them bring their third world craphole ideas with them and we foster the notion they that do not have to assimilate. So Tom, once again they are guilty of breaking our laws. I am sick and tired of paying taxes. Are you ok if I stop doing that, Tom? Will you come to my defense at the tax court? I doubt it.

    You are a bleeding heart idiot Tom. This man has a good solution to the pirate problem and the immigration problem.

  3. On February 15, 2011 at 8:47 am, jWarrior said:

    You are absolutely correct that we have the means to end piracy, but not the will. I think we should smear the pirates bodies with pig fat before we shoot them, all the while taking video. We could also blow the mother ships out of the water and shoot the survivors. And if they still didn’t get the message, we could send helicopter gunships to wreak a little havoc on the pirates’ home ports. Yeah, a lot of ‘innocent’ people would die, but these guys don’t operate in a vacuum.

  4. On February 15, 2011 at 8:55 am, Mannie said:

    I have no problem with shooting captured pirates out of hand. I also have no problem with dropping a few grenades into boatloads of unarmed young men who look suspicious. The way piracy has been fought since Odysseus was an AB, was to destroy their lairs. A couple of thunder runs down the coast, burn all the villages, kill all the livestock, steal all the chickens, destroy all vehicles and boats. The pirates will starve and go away.

    You’re right. We want piracy more than we want the solution.

    The less violent method would be to imprison any CEOs or company owners who hire (knowingly or not) illegal aliens.

    That would devastate the economy. But arresting illegals and controlling the border should be givens. Let it be easy to become legal, hard to stay if you’re a criminal or not employed. We should be in control of the system, not the illegals.

    Again, we want illegals more than we want to be free of them.

  5. On February 15, 2011 at 9:33 am, Countrylawyer said:

    I am, as noted, a country lawyer. I am also a former sailor. What we have here (to borrow part of a movie line) is an illustration of what happens when, as Western civilization has done, you conceive of law as an ideal gas, expanding to fill every nook and cranny of every void. This is a pernicious innovation of the past two hundred or so years. “You don’t like me,” now effectively states a cause of action. Similarly, those who in former times were universally recognized as being enemies of the human species — pirates — and who were viewed and treated as having placed themselves beyond the law’s protection, are now playing the sclerosis of “international law” for all it’s worth. Pirates caught on the high seas have earned nothing more than their own length of rope, appropriately rigged to a yardarm reinforced the bear the weight. Folks, the Sea is a dangerous, dangerous place; it may be teeming with life, but from a human’s perspective it is the least forgiving of deserts. The vessel in which you embark is all — ALL — that stands between you and certain death. What hazards your vessel, down to and including a stray spark or a valve carelessly left open, is an immediate and uncompromising threat to your life. The comforting rules and delightful ambiguities of the landsman’s world are a peril to life on the open ocean; they have no place there. Piracy was only eradicated as a universal scourge in the late 17th to early 19th Centuries through the expedient of slaughtering every last pirate we could lay hands on (either in situ or before admiralty courts), burning their ships, and breaking up their bases. We are fools to expect better results through gentler methods this time around.

  6. On February 15, 2011 at 9:55 am, templar knight said:

    I seem to remember the French sending their ships-of-the-line and 20,000 soldiers to No. Africa to end the pirate threat after the kidnapping of a French princess, who was never recovered. I think she ended up in the harem of the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.

    There is no other solution to the piracy problem. Of course, one can just imagine the hand-wringing and guilt such a course of action would evoke in the media. After all, aren’t these pirates black, and haven’t they been mistreated by the West for all these years? It’s just a little payback.

    And just as one would expect, the very first post on this thread proves my point. We live in a bizarro world.

  7. On February 15, 2011 at 10:39 am, Jin Slagg said:

    Not our problem. Not our side of the world. Plain and simple…

  8. On February 15, 2011 at 10:56 am, Frank said:

    Commented deleted due to profanity.

  9. On February 15, 2011 at 11:11 am, looking closely said:

    While I generally agree in principle with the “hang them from the yardarm” approach to confronting modern piracy, I offer two humble suggestions:

    a. Actually posting video of shooting captured pirates on “You Tube” would be unnecessary and in fact counterproductive.

    The pirates would quickly get the message without needing to see it on the internet. More important, posting that sort of footage would lead to all sorts of moral preening from the usual sorts, who think that pirates are the equivalent of underpriviledged youth Robin-hoods who are simply out there protecting the environment, etc. No need to give lawyers more ammunition.

    b. Don’t forget to scuttle the Pirate ships after capture. This hurts the ship owners who support piracy by renting/loaning their ships to pirates. If the ship owners know they could be subject to significant capital losses this way, they’re going to be much less willing to participate in the enterprise.

  10. On February 15, 2011 at 11:17 am, looking closely said:

    >>Not our problem. Not our side of the world. Plain and simple…

    Well, since American shipping takes place all over the world, and since Americans are involved in global trade, this *IS* our problem.

    >>Every shipping company has the ability and technology to hire security firm that can defend the ship properly, even a tanker of flammables with an RPG pointed at it, at least as well as the military.

    This is empirically untrue. If it were, there would be no such thing as modern piracy. Military-type security is expensive, and isn’t practical for every shipping run.

    Plus as mentioned, the problem isn’t just equipping ships with guns or security details. . .its providing an internationally accepted legal framework where attacked cargo ships can actually USE said guns to defend themselves.

  11. On February 15, 2011 at 11:22 am, Warbucks said:

    Who among us does not hold a similar sentiment to the well spoken thoughts of Countrylawyer: “Piracy was only eradicated as a universal scourge in the late 17th to early 19th Centuries through the expedient of slaughtering every last pirate we could lay hands on (either in situ or before admiralty courts), burning their ships, and breaking up their bases. We are fools to expect better results through gentler methods this time around.”

    While little can currently be done for small pleasure craft daring (foolish) enough to ply these waters, commercial shipping is another matter entirely.

    I do not have a moral problem with lining up and shooting them upon summary evidence while video taping their executions, but that in itself is insufficient to reduce this growing menace and may be better deferred to the end result of a more robust approach to commercial shipping security.

    High-tech solutions exist. First respondent-Commercially Licensed ships can hold offensive capability to monitor sea traffic over-the-horizon 24/7/365. Just as a carrier squadron protects its own ships, so can commercial shipping industry provide high-tech solutions to over-the-horizon tracking.

    It may cost the entire industry a few billion dollars to provide the high technologies needed to gain the timing advantage. So what?

    Once a threat is identified as a highly probable target, it can be then turned over for intercept to a high speed armed force protection composed of collaborative sea going interests. Once intercepted and identified there are many ways to make the problem disappear on the high seas.

    The point being, I personally believe its more than just a matter of what level of brutality is needed to send a message, what’s really needed is to liberate ourselves from the older methodologies of response limited to “capture, torture, ransom” with multiple Navies mingling to each protect their flagship properties all willingly supported through default, by the insurance industry.

    We can do better.

  12. On February 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm, John A said:

    The ROE is indeed too tilted toward non-engagement.

    But I am also concerned with the queries about why shippers do not have troops or other armed squads aboard. Even setting aside expense vs value for such squads, it is simple: in many places (see Boston Mass. USA) if a firearm is found aboard a commercial ship, the entire crew may be held – in some places, the ship is liable to be siezed from the owners.

  13. On February 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm, ProudAmerican said:

    First, I’m 17 and I agree 100% with what this man says. You can NOT solve a hostage situation through ransoms and let the hostage takers run free just to do it again because they know exactly what we will do. It becomes a never ending chain of hostage taking. Violence is indeed the answer.

    Second, I agree with locking up the CEOs for hiring illegals, regardless if they knew or not that they were illegal. When I was hired into my current job, I was asked at least 3 times if I was an American citizen, and I even had to use my social security number to clock in! Any smart CEO would soon learn to ask about the potential employee’s citizenship status.

    Third, I would LOVE to be that guy sitting in the chopper with a .50 rifle. I’d laugh my head off when I shot the pirates. Does this mean I’m demented and sick? Nope. I just value a civilized person, or any person who doesn’t engage in illegal activities under their own free will, much more than a worthless Somalian pirate. I also have asked a National Guard recruiter if there is any possibility of violent force being used on the US-Mexico border. I’d gladly volunteer myself for that position.

    Tom – You are an idiot, as RDG says. “And what are those illegal aliens guilty of?” proves it. Like I said previously, it should be common practice to investigate the citizenship status of a potential employee.

    Countrylawyer – You got it right. Except I disagree with hanging them; a bullet to the gut and a kick into the ocean sounds much, much better.

  14. On February 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm, DANEgerus said:

    Every illegal alien is. They violate the law crossing the border. They commit ID fraud to get work. They are not screened for prior criminal records or health status so they bring disease as well.

    Pirates & Brigands are. International law is very specific that Pirates and Brigands are subject to summary execution.

    You are absolutely right that civil society is subjected to massive violence because of a refusal of the educated elites to enforce the existing laws. I personally watched a young woman and her child run down by a drunken illegal alien who was cited and released, never to be seen again. Their brutal slaughter was preventable, and our citizenry is subject to unequal treatment before the law because of the indulgence bestowed upon illegal aliens by Law enforcement barred by Political Correctness from detaining flight risks, barred by Political Correctness from evaluating transparently false identification, barred by Political Correctness from protecting citizens from non-citizen career criminals because of false smears regarding “racism”.

    Nothing quite sums up the debate like watching refugees from a 3rd world Socialist hell-hole wave Mexican flags while squealing for preferential race-based treatment and “rights” that amount to nothing but society-wide theft.

    I personally see zero difference between the Somali pirates and the Mexican border crossers and illegal Irish in Boston.

    Anyone advocating for “rights” to violate the law is simply arguing that other people should pay the price in blood and tears.

  15. On February 15, 2011 at 1:41 pm, Dotar Sojat said:

    Q-ships. Just a couple. “Oh, look, Hassan, the sides of that crate on the foredeck have dropped away to reveal a Twin 40mm!”

  16. On February 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm, Rich Rostrom said:

    1) No executions. Amputate one arm. Surely that is more humane? But almost certainly more terrifying. Dead guys just go away. Cripples hang around town for years.

    2) In the long term, piracy is suppressed by eliminating safe havens. That means reestablishing civil government in Somalia.

    3) WRT illegal aliens: Verification of citizenship should be made easy and routine. Some businesses don’t want this because they profit by exploiting illegal alien labor. The Feds should be tracking such businesses (not that hard) and leaning publicly on businesses to conform to the law. (Additional penalties for evasion, compounded for knowing complicity. Also, quietly add a law making officers and directors liable to shareholders for losses due to corporate malfeasance.)

    Of course many companies will just evade anyway. At the same time, however, the Feds should put undercover agents into the company management to determine how it is being done and who is responsible for that policy – right up to the top. (That’s tricky, because these days, the “top guys” have become very clever about never formally ordering the crimes and minimizing the paper trail. They always have fall guys. So go in backdoor, and get the full picture from inside.) When there’s a full case against a juicy target, take the whole company down. Bankrupt the company with fines. And hey, guess what? The officers and directors are all liable and get bankrupted too – “pour encourager les autres”.

    Border enforcement is hard. Who wants to shoot helpless desperate people? And what about refugees from genuine dangers? But misguided compassion can have disastrous consequences.

    Australia has a problem with “asylum seekers”: illegal South Asian immigrants in small boats, claiming political asylum. The previous (right-wing) Liberal Party government interned nearly all of them at a remote Pacific island. The current Labor Party government called this inhumane and allowed many to enter Australia. This led to a huge increase in boats setting out. And recently, several dozen “asylum seekers” drowned when their boat foundered trying to reach Australian soil. (There were patrol boats in the area, but they were already overloaded with previous “rescues” – the “asylum seekers” often burn or scuttle their own vessels to force Australian patrols to take them on board.)

    Put up a really good fence, and be firm about deporting illegals. There’s no magic bullet required – just the will to do it.

  17. On February 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm, Warbucks said:

    “High-tech solutions exist. First respondent-Commercially Licensed ships can hold offensive capability to monitor sea traffic over-the-horizon 24/7/365. Just as a carrier squadron protects its own ships, so can commercial shipping industry provide high-tech solutions to over-the-horizon tracking.”

    Offensive capability to monitor sea traffic does not necessarily require offensive capability to police and enforce sea traffic security. The two functions can be kept separate.

    We can do better. Cost is not the limiting factor.

  18. On February 16, 2011 at 6:44 pm, Harry said:

    “Wow. You are apparently an immoral idiot. Imprison any CEO who even unknowingly hires an illegal alien? So much for the U.S. Constitution. You will now be guilty of a crime that you have no way of knowing you committed.”

    Who knew that strict liability was unconstitutional? So Tom, are you an immoral idiot, or do you support statutory rape?

  19. On February 17, 2011 at 12:45 am, MrJest said:

    Simple solution – arm merchant ships. Any country that objects to that, gets denied US trade. Since we are the largest consumer on the planet, well… money talks. There will be few if any problems.

    The “pirates” encountered these days rarely have anything more potent than an HMG or an ancient RPG (with rounds that have a 50% failure or “dud” rate) neither of which can fatally harm a modern multi-tens-of-thousands tons displacement merchant ship. Mount 6 or 10 automatic 40mm grenade launchers and equip the crew with multiple rifles and shotguns, and even the most vulnerable oil tanker will be able to fight off – if not outright destroy – modern primitive pirates.

    There was a news story a few years ago – an excellent idea, I thought at the time – of a Russian company that offered “pirate hunting trips”… a slow, wallowing freighter filled with passengers with high-powered rifles, trawling the seas off Somalia.

    Sounds like the “invisible hand” of commerce at work to me; add to that the lightly armed freighters I describe above, and watch piracy vanish overnight.


  20. On February 17, 2011 at 2:41 am, Jim Harris said:

    Mr. Jest: Actually, there was something going around the internet a few years ago about a cruice lin e offering something similar for a family vacation.

    While I support the arming of ships, I agree that the “final solution” is to eliminate the source. Unfortunately, establishing responsible government in Somalia is not something we can do without much time and expense; and we are already over-committed with our current nation-building enterprises. Further, we do not control the outcomes of such efforts, as we are re-learning with the current efforts.

    Eliminating the source (or at least seriously curtailing it) can be accomplished by denying the somalis the use of their own coast. And, this is something we can manage — I leave to your capable imaginations the “how.” It would cause an international outcry from the usual sob-sisters; but it would be effective and relatively quick.

  21. On February 22, 2011 at 12:51 pm, clazy8 said:

    This ( might provide impetus for a more muscular, less touchy-feely response.

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