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Victim Disarmament At Sea

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As Eric Margolis points out the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia is directly related to the 2006 US-backed Ethiopian invasion and the decades of US involvement in the region since the fall of Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. In fact the very same fighters driven north towards the tip of The Horn by the fall of Mogadiscio, to Ethiopian driven US tanks, are involved in the attacks on international shipping.

Hijackings in 2005 were in the single digits, rose to a dozen in 2006, doubled after the Christmas invasion to over 30 and when the tally is done will have more than doubled again in 2008.

It is hardly unusual historically for pirates to be ex-combatants. Colin Woodard's book "The Republic of Pirates" paints a vivid picture of losers of dynastic struggles or jobless privateers decommissioned after a peace treaty is signed finding new careers as buccaneers on The Spanish Main. Interestingly their progress from canoes and night surprise attacks on larger ships to commanding true fleets of captured warships parallels the way that their modern pirates have slowly built up their capacity and range, with "mother ships" which allow their speedboats to reach thousands of miles from their coastal village bases as this Map of their attacks shows. Their popularity in those villages is also an important factor, as the ability to disappear in the crowd and spend their ill-gotten gains makes the whole game worth it and attracts more young Somalis to their ranks.

However, by far the most interesting thing about this 21st century resurgence of piracy is how modern States are responding to the threat. Big words and big gesture abound. Logic is sadly absent. Sending a dozen or even a hundred battleships, aircraft carriers and other big guns to patrol a span of sea that it would take them months to sweep, looking for a few dozen speedboats close to one of the world's busiest shipping lanes seems the epitome of 4th generation warfare. The again, cost effectiveness is not one of the hallmarks of State action, even in a field, War, that is traditionally its prerogative. The image of a T-Rex chasing after egg-snatching rodents springs to mind. Best case scenario, the pirates assume the increased risk (as drug smugglers do) and become more adept at avoiding and running from the naval forces. Worst case…well if the thought of losing a hundred million dollar ship to the marine equivalent of an IED does not keep fleet commanders awake at night…maybe the prospect of a movie called "Sea King Down" might.

Any partial solution to the piracy problem would entail raising the cost of hijackings. Given the scant means in the pirates’ armoury, the vulnerability of their ships and their reliance on surprise attacks, this should not be too difficult. Night vision equipment, keeping guard and of course arming merchant ships would go a long way towards making piracy a less appealing prospect.

Enlisting local help to obtain early warning of where the pirates might strike next is also key… the pirates are not the only ones with cell phones in Somalia.

Finally, fast, cheap, proportional response to the pirate threat might also come from local sources, even from those insurance and shipping industries most directly affected: Letters of Marque and Reprisal could find their way back into the anti-piracy arsenal.

However, given a choice between disproportionate, expensive and ineffective response or allowing non-state actors the right of self-defence, I have no doubts which way governments of the world will prefer.

Of course any real solution would involve peace in Somalia, something that the US and other powers, intent on establishing a State in their own image, make highly unlikely.

November 26, 2008