A recent Internet discussion session on Somali piracy highlighted some of the misconceptions surrounding this growing threat to world trade. Overwhelmingly participants supported what they saw as the simple and obvious answer to the problem.
‘Arm every ship with an old-fashioned cannon and blow the pirates out of the water. What’s so hard about that?’ was one suggestion.
‘The solution is a no-brainer: unleash the power of our [American] military. and the entire issue will just fade away,’ was another.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Other contributors echoed these sentiments, expressing frustration at what they saw as the lack of will on the part of the international community to use overwhelming force to sweep the pirates from the seas. But in doing so they are proposing 18th-century solutions to what is a delicate and intractable 21st-century problem – even as countries, Australia included, are either sending ships to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, or considering doing so.
A couple of hundred years ago it was quite acceptable to send navies to sink pirate ships and to blockade and bombard their bases, slaughtering indiscriminately, in order to keep the seaways safe. Today, though, to use the post-9/11 cliché, the world has changed. Piracy in the Gulf region is bound up with poverty, lawlessness, the failed state of Somalia and, in the background, Islamic extremism.
There have been many warning signs in recent years of the need to tread carefully: successive wars and countless diplomatic initiatives have failed to find an answer to the Israel-Palestine conflict; there are now just glimmers of hope for Iraq after the expenditure of half a trillion dollars and a death toll that one group estimates at more than 1.3 million; Afghanistan is fast becoming a quagmire.
The last thing the world needs is another flashpoint on the Horn of Africa, another rallying call against Western ‘crusaders’ and a fresh recruiting ground for terrorist groups.
Clive Williams, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, says al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has taken a continuing interest in events in Somalia, including a 2007 general call to the Muslim world to support the Islamic Courts Union in its fight against the Transitional Federal Government and invading Ethiopian forces. ‘The fact the Ethiopians are Christians is an obvious encouragement to get more people to go there,’ Williams says.
Apart from these concerns, military force is a clumsy and often ineffective method of dealing with piracy. Navies are designed to fight other navies, not the small, fast-moving boats that pirates employ.
The record of clashes to date has been far from promising. Royal Marines from HMS Cumberland did attack a stolen dhow after an attempted hijack on a Danish merchant vessel, killing three on board and detaining eight others. However, as the average pirate ‘gang’ is believed to contain between 50 and 60 members, it can only be assumed the majority lived to fight another day.
In another incident, the Indian Navy frigate Tabar attacked and sank a stolen Thai fishing boat being used as a ‘mother ship’ by pirates. Most of the pirates escaped in two accompanying speedboats, while innocent Thai fishermen, who had been tied up and left on board by their captors, went to the bottom.