Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Opinion: Navies Can’t Defeat Piracy ... You Savvy?

Experts in the years before the 1970s were convinced that something such as piracy could not experience a renaissance after its zenith in the 18th century was ended by the technological progress of nations and their growing control of the world’s oceans and sea lanes, supported by the increasing effects of globalisation. 

Safe havens for pirates became rare and a noteworthy presence of piracy only sparked into life in very limited and politically unstable areas. With the collapse of all state authority in Somalia and the increasing local power of terrorist and fundamentalist Islamic groups, the coastal areas of the Horn of Africa became a perfect breeding ground for piracy.

The ultimate goal of piracy is to carry out raids that are particularly profitable. In this light, Somalia was naturally predisposed for pirate activities due to its explosive combination of political instability and its proximity to one of the world’s economically most important sea areas. The waters off the Horn of Africa represent a significant junction of international sea lanes, being the node for all maritime traffic coming from and going to the Eastern coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, as well as the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

Not being able to solve the political problems of war-ravaged Somalia, the international community of states confines itself to protecting the vital sea lanes by naval task forces. NATO, the EU and United States-led operations, as well as smaller (multi-)national efforts, attempt to protect ships, repel pirate attacks and show their determination and military force with the hope of discouraging Somali pirates from continuing their dangerous business. However, despite regular announcements of successful interventions and of convoys of the UN World Food Program which safely reach their destination, the multi-national forces have so far not found any solution to effectively curtail piracy on the Horn of Africa.

According to the regularly updated information of Ecoterra Interational (6 January), at least 44 vessels and one barge are currently kept in the pirates’ hands, with at least 781 hostages or captives waiting for their release (EU NAVFOR confirms the existence of 650 hostages). With only few exceptions, the nations and ship owners generally have to resort to paying high ransoms to free their ships, crews and other hostages, thereby affirming the pirates in the success of their actions. In addition to the hundreds of million dollars that have already been paid to criminal Somali syndicates, the deployment of naval vessels and reconnaissance aircraft to the regions costs even more, not to mention the billions of dollars in development aid for the weak Somali government.

The latter is the international community’s only hope for a diplomatic ending of anarchy and further radicalisation in the region, as the author has already pointed out in an earlier article (see However, the increasing power of radical Islamic groups, such as Al-Shabaab, Hezb al-Islamiya and others, and the generally unpromising socio-political situation, make a diplomatic solution within the foreseeable future very unlikely.

Lessons of history

It has never been wasted time to look at history to find answers for today’s problems. Therefore, if piracy off the coast of Somalia cannot be tackled by conventional means, the political leadership should take a look at two historical examples of very similar and successful actions against piracy.

The preferred example of today’s analysts, politicians and military leaders has been the concerted naval action of local countries against piracy along the Strait of Malacca. However, neither the geographical nor the political and social conditions can be compared to the situation on the Horn of Africa. There are two more suitable parallels in history: the efforts of ancient Rome’s Pompey against piracy in the Mediterranean Sea and those of Woodes Rogers in the West Indies of the early 18th century.


During the 1st century B.C. the aspiring Roman Republic (soon to become the Roman Empire) saw its trade with the Middle East and, in particular, with Egypt threatened by pirate fleets. For centuries these pirates found safe havens in Anatolia and the extensive North African coast and had freely attacked and sacked coastal cities in Greece, Asia and Italy. Furthermore, vital corn supplies from Egypt and Pontus were required to nourish the Roman population. Therefore, any military operations against pirates in the Mediterranean Sea were extremely popular and brought fame and fortune for those who ventured to fight the pirates. However, these individual actions never succeeded in solving the problem.

Having been a Consul of Rome, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (today also known as Pompey) was asked to finally disrupt the Mediterranean piracy and to secure the important trade routes. Pompey knew that this task could not be accomplished exclusively by military power, although he established a naval force, reportedly consisting of up to five hundred ships, and started to push back the pirates bit by bit towards Cilicia, the ancient centre of piracy.

However, despite these initial military achievements, which began to produce panic among the pirates, Pompey also started to negotiate with his enemies. The key element of his strategy was to offer the pirates an alternative to their current life. They could choose between imminent destruction and a peaceful life as farmers or fishermen. Many accepted to be resettled by Pompey and, in the course of only a few months, all noteworthy pirate activity in the Mediterranean Sea came to an abrupt ending. Thus, by understanding and responding to the pirates’ nature, by offering an alternative and talking to his enemies, Pompey accomplished this incredibly challenging task.

Woodes Rogers

More than seventeen hundred years after Pompey rid the Mediterranean Sea of the threat of large pirate fleets (at least for a decade) the colonial powers were burdened by pirates who intercepted ships, laden with resources exploited in the new world, on their routes to large colonial ports and to Europe. They also increasingly often attacked colonial towns in which they expected to find further riches, generally acting with unspeakable brutality. Many notorious pirate leaders achieved questionable fame and created the historical background for the romantic view that novels and movies created of piracy in the Caribbean.

Supported by wars between colonial powers, piracy temporarily even received a semi-legal character due to the Letters of Marque issued to disrupt the West Indies trade of the respective country’s enemies. However, it was a fallacy that piracy could be controlled.

After piracy had flourished in the West Indies for two hundred years, having produced a long series of uncountable crimes, suffering and economic losses, England decided to bring law and order to the Caribbean islands. Woodes Rogers, a former privateer and old acquaintance of many pirates who roamed the area at that time, was named Governor of the Bahamas in 1718, a young British colony and, at that time, the most significant hub for piracy (as Tortuga and Jamaica had been in the past). He immediately began to implement his carrot-and-stick policy. Personally knowing his adversaries and their way of life, he issued an ultimatum which divided the pirates. The better and more experienced pirates chose to accept Roger’s proposal and sailed to Madagascar or other distant places in the world, while mavericks and those who saw no way out preferred to pick up the fight. The latter could be easily tracked down and captured or killed by the Royal Navy, which had generally expanded its efforts against piracy in the Caribbean Sea during the past decades. With only few exceptions, piracy did not burden the Bahamas after Roger’s skilful intervention.


Both the Mediterranean Sea during the time of the Roman Republic, as well as the West Indies during the 17th century, were only controlled to a limited extent by the then leading powers and represented a perfect breeding ground for local warlords and ambitious adventurers. Similar to the current situation in Somalia, the result of these political, social and geographical conditions in both regions offered profitable prospects for large-scale piracy. Although it is unlikely that Rogers studied and followed the example of Pompey, both had a very similar approach. Both either new their adversaries very well (even personally, in some cases) or entered into a dialogue with the pirates. The show of force was an important element; however, more important, both divided the pirates and, thereby, reduced their strength and effectiveness.

The resulting question is, whether a similar approach could be adopted against the Somalia piracy. There is already a significant naval presence that evidently influenced and continues to influence the way and the area in which the pirates operate. However, as yet, it did not achieve the ending of piracy on the Horn of Africa. On the contrary, the pirates expanded their area of operations to the south and east, and the number and value of captured ships obviously still makes their undertakings worthwhile.

In April 2009, US Congressman Ron Paul suggested the reintroduction of “Letters of Marque” in support of the fight against piracy. However, this approach would have created a questionable legal and ethical situation. In particular, it would further increase the divide between the Muslim world and the western world, as it could be used for propaganda and for the recruitment of young fundamentalists.

Rather, the western community should seek suitable partners in Somalia and start a dialogue. So far, this is exclusively limited to the internationally accepted Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu. The change must come from within Somalia, but naturally with strong and targeted financial support and guidance by western powers. It is unlikely, that such an approach can be officially adopted by a western government or multi-national organisation. As it requires a significant amount of money, influence and logistics, there are only few countries that could stem such an enterprise.

Independent of the specific means, which would be used to accomplish these aims, the two above outlined historical examples suggest that any successful approach should be based on:

• finding a suitable partner in Somalia, who is familiar with the pirate and militant networks;
• creating a rift within the pirate community by providing social and economic alternatives;
• continuing to show considerable force in international waters;
• using former pirates to locate, persuade or fight the remaining pirates.

It is self-evident that this is an extremely challenging approach in a country such as Somalia, which has not seen peace and stability for the past two decades. However, first, it would significantly reduce the burden for the deployed naval forces and, second, it would provide a worthwhile opportunity to increase the international community’s influence in Somalia.

In any case, the present situation is not acceptable. Whether the above approach is reasonable or even realistic may be questioned. However, the first step for any effective and sustainable solution will always be to seek a dialogue and to provide alternatives.

Nicolas von Kospoth is managing editor of
This article first published at
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