Responding to Piracy on the Somali Coast

Somali pirates have been in the news a great deal lately, and there is a great deal of controversy as to how to deal with them.  To date, the proposed solutions seem to be a simplistic calls for a) intervention to build a stable state in Somalia, b) send in various national navies to engage and destroy the pirates, c) arm merchant ships for self defense.

The reality is, though, far more complex, and much of the proposed interventions are actually counterproductive.  To understand the scope of the problem, we must understand first why there is so much piracy in and around the gulf of Aden.

Piracy and lawlessness go hand in hand.  Piracy arises pretty spontaneously wherever relatively unprotected and valuable cargos are being transported through an impoverished area, and the inhabitants have the weapons to pull off the raid and a reasonable chance of  getting away with it.

In the case of the Gulf of Aden, piracy has long been an issue.  But, the number of people taking up piracy spiked as a result of the recent U.S. backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia.  Many people have been driven off their land, or have lost their ability to earn a living due to the economic collapse that followed the invasion and the rise of an anti-Ethiopian resistance.  Moreover, the plundering of Somali fishing grounds by foreign fishing fleets has resulted in a large pool of desperate fishermen who no longer can feed their families through honest labor.

The poverty and desperation of the Somalis, their ready access to weapons, and the existence of shipping routes connecting the valuable markets of South and East Asia with the Mediterranean running right off their coastline have predictably encouraged many locals to take up lives of piracy.  There will be no simple solution that ends the threat of piracy.  Rather the problem will persist so long as the root causes are unaddressed, and merchants are prevented from adequately defending themselves.

The first step is to listen to the merchants themselves:


1. During 2008 significantly increased pirate attacks on merchant ships occurred throughout the GoA [aka Gulf of Aden] and off the coast of Somalia. The majority were clustered around the northern side of the GoA
but some attacks have occurred further off the east coast of  Somalia.

2. Analysis of successful attacks indicates that the following common vulnerabilities are exploited by the pirates:

a. Low speed

b. Low freeboard

c. Inadequate planning and procedures

d. Visibly low state of alert and/or evident self protective measures

e. Where a slow response by the ship is evident

3. Commonly two or more small high speed (up to 25 knots) open boats/ “skiffs” are used in attacks often approaching from the port quarter and/or stern.

4. The use of a pirate “mother ship”, which is a larger ship carrying personnel, equipment and smaller assault craft, has enabled the attacks to be successfully undertaken at a greater range from the shore.

5. Vigilance should be highest at first light and last light, as the majority of the attacks have taken place during these periods.

6. To date no successful attacks have occurred on ships at 15 knots or more.

7. The majority of attempted hijacks have been repelled by ship’s crew who have planned and trained in advance of the passage and employed passive counter measures to good effect.

Reading discussions by mariners, it is pretty clear that what mariners want are options, and the access to experts who can defend them.     Many sailors complain that when they call for help, national navies are slow to respond.  Many countries limit merchant ships entering their ports from carrying any weapons other than a side-arm locked in the captain’s safe.  Moreover, the navies can be quite destructive, sinking ships that are not engaging in piracy.

There is a nascent security industry dedicated to protecting merchant ships.  The problem appears to be manageable for prepared crews.  If they transit the area quickly, they appear to be relatively safe.

Somali motivations into taking up piracy are quite complex.  Essentially they are the product of the unwillingness of surrounding nation states to accept the existence of a stateless inhabited portion of the world. Somali piracy started out as a response to the loss of access to the rich fishing grounds off the Somali coast.  Korean, European and Yemeni fishing vessels would haul in rich catches in Somali territorial waters, effectively denying the Somali fishermen who had homesteaded those fisheries from access to their property.  Deprived of their livelihood, they turned to opportunistic piracy, using the same system as that of the Barbary Pirates (with the exception that they treat their captives well).  Unfortunately, what started out as an act of desperation has mutated into an institution:  piracy rings have turned into big business.  Pirates supply wealth and weapons to various factions fighting the U.S. backed state. Members of the U.S. backed state are also on the pirate rings’ payroll.  The invasion has disrupted the traditional economy, making people even more dependent on piracy.

“Millions in defense, not one cent in tribute” – Thomas Jefferson

Breaking up these crime rings will require a combination of concessions and steadfast resistance.  Merchant ships should be permitted to arm themselves as they see fit to defend themselves.  A few AK-47’s or .50 cal machine guns on board a maneuvering ship should be sufficient to keep small boats from closing to the point where they can board. Ships must be allowed to do what they need to do able to transit

However, the same should not be said for the large foreign vessels plundering the Somali coastal waters.  The fishing grounds are the property of the Somali fishermen who have, in a Lockean sense, homesteaded them.   Outsiders should respect those property rights.  This would not represent some dramatic special consideration given to the Somalis; under International Law, those fishing grounds are off limits to the foreign fishing fleets since they are Somali territorial waters.

The U.S. government should end interference in Somalia.  While there is nothing wrong with punitive expeditions against professional pirates, the conquest and subjugation of non-pirates who happen to live near pirates and the disruption of their farms and industries are absolutely unjustified and counterproductive.

By geography, Somalia should be a wealthy state.  It is well positioned to be an outlet of African goods being shipped to South and East Asia.  Its poverty is the product of the nearly continuous attempts by outsiders to impose external rule on a people who don’t want it – interventions that started when Mussolini sent Italian troops to conquer the Horn of Africa.

Early this year, the Ethiopian army retreated from Somalia.  The nation state that they left behind is now run by many of the same Islamist political factions that the U.S. government was trying to suppress when it arranged for the Ethiopian invasion and attempted to install a puppet state.  Accepting this ‘defeat’, and switching from a policy of nation-building to  working diplomatically with clan leaders to address and legitimate grievances they may hold against U.S. nationals, while refusing to accept crimes committed against peaceful vessels transiting the area would do much to improve the situation.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.