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The Return of Piracy By: James G. Zumwalt
The Washington Times | Friday, October 03, 2008


Soon after winning independence from England, the United States faced another war. Muslim pirates operating off North Africa's Barbary Coast were seizing U.S., as well as European, ships sailing in international waters, holding them for tribute payment or plunder.

In 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, meeting in London with Tripoli's Muslim ambassador to Britain, inquired as to the reason for such Arab hostility. Acknowledging their attacks were unprovoked, the Tripoli ambassador explained it was their right and duty under the Koran as faithful Muslim followers to plunder and enslave the unfaithful - with those Muslims dying in the process going to paradise. To stop the attacks, the United States initially agreed to pay the Barbary pirates tribute, equal to about 20 percent of government revenues. Only later did an indignant United States launch two wars against them, ending in victory in 1815 and no further payments. European nations, acting individually and collectively, suppressed pirate activity as well, with the French conquest of Algiers in 1830 providing the last nail in the Barbary Pirates' coffin.

Today, Muslim pirates again sail the seas off Africa's coast. Mostly Somalis, these pirates have already attacked more than 60 ships this year in the vicinity of the Gulf of Aden - almost 5 times more than occurred all last year. Pirates gain confidence as owners prove willing to pay ransoms for the safe return of ships and crews, much like the United States first did with the Barbary Pirates.

This does little to end the piracy, however, as these criminals invest their ill-gotten gains in even more sophisticated weaponry and faster boats with which to intercept their prey. At least in the days of Barbary tribute payments, a nation won free passage for all its ships. But today's ransom payments only encourage repeated attacks, including re-seizure of ships earlier released following payment should they ever sail back into the pirates' den.

The United States, England and several other nations have joined together to form the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), situated in Bahrain, which has successfully disrupted illegal contraband transit in the region and confronted some pirates. But increasing numbers of pirate attacks show much more needs to be done. Piracy today drives up operating costs for ship owners. Major losses come not just from ransom payouts but also lost revenues, costs generated by inactive ships/crews, lost cargo and ships, etc.

Some governments have taken individual steps to give notice not to mess with ships under their flag.

On April 4, 2008, Somali pirates seized a commercially operated French luxury yacht, at the time sans passengers but with a 30-man crew, in the Gulf of Aden. Eight days later, the crew was released after the owner paid a ransom. But the French then tracked the 12 pirates by air, dispatching commandos who captured six and recovered part of the ransom. These six pirates now face trial in Paris.

The geographical area CMF covers is extensive. Thus, the shipping industry must take action on its own to make these pirates think twice about attacking. The industry needs to invest in surveillance, detection and defensive assets and technologies. Small, hand-launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) equipped with cameras could be deployed by ships transiting pirate-infested waters to provide early warning. Specially mounted radars could be positioned to cover blind spots on a ship's stern - approaches often exploited by pirate boats to gain surprise. Quickly deployable counterboarding devices can be attached to various parts of the ship to make boarding at sea much more difficult. Private, highly mobile, ship-hopping, maritime security quick-reaction teams could "ride shotgun" on ships transiting these areas, moving among various vessels.

As this article is read, more than a dozen ships of various nationalities and their crews are held hostage by pirates awaiting ransom demands for millions of dollars - two just seized during the last days of September. Ransom demands are increasing too - hitting $35 million last week for the recently hijacked Ukrainian vessel. Unlike the tenets of Islam espoused by Tripoli's ambassador to Britain 222 years ago, greed is the primary motivation for today's pirates. And, while knowing their interests in winning ransoms are best served by ensuring kidnapped crew members and/or passengers return alive, that does not always happen. Unfortunately, some attackers - high on stimulants - lack the necessary discipline to preserve life.

In the 1879 comic opera "Pirates of Penzance," the story begins as its hero, celebrating his 21st year and so ending his apprenticeship as a young pirate, learns from his hard-of-hearing nursemaid that long ago she had made a mistake: His father's final wish to her had not been to apprentice him as a "pirate" but as a ship's "pilot." The necessary apprenticeship suggested in the "Pirates of Penzance" is unnecessary for today's pirates who, motivated by poverty and lacking job skills other than criminal ones, easily make the transition overnight - aided by a shot of courage-inducing drugs.

Like the comedic "Pirates of Penzance," the recent seizure by pirates of the Ukrainian vessel has been a bit of a comedy. Their initial demand of $35 million was quickly reduced after assessing the ship's arms cargo. Determining the weapons were secondhand and the 33 T-72 tanks would necessitate docking the ship, the pirates realized the cargo offered them little resale value. Not so funny for the pirates, however, is the fact U.S. warships now have them surrounded.

As it did centuries earlier in defeating the Barbary Pirates, discouraging piracy today demands individual as well as collective efforts of those adversely affected who, indignant about paying ransom, finally become determined to do something about it.


James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.


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