US Marines have been singing about their exploits on the "shores of
Tripoli" ever since President Thomas Jefferson sent them to scour out
the world's most dangerous pirates, the Barbary corsairs, from their
bases in North Africa in 1801. Now President Barack Obama may have to
give the Corps the chance to add a new line - by sending Marines to
destroy the newest generation of pirates, this time on the other side
Piracy has been an index of civilization's ability to enforce law
and order since ancient times. Yet the ability of our civilization to
do that is now in question.
The Nov. 15 seizure of an Arabian oil tanker by armed Somali thugs off the Kenyan coast is just the latest incident.
Forget the Johnny Depp stereotype. These pirates wear designer
shades, use cellphones and GPS, and tote Kalashnikov assault rifles. As
of today, they're holding the Sirius Star, its 2 million barrels of oil
and its 25-man crew hostage for a ransom of $20 million.
And if these pirates aren't stopped, the problem will only keep growing.
Some 16,000 merchant ships a year traverse the ocean in the Gulf of
Aden region. Since August, the enforcers of the laws of the sea there
have been the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, along with other NATO warships, in
an international force patrolling to ward off attacks by the new
Yet the Navy finds itself helpless to stop the attacks. The taking
of Sirius Star makes 95 international vessels hijacked this year,
triple the number last year. Pirates now hold 17 freighters and 339
crew members hostage - and no one can do a thing about it.
Why? Stopping the pirates at sea is almost impossible. The time
that lapses from when the crew of an innocent ship spots the approach
of a high-speed pirate boat until it is boarded is less than 15 minutes
- not enough time to get a US frigate to come to the rescue.
Even when a warship manages to catch up with a captured vessel, its
options are limited: It can't sink the target without endangering the
crew and cargo. And boarding ships under hostile fire is a vanished art
in modern navies - as is handling hostage situations.
Faced by the vast stretches of the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean
and the challenges of mobilizing a multinational force against a
cunning and elusive foe, our Navy has become a helpless giant.
With no better answer, companies quietly pay the ransoms.
Meanwhile, America's NATO allies fear that, if they arrest irregular
fighters like pirates, they'll be accused of violating someone's "human
Yet the traditional laws of the sea on piracy are clear. What's
needed aren't more naval patrols or new laws - but a new strategy.
History teaches that the only way to destroy pirates is from the land, not the sea - by wiping out their bases.
Those bases are in a nation that's been in anarchy and civil war
ever since President Bill Clinton pulled US troops out of Mogadishu in
1993. Piracy has become good business for ex-militia fighters and
ex-fishermen in a country with no economic future. Fishing villages
along the Somali coast have become pirate havens - swarming with
prostitutes, drug-dealers and gunrunners. An illiterate teen in a
pirate band takes a cut of a ransom that runs to $2 million on average.
The Somali government can't impose law and order. It's up to America and the international community to do the job:
* All nations will need to agree not to pay the Somali pirates any
more ransoms, which has only encouraged the banditry. And they'll need
to force corporations to say no, too.
* The Fifth Fleet will need reinforcements - not more ships, but a
Marine Expeditionary Brigade that can wipe out the pirate bases once
and for all.
Time for kinder, gentler measures may be running out.
The 300,000-ton Saudi tanker isn't the most important ship the
pirates have taken. On Sept. 25, they grabbed a Ukrainian freighter,
the MV Faina, which happened to be carrying 32 T-72 battle tanks,
grenade launchers and a hold full of ammunition destined for the Kenyan
army. The pirates are holding the Faina for a $20 million ransom, while
six US warships and a bevy of military helicopters hover around the
freighter at its anchorage to prevent any of the deadly cargo from
falling into the wrong hands.
Chaotic Somalia is ripe to become the next al Qaeda base. Until
now, the country's Islamic fundamentalist militias have been hostile to
the pirates. But evidence suggests that at least some ransom money has
found its way into the coffers of Al Shabaab, a group on the US
When the terrorists realize that they can not only enrich but also
arm themselves through piracy - and hold the world ransom by
threatening to blow up oil tankers in the world's strategic waterways -
the seizure of Faina and Sirius Star may signal a new, horrifying
chapter in the War on Terror.
Islamic fundamentalist groups found a home in the last major haven
for international piracy, in Indonesia's Aceh province. It took an act
of nature, the 2004 tsunami, to wipe them out. It will take an act of
man to destroy this new nest of corsairs.
Get ready to add some new words to the Marine Hymn.