Jack Sparrow’s Revenge


I’ve been tossing around an idea here at the New America Foundation for a couple weeks, much to the entertainment of my coworkers. I think it’s worthy of consideration, though: the resurgence of pirates.
This is not, for the record, simply a Halloween post in disguise, though I am considering Sparrow like attire for the weekend.
The LA Times has a piece this morning with an excellent lead: “Straddling a wooden crate filled with $1 million in cash ransom, a cranky old pirate bellows names from a notebook as his anxious, bleary-eyed minions lean against the stone walls of their cramped hideout.”
The story, of course, is from Somalia, the current piracy capital of the world. Some 16,000 ships navigate through the Gulf of Aden each year, with more and more of them coming under attack. The AP reported Thursday that six ships had fended off attacks over the previous two days and that a seventh had been captured. More than 77 ships have been attacked this year in the Gulf, at least 31 one of them falling to captors. Ransoms paid out in 2008 are reported to have topped $30 million.
The business of piracy has become so common that in Hobyo, a village 300 miles north of Mogadishu, all but four of the towns 80 fishing boats are now dedicated to piracy. The infusion of capital into Eyl, the coastal town where captured ships are most often taken, has been so great that a cup of tea, which previously cost only a few cents, is up to roughly a dollar. Prostitutes in Djibouti have reported making $1,000 to $3,000 in a single night.
My thesis, however, is not about Somalia, but rather about the likelihood of replication. I think this is likely a new generation of asymmetrical, economic warfare. The world has become too interconnected for piracy to remain isolated to the Gulf of Aden. Occasional acts of piracy have already been linked to Yemeni vessels, and global news coverage – exacerbated last month by the capture of a ship hauling 33 tanks – assures that knowledge of the effectiveness of the tactic will not remain unique to the horn of Africa.
Global Shipping Routes
shipping routes.jpg
I think famines fueled by climate change, along with water shortages towards the midcentury years, are likely to decrease the powers of poor central governments, most dangerously in African coastal states. Major shipping routes across the Maghreb and along the western African coast will be subject to the highest risks. Also, the Straits of Malacca — which has been historically troubled by pirates — and other routes through the South China Sea, will be at heightened risk if weak governments are incapable of adjusting to the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Piracy is cheap, efficient and rewarding, and is likely to become a widely employed tactic unless deterred by host governments. Deterring piracy with naval force is difficult. A recent Chatham House report — which is the most thorough investigation I’ve seen — suggests time between spotting pirates and being overtaken is typically about fifteen minutes. Employing several small, fast, maneuverable boats make evasive measures difficult for large, slow shipping vessels. Even waters heavily patrolled by naval forces — Chatham’s paper states there are 12-15 patrolling naval ships in the Gulf of Aden — are bedeviled by the model.
Pirates armed to the teeth and equipped with GPS, Satellite phones, and motherships for refueling, could be a major challenge to global commerce in the coming decade.
Beware of Sparrow’s revenge, and happy Halloween.
— Brian Till


15 comments on “Jack Sparrow’s Revenge

  1. konteyner says:

    more and more of them coming under attack. The AP reported Thursday that six ships had fended off attacks over the previous two days and that a seventh had been captured. More than 77 ships have been attacked this year in the Gulf, at least 31 one of them falling to captors. Ransoms paid out in 2008 are reported to have topped $30 million.


  2. Zinc Die Castings says:

    Somalia, a failed state,a bitter fruit of the cold war.


  3. Robert M says:

    The rum is on Fire. Yes I know. Why is the Rum on Fire?
    Sorry I can’t help myself. That is how we describe things in our household when things get out of control.


  4. karen marie says:

    i think that in three years or five years or ten, you’ll be pulling this post out of the archives and saying “i told you so.”
    everything that’s old is new again.
    life has turned into a graphic novel.


  5. grognard says:

    During WW1 the Allies used “Q” ships, armed cargo ships that would open up on any submarine that surfaced and attacked. The ships were cleverly disguised, even to the point where crewmen would parade on deck as passengers in civilian clothing, so that the attacked would come in close and discover too late that the ship was armed. It was a fairly effective strategy, and would be even more so with small boats that are more vulnerable than a submarine.


  6. Eli Rabett says:

    Clearly you do not understand that the increase in piracy is good for the climate. It has been sceintifically shown that the cause of global warming is the lack of pirates


  7. Tom Womack says:

    On the whole, those shipping routes look pretty hopeful; the big concentrations close to shore are around the coast of South Africa (well-functioning state, and proverbially unpleasant seas), and eastern Australia, Brazil and Argentina (well-functioning states).
    The worrying ones are Somalia (a current problem), the north coast of Papua (not a failed state but a rather violent country), off Sri Lanka (state with a horrible civil war) and north of Sumatra (a marginal current problem)


  8. ken melvin says:

    If you were a fisherman and foreigners were catching all the tuna off your shores, what would you do? There’s another side to this story; one of fished out Atlantic fisheries and large tuna boats out of such places as Concarneau.


  9. JonnyRamirez says:

    The 33 tanks were intended to go from Ukraine to Kenya. So the officials say. Rumors and sources in the region tell a different story: They were supposed to go from Kenya to Southern Sudan which would have been (or still is) a major violation of the UN embargo on weapons to Sudan.
    The whole story was a big thing over here in Europe few weeks ago and some European countries like France, Great Britain and Germany decided to send a European task force to the area. In addition to that there are more ships from the US, Russia and Turkey on their way. That should do it for the moment, as the most important thing right now is to show the pirates that making money this way is dangerous. Till now they made some easy and big money with just a small chance to be killed. By increasing the costs of being a pirate a lot of them will probably think twice and hopefully decide to go back to their old jobs as fishermen. And chances are that this will work as nobody over there is doing this out of ideological reasons but simply for the easy money.
    That should – of course – be only the first step. Second one has to be finding a solution to the major problems in the region to improve the conditions for the people. But I’m not too optimistic on that as the last decades have shown very clearly where all those attempts have led the region: to a worse situation than before.


  10. Mr.Murder says:

    Law of the Sea treaty remains in neglect.
    Got pirates?


  11. Bill R. says:

    Somalia, a failed state,a bitter fruit of the cold war. Surrogate regimes armed to the teeth by Americans and Soviets while the vital needs of civic and economic infrastructure was ignored. I had a Somalia roommate while attending university in Italy in the 1960s. His brother was economic minister, then jailed in a coups by the faction that brought Siad Barre to power. I loved the Somalia people I knew and have grieved with them over the tragedy that has befallen their country. Now victimized by competing militias and extremist groups, preyed upon by pirates. One of Dante’s circles of hell. It begs for an international system of civilized governance.


  12. Old Bogus says:

    I’m unsure how this proposed movie/TV series/reality show would be couched. Are the pirates lovable scoundrels thwarting oppressive authorities? Maritime Robin Hoods sharing the wealth [eventually] with the peasants? Greedy Wall Street CEO wannabes? Striving entrepreneurs to be admired?
    But lots of jokes can be written about divvying up a crate of money among tired but eager pirates. Just the image is amusing. :] (irony icon)


  13. TonyForesta says:

    The Gulf of Aden pirates could be easily crushed if there Naval
    air support in the region. Since Amerika is overstretched
    because of catastrophic bloody, costly failure & excuse for
    wanton profiteering in Iraq, we’re under recourced to respond to
    the governmentless, lawless pirates based in Somalia, &
    Any word on where, or to whom exactly those 33 Russian tanks,
    & heavy weapons were originally destined?


  14. questions says:

    Clearly it’s time to ready the military for the 21st century — anti-piratical missile system. Should cost several billion, and have I got a Congressional district that needs jobs!
    Seriously, though, Obama seems at some level to be aware of the need to re-establish the dignity of all people on the planet, and if there are significant moves in this direction perhaps the allure of crime will be lessened.


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