Jeremy started his discussion of maritime piracy by talking about his days covering the issue in Asia, specifically the activity in the Straits of Malacca, between Singapore and Indonesia. At one particularly narrow stretch, the channel is less than 2 miles wide – an ideal target zone for pirates.
The Free Aceh rebels, a separatist guerrilla group fighting against the Indonesian government, funded their insurgency, in part, through piracy. These pirates were much like those in the news today operating off the coast of Somalia. They used small but fast boats, lying in wait for large commercial vessels that had to pass through the narrow straits. Using the advantage of surprise, they would board these larger, slower ships with grappling hooks and rope ladders, then subdue the crew, using only a few men with AK-47s. We took up some time asking how this was even possible – how does one board an oil tanker from a small fishing boat? And the answer seemed to lie in the fact that many of the boats attacked are heavily laden, slow moving and often not adequately prepared for pirate attack.
The Aceh pirates were driving the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore mad, as they seemingly could not be stopped. Piracy resurged as a major international issue — amplified by the thought of Al Qaeda seizing a large vessel and setting off a spectacular attack, with a major impact on global shipping — but poor governance in Indonesia allowed piracy to flourish.
The Christmas 2004 tsunami put an end to it, wiping out the province of Aceh. It has been speculated that many of the rebels and a majority of their ships were destroyed. The remaining rebels called a ceasefire to allow aid to reach the area, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (aka: SBY) wisely used the disaster as a starting point for peace talks, which culminated in a 2005 treaty. The need to focus on rebuilding after the disaster, along with the better governance that effort demanded, caused a significant drop-off in pirate activity in the Malacca Straits. This is the key point: piracy flourishes in lawless environments.
What of the pirates themselves? Who are they? Typically the poor and afflicted, as you might expect. They usually have a grievance against their government. In Indonesia, the Aceh rebels fought for independence and control of the oil resources in their home province. Aceh is the most conservatively Muslim province in a country that mostly practices a much more mainstream, tolerant version of Islam. In Somalia, local fishermen have taken to piracy because there has been no functioning government for many years, no one to protect Somalia’s territorial waters from the massive illegal commercial fishing that has taken their livelihoods. In this way, it is easy to compare pirates to terrorists; some will argue that pirates are just a subset of terrorists, small independent groups using violence to attain their political goals. But for their own people, pirates might be seen as heroes in the Robin Hood vein, sharing their loot with the village. Or perhaps they are opportunistic criminals, what the Malaysians call lanun, men who loot, plunder and pillage because that is what they do. When society has broken down, it is natural, after a certain amount of pressure, to take matters into your own hands.
Since steering around pirate-infested waters is often impossible, shipping companies have started defending themselves. The most obvious method is arming your ship, but this can have ill effects. Adding more weapons and warriors to the mix can inflame the situation. Companies sometimes insure their crews against kidnapping, but they tend to keep this information hidden, since anyone known to be insured instantly becomes a target: insurers are guaranteed to pay ransoms, right? Non-lethal methods like fire-fighting hoses to repel attackers, barbed-wire around the hull, or long-range acoustic devices to blast the ear-drums of marauders are some of the methods that shipping companies have adopted. There’s also the “strong room” (ever see Panic Room with Jody Foster?), in which crew can hide in the event of a pirate attack. Jeremy mentioned some of the advice his firm gives to clients, and related a few off-the-record incidents which can’t be repeated here. Sorry, folks, gotta show up to Junta for the good stuff!
The Somalia pirates might be concluding that their strategy is working. The fish stocks which some of them were originally defending from poachers are replenishing themselves as those poachers move to other waters. Kenyan sportfishing is on the rise. Which means that, despite the dramatic sniper-rescue by the Navy Seals earlier this year, we’ll continue to see attacks. Piracy will only be reduced with the establishment of functioning government, and that is sadly not looking likely in the near term with Somalia. As Jeremy detailed, the Islamist movement is increasingly balkanized and remains heavily armed; the centrist, transitional government in Mogadishu controls only a few city blocks, along with the port. It could fall at any moment. Considering all of this, together with the strong lack of appetite to intervene in any meaningful way (see “Blackhawk Down”), the forecast for Somalia and the Gulf of Aden remains grim.