A Piracy SitRep

Articles by two experts confirms most of the analysis of piracy presented on this site.  They are typically well-reasoned and supported article from Proceedings, IMO one of the best of the American military journals.  I recommend reading it in full.  For a contrary view (there are always at least 2 perspectives on such things, at the edge of the known), Galrahn provides a critique of Patch’s article.  Last, Feffer explains why the “terrorist ally with pirates” theory is bunk.

  1. The Overstated Threat“, John Patch (Commander, U.S. Navy, Retired), Proceedings, December 2008
  2. What Makes Piracy Work?“, Virginia Lunsford (associate professor of history, US Naval Academy), Proceedings, December 2008
  3. Piracy Exploits Our Strategic and Tactical Flaws, Galrahn, posted at Information Dissemination, 1 December 2008
  4. Monsters vs. Aliens“, John Feffer, TomDispatch, 21 April 2009 — Why Terrorists and Pirates Are Not About to Team Up Any Time Soon.

All are excellent.  Here are excerpts for #1 and #4, which just sketch out the authors’ reasoning.


(1)  The Overstated Threat“, John Patch (Commander, U.S. Navy, Retired), Proceedings, December 2008 — Excerpt:

It is too easy to confuse piracy with water-borne terrorist acts. Don’t believe the hype and consider the source. Modern pirates bear little resemblance to popular romantic Hollywood characters. Increasingly violent and greedy, their actions seem an affront to the very ideals of Western civilization. Armchair admirals and politicians are quick to shake their fists, avowing, “Something must be done.” Maritime industry is quick to follow, with unsettling incident accounts and dire financial projections. Yet, more informed analysis of piracy reveals that the impact in blood and treasure is altogether minimal.

Indeed, common misperceptions abound. While maritime piracy incidents capture media attention and generate international calls for action, the piracy threat is in fact overstated. It is nothing more than high-seas criminal activity, better addressed by law enforcement agencies than warships. As a localized nuisance, it should not serve to shape maritime force structure or strategy.

The distinction between piracy and terrorism is neither semantic nor academic. If piracy, the responsibility lies with local law enforcement officials, not the military. But maritime terrorism means scrambling the Navy.

No Link, No Evidence

A critical contemporary myth to debunk is the alleged nexus between piracy and international terrorism. Serious scholars and analysts view with circumspection any assertions of this linkage. For instance, …

Marginal Impact

Piracy of course has costs, both human and economic. …

Overall, however, the consequences to maritime commerce are surprisingly minimal, though precise figures on the losses in commercial shipping are not available. The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that in 2001, piracy cost the industry $16 billion, but some analysts dispute this figure and it pales beside larger estimates of total global maritime trade, regardless. A 2006 assessment of the risks of piracy indicated shipping industry losses were relatively small in relation to the total volume of ocean transports. The study IISS cites above asserted “truth be told, losses are so low that there is little incentive for the shipping industries even to make a serious collective effort to tackle it.” So why all the hand wringing over piracy? …

Widely Held Misperceptions

Even as the facts fail to support allegations of terrorist linkages or dire economic consequences, governments, pundits, and the media continue to hype the “threat.” …

Only the Symptoms

Gray hulls bristling with weapons and sensors designed for conventional war are simply ill equipped to handle piracy—and are better assigned elsewhere. The recent situation off Somalia is a telling example. …

Source of Piracy is Ashore

Pirate cells, especially more organized groups, require a network of support on land. Logistics, communications, weapons, money exchange, and marketing of stolen goods are all requirements managed ashore. Pirate groups usually exploit local villages or communities, but sometimes—as in Somalia—these provide the support network itself, or at least benefit significantly. Yet, targeting pirate infrastructure inland is no easy task: sovereignty, laws of armed conflict, and rules of engagement typically prevent unilateral actions. This is especially frustrating off Somalia, …

{Two sections follow discussing solutions}

Piracy Threat in Context

In its current form and scope, piracy threatens no vital U.S. national security interests. It is in no way comparable to legacy threats that shape national strategy, such as terrorism or weapons of mass destruction proliferation. Hence, it is inherently disingenuous to inflate the piracy “threat” to justify either force structure or maritime strategic underpinnings.

As such, maritime policy and strategy deliberations and crisis course of action planning efforts should consider this reality. In this context, more U.S. anti-piracy options emerge—including no military response at all. America has long championed freedom of the seas, but it is perchance time that the many flag states and private companies enjoying the benefits of the global maritime commons contribute to the costs of keeping it secure. Because the U.S. Navy lacks the resources to effectively accomplish even a fraction of its assigned missions, treating piracy for what it is—criminal activity—should lessen the demands on an already overtaxed American Fleet.

(4)  Monsters vs. Aliens“, John Feffer, TomDispatch, 21 April 2009 — Why Terrorists and Pirates Are Not About to Team Up Any Time Soon.

Introduction from Tom Engelhardt

Sometimes, it seems as if all U.S. global geopolitics boils down to little more than a war for money within the Pentagon. In the best of times, each armed service still has to continually maintain and upgrade its various raisons d’être for the billions of dollars being poured into it; each has to fight — something far more difficult in economic hard times — to maintain or increase its share of the budgetary pie.


In the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good. … And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with their hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a dynamic evil duo against the United States and our allies. We’re the friendly monsters — a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold — and they’re the aliens from Planet Amok.

In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this “bigger picture,” Fred Iklé urges us simply to “kill the pirates.” Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. “The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists,” he writes. “Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard.”

Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other’s arms. “Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, ‘for private ends,’” writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.

We’ve been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Misreading Piracy

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess’s claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want money.

Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. “To make matters worse,” Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor, “there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s.”

The New GWOT

… The War on Terror lives on, of course, in the Obama administration’s surge in Afghanistan, the CIA’s campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistani borderlands, and the operations of the new Africa Command. However, the replacement phrase for GWOT, “overseas contingency operations,” doesn’t quite fire the imagination. It’s obviously not meant to. But that’s a genuine problem for the military in budgetary terms.

Enter the pirates, who from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp have always been a big box-office draw. As the recent media hysteria over the crew of the Maersk Alabama indicates, that formula can carry over to real life. Take Johnny Depp out of the equation and pirates can simply be repositioned as bizarre, narcotics-chewing aliens.

Then it’s simply a matter of the United States calling together the coalition of the willing monsters to crush those aliens before they take over our planet. And you thought “us versus them” went out with the Bush administration.

About the author

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His writings can be found at his website, and you can subscribe to his weekly e-newsletter World Beat here.

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.