The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How To Defeat the Somali Pirates

Matt Yglesisas sums it up properly—you defeat them by denying them ports to sell their goods and the reason piracy is so out of control is because, as I noted at the time it was happening, they decided to get rid of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the only movement that stood a chance of reunifying Somalia, stopping warlords from raping and murdering whoever they wanted, and, incidentally, stopping piracy.

So, if the Obama administration is serious, what they need to do is a 180 degree turn and support the successors to the ICU.  Yes, that will mean supporting some Islamists, but so what?  If the US can do business with and support Saudi Arabia, which is even more socially regressive than the ICU ever was, and funds foreign terrorists who attack the US, which the ICU never did, it can make a deal with Somali Islamists, who in any case, are mostly interested in having some basic law and order in the country so that warlords don’t rape their teenage daughters and murder whoever they feel like.

Given a choice between having my teenage daughter raped, and a little bit of Islamic law, I know which one I’d choose.  Perhaps America should let Somalis make the same choice.  As a side benefit, there’ll be a lot less piracy, because the new government will want normal trade and diplomatic relations (and aid) and the price for all that can be to crack down on the pirates, which as Matt notes, can only really be done on land.


The difference in opinion about whether the Geithner Plan will work is not about “faith”


Pakistani Taliban Move to Within 60 Miles Of Islamabad


  1. Given a choice between having my teenage daughter raped, and a little bit of Islamic law, I know which one I’d choose.

    Sounds like a false choice to me. Saudi Arabia isn’t a place I’d want to be a woman. Not sure I’d want to be there as a man, either, but for different reasons. At least men get to wander around on their own without getting the crap beaten out of them.

    Matt Y’s conclusion is probably the best one – we should resolve not to make things worse. Right now, Somalia has little in the way of real government, and that’s turning out to be bad for everybody. Piracy will continue to exist in that area until either a government emerges that’s strong enough to deal with the situation, or the rest of the world figures out a way to prevent pirate attacks. I’m not too optimistic about the latter happening.

  2. Ian Welsh

    America already made things worse. After it gave the Ethiopians the green light to invade, the capital lost much of its population.

    And while statistically the rape vs. Islamic law is unlikely, the fact of the matter is that the warlords were quite famous for taking away young teenage girls and raping them, and that the ICU while they were in charge, made sure no such thing happened. Along with stopping other types of crime and violence.

    Which is why the population supported the ICU.

    Nice of America to decide that the ICU wasn’t acceptable.

  3. I don’t think fighting them on land is the answer at all, it will only create more animosity towards us. Aren’t the pirates more interested in ransom as opposed to what these ships are carrying? Also with all the ships in the area the least they can do is help out with the illegal fishing and dumping in the Somali fishing grounds, it would at least establish a little goodwill(especially if the ships are not American).

  4. The US doesn’t fight them on land. It supports whatever group is most likely to be able to unify Somalia, and they deal with the problem.

  5. You also have to keep Japanese fishing fleets out of Somalia’s territorial waters, which is what this whole thing off in the first place many years ago. The Somali fishermen were pissed and decided to take matters into their own hands. Then they realized, and so did others, that booty would buy more than fish ever would!

    I learned a great deal about modern piracy aboard the Tiger Breeze in January. The captain had lots of interesting things to say, and not to put too fine a point on, not much was kind towards the US Navy, who’s prime duty is to keep the arteries of commerce open–not power projection.

  6. Ahh I see, too bad they didn’t leave well enough alone a few years ago.

    Reuters just rereleased this article on the pirates. INTERVIEW-“I’m a successful Somali pirate” – Yassin’s story

  7. Cujo, actually Puntland and Somaliland have very effective governments. It’s the areas around Mogadishu that aren’t functioning. I’ve visited the area. As for the Saudis? We should have invaded them after 9/11, not Iraq. The Salafists are the real enemies.

  8. JustPlainDave

    Kinda kills the notion that effective government alone is the answer, then. Vast majority of the attacks [about 85%] are occurring in the Gulf of Aden – just off the coasts of Somaliland and Puntland. Additionally, a number of the pirate ports – notably including Eyl – are located in Puntland.

  9. JustPlainDave

    I’m quite sympathetic with the general notion expressed here – that there are far worse things for American interests than a little shari3a. However, I’m not sure that the best policy in this specific circumstance is to support the “successors” to the ICU. It’s certainly not my specialty, but what has happened looks to me to be another example of the process of radicalization commonly instilled by sharp discontinuities during an organization’s development (a similar thing happened in Egyptian Islamist circles back in the day – the eventual outcome was Ayman Zawahiri). Given that they’ve managed to suborn the moderate former ICU leader into the government, sounds to me like what’s left in the al-Shabaab movement is likely to be pretty damned radical indeed (reporting that it contains a significant leavening of foreign fighters isn’t very comforting). I suspect the big issue is going to be how the current [and desired] talks go (and what their existence really reflects, in terms of power balance).

    I suspect that this is going to end up being the major strategic conundrum in this type of thing – in seeking to strip off less radical elements of any given movement and gradually reducing the scale of one’s opposition, how potent is the core – by definition more radical – that remains? If the answer is too potent, by far the better measure may be to leave the “moderates” in place as control rods and seek resolution with the movement as a whole, though that will likely be a far more drawn out proposition. Interesting question in my mind is how this plays WRT Afghanistan…

  10. Suspenders

    The reason piracy is so out of control is because there’s little cost (in lives or money) in doing it, and huge incentives in terms of ransom money.

    Also, waiting for a government to finally come to power there and stop piracy may not be the smartest idea either. Firstly, it may take many years (even without our own troublesome meddling), and secondly, there’s no guarantee that the new government would want to do anything to end the piracy (the Barbary states come to mind). Piracy can be an extremely lucrative business, after all…

    What we need to be doing is shooting them, like in the old days of piracy on the high seas. That’s the only way of making it prohibitively expensive for piracy to continue.

  11. Tallifer

    I would draw attention to the successful solution of Pompey the Great against the Mediterranean pirates. Sweep the seas and coasts allowing none to escape. I am surprised that otherwise ruthless countries like Russia, China and India do not advocate such action. But I am not surprised that Europe and North America shy away from it.

  12. Suspenders

    And as I recall, Pompey was noted for being able to rid the Mediterranean of pirates within a remarkably short time.


    “Ultimately it took Pompey all of a summer to clear the Mediterranean of the danger of pirates. In three short months (67-66 BC), Pompey’s forces had swept the Mediterranean clean of pirates…”

    Remarkable even for modern times. Although to be fair, Pompey was probably given 100 000 men to do the job, along with extremely broad legal power to deal with the pirates ( ie: I doubt Pompey had much concern for “human rights”).

  13. Jeff Wegerson

    Charles Lemos over at MyDD has a good rundown of the fishing and also toxic waste dumping issues in Somolia. So a government that stops piracy isn’t by itself good enough. Global corporate commerce also wants one that won’t complain about over-fishing and toxic dumping.

  14. Suspenders

    That is an interesting article, and it’s useful in describing the lawless conditions that exist in Somalia, and how those conditions came to be. It’s important to understand the context of where these pirates have emerged from. But, I think it’s wide of the mark in describing today’s piracy, and the operating principles behind it.

    Today’s Somali piracy is not about nationalistic or ethnic reasons, or “defending the homeland” or anything else one would normally associate with other armed groups that fight for some cause. It might have been in the past, and it might have been where today’s pirates got their start, but it isn’t right now. Today’s pirates are doing it for money, nothing more. This isn’t exactly difficult to see, just look at piracy targets and the ransom demands; aid ships, oil tankers, ocean going freighters, and the demands are always for money. If they were truly defending their waters, their targets would be foreign fishing vessels and their ransom demands would include demands that the foreigners never return. I haven’t seen any evidence that this is the case, and in fact, the evidence says that these are little more than brigands of the sea. Let’s not loose sight of that.

  15. I’m responding to Suspenders.

    Today’s pirates are doing it for money, nothing more.

    It has certainly evolved in a money-making enterprise but it didn’t start out that way. This has been going on for 15 years and the problem was picked upon in the mid 1990s. But like any enterprise, the Somali pirates have worked their up the food chain. They started out capturing smaller fishing vessels. International attention has come since they started targeting oil tankers and commercial cargoes.

    And the pirates have made demands in the past about stopping the dumping and illegal fishing.

    Are they brigands? Perhaps and perhaps not. I was in the Cape Verde Islands awhile back and I went to a refugee detention center. Just about all the men there (90% were men) were mostly fishermen from around various points on the Bight of Benin from Ghana down to Gabon but mostly from Benin, Togo and Cameroon. It seemed odd to me that fishermen should predominated but obviously they own crafts that seaworthy but the kicker was that all they complained that there were no fish left to catch. I asked about this and the answer came back that waters off Benin are being decimated by large fishing trawlers from as far as Japan and Korea and as close as Morocco.

    Now in this part of Africa, the solution was to flee. In Somalia, that’s a harder option because of geography but also people forget that the US dumped a half billion dollars worth of arms in Somalia in the 1980s so the Somalis have a different option. They can fight back. It’s pretty clear to me that Somali piracy is blowback, an unintended consequence of US militarism. I keep on saying this to Americans (I am from Colombia) but you keep on poking at snakes and then are surprised when the snake bites back.

  16. Mark

    Why bother? Just bomb the ports. Or blockage or mine around them. Job done.

  17. Suspenders

    Charles Lemos, thanks for responding to me.

    I’d like to say, however, that I think your interpretation of Somali piracy as “blowback” to US militarism is wrong, or at least not nuanced enough. The most that the US is guilty of here is helping to topple the fledgling Islamic Courts “government” in Somalia, and even that was with Ethiopia’s eager insistence (they might have done it without US support anyway). And as I mentioned before, even had the Islamic courts somehow managed to wrest control from the warlords, there was no guarantee that piracy would have been stopped. The fact that many of the pirates seem to be operating out of Puntland, even though it supposedly has a functional government, seems to support that. It doesn’t make economic sense to stop, so why would it? As long as there’s money in it, with little personal danger, than it will exist.

    I have a lot of sympathy for the Somalians and their plight, but I have a hard time seeing what’s going on there as anything more than a function of them not having any sort of government, combined with the country being in the state that it is. That includes the illegal dumping and fishing, which sadly is a problem shared by many countries worldwide (the Spanish-Canadian “turbot war” comes to mind, for one). I’m not sure what could be done about that.

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy, however, for thugs and bandits who take innocent mariners hostage at gunpoint for money. Nothing I’ve really seen to date makes me see these pirates as anything other than that.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén