One of the latest ships to fall into the hands of pirates off the coast of northern Africa is a Hong Kong-registered cargo vessel captured last week in the Gulf of Aden. The unfortunately named Delight is now steaming toward Somalia, where it presumably will be held for ransom. It joins the Saudi supertanker, Sirius Star, seized last weekend.
The assault on the Delight is one of 90-plus attacks on ships this year by Somali pirates, more than double last year’s tally, according to the International Maritime Bureau. It says that pirates are currently holding 15 ships and at least 250 sailors. That includes a Ukrainian ship carrying Russian tanks intended for southern Sudan; it was captured in September.
The pirates’ headquarters is Somalia, whose dysfunctional government lacks basic law enforcement agencies, on or offshore, to disrupt pirates. It has a 1,000 mile coastline along the Gulf of Aden, where marauders and their boats can hide easily. Yemen and Djibouti, which also border the Gulf of Aden, are more politically stable, but have few capabilities. The same is true for Kenya, off whose coast the supertanker was taken.
The pirates prey on commercial vessels which, in this computerized age, usually carry small, mostly unarmed, crews; Sirius Star, three times the size of an aircraft carrier, is run by a crew of just 25. The pirates are equipped with modern weapons and high-tech devices such as GPS trackers and satellite phones. Three years ago, they used rocket-propelled grenades against a cruise ship carrying 150 American, Australian and European passengers. The ship managed to outrun the pirates.
As Somalia falls apart and the pirates proliferate, it’s been left to the US and the rest of the civilized world to police them. The main vehicle for doing so is a global maritime effort called Combined Task Force (CTF) 150. It was set up after 9/11 by the Bush administration and falls under the aegis of the US navy’s Fifth Fleet. Commanders have hailed from France, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and Pakistan. The current commander is a commodore of the Danish Royal Navy. But CTF 150 has 2.5 million sq. miles to patrol. Fighting piracy poses knotty legal problems too, not least what to do with captured pirates. Build a Captain Jack Sparrow wing at Guantanamo to contain them?
Antipiracy efforts are working elsewhere in the world. Pirates thrived in the Strait of Malacca, which is transited annually by 60,000 ships, but last year there were only 73 pirate attacks, down from 276 five years earlier. The decline is the result of a coordinated policing effort by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, with help from the US, which provided training and equipment. Captured pirates are tried in local courts. They aren’t treated lightly.
That’s Asia. What remains to be seen is how the US and Europe deal with this escalating assault. The world has been here before, circa 1805. That was the year of the Battle of Derne, the first fight on foreign soil of the new USA. It is recorded in the Marine Hymn’s famous line about the “shores of Tripoli”. President Thomas Jefferson ordered the marines into action against the Barbary Coast pirates, who had been exacting ransom from major maritime powers in return for seized ships and kidnapped citizens. This problem obviously spills into the lap of the newly arriving president. Though relatively small, the pirates are a challenge to established authority in a way understandable to all.
If the high seas are allowed to degrade into no man’s land, the world’s thugs will notice and press forward elsewhere. It’s going to require an exercise of US power to push back, or allow global piracy to flourish.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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