How To Stamp Out the Somali Pirates

To family and friends, the death of four Americans at the hands of Somali pirates on Monday is a tragedy. To the rest of us, it's a wakeup call.

After more than a decade of provocation and international dithering, we must stamp out the Somali pirate havens once and for all.

Since ancient times, how a civilization deals with piracy has been an index of its health and self-respect. Right now, our index isn't looking good.

Since 2008, the European Union and the 26 warships of its multination naval force are supposed to deal with piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali basin--an area of water the size of Texas. It's not working. There were more than 100 attacks on ships in that area last year alone, and 31 vessels and 694 hostages sit languishing in the pirates' hands.

The EU ships are reluctant to act for fear they'll be accused of violating the pirates' human rights. Late last year, they got Interpol to agree to process evidence against captured culprits. The spokesman called it "a significant step" in fighting piracy.

If our president is clueless on how to deal with bigger Blackbeards like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Libya's Moammar Khadafy and North Korea's Kim Jong-il, how can we expect him to deal effectively with the smaller ones?

I doubt the families of Scott and Jean Adam and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle would agree.

It's time to pay attention to history's lessons on how to deal with this international plague.

First, make piracy a true capital offense. The Romans branded pirates outlaws of humanity and punished them accordingly. We have to be prepared to do the same, but we're not.

Just last Wednesday, the Somali pirate who led the band that seized the Maersk Alabama in 2009 received 33 years and nine months for what in past ages was a hanging offense--or, for the Romans, a crucifying one. Yet Judge Loretta Preska looks like Judge Roy Bean compared to the Dutch court that last June sentenced five pirates to five years each in prison.

International law used to protect the seagoing traveler. Now it protects the criminals. Until that changes, expect the attacks to continue.

Second, arm the ships' crews. Every British merchantman that sailed in international waters in the 1700s and early 1800s carried muskets and cannons and trained its crew to use them. Whether a rifle on board might have saved the Adamses and their friends is arguable. But a burst or two from an M-16 would have sent the handful of Somali teenagers trying to run down the Maersk Alabama scurrying away in their motorboat. Other pirates would have thought twice before approaching a large ship in their waters.

Third, sweep out the Somali bases. Throughout history, the most effective solution to piracy comes from the land, not the sea. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy cleansed the world of this scourge from the West Indies and the Barbary Coast to Borneo and the Philippines. It didn't just rely on constant sea patrols, it landed Royal Marines and Naval Brigades to blow up the pirate bases, and to compel local governments to enforce the laws and keep their coastlines safe--if only to avoid having the British come back.

But does our government have the will to act? President Obama agonized for hours before giving the order to shoot three Maersk Alabama hijackers when they were in the sights of Navy SEALs. Four US warships were standing by while the Adamses and their friends were murdered by their Somali captors.

If our president is clueless on how to deal with bigger Blackbeards like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Libya's Moammar Khadafy and North Korea's Kim Jong-il, how can we expect him to deal effectively with the smaller ones?

Starting with the relatives of four slain Americans, we're waiting to find out.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky

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About the Author


  • Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008), the Mountbatten Prize–nominated To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005), the New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and many articles on foreign and military policy. At AEI, Dr. Herman authored a new book that traces the mobilization of American industry, technology, and material production over the course of World War II.
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