Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pirates off Somalia

Currently pirates are capturing commercial vessels--including supertankers--at a rate of eight a month or more, and using the humongous ransoms ship owners are paying to finance motherships and teams of very well-armed pirates, along with support from local poo-bahs on land who want in on the loot.

The pirates got started with a legitimate gripe: foreign trawlers were clearing the seafloor of fish and everything else, leaving nothing for Somali fishermen. So some of them went after the trawlers. But now they're capturing anything worth capturing.

The shipowners would rather pay million-dollar ransoms than pay for putting squads of armed guards on their ships. But this isn't just their problem. The loot collected by the pirates is helping to protract the instability of Somalia, as warlords use it to extend their fiefdoms, and the black economy worldwide preys on the white economy--that is, legal trade.

We need to get the UN to declare the seas off Somalia a UN mandate until Somalia gets a real government, and authorize nations from India to the US to patrol the area. Many are now patrolling there but they don't know what to do with pirates even when they do capture them, and due to the reluctance of the shipowners to authorize force, they haven't tried to recapture ships the pirates have grabbed.

And now the pirates are venturing far beyond Somalia waters to capture ships, using motherships financed by previous fines.

The civilized world needs to forbid firms from paying ransoms and authorize warship captains to judge captured pirates on the spot, with the penalty being death at sea, after making sure the Somalis know this is what we're going to do. The UN mandate should also ban foreign fishing vessels from Somali waters and confiscate foreign fishing vessels found in those waters. Any Somali boat not from the Somali government and containing men with automatic weapons, RPGs or similar military ordnance should be considered a pirate vessel, with the vessel sunk and the men executed and buried at sea, without notice to the Somali mainland.

There's a huge area to guard--more than any navy can do. However, we can extend our reach greatly with UAVs equipped with night vision/infrared cameras (to spot human body heat). We could fly numerous reconnaisance UAVs at relatively low cost. When a pirate is spotted, Predator UAVs can be sent to the location to sink the boats, when found and ID'd as pirate vessels. The UAVs wouldn't patrol vast tracts of open sea--they'd patrol the Somali coast, following any vessels that set out from the Somali coastline.

The idea is that pirates go out to sea and never come back, and no one in Somalia ever finds out what happened to them. This would be the best deterrent.

Finally, we must retake captured vessels. That's the sort of thing Navy Seals are trained to do. The difficulties of patrolling such a huge area means that we won't be able to stop this problem unless we do this--unless we deny the enemy any victories.

Businesses are innately pacifistic. The shipowners won't want what I'm suggesting here. But civilization means guaranteeing the safety of citizens and of commerce. Without such a guarantee nothing else matters much.

Let's give Somalia its fish--and take our ships back.

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