by DAVID AXE
Nineteen years after the collapse of the Somali government, a decade since impoverished Somali fishermen began arming themselves to ward off foreign fishing vessels and around two years since NATO, the E.U. and the U.S. Navy all formed counter-piracy forces for the Indian Ocean, sea banditry off the Somali coast continues unabated. By some measures, the problem has grown worse, with more pirates striking farther from the Somali coast — as far north as the Indian coast — and taking more hostages and holding them longer. To gain a sense of the progress, or lack thereof, of the international “war on piracy,” Offiziere.ch spoke to Dr. Martin Murphy, a Virginia-based piracy expert and author of the forthcoming book Somalia, the New Barbary?
O: How would you assess the piracy problem today?
MM: What we’re facing is its perpetuation. We’re not getting anywhere seriously with the issue of piracy off Somalia. The really interesting thing is that people are thinking very hard about what it means to apply law. We’re being asked once again to try to come up with a concept for what it means to apply law in a situation where there is no law. Obviously this [piracy] is about the sea, but we’ve also got this lawless area on land. So we’ve got this interesting return to the legal and political concepts that political scientists and philosophers and jurists have struggled with for over a century. It’s fascinating to see us come back to this and see the failure of the executive agencies — NATO or Interpol or others — to figure out what to do.
People are being exceptionally small-minded. When you look at the actual economic threat posed by Somali piracy, it’s quite low. If you think about the scale of depredation mounted by the Barbary pirates [from the 16th to 19th centuries], it was almost existential. In comparison, Somalia is almost insignificant. But it is a considerable threat to concept of maritime security and what it means to have secure space for commerce. Pirates are not exactly criminals: where is the law under which they’re going to be prosecuted? They’re not exactly insurgents. It’s very much a gray area.
At the same time, we’re seeing shifting great-power relations and the contraction of traditional maritime powers. Great Britain doesn’t really exist at moment as a navy. The U.S. is under great pressure. Sea control is very important to them but they’ve never thought of [being] constabulary as a key part of its role, in part because it’s got the Coast Guard [for constabulary missions]. You’ve got this challenge … [for] the U.S. Navy in relation to its political masters, what does it mean to international strategy to protect international sea lanes?
O: For a long time, some observers have warned about increasing ties between Somali pirates and Somali Islamic groups such as Al Shabab. Are you seeing any evidence of those ties?
MM: I don’t know of any link between the two [Al Shabab and pirates]. Somalia society is a very fluid society, a society of constant negotiation. If they see any benefit in coming together, they would do so, but at the moment that hasn’t arisen. One could imagine how that could come about. If we started raiding pirates’ bases indiscriminately, with a large number of people being killed, then we might see a rise in antagonism — a reason for them [pirates] to say we might as well throw in our lot with the Islamists.
The two [Islamists and pirates] might do deals. but to say the two are allied in any sense — in that pirates are becoming terrorists or they’re pursuing a common cause — there’s no evidence whatsoever of that. But we can’t rule out local or temporary arrangements. At the moment, I still think their aims are irreconcilable. One is for private gain, the others are in it for something more transcendent.
O: You’ve been a critic of the international naval campaign against pirates, calling it inefficient. Do you still hold that view?
MM: When look at the millions and potentially billions [of dollars] that have gone into putting this maritime fleet together and look at what has actually been achieved, it’s relatively limited. The most substantial benefit is securing World Food Program shipments. But when you look at the fact there are now 500 hostages and pirates are getting more money, which metric is more credible? The fact that we’ve deterred an increasing number of attacks? Jolly good, but on the other hand, these guys are making more money and hostages are being held longer. These guys are making more money, we’re spending more money. Where does this end?
Pompey, the guy who really defeated pirates in the Roman empire … people ask why he was so successful, so quickly. Historians suspect he did deals. Yes, he did violence, too, but in many ways he co-opted pirates. What I’ve argued the last two years is we need to get the political end of the seesaw up higher.
We don’t seem to be bringing nations together. There doesn’t seem to be a coming together for the common view … it’s all pretty small-minded stuff. What are a number of navies out there really for? Are they really out there suppressing pirates, or are they spying on other navies? The Iranians, Chinese come to mind. The Chinese learned an enormous lot while out there about how to resupply ships and commander and control. The Indians, why are they out there? They say it’s because their nationals have been kidnapped. But one suspects they’re out there for wider strategic reasons.