A Primer on Pirates

There are an increasing number of questions about what is piracy. This is a brief primer to get the reader started on the road of what piracy may be. As you read, consider the US capture of a Somali pirate in January and how strategy, tactics, and global affairs fit into the game of Risk.

A starter read is the United Nation's Atlas of the Oceans portal is Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea.

A better, up to date read is from Tech Central Station - Un-Jolly Rogers (16 Nov 05), with highlights below, emphasis added.

The War on Terror features counter-pirate operations. Singapore's Internal Security Department told me in 2002 that the difference between battling pirates and stopping terrorists is often slight. The Straits of Malacca, located between Singapore and Indonesia, is a prime terror target. The strait is jammed with container ships and oil tankers.

In fall 2001, a CENTCOM officer and I explored several "ship assault" scenarios in the straits. One scenario had the plotscape of a novel, with Indonesian or Malaysian pirates helping al-Qaida operatives hijack a tanker. Spilling a million barrels of crude creates an eco-disaster. Sinking the tanker drives maritime insurance rates sky-high.

In June 2005, I received two briefings from CENTCOM naval officers on coalition naval operations off Africa's Somali coast and in the Red Sea. Chasing pirates is a key mission. Stopping piracy protects African and Arab fishermen and shippers, so it's good politics. There's also little doubt that al-Qaida has paid local pirates to smuggle personnel and weapons.

Naval patrols off Somalia, however, didn't deter last week's audacious -- and unsuccessful -- pirate assault on the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit. Somali pirates, riding in small boats, attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. The liner's captain and crew maneuvered their ship, using it as a weapon -- it's big, and it generates a massive wake. The liner also employed a directional "parabolic audio boom-box." The non-lethal "sonic weapon" emitted an eardrum-shattering sound. The frustrated pirates retreated.

The Somali attack generated international headlines. Though international monitors recorded 259 "piratical incidents" in the first nine months of this year, piracy receives very little media coverage.

The spike in media interest may give Jack Gottschalk and Brian Flanagan a belated bestseller. Their "Jolly Roger With an Uzi: The Rise and Threat of Modern Piracy," published by the Naval Institute Press in 2000, documented the rise of "new piracy," to include smuggling and maritime scams, as well as terrorists operating at sea.
Gottschalk and Flanagan identify three "requirements" for piracy, which apply to Viking pirate raiders as well as contemporary Somali sea thieves:

1) Pirates prowl waterways where the targets are lucrative.

2) "The geographic area where pirates prey must be one in which the risk level of detection is acceptable."

3) If possible, pirates have "safe havens" where they can "hide, seek repairs and obtain supplies."

Combating piracy takes good intelligence. The authors also offer this warning: Piracy "has never been reduced through any process of negotiation." Historically, only armed force suppresses pirates.

With the impact on commerce and security clear, it would be interesting to investigate why piracy has not achieved greater prominance in the news. It seems to have all the necessary attributes, except, perhaps, a perceived unitary backer. While "Islamic Terrorism" is perceived to be part of the Us vs Them scenario described by so many, mostly notably and unfortunately the President, there is no single Chief Pirate, Chief Propagandist Pirate, or ideological thread to build a fascinating singular story around. Is it possible the cruise ship attack was a lure to allow the TopCat mission? Or was it an chance opportunity?