August 19, 2011: The EU (European Union) is seeking a Somali pirate cultural advisor. The recruiting ad makes it clear that the successful applicant must be able to give expert advice on how Somali culture influences and sustains piracy, and be knowledgeable about how the Somali pirates currently operate. The EU, and other nations dependent on sea transport, are growing increasingly frustrated with the Somali pirates. At the moment, none of the existing “solutions” is very useful. New ideas and techniques are being sought. Currently, there are three main choices for dealing with the pirates.
You can keep doing what is currently being done, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden and shooting only when you see speedboats full of gunmen threatening a merchant ship. The custom appears to be that you fire lots of warning shots, and rarely fire at the pirates themselves. This approach has saved a few ships from capture, and the more warships you get into the Gulf, the more pirate attacks you can foil. But it won't stop the pirates from capturing ships. Establishing a similar anti-piracy patrol off the east coast of Africa would cost over half a billion dollars a year, at least.
A second approach is to be more aggressive. In other words, your ships and helicopters shoot (pirates) on sight and shoot to kill. Naturally, the pirates will hide their weapons (until they are in the act of taking a ship), but it will still be obvious what a speedboat full of "unarmed" men are up to. You could take a chance (of dead civilians and bad publicity) and shoot up any suspicious speedboat, or larger mother ship. Some of the pirates would probably resort to taking some women and children with them. Using human shields is an old Somali custom, and usually works against Westerners. More pirate attacks will be thwarted with this approach, but the attacks will continue, and NATO will be painted as murderous bullies in the media.
The third option is to go ashore and kill or capture all the pirates, or at least as many as you can identify. Then destroy pirate boats and weapons. This is very dangerous, because innocent (or somewhat innocent) civilians will be killed or injured, and the property of non-pirates will be damaged. The anti-piracy forces will be condemned in some quarters for committing atrocities. There might even be indictments for war crimes. There will be bad publicity. NATO will most likely avoid this option too.
The bottom line is that the pirate attacks, even if they took two or three times as many ships as last year, would not have a meaningful economic impact on world shipping. Total cost to shipping companies (ransoms, extra fuel, security equipment and services) is over $5 billion a year. In addition, the international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden costs $300 million a year, a fraction of a percent of the defense budgets of the nations involved. Politicians and bureaucrats can stand that kind of pain, and will likely do so and refrain from doing anything bold in Somalia. But the EU is seeking to find a new technique that will eliminate the Somali pirates, without costing a lot of money, or causing a lot of bad press. No harm in trying.
Meanwhile, the pirates, and those who work for them, are getting rich. Last year, pirates got paid over $200 million in ransom. Most of that was taken by the pirate gang leaders, investors, local warlords and Persian Gulf negotiators who deal with the shipping companies. But for the pirates who took the ship, then helped guard it for months until the money was paid, the take was still huge. Pirates who actually boarded the ship tend to receive at least $150,000 each, which is ten times what the average Somali man makes over his entire lifetime. Even the lowest ranking member of the pirate gang gets a few thousand dollars per ransom. The general rule is that half the ransom goes to the financiers, the gang leaders and ransom negotiators. About a quarter of the money goes to the crew that took the ship, with a bonus for whoever got on board first. The pirates who guard the ship and look after the crew gets ten percent, while about ten percent goes to local clans and warlords, as protection money (or bribes).
There is no shortage of eager young Somalis seeking to join the pirate gangs. Most will not get much more than weapons, food, and the use of a speed boat. If they want to make more, they have to capture a ship and hold it for ransom. The dozen or so pirate gangs, led by men who were local warlords or tribal leaders, get really rich. There are plenty of local warlords and merchants who will finance new pirate gangs, in return for up to 50 percent of whatever that gang gets in ransoms over a certain period. The money men will advance several hundred thousand dollars, often buying needed weapons and equipment, as well as providing technical advice. This makes it clear that, for the pirates, it's a business.
Much of the money obtained from ransoms is used to buy goods and services from Persian Gulf merchants and other "specialists." This includes assistance in negotiating with the shipping and insurance companies, as well as other services. This includes intelligence. The Persian Gulf is rife with corruption, and this makes it easier to buy needed information. That's harder to do in London (the center of the maritime insurance industry, and where much information on where the most valuable ships is found). British police have detected some efforts to obtain information for pirates, and believe these efforts are becoming more intense.
The pirates are media savvy, and are pushing the line that they are simply patriots, getting payback for the foreigners who illegally fish in Somali waters (common) and dump toxic wastes off the coast (rare, but makes for great headlines). There are over a thousand gunmen attached to pirate gangs in the north, although the group operating off the east coast pay "taxes" to al Shabaab for the use of several fishing villages. Most of the ships seized late last year were taken closer to the Yemeni coast, thus showing that the entire Gulf of Aden (between Yemen and Somalia, with the Indian Ocean to the east and the entrance to the Red Sea to the west) was subject to pirate attacks. Despite the scary headlines this has generated, world trade, or even traffic to the Suez Canal (at the north end of the Red Sea) is not threatened. While ten percent of world shipping traffic goes through the Gulf of Aden each year, most of it is in ships too fast for the pirates to catch, and too large for them to easily get aboard. These ships pay higher fuel costs (for the safer high speed transit), higher insurance premiums, and several days of "danger pay" for their unionized crews, and that's it. This increases the annual operating costs of these ships by a fraction of one percent. But for smaller, and slower, freighters, mostly serving local customers, the pirates remain a problem. These ships tend to be owned by African and Arab companies, and manned by African and Arab crews. These crews are often just murdered at sea, and their boats taken to be used as mother ships. The EU hopes their new cultural expert will be able to make sense of Somali customs like this, and find an exploitable weakness.