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On Point

21st Century Piracy: Long John Isn't Long gone


by Austin Bay
November 15, 2005

Long John Silver personified the romantic literature's image of the pirate. "Treasure Island's" pirate chief was a greedy killer, but his occasional displays of heart and humor elevated him above the usual sea mobster. Young Hawkins admired Long John -- Robert Louis Stevenson's novel is a boy's adventure story -- but Hawkins also had the good British sense to fear the brutal man.

Jean Lafitte, real world pirate and onetime lord of Galveston Island, gave Andy Jackson a hand at the Battle of New Orleans, but rapacious murderers like Blackbeard (nom de guerre of Edward Teach) and Henry Morgan have little historical upside.

Two great counter-piracy campaigns have immediate 21st century resonance. Battling pirates along North Africa's Barbary Coast (Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers) brought the United States into its first clash with renegade Muslim warlords. The Pasha of Tripoli ran a protection racket, demanding "tribute" in return for safe passage of ships. The U.S. Navy responded with cannon, and the war simmered for 15 years (1801 to 1815). The French finally ended the Barbary threat to commerce when they conquered Algeria. Historical ironists now suggest Paris' riotous North African suburbs may be conquering France.

In the 19th century, Britain's Royal Navy fought pirates worldwide, more or less serving as a global sea sheriff, with the U.S. Navy an increasingly powerful counter-pirate ally.

World Wars I and II clamped down on pirates, as numerous first-class naval vessels patrolled even the most isolated waters. Piracy, however, never disappeared. Coastal piracy continued along East Africa's littoral. Milton Caniff's 1930s cartoon series, "Terry and the Pirates," romanticized the Asian crime scene, but did so with a kernel of truth. "Jungle pirates" plagued the myriad coves of Asia's southeast coast and the East Indies archipelago.

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.

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