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.