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April 11, 2009 / jeni

Q&A: Somali Pirates

somali_piratesSomali pirates storm the front pages again with two separate incidents, one leading to the death of a French hostage and the other featuring a standoff with the US Navy over the fate of an American merchant ship captain. The Washington Post hosted a live discussion with Ken Menkhaus, an expert on Somali piracy, which is worth a look. Some of his more interesting responses follow.

Hartford, Conn.: Some questions about what happens after previously hijacked ships are released. How are the ransoms paid and the transfers converted to cash or other things of value? And what do the pirates do with their “booty?” It’s not like they can live in mansions and collect luxury cars on the Horn of Africa, can they?

Ken Menkhaus: Ransoms have usually been paid with cash airdrops and divvied up among the many, many local actors with a finger in this pie. The pirates and their financial backers use the money to build homes, get married, invest in businesses in Nairobi Kenya.

Washington, D.C.: Because this was a U.S. ship, there will be calls now for the U.S. — and President Obama — to take more aggressive military action against the pirates – but really, shouldn’t we keep this in perspective? This is, after all, a relatively minor hindrance to world shipping, and absolutely no challenge to U.S. national security interests. The pirates have been surprisingly businesslike, generally not harming crews, and seeking “reasonable” ransoms. When you read that the reason ships don’t arm their crews against the pirates is that the cost of insurance would be greater than the ransoms, you know that these pirates have hit the sweet spot and are basically imposing a tax on shipping around the Horn. Sure, it’s illegal, but it’s hardly worth engaging the U.S. military in an misadventure in a failed African state. Or am I wrong?

Ken Menkhaus: I would tend to agree with you. The piracy problem off the coast of Somalia is real, and needs attention, but over-stating its impact on international trade and overreacting is likely to make things worse. The total ransoms paid last year, $20-40 million, is a lot of money in Somalia but little more than a nuisance tax for global shipping.

San Francisco, Calif.: Why do you think there hasn’t been a more harsh military response against the ports where the pirates launch from? I wouldn’t expect the U.S. to bombard some coast over lost humanitarian aid but what about other countries who have lost more sensitive items? Why wouldn’t a Russia who lost valuable military equipment stage some sort of offensive action? Don’t they still have a navy?

Ken Menkhaus: Again, the fate of 100-150 captives from previously pirated ships makes direct military action very risky, and does not guarantee piracy will not return with more dangerous tactics.

Washington, D.C.: How do you see this problem resolved? This is the first time Americans have been involved in such an incident, I’m reading. How much money and goods are the kidnappers asking for in return for the captain and will they keep their promise?

Ken Menkhaus: The fact that we have a US hostage for the first time is a potential game changer which is why this story is getting so much attention. It’s possible there will be a military action of some sort after the captain is released, but keep in mind that it’s unlikely that pirates will be dissuaded even if the risks grow. It’s just too lucrative — relatively low risk, very high reward. The solution will ultimately have to be on-shore, with more effective government in Somalia.

Centreville, Va.: Why is it the French can send in their commandos to rescue hostages, which they reportedly have done three times already, and we can’t do anything? Regardless of the financial realities of the situation, it makes us look weak and feeble.

Ken Menkhaus: The French rescues were at the time seen as a major change of policy, and a very risky operation. If the US were to do the same, and some of the 100-150 hostages — all from other countries, remember — were killed — this would be a major diplomatic problem.

Austin, Tex.: Reasonable people (not the blow-em-all-out-of-the-water types) have suggested that the time has come for merchant ships in the area to carry armed guards. I understand that there are problems with this, but is it something that is going to have to happen?

Ken Menkhaus: This is a seemingly obvious solution, and yet turns out to be a non-starter. There are major insurance and legal liability issues involved that are too complex to go into here — the shipping companies are deeply opposed.

Miami, Fla.: About ten years ago China faced a wave of piracy. The government responded by executing every pirate it could capture. Guess what, before long piracy stopped and never returned. For the first time in my life, I support what the Chinese government did. The piracy off the coast of Somalia will only grow worse if we keep coddling the criminals.

Ken Menkhaus: The Chinese government is a sovereign state and was acting against its own citizens, for better or worse. There is no such state in Somalia, and if foreign Navies start assuming the role of judge jury and executioner in Somali waters the jihadists in Somalia will have a field day with it. there are laws of the sea that the Navy pays close attention to.

Washington, D.C.: Has the increased numbers of military vessels had any impact on the smuggling of people into the Gulf States? Has it made those journeys any safer? Or more dangerous?

Ken Menkhaus: great question, and the answer is no. The smuggling of desperate migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia to Yemen by boat has cost hundreds of lives, occurs in small boats, and is not a task of the international navies patrolling those waters

Virginia Beach, Va.: Taken to it’s logical conclusion — the pirates take their hostage away to shore, within sight of the U.S. Navy and collect a healthy ransom. Would that not clearly signal other hostile groups in the area to become “pirates” to finance terrorism?

Ken Menkhaus: this is the problem — the “moral hazard’ that the short-term solution that is low cost to the shipping company and safe for the crew only encourages the piracy, in Somalia and possibly elsewhere. You’re right — short term vs. long term interests are at odds.

Davis, Calif.: What is the possibility that Somali pirates are part of a crime organization with links to jihadist money and the shipping and maritime insurance businesses?

Ken Menkhaus: so far, no evidence of links to Al Qaeda or int’l criminal network, but this is something to watch, The pirates know that if they collude with al Qaeda or al-Shabaab (the Somali jihadist group) that will be a game changer, and they like the game as played just fine.


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