Pirates from the Mediterranean shores of Africa had been ravaging shipping for nearly three centuries when the United States Marines stormed a fortress near Tripoli in 1803. That was the first Barbary War. There was a second a few years later, which ended Mediterranean piracy. By contrast, there is no end in sight for the epidemic of modern piracy taking place in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
The Marines aren’t going to land on the coast of Somalia, or anywhere near it. The U.S. Navy is patrolling offshore; however, finding pirate speedboats makes finding needles in haystacks a parlor game by comparison. The Indian Navy destroyed a pirate “mother ship” the week before last, but luck played a large part. Last week a Danish Navy ship pulled several pirates from the water before sinking their craft.
If they are going to actually stop Somalia-based piracy, the shipping nations will have to settle for virtual Marines in the form of Blackwater, the North Carolina-based private security company that has figured in the news in Iraq. Blackwater comes prepared. It hires former SEALS and other special forces alumni. The firm owns the 183-foot McArthur, a ship that can carry two helicopters and high-speed inflatable boats of the type favored by naval commandoes. It carries 30 guards in addition to the ship’s crew. According to a spokeswoman, the ship’s primary role for client shippers will be to scare off pirates, though its guards would be prepared to shoot if fired upon.
Once hired by a shipping firm, Blackwater will seek to get pirates to understand that instant death could be an occupational hazard of piracy.
Other than patrols of a stretch of ocean four times the size of Texas by ships from the U.S., India, Russia, and the European Union, commercial ships in the area are on their own unless they sign up with a private service such as Blackwater. Almost none of the commercial ships is armed. The reasons? Partly fear of increased insurance rates; partly some countries’ port laws prohibiting inbound ships from carrying arms, even in self-defense. Timidity and jurisdictional uncertainly also play a role.
The upshot? Nearly 100 shipjackings have been attempted this year and half have succeeded. The pirates still hold, for example, a Saudi tanker filled with $100 million worth of oil. They hold the ships for large ransom which is usually paid — $30 million this year. With the money, they build large homes for themselves ashore and buy ever more sophisticated weaponry with which to seize more ships. These are not rustic peasants. They use GPS navigation; are taken to sea on “mother ships,” then take off in light speedboats. They have their own spokesman who gives interviews via satellite telephone.
The pirates are armed with AK-47s and, often, rocket-propelled grenades. They throw a line with a grappling hook on to a ships deck, them climb aboard. In some cases, ships have ladders on the side of the hull, though all have been warned to pull them up. Unless a crew member of the victim ship were to step out of the shadows with an AK-47 to mow down the pirates (which hasn’t happened yet), the prize belongs to these spiritual descendants of the scourge of the Barbary Coast.
The Marines could probably mop up the pirates’ shore bases in short order, but don’t expect this to happen. Somalia, which has not had an effective government in 17 years, is still being treated as a sovereign nation. So it looks as if those international shippers and shipping lines will have to hire their own Marine Corps — Blackwater.
(Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.)