AMERICAN MERCHANT SAILORS are now at greater risk of pirate attack than at any time since the presidency of James Madison. While Somali pirates have been getting all of the media attention, pirates also thrive off West Africa, especially near the Niger Delta. Piracy also flourished near the Philippines and Indonesia.
The International Maritime Bureau reports that in 2008, pirates killed four American seafarers near Somalia and seven near the Philippines. And there may be worse to come. Following the U.S. Navy’s April rescue of the captain of the Maersk Alabama, Somali pirates declared: “We will seek out the Americans, and if we capture them, we will slaughter them.”
There is a straightforward solution. The Council of American Master Mariners represents active and retired shipmasters and pilots from the American Merchant Marine. The council states: “It’s time to train the crews and send them to sea, ready to defend themselves, like their forefathers did up until the 20th century.”
U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the 20-nation naval task force in the Gulf of Aden, agrees. As reported by National Public Radio on April 14, Vice Admiral Gortney said, “commercial shippers must do more to protect themselves against pirates, including arming their crews … .”
First, some history. There’s nothing new about arming merchant ships against piracy. According to J.R. Partington’s A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, Chinese ships in the Persian Gulf carried naphtha (a flammable, liquid mixture of hydrocarbons) for self-defense from pirates.
Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World tells us that in the 12th century, “no merchant ship went unarmed for fear of pirates.”
Likewise, in America’s early republic, the merchant mariners could buy self-defense tools at stores such as one in Philadelphia called the Military Laboratory, “Where Owners and Commanders of Armed Vessels may be supplied, for either the use of Small Arms or Cannon, at the shortest notices, with every species of Military Stores.” Items for sale included “Musket’s and Pistol’s,” plus gunpowder, ammunition, cannons and “Hand grenades, filled and fused.” (The advertising circular for the store can be found on the Library of Congress’ “An American Time Capsule” website.)
Those early American mariners needed arms. Merchant ships of the fledgling nation were a favored prey of the pirates of the four Barbary states: Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli.
The pirates had been harassing the Atlantic and Mediterranean for centuries, even reaching as far as Ireland and Iceland. Kidnapped Christian crews would be ransomed, and if the ransom was not paid, they were sold into slavery. The pirates also raided coastal towns to capture slaves. Between 1500 and 1800, about a million people were taken.
England started paying tribute to the Barbary states in 1662 to get the pirates to leave English ships alone, and many other nations did, as well. In 1784, the U.S. Congress spent $80,000 in tribute to the Barbary states.
During the Washington administration, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson warned that the choices were “war, tribute and ransom.” He helped convince Congress in 1794 to create the United States Navy. But European nations, who at the time were involved in the Napoleonic wars, rejected Jefferson’s proposal for a multinational blockade of the Barbary Coast. They found it easier to continue paying tribute.
By 1800, pirate tribute and ransom actually constituted 20 percent of the U.S. federal budget. When President Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he ended the tribute payments, and the First Barbary War began.
In 1805, American commander William Eaton assembled a force of several hundred Arab, Greek and Berber mercenaries, plus United States Marines, under the command of 1st Lt. Presley O’Bannon. Starting in Alexandria, Egypt, they marched west 500 miles, with offshore support from three American warships.
On April 27, they reached the fortress port of Derne, the second-largest city of Tripoli. After 75 minutes of fighting they captured it, and for the first time an American flag of conquest was raised in the Old World. The Marine’s Hymn immortalizes the victory: “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” An Arab ally, Prince Hamet, presented Lieutenant O’Bannon with the Mameluke Sword, which Marine officers wear to this very day.
During the Barbary Wars, the Marines wore high leather collars for protection from cutlasses, hence the Marine nickname “leathernecks.”
The Battle of Derne led to a favorable, but only temporary, settlement with Tripoli; the other Barbary states were not defeated, and American sailors continued to be captured, then ransomed or enslaved.
The Second Barbary War was fought in 1815. Then, Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur sailed into Algiers. The Americans gave the bey of Algiers three hours to accept an ultimatum: “Free every slave at once, pay an indemnity of $10,000 to the survivors of the brig Edwin and cease all demands for tribute forever.”
The bey complied. Fittingly, it was the U.S.S. Bainbridge (namesake of pirate-fighting Commodore Bainbridge of nearly 200 years ago) that rescued the American captive of the Somali pirates this April.
Yet the Barbary piracy resumed after the American Navy had sailed away. Finally, in 1830, France colonized Algeria and began to turn Morocco and Tunisia into protectorates, eliminating almost all of the Barbary piracy.
Today, there is no possibility that Western powers are going to recolonize Somalia. Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is opposed to piracy, and so is Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, the president of Puntland, the far eastern Somali region where pirate gangs are based. Yet neither president has the ability to enforce his wishes; the Somali president’s zone of control consists of several blocks in Mogadishu--a territory smaller than Vatican City. Piracy comprises more than half the gross domestic product of Puntland, so there is plenty of money to bribe local officials. Local governments sometimes cannot even pay the police, who are rumored to have branched into piracy themselves.
Nor will the trading nations bombard the Somali pirate towns of Eyl and Boosaaso, even though bombardment of pirate havens was a common tactic in the 19th century and before. Western nations would be reluctant to cause casualties among the non-pirate population of Eyl, and there would be claims that the bombardment violated international law.
The great Roman lawyer Cicero said that under international law, pirates are hostis humani generis--enemies of all mankind. Summary executions of captured pirates were common in the 19th century, when the British navy ruled the seas, and played a leading role in suppressing piracy and the slave trade.
Yet today, the British navy has been ordered by the U.K. Foreign Office to not even detain pirates--for fear that they could claim asylum under the European Human Rights Act.
Catch and release is how most navies participating in Task Force 151 in the Gulf of Aden treat the pirates. In the article “A Guantanamo on the Sea”: The Difficulty of Prosecuting Pirates and Terrorists, Northwestern University School of Law professor Eugene Kontorovich explains how modern international law imposes numerous impediments to pirate prosecution. (That article is available at ssrn.com/abstract=1371122).
Since the Barbary solutions will never be exercised against modern pirates, arming merchant crews is one obvious answer. But before exploring that option, are there legitimate alternatives to arming ship crews?
Some modern shipping companies buy security services from high-quality companies like Xe (formerly Blackwater). But these guards are too expensive for many shippers. The number of ships in the Gulf of Aden (let alone the Nigerian coast and Southeast Asia) far exceeds the supply of high- quality security services.
A shipper can also procure guards from a lesser company, but that can be risky. These guards sometimes are pirates in disguise--as the North Korean ship Dai Hong Dan found out in October 2007.
Admirably, after the guards/pirates commandeered the Dai Hong Dan, the 43-man crew rushed the pirates en masse, taking back control of the ship--although at the cost of life-threatening wounds to three crewmen. The first ship to respond to the Dai Hong Dan’s distress signal was the U.S. Navy’s James E. Williams (named for the most highly-decorated enlisted man in Navy history). The Williams promptly provided life-saving medical assistance.
Over the last two years, Somali pirates have captured dozens of ships. Only four crews fought back once the pirates were on board: the Dai Hong Dan, the Chinese Zhenhua 4 and the American Maersk Alabama. On April 26, 2009, just a few days after the rescue of the captain of the Maersk Alabama, an Israeli security team assigned to the Italian cruise ship The Melody repelled a pirate attack with water hoses and shooting in the air.
Squeamish about firearms, more and more ships are deploying acoustic weapons. The Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) emits a narrow and excruciatingly painful sound wave. A few seconds of exposure can cause permanent hearing impairment, but most people hit with a LRAD flee very quickly.
Sonic weapons have sometimes repelled pirates but they do not always work. StrategyPage.com, an outstanding source of information on all matters military, reports that in late 2008 a chemical tanker deployed an LRAD against an approaching pirate boat, but the pirates just kept coming, fighting their way through the pain. As the pirate boat reached the tanker, the defenders jumped overboard, not wishing to face the irate pirates.
Another defensive tactic is to turn on high-pressure fire hoses. The pirates typically make their approach in fast-moving fishing skiffs, then transfer to inflatable boats powered by outboard engines for the boarding attack; these inflatables can sometimes be swamped with the high-pressure water.
Once the pirates reach their target aboard these inflatable boats, they fire grappling hooks and scurry up the hull with improvised ladders. Water hoses can knock pirates off the ladders. But the hosemen have to stand back to avoid shots from the pirates’ rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Firearms are, of course, much easier to control than fire hoses, and are much easier to deploy quickly and aim precisely. If every seafarer had a rifle, the riflemen could complement the fire hose defense against the boarding party.
There are two barriers preventing defensive armament of merchant shipping. A ship flying the American flag is governed by American law, which of course allows American crewmembers to possess arms. But the vast majority of commercial shipping these days is on ships that are registered to other flags, such as Liberia, Panama, Greece, the Bahamas, Hong Kong or Turkey. A permit to own a firearm for defensive purposes is not necessarily easy to obtain from such governments.
Also, territorial waters extend 12 miles from a nation’s coast. A ship that enters a nation’s territorial waters must obey that nation’s laws, including the gun laws.
Foreign-flagged ships entering U.S. waters can have defensive arms, as long as the guns are registered in advance. Registration can be accomplished via the Internet, before the ship’s arrival in the United States.
Unfortunately, many nations make it much more difficult to obtain permission to port an armed ship. Plenty of foreign ports ban arms on any non-military vessel.
President Barack Obama has declared that he is “resolved to halt the rise of piracy.” One good way for him to follow through on that promise would be to take the lead in creating an international treaty to ensure that the ports of all civilized nations allow entry by ships carrying defensive arms.
The treaty could specify that nations require that defensive arms be unloaded when a ship enters territorial waters.
In some nations, when you sail a pleasure boat into the harbor, the customs officials will inspect the stored arms, and require that they be locked up as long as your ship is in the harbor. A nation could apply similar rules to commercial vessels.
Generally, a ship that is importing goods into a nation is required to have a customs bond--an insurance policy that guarantees that the appropriate taxes will be paid, that the ship will comply with the nation’s import laws and so on. Customs bonding could also be applied to the defensive arms.
While a nation may not want armed foreigners wandering port cities, there are
easy ways to keep guns offshore without making it impossible for sailors to defend themselves while on the high seas.
If foreign nations refuse to adopt laws to accommodate self-defense for ships, international shipping companies could arrange for depot ships to be stationed in international waters, just outside the territorial limits of busy ports. Merchant ships could offload their defensive arms before entering the port, and then retrieve the arms after departing.
Unfortunately, most commercial shipping companies, as well as most shipping insurance companies, are opposed to defensive armament. These gun-ban policies are illogical, harmful and unfair to their crews.
Even in the Gulf of Aden, less than 1 percent of ships are hijacked. Ships transiting through the Gulf of Aden generally pay an insurance premium for what is euphemistically called “business interruption.” (Insurance, plus danger pay for the crews, plus extra fuel for high-speed travel in the Gulf of Aden raises the total cost of the trip by about 2 percent.) The insurance companies take care of paying the ransom for captured ships and kidnapped crews.
So in effect, we now simply have a new version of the old-fashioned tribute system imposed by the Barbary pirates. The only difference is that now the tribute money gets laundered through insurance companies.
The modern tribute makes economic sense for the tribute payers--as it often did in the olden days. But the modern insurance/tribute system also creates a vicious cycle, as rising insurance premiums provide an ever-growing pool of ransom loot for more and more pirates. South Somalis are pouring north into Puntland, eager to strike it rich for life with a single successful act of piracy.
The Somali pirates are mostly non-ideological, but some of their money does find its way to al Shabab, a Somali terrorist organization closely linked to al Qaeda.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, gun rights advocates (such as Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jim Bunning) and anti-gun advocates (such as Sen. Barbara Boxer) united in support of an armed pilots program. They overcame powerful resistance from the airline corporations, which so intensely and so wrongly mistrusted their pilots that the corporations preferred to endanger public safety and risk another terrorist hijacking rather than allow pilots to protect themselves and their aircraft. Congress did the right thing when it overrode the irresponsible airline policies, and Congress has the power to do the same thing for ships that fly the American flag.
The corporate objections to armed defense mostly consist of the same tired arguments that are raised against self-defense in any context: the situation would become more complex and unpredictable, somebody might get hurt, just give the criminals what they want, and so on. The United States Department of Transportation warns: “Carriage of arms on board ship may encourage attackers to carry firearms, thereby escalating an already dangerous situation … The use of firearms requires special training and aptitudes …”
But in real life, the Somali pirates already carry automatic Kalashnikov rifles and RPG launchers, even though their victims are unarmed. In 2008, pirates killed eleven Americans as well as many seafarers of other nations demonstrating that the “situation” can be lethally dangerous for disarmed victims, too.
Additionally, the risk of mutiny by armed seafarers at present is close to nil. Conditions on ships are far better than they were in the 17th century, and seafarers who don’t like the way a ship is being run can simply disembark at the next port.
Just as the airline corporations fretted that an armed pilot might kill someone in a petty quarrel, the shipping and insurance corporations appear to have similar concerns about seafarers. But there are time-tested ways to address the issue. For example, the arms can be kept in a secure storage locker (which would also be useful when in port), with only the captain and perhaps a few officers possessing the keys.
Some opponents of armed defense also claim that a stray bullet might cause a catastrophic fire or explosion. That’s a valid point if the ship’s cargo consists of explosives. Otherwise, it’s essentially impossible, unless the crew foolishly uses tracer or incendiary ammunition. To be extra safe, there could be a requirement to use only frangible ammunition, which could not penetrate a fuel tank.
Arming merchant ships for self-defense would immediately and dramatically reduce piracy. The failure to do so is a sign that, despite all the big talk these days, governments and corporations are willing to treat piracy as just another cost of doing business, at the expense of unarmed crews.