Pirates have captured the public imagination for centuries, from the exploits of Blackbeard to Hollywood's jaunty Jack Sparrow and the hijacking of the oil tanker Sirius Star just last week. Brisk adventure and jaw-dropping booty – high seas thievery has long been easy to romanticize and far more difficult to denounce for the serious criminal activity it is.
So it goes for the Somali pirates that have wreaked increasing havoc in the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia in recent months. Piracy in the region has tripled this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, with over 120 attacks resulting in 40 hijackings, hundreds of hostages and at least seven dead crew. Estimates of Somali pirates' 2008 ransom income range from $30 million to $150 million.
A recent rash of brazen attacks has upped the ante. The Star hijacking took place a full 450 nautical miles from the coast of Kenya, meaning the pirates have put all area shipping routes at risk. Feeling the heat, major commercial shipping firms – including the world's largest carrier, Copenhagen-based AP Moller-Maersk – have begun diverting their liners away from the area, even though the alternative route around the Cape of Good Hope means millions in extra costs. Analysts estimate up to half a billion dollars lost shipping revenue this year.
Yet rapt news reports highlight the pirates' shiny mansions, advanced weaponry and high-tech gadgets. The international community appears baffled, responding with concern but minimal focus. Most agree that a long-term solution involving the establishment of a stable Somali government could take up to a decade. About short-term responses there has been no such consensus.
In a hastily arranged meeting with its neighbors, Egypt tried last week to forge a joint regional anti-piracy strategy, to no avail. The United Nations has authorized asset freezes and travel bans, despite the fact that Somali pirates live off cash ransoms dropped from helicopters. NATO has dispatched several warships, but like the US and the EU, points out that it has no jurisdiction to attack hijacked ships. The possibility of attacking pirate ships is rarely addressed.
The United States has been particularly feeble. Last week the US Navy told shipping companies to ensure their own security by hiring private contractors. Yet over three years ago Navy Admiral Michael Mullin, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested a global security partnership to tackle maritime piracy and terrorism. The only result is the US-run Global Fleet Station, a pilot version of which was launched last year in the Caribbean, suggesting the US is either living in the past or watching too many movies.
Contrast all this with the confident clarity coming from India. Ever since Indian shipowners and seafarers' unions outlined the pirate threat – tens of thousands of Indian sailors and more than a third of India's sea trade pass through the region every year – Delhi has moved with laser-like focus. The navy dispatched a warship to the region in mid-October, and its personnel have in recent weeks foiled three attempted hijackings and sunk a pirate mother ship – the only nation to do so. Last week the Indian government authorized hot pursuit of pirate vessels, announced the imminent dispatch of three more warships and a reconnaissance aircraft and urged the United Nations to orchestrate joint action. The International Maritime Bureau has praised India's response and urged the international community to follow it.
India has been facing down piracy since making maritime history with the rescue of a Japanese vessel from pirate hands in the Arabian Sea in 1999. Indian frigates escorted US warships headed to Afghanistan through the pirate-infested Malacca Straits in 2002. And after the devastating 2004 tsunami as well as after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar earlier this year, Indian ships were first to deliver aid and relief supplies.
Yet last week's missions marked a sea change – the first time the Indian Navy had fired shots in anger so far from home. The world's largest democracy has long sought to transform its economic growth into military and diplomatic might, and is in the process of acquiring the hallmarks of a naval power – aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. These recent maneuvers, 1800 miles from its shores, represent a more aggressive stance, an effort to exert control over the waters from Djibouti to Indonesia – a stretch of open and not-so-open sea through which 20,000 commercial vessels and crucial regional energy supplies pass each year.
Paired with a successful moon landing earlier this month and the recently completed civilian nuclear deal with the US, India's anti-pirate aggression is the act of a rising world power seizing the opportunity on a flood-lit stage. And this new regional sheriff may be inspiring its neighbors. South Korea is hinting it will soon send a warship to the Horn. Japan, too, is considering sending navy vessels. And just last week, Coast Guard officers from 10 countries – including Russia, China and Korea – received anti-piracy lessons from Indian officers in the waters off Chennai.
The most oft-told pirate tale is that of Caesar's bloody revenge: the confident 25-year-old nobleman persuaded the Cilicians to double their ransom demand, which was duly paid; months later, after raising a navy, Caesar returned to capture and crucify all of his captors. Less familiar is what followed, as Cilician pirates tormented the Roman Empire for nearly a decade, until Roman military leader Pompey waged a fierce, months-long campaign to eradicate them.
Today's crisis in the Horn is not dissimilar, and will require much more than a single battle.
“The only solution I see is a coordinated effort by various naval forces,” said Fred Burton, analyst with Stratfor, a U.S.-based risk assessment agency. “The problem is that no single country wants to take the lead.”
In the past couple weeks India has done just that, but its Caesar-like, lone-wolf aggression will not end the threat. A UN Security Council draft resolution that calls upon capable navies to dispatch armed vessels and combat the menace would be a good first step. But whether the international community is ready to follow India's lead and take on Somali piracy with the seriousness it deserves remains to be seen.
-- edited version of this op-ed ran on page 1A of The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 24.