Somalia a little while ago.

Richard Burton, the explorer not the actor, went to Somalia in the 1850s.  He got a spear through his face for his trouble.  Things aren’t much different now.  The British claimed the territory as part of their drive to protect the “lifeline to India” that ran through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.  They never managed to turn its tribes and regions into a coherent country before granting it independence.  The country disintegrated in 1991, with two regions (Somaliland, Puntland) seceding and the rest of the country falling prey to robber bands.  The economy fell apart and over a million people fled their homes to escape danger or starvation.  Nobody in the outside world cared very much about this catastrophe.  However, international television journalists discovered the place and broadcast the human suffering all over the world.  In 1992 President George H. W. Bush sent in some troops to try to restore some order.  Then an international peace-keeping force came in.  In 1993, under President Clinton, “mission creep” appeared as the Americans tried to batter the local war-lords into line.  This ended in the “Blackhawk Down” disaster.  Americans became very shy about intervening in tropical hell-holes.

Eventually, many people turned to radical Islamists who didn’t approve of robbers and had the guns to do something about it.  The Islamic Courts Union established control of most of the country by 2005.  However, in the wake of 9/11 the US had developed a strong dislike for radical Islamists.  The intervention the 1990s hadn’t gone too well and American forces were busy with other wars (Iraq, Afghanistan).  So, in 2006 the US encouraged Ethiopia, which had its own territorial ambitions, to invade Somalia and toss out the Islamic Courts government.  Before pulling out its troops in January 2009 Ethiopia didn’t entirely succeed in getting rid of the Islamic Courts, but it did enough to wreck any the progress that had been made.  Somalia is ungoverned and attracts anti-Western radical Islamists.  A third of Somalis live from internationally-supplied food rations.  A million people are in refugee camps or wandering around dazed.

Under these conditions, many Somalis living near the coast turned to piracy.  The original British motivation to occupying Somalia arose from the important shipping route between the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean and the Red Sea-Suez Canal.  The British Empire is gone, but shipping still uses the route.  Somalia is awash in weapons.  Put merchants ship and automatic weapons together with poor people who know small boats, place in a law-less environment, and you get instant piracy.  By early 2009 the pirates were seizing three ships a week and they made an estimated $100 million in ransom in 2008.

“Somalia: A state of failure,” The Week, 22 May 2009, p. 11.

Avast me Hearties!

Piracy is a story about the importance of policing in crime suppression.  Piracy abounded when there were rich cargoes afloat, but no one to protect them or pursue the criminals.  Piracy withered when the navies of imperial powers (British, French, American, Dutch) went around making the world safe for peaceful commerce.  “Blackbeard” famously ended up with his head nailed onto the bowsprit of a British warship.  Still, piracy never ended in some parts of the world, notably in parts of East Africa and Southeast Asia.  After the end of the Second World War, the retreat of the European navies from “Eastern Waters” began to take the lid off of piracy.  Post-colonial governments were just as ill-equipped to fight piracy as to do anything else.

Consequently, piracy has increased from fewer than one hundred reported attacks on ships in 1997 to two hundred reported attacks in 2007.  In such attacks during 2006 15 seamen were killed and 188 taken captive; $15 billion in lost goods is a fair estimate of the material cost.  “Reported” is key here: lots of shipping companies would rather not report the attacks because it will only drive up their insurance costs without getting the generally dysfunctional governments of the countries from which the pirates operate to solve the problem.  The same goes for fighting back against a pirate attack.  Kill one of the sea-borne bastards and the pirates-in-suits ashore will be slapping injunctions all over you at your next port of call.

So, who becomes a pirate these days?  Pretty much the same people who became pirates in the Caribbean in the 17th Century: local poor people who know something about boats.  Dockworkers, fishermen, and beached merchant sailors provide much of the crew for pirate attacks.  Occasionally they are government coast guard units run amuck.  Many of these pirates call Indonesia or Somalia home because shipping must pass through narrow straits, rather than being able to stand well-out to sea.  Oddly enough, there is a “pirate season”: the Indian Ocean is tossed by great monsoon storms in early Fall and early Spring, so pirates tend to stay ashore during these seasons, chewing khat and bothering the wife.  Only when the seas calm do they return to their trade.

Rather than sailing the Seven Seas under the Jolly Roger, however, they operate in speedboats from ashore.  Photographs taken from merchant ships under attack often show the pirates driving high-powered outboard boats and armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and grenade launchers.

Somalia is the Promised Land of modern piracy.  There hasn’t been a real government in twenty years; everybody has guns and is dirt-poor; and oil tankers from the Persian Gulf pass by on their way to the Suez Canal.  In April 2010 Somali pirates captured the “Samho Dream,” a South Korean supertanker.  In November 2010 the owners paid a LeBron Jamesian $10 million to get the ship, cargo, and crew back.  Each pirate got $150,000, minus whatever the pirate-boss had fronted him for rice and beans during the intervening seven months of gastro-intestinal catastrophe.

Lest anyone see this as a silver-lining-to-a-black-cloud story about impoverished Third World villagers getting together to cut through the red tape accompanying foreign aid, the pirate crews appear to be operating at the behest of local crime lords.  In places like Somalia, the pirate-bosses use the ransom money to buy weapons so that they can set up as local war lords.  Having hijacked ships, they’re now thinking about hijacking countries.  (See: Normans.)  Then some Paki scientist probably will sell them nukes.