Somali Pirates: More of the Same or a New Way Ahead

06 May 2009

This brief article is not to argue that there are no pirates operating off the coast of Somalia. There are. However, they are by no means the only pirates operating in the India Ocean, or globally, and they are by no means the most dangerous maritime threat to the strategic interests of the United States. Despite the dramatic increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, the total value of the ransoms being paid by western shipping concerns to the Somali pirates is little in comparison to the money lost due to piracy in the Straits of Malacca, by way of comparison. It is also a small percentage of the value of the fish that are poached by foreign vessels operating illegally in Somali waters.

I would offer the following explanation as to why so much attention being focused on Somali pirates.  Somalia has been identified as one of the nations where the emergence of a “radical” Islamic government is presented as a potential threat to US interests in the area. The possibility of direct American military action in Somalia is an increasingly real possibility after the failure of the invasion by an Ethiopian proxy force we sponsored to check the emergence of an Islamic government in that country. The Somali pirates, who have only come to prominence after the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army from that ravaged county, provide a convenient image for us to demonize.

A pattern of demonization, destabilization, and the invasion of hapless Third World nations is one that has been consistently utilized by America to demonstrate our resolve to protect our national “interests.” It is not a strategy that has been confined to Muslims, as we can see it demonstrated in the manner we dealt with nations like Grenada, and Panama, which were not Muslim nations, but were presented as threats to our interests, for various reasons. It can also be seen in our dealings with Venezuela throughout the presidency of Hugo Chavez. Although we have not yet invaded his country, Chavez has been demonized and various efforts to destabilize the country have been undertaken, including an attempted coup d’état.

In the case of Grenada and Panama, the demonization of Maurice Bishop, and Manuel Noriega preceded our invasions of those hapless nations. In the Muslim world, the demonization of Qaddafi preceded our bombardment of Libya in 1986, the demonization of Saddam Hussein preceded the bombardment and invasion of Iraq in 1991, the demonization of Bin Laden and the Taliban preceded our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the re-demonization of Saddam Hussein preceded our reinvasion of Iraq in 2003. In Somali, where there is no identifiable government, there is no identifiable governmental symbol to be demonized. Hence, the strategic value of the Somali pirates who are presented in the western media as a grave threat to western, and especially American maritime interests, and a frightful menace that must be eliminated.

The rise of small-time Somali piracy is a direct result of big-time international piracy that has been occurring in the coastal waters of that impoverished African country. For the last couple of decades, due to the chaos in Somalia and the lack of even the semblance of a modern naval force, Somali has been victimized by two types of major international piracy: illegal fishing and the banned dumping of toxic wastes. Both of these forms of piracy have contributed to the impoverishment of Somalia.

In terms of illegal fishing, the Italian economist, Loretta Napoleoni, reports that an estimated 700 foreign ships are engaged in illegal fishing in Somali territorial waters. [1] This is a trend that is common off the shores of poor African countries. In Somalia, these vessels are robbing local fishermen of tuna, lobster, shark, and shrimp. All of which are not only a potential source of protein for the impoverished Somalis, but also a potential source of desperately needed export revenue. It is estimated that poor Africa countries, a group that includes Somalia, lose over a billion dollars a year due to fish piracy. Most of this money accrues to Chinese pirates, who dominate illegal fishing in African waters.

Globally, fish piracy and illegal poaching has reached such dangerous levels that many species such as blue-fin tuna, pot-belly seahorses, abalone and many others are threatened with extinction. However, we do not hear anything in the media, or in governmental circles addressing this issue. The reasons for that is that acting against the sources of these abuses means confronting the Chinese Mafia, the Triad, and the Chinese government. Both are intricately involved in the piracy that is ravaging international fisheries. However, both have the resources necessary to fight back, at many different levels, in a confrontation with the United States. Unfortunately, the Somalis do not. Hence, like the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Grenadians, the Libyans and many other Third World peoples and countries, the Somalis possess scant resources to thwart military action from the United States.

The second form of piracy, which almost exclusively benefits Europe, is the illegal dumping of toxic material in Somali coastal waters. Multinational corporations and governments use illegally registered pirate ships to cart away tons of toxic waste. Again, to quote Napoleoni:

Somalia, for example, regularly receives tons and tons of electronic waste and radioactive junk from Europe. Taking advantage of the absence of central government, pirates dump their deadly cargoes everywhere, mostly along the seashore. Shockingly, some of this waste resurfaced after the tsunami of December 2005.[2]

Again, we hear nothing of this blatant criminal activity that is systematically poisoning the Somali coast. In the aftermath of the tsunami there were reports of many mysterious illnesses afflicting residents in the coastal areas of Somalia. These illnesses have been attributed to the toxic elements that were washed ashore by the tidal wave. Again, there was virtually no media attention focused on this issue. Furthermore, in the contemporary frame governing our strategic thinking it would be considered the epitome of foolishness to suggest that some of the US naval resources currently focused on stopping the Somali pirates be redirected to protect the Somali coast from the pending ecological disaster represented by the illegal dumping of toxic and carcinogenic agents in Somali coastal waters. Commercial concerns and strategic interests trump ecological concerns and human interests.

We could use Somalia as a testing ground for a new direction in our foreign policy. We could offer our naval services to help end illegal poaching and dumping in Somali territorial waters, in exchange for an abandonment of piracy. Increased Somali control of the fish harvest would help to provide an increase in revenue that would more than compensate for income that is lost due to a reduction in or the possible elimination of piracy.  This approach, even if it were not totally successful would still win many Somali hearts and minds, and greatly dampen the anti-American militancy that is gripping the country.

Unfortunately, as long as we have a massive military infrastructure with a budgetary imperative to create enemies and instigate conflicts, the weaker nations of the world will not be safe from the possibility of armed intervention when they engage in actions, or are home to movements that are deemed antithetical to our interests. Anyone concerned with breaking this constantly repeating cycle of demonization, destabilization, and oftentimes invasion or bombardment, has to speak out against the militarism that dominates the foreign policy of our nation. We also have to pressure the Obama administration to begin laying the foundations of a new course in US foreign policy. If we fail to do so there will be ever greater levels of “blowback” and they will be increasingly difficult to manage.

[1] Loretta Napoleoni, Rogue Economics: Capitalism New Reality (New York, London: Seven Stories Press, 2008), 174-175.
[2] Napoleoni, 179.