The Somali pirates are dangerous.
They are sea-terrorists, operating on a supra-national level: beyond the reach of any laws, in the name of no particular state, and against no specific nations. They enjoy complete impunity – most of the time, they are simply chased off, and if captured, they are often released. It would be unimaginable for the United States to capture an Al Qaeda operative, or a member of any other terrorist group, in order to then promptly release him, not wanting to bother with the cost and difficulty of a criminal prosecution. Yet, this is precisely what some countries, like Great Britain and France, have done with respect to captured pirates. They have let them go. And the United States has, wrongly, not said a word about it. The global laissez-faire attitude toward the Somali pirates needs to change, and the United States’ passivity toward these sea-terrorists has to come to an end.
World powers like the United States should be willing to take on the Somali pirates for several reasons. First, the legal tools needed to capture and prosecute these pirates already are in place. The United Nations Security Council has facilitated the fight against Somali piracy, for countries willing to engage in such a fight, by passing five different resolutions during 2008. These resolutions authorize nations patrolling waters in the Indian Ocean off the Somali coast to cross into the 12-nautical-mile zone of Somali territorial waters if self-defending or pursuing pirates. Thus, countries willing to fight the Somali pirates have the Security Council’s green light to apprehend and capture them, be it on the so-called high seas, or anywhere within the Somali territorial waters. Moreover, a combination of two different international conventions regulating the law of the seas arguably provides jurisdiction to try pirates to either the capturing nation, or to any third nation where the pirates have been rendered for prosecution. Countries like the United States and Great Britain have even signed a memorandum of understanding with a regional partner, Kenya, whereby Kenya would try any pirates captured by the two great powers. Thus, world powers like the United States legally may apprehend and try Somali pirates; it is time that they actually do so. Second, pirates are sea-terrorists and may be or become linked to other terrorist groups. For now, we do not know whether the proceeds of piracy are financing other forms of terrorism. However, it is reasonably likely that the Somali pirates will be befriended by groups like the Taliban or Al Qaeda, for whom pirates can easily steal money and weapons. Furthermore, the Somali pirates, if linked to a terrorist group, may attempt to use the hostages that they are already holding (about 300 as of today) as political leverage against all sorts of unreasonable and politically dangerous demands. This type of hostage use is not novel – some may remember that back in the 1980’s, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization hijacked an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and refused to release the kidnapped hostages unless Israel released a group of Palestinian prisoners. The United States has been lucky until now: only one American ship was successfully hijacked by the Somali pirates, and after a three-day long stand-off in the Indian Ocean, all American hostages were safely rescued. In the future, the United States may not remain as fortuitous. The Somali pirates have already pledged that they would go after more American ships, and in the recent days, they have certainly done so (albeit, with no success). Thus, the threat of piracy linked to traditional forms of terrorism looms large for countries like the United States, which may become particular targets. Finally, not fighting the Somali piracy signals a message of passivity and carelessness to all sorts of potentially dangerous individuals and groups across the globe, looking to engage in similar types of criminal behavior. If the United States, or Great Britain, or France, is not willing to fight pirates in Somalia, then the Nigerian or Indonesian pirates may become just as brash in their efforts to seize ships, steal money and capture hostages. Then, piracy would become a global issue, as it once was in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is a dangerous proposal that should be cut at its roots.
The United States cannot do it all: it cannot fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, worry about Iran and North Korea, and negotiate between Israel and its hostile neighbors. It must prioritize its military and diplomatic efforts and give more importance to certain issues and certain geographic areas at particular times. Now is the time to focus on Somalia and its pirates. If the United States seriously began to capture them, prosecute them, and hand out stiff sentences, maybe other nations would follow and maybe the not-yet captured Somali pirates would begin looking for other (legal) lucrative activities.