The Jury Talks Back


The Murdering Pirates

Filed under: Uncategorized — JRM @ 9:05 pm

The weird romanticization of pirates in American culture is going to take a hit with real pirates killing real people and taking down really big ships.

The latest and biggest is the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, now being held for $25 million ransom.

They’ve had a Ukranian ship filled with tanks and other military hardware since September.

They’ve made tens of millions in piracy, and it’s getting worse. Somalia’s a mess; whatever income made in non-theft related industries is getting used in the unending, brutal Somali Civil War.

And they’ve kidnapped 537 crew members in the last quarter.

So, what now?

It’s a fairly classic prisoner’s dilemma situation. If the pirates steal my giant ship, worth $180 million, and they hold it for ransom, and I pay them $12 million rather than blowing up the ship and the crew, I’m up $168 million and a better ability to recruit more crew members. It’s a no-brainer.

Pirates get their $12 million, I get my ship. Win-win.

Of course, the pirates are going to take the next guy’s ship, too. It’s in everyone else’s interest that I not pay and fund and encourage more piracy.

It’s a problem that requires everyone involved to take action:

1. The Saudis must stop the owners of the Sirius Star from paying one dime. The owners can negotiate and agree to pay; that’s not a problem. Lying to pirates is fine. But you can’t actually pay them.

People are likely going to get killed through that course of action. It’s a price to pay for fewer people getting killed in the long-term.

2. The pirates need to be treated as military actors. They fashion themselves as Coast Guard organizations; treat them like the military they claim they are. Tell ship crews that you will want to rescue them, but if the pirates take them, ransom will not be paid. Encourage as much armed combat against takeovers as possible. (On ships filled with flammable liquids, firefights are discouraged. I understand that.)

People will get killed. That’s a price to pay to prevent people from getting killed long-term.

3. Stabilize Somalia. Everyone – including a little bit of al Qaeda – is trying to kill everyone else with great rigor. The US is currently involved in trying to make this situation better. They have no good solution, and I have no good solution either, unless winged unicorns have become available. But it is an appropriate goal.

This is going to get ugly no matter how it rolls, but it’s time for the U.S. to impress upon its allies, including the Saudis, the importance of a unified front. It’s also time to take some dramatic action to impress upon the pirates our overall dissatisfaction with their actions. There will be blowback. There will be people dead. But it is worse to let things keep going down this road.

Let me make myself clear on paying off pirates, kidnappers, and the like: If I get kidnapped and held hostage, to be freed on condition that some guy I prosecuted – let’s say Joe the Wife-Beater – gets released from jail, Joe better stay in. You release Joe, and I get free, and I will be right pissed.

If I get killed by the kidnappers, then it sucks to be me. You cannot reward this behavior, not because it’s not a good deal in isolation – my life is worth way, way more than the downside of a little extra freedom for Joe – but because it encourages repeats of that behavior. Disincentivizing kidnapping is a really good thing.

The pirates have made it clear: This is going to keep happening until it’s too dangerous or too unprofitable. Let’s help make it too dangerous and too unprofitable, and let’s make it clear that those who would help make it profitable by paying ransoms will also face consequences.



  1. I think I read that the Saudis have contributed some kind of naval support to the anti-piracy effort and that 15 nations have naval ships in the area. That’s not enough for such a large area but it’s a start.

    You’re right about the ransoms but I’d probably acquiesce if the companies want to pay the ransoms, especially in situations where rescuing the hostages and recovering the ships seems doubtful. (As I recall, the French have had success at that. Maybe they should take the lead.) But I’d also treat this as the international shipping threat it is and call on all nations to help stop piracy. It will be harder for the pirates to succeed if there are more naval vessels, satellite intelligence, and other resources in the area. And that will make it easier to stop paying ransom.

    Comment by DRJ — 11/21/2008 @ 10:16 pm

  2. Nothing an AC-130 can’t sort out. Failing that, I hear the Russians are keen to send in their guys…

    Comment by Kevin Murphy — 11/21/2008 @ 11:25 pm

  3. For rogue pirates, military action is the only solution. For community-based pirates … you can’t just go in and kill them all. You can’t just bomb their women and children, destroy their harbors and fishing boats, and leave all the corpses to rot on the shore. You need to send in a strong force, establish a base, and offer both a carrot and a stick. Amnesty for past offenses, a viable new means for them to feed their families, immediate hanging for those who still commit piracy. It’s the only way that has worked since the time of Pompey.

    Comment by nk — 11/22/2008 @ 5:40 am

  4. I think Obama should offer to sit down with the pirates without preconditions. This could be a great test of his bizarre diplomatic theories.

    Comment by daleyrocks — 11/22/2008 @ 7:36 am

  5. Option #1 – Pay a $10,000 bounty for pirate heads and turn the locals loose.
    Option #2 – Provide funding for pirate gay/lesbian studies, pirate sensitivity training and a pirate midnight basketball league.

    Which option would a community organizer choose?

    Comment by Perfect Sense — 11/22/2008 @ 8:05 am

  6. Option #1 – Pay a $10,000 bounty for pirate heads and turn the locals loose.

    The locals are the pirates in Somalia.

    We are not talking about inner-city street gangs, Egyptian students with six months traning in an Al Qaeda camp, South American drug-runners, or Calabrese cigarette smugglers. These people have been sailing that sea for 6,000 years, as fishermen and coastal traders, they know it as well as we know our own backyards, and “pirate” for most of those years has been any vessel which could outfight any other vessel it might come across (and not from its own village). It’s part of the livelihood of all the towns and villages on that coast.

    (Also, now they certainly also know the shipping lanes and almost certainly have agents in major ports to let them know when attractive targets have set sail. It’s not a matter of sailing around flying the Jolly Roger until the lookout on the masthead shouts “Spanish galleon off the port bow”.)

    Even if we go in and wipe every village on that coast off the face of earth, the problem will persist. They will scatter and regroup in hidden harbors and shallow coastal waters that warships cannot navigate. That’s what happened with the pirates of the Caribean. The Spanish bombed them out and just made them harder to find. The British offered them amnesty and land and hanged the handful of irretractables.

    With the Somalis, who are not part of our Empire, we’ll need a different carrot. We should, probably, negotiate with them as though they were a nation in the same manner we are negotiating with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.

    Comment by nk — 11/22/2008 @ 11:28 am

  7. nk – 11:28

    The no-fly zone over Iraq worked pretty well to protect the Kurds. If the pirates can’t get to the shipping lanes, they can’t take ships. Establish a 5 or 10 mile boundary off the coast, outside of which any vessel, large or small, that is there without permission will be sunk. No contact, no hailing, no boarding – sunk from the air. All valuable larger shipping vessels already have permission and schedules that can be registered.

    All vessels wishing to land in Somalia must either agree to a complete search at another port TBD or hug the coast.

    It might be hard to catch such small craft, but we need to start practicing that skill set anyway.

    If the problem persists, then the zone shrinks to 3 miles.

    Comment by Apogee — 11/22/2008 @ 11:42 am

  8. Cost.

    It would be a tiny fraction of the cost of enforcing a blockade to just get all the Somali elders and pirate chiefs together, and offer them as much as they make in ransom, with the threat of both military action and the cutting off of the payments should another act of piracy occur.

    I think that will be the solution in the end. Right now, in my view, the Saudis are trying to get the rest of the world to pay both the cost of military action and tribute so they’ll have more money left for their three-hundred-women harems and thousand-room palaces.

    Comment by nk — 11/22/2008 @ 12:07 pm

  9. P.S.

    Please remember, in reference to the Iraqi no-fly zone, that Saddam Hussein was committing genocide against the Kurds. That’s not the case with the Somali pirates. They treat their captives well and the casualties are almost all on their side.

    Comment by nk — 11/22/2008 @ 12:25 pm

  10. nk – I agree with your philosophy, but I think it doesn’t fit the realities on the ground.

    You are correct in pointing out the fact that Somalia is no different than it was a thousand years ago – a collection of warring factions that change power by violence, changing associations, and intimidation. That is also the reason for the failure of any initially ‘organized’ approach to dealing with those groups. You have no one clan to deal with, and dealings with one cause distrust with another.

    I would argue that if such an approach were to succeed, it would work much better after a year of these same groups having no access to arms or supplies by sea, as all vessels approaching Somalia’s coastline would be seized, searched or sunk. Cutting off their supply lines would impress upon them the necessity of cooperation, along with the respect for the shipping lanes.

    Comment by Apogee — 11/22/2008 @ 5:48 pm

  11. their three-hundred-women harems and thousand-room palaces.

    Seriously… How the hell do I get a piece of that action? :)

    Comment by Scott Jacobs — 11/22/2008 @ 6:22 pm

  12. I disagree. The UN Navy stands by and watches a small boat filled with pirates exit a ship? Kill them all. Level their villages. Let god sort them out. And I hope Israel does likewise to any threats by Iran. The KGB didn’t put with crap like we do today. Oh, we might have to offer them asylum? Bullshit. Like that one poll, asked what should we do with the poor, misunderstood victims at Guantanamo? Put them in tents on the white house lawn led by a wide margin. Why not just shoot them all before Obama takes office. Yeah, I know that the aclu, the hollywood crybabies, the un and various euroweenies would get their panties in a twist. If you think killing them all is too violent, capture a few and send their testicles back home.

    Comment by madmax333 — 11/22/2008 @ 8:02 pm

  13. Scott – 299 of them have it soft.

    Comment by daleyrocks — 11/22/2008 @ 8:04 pm

  14. The US has faced this type of crisis before in the Mediterranean, in the early 1800’s, when Arab pirates were seizing ships and demanding “tribute” for release of captives. We sent groups of ships over to “fly the flag” and take on the pirates (Marine Corps Hymn…to the shores of Tripoli) to stop the practice. There is a task force in place over there right now (current head of it is a Danish Admiral – it rotates on a regular basis). A change in tactics is probably in order – probably the use of a convoy system, with a maritime exclusion zone off the coast would be a start. I don’t know if it would be an option, but using SAS/SPETNAZ/SEAL teams to attack pirates holding hostages may be a tactic.

    One other thing – there is another area where pirate activity has been a problem for quite some time – the Molucca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia. Some companies have reported to using mercenaries for protecting their ships and cargo from pirate attacks.

    As for negotiation with the Somalis – there is no unified government over there, you would have to get all parties together in the same room, and I’m sure some of the groups don’t like each other. It would be the equivalent of trying to negotiate with a small scale UN, where very little would get accomplished.

    Comment by fmfnavydoc — 11/22/2008 @ 9:54 pm

  15. Yeah! If this were the Middle East, I would be confident that once the chieftains saw which way the wind was blowing they would rush to align themselves with the winner (even if it was an occupier of their country), betraying their fellows, and jostling for ascendancy and preeminence. I don’t know that that’s the Somali ethos.

    Comment by nk — 11/23/2008 @ 8:18 am

  16. It’s amazing how little hard information there is out there about the pirates. In the news, at least. There are generalities and speculation but no names, no faces, no places for that matter. I think I’ll start a new poem:

    The Balad Of The Unknown Pirate

    Who sets ships’ captains trembling,
    Off the Somali shore?
    It’s The Unknown Pirate,
    An Outlaw Commodore.

    He might command a thousand
    Or maybe even more;
    But he’s the ruler of the sea,
    Off the Somali shore.

    Comment by nk — 11/23/2008 @ 12:15 pm

  17. Who monitors the spam filter on this thread?

    Comment by nk — 11/23/2008 @ 12:17 pm

  18. Piracy has always been a capital offense.
    They should be summarily executed, in the field, where they are (if at all) captured.

    Walking the plank would be a nice touch.

    Comment by Another Drew — 11/25/2008 @ 9:12 am

  19. (With apologies to Instapundit)

    The RIAA told me that, if we legalized cassette decks and recordable CD’s, pirates would run rampant. And they were right!

    Comment by carlitos — 11/25/2008 @ 9:32 am

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