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Ships Need Protection from Pirates

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Fighting pirates was one of the first challenges the United States ever faced, and the similarities between our earliest days as a nation and the situation today are surprising. 

Wyn Rolands was aboard the MSC Melody when hijackers attacked the ship just north of the Seychelles. A 63 year old Brit from Bangor-on-Dee in Wales picked up a deck-chair and flung it down at the armed pirates before raising the alarm. He was the first person on the ship to see what was happening and he took immediate action.

Captain Ciro Pinto sprung ito action, along with the team of armed Israeli security agents who returned the fire coming from the small boat. “It felt like war,” Pinto later said about the incident where both sides exchanged fire until the captain was able to maneuver the vessel away from the small white boat. The hijackers follwed the ship for about 20 minutes, continuing to fire sporadically.

This is just the latest incident of attempted piracy on a cruise ship in these waters, with two other incidents already in 2009. Fortunately, each ship was able to out-maneuver and outrun its assilants each time. But now shipping companies are saying they want more protection, either with the international right to carry arms, or by government intervention and protection in these waters.

Testifying before the U.S. Congress yesterday, Philip Shapiro of Liberty Maritime Corp. owners of the Maersk Alabama, said that an 1819 statute (after the second Barbary War) gives ships the right to self-defense, but modern laws forbid armed ships from docking at certain locations. These conflicting laws have ship owners between hell and high water.

“We’re doing everything we lawfully can do, but … it is apparent to everybody that we need to do more,” Shapiro said. “We need the authority to put guns on our ships, to arm our ships, so that our people can be protected,” Shapiro said.

That the MSC Melody was well protected when it was attacked proved to be pivotal in avoiding the hijacking. Original reports said the captain had handed out handguns to trained crewmembers, but later is was revealed that the ship was carrying trained Israeli marine guards who had boarded in the Seychelles and were dropped off in Sharm al Sheik on the Sinai Peninsula.

It was a military Spanish Frigate that later apprehended the nine pirates and took them into custody. Just as in the case of the Maersk Alabama, it was shown that having military in the area is not enough. The Alabama had its captain taken hostage and held in a tense standoff with U.S. Navy Seals that last nearly three days before he was recovered.

Still, the U.S. government and others have stated the zone of danger where these pirates are operating is far to big to ensure the safety of the great number of ships that use this shipping channel. The Gulf of Aden encompasses more than 1 million square miles — roughly four times the size of Texas but it cannot be avoided because the Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea with the other side of the African continent.

Shapiro told Congress yesterday, “these incidents constitute a game changer and Congress needs to clear the obstacles that stand in the way of ship operators protecting their crews and cargo with armed force.”

Indeed, assigning military security to every U.S. merchant vessels in the area would put a “large dent” in the Navy’s capacity and funding, said Vice Adm. James Winnefeld. So arming the ships is the only other option short of hoping the passive evasive maneuvers will continue to work, which doesn’t seem likely. These pirates are usually armed with AK-47 automatic rifles and even rocket propelled grenade launchers. When MSC Melody was attacked there were reports of several windows being shot out by the attackers.

What was the result of the hearings? Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) compared onboard armed security to a shopping mall and said final responsibility for protecting the ships belongs in the private sector.

“We expect folks to provide their own security,” Levin said. “Why should we not expect that ships that are vulnerable going into that area will provide their own security personnel?”

Undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy said it is the responsibility of the shipping companies to invest in methods to thwart attacks, and that many so far have been reluctant to adequately do so.

“Although pirate activity has doubled so far in 2009, pirates still attack only a small number of ships — less than half a percent of the more than 33,000 that sail around the Horn of Africa each year,” Flournoy said. “In most cases, crews foil marauders by using evasive or defensive actions.”

“The government could only possibly advocate an onboard armed security force for the most vulnerable ships — those that ride ‘low and slow,’ making them easy prey for pirates in skiffs to pull alongside and commandeer ,” she continued.

By all appearances, our government is recommending that ship companies arm themselves. Some people believe that ships arming themselves will lead to an arms race between the hijackers and the shipping companies, but I wonder if that isn’t inevitable anyway.

After all, didn’t Congress just tip our hand to the pirates that the military does not intend to take a more aggressive approach? At this point, the pirates have a green light to try even harder to commandeer these ships, as far as a military response is concerned. It looks like the shipping companies have little choice but to follow the advice of and start arming themselves.

I would prefer a military solution, however, and I can’t help thinking about the Barbary Wars. In 1801 the United States defended itself against several pirates states operating along the North Coast of Africa, from Morocco to Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Each was a quasi-independent state belonging to the all powerful Ottoman Empire. This is a much larger area than the coast off of Somlia.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. The ambassador replied with a long speech about pirates being rewarded in Heaven with “the first to board receiving one slave over and above his share” in the afterlife.

Jefferson reported to Congress that paying tribute would only encourage more attacks. Still, nothing was done for many years and payments in ransom and tribute to privateering states amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800.

When Jefferson was inaugurated as President these pirate states demanded $225,000 in tribute from the new administration. The pirates got the Barbary War instead, which led to the creation of the Marines division of the Navy. The war ended in something of a stalemate where the U.S. paid $60,000 in ransom to free 300 American prisoners.

Piracy continued until 1815 when a second Barbary War ensued. In this war we were joined by Great Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands. This war ended in victory and ushered in the era of colonization by the European powers.

What are the lessons here? That history repeats itself, that war is a very difficult solution but that government intervention in the end turned out to be the only solution. Paying booty to pirates does not end piracy. In other words, this thing is likely to escalate no matter what and ships are going to continue to seek protection. Future updates as they occur.

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Comment from Yodesh
Time May 7, 2009 at 1:04 am

Piracy would always reign on these waters because the rewards from doing it is much greater than the risk. It is a big shame that the local governments let their youth into doing such things. More often than not, these youngsters are pressed into piracy because of the conditions of their surroundings.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time September 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Once in awhile they do maintenance on the server, but it should be about as fast as any web site.

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