Sometimes a Pirate is Just a Pirate

by Bennett Furlow

Somalia is finally getting some recognition.  For far too long Somalia was ignored unless someone wanted to point to an example of a failed state.  Not until 2006, when the Union of Islamic Courts effectively gained control of the southern half of the country, did Somalia make a significant return to the international news cycle.  Since then there has been

  • An Ethiopian invasion, war and withdrawal
  • The emergence of al-Shabaab (and to a lesser degree Hizbul Islam) as major Islamist forces in the country
  • A series of young Somali men from Minnesota travelling to Somalia to take up arms
  • Fears that the country will become an al-Qaeda safe haven
  • The most devastating suicide attack in Somali history in which three cabinet ministers and twenty others at a medical school graduation were killed

And then, there are those pirates.

In the most recent issue of the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, Peter Lehr wrote an article entitled Somali Piracy: The Next Iteration.  In it he does a bit of soothsaying and attempts to lay out a possible future scenario for Somalia’s pirates.  It is not a bad story at that.  Lehr suggests that Somali pirates, who have thus far been primarily interested in monetary payoffs, may soon replace their financial interests with political ones.  He gives a recent example of a demand for the release of hostages, reminiscent of the airline hijackings in the 60s and 70s, and he quotes a member of al-Shabaab referring to the pirates as “mujahideen” in a clear attempt link the pirates to the Islamist group.

Making pirates the “maritime arm” of al-Shabaab is not beyond the realm of possibility, but it is not as likely as Lehr would have us believe.  First, Lehr does not account for the political divisions within Somalia.  The northern part of the country is the semi-autonomous Somaliland which has little connection to al-Shabaab.  The north-central part of Somalia is Puntland, also semi-autonomous, and the location of the vast majority of the piracy coming out of Somalia (piracy is slowly expanding in the south and it is here that Lehr’s scenario is most plausible). The most well-known pirate attack, the seizing of the MV Maersk Alabama, was perpetrated by pirates based in Ely, a port city in northern Puntland.   It is in the southern half of the country, Somali proper, that al-Shabaab has influence.  Certainly it is true that the fates of all three sections of the country are tied to one another but the actual connection between pirates and al-Shabaab is slight to say the least.

Second, there are rumors, unsubstantiated though they may be, that the government of Puntland is receiving some of the profits from pirate activities.  This gives the pirates some cover as they don’t need to worry about any type of crackdown on their activities by the local authorities.  That may not be the case in an area governed by Islamist militants, at least for certain target vessels.  In fact in late 2008 when pirates attacked and captured the Saudi tanker MV Sirius Star, members of al-Shabaab attempted to find and free the ship because it belonged to a Muslim country.

Third, all the piracy activity has been crime-focused, not terror-focused.  Pirates do not attack passenger ships where they could potentially kill hundreds of people.  Instead they focus on goods-related cargo vessels. What this says about the price of a barrel of oil verses the price of a human being I don’t know, but the pirates have made it clear they think it is more cost effective to grab cargo ships rather than passenger ships.  The sinking of a passenger ship would be the equivalent of a maritime 9/11 and nothing like that has been attempted.

To be fair, Lehr does state that piracy is more like organized crime than it is like terrorism, he just feels the connections between the two are stronger than I think the facts warrant.

There is no question that Somalia is a complicated country with some very complicated problems, but it does no good to conflate piracy and terrorism.  Both need to be addressed by the international community but in very different ways.  Terrorism is the buzzword of the decade.  It brings to mind a very specific type of individual with a very specific type of ideology or motivation.  Pirates do not use terror to further an agenda; theirs is a strictly criminal enterprise.  Nor are they Islamists.  They have no Islamic agenda or any Qur’anic defense for their actions.

At the moment and for the foreseeable future Somali pirates will continue to hit the same type of targets for the same monetary reasons.  In true pirate fashion.  Arrr.

2 Responses to “Sometimes a Pirate is Just a Pirate”

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  1. Justin Langlois says:

    I think you are quite correct. The Somali pirates are not unlike the smugglers of the Sahara region who choose their nefarious activities due to the lack of other alternatives to make a living. Until these regions can provide friendlier means to make a living, these activities will continue to grow in popularity amongst the people. However, just like how crime continues to exist in the rest of the world, some will always choose these ways of making a living due to the large potential profits involved.

  2. ruston says:

    I agree that too often an obsession with terrorism clouds analysis of all manner of violent/criminal activity. People often find what they are looking for, even if it’s not there.

    Your claim that “Pirates do not attack passenger ships where they could potentially kill hundreds of people” might be more accurately rephrased as “pirates do not frequently attack passenger ships”. They have also not been very successful in these infrequent attacks, with the exception of the small pleasure yacht hijack/kidnappings that have taken place recently.

    There have been some unsuccessful pirate attacks on cruise ships. One in April 2009 (see: ) on an Italian cruise ship (private security defended the ship with gunfire), and a year ago a small luxury cruise liner took gunfire from Somali pirates but out ran them and escaped.

    However, I don’t think these events detract from your argument, however, given their tactics and motivations seem to be for financial not political gain. The major tactic of the pirates is small arms fire and not an attempt to sink, set fire or otherwise destroy the cruise ship and cause massive loss of life and grotesque spectacle—I think they just see it as a modern-day Spanish galleon loaded with treasure.

    The recent case (Oct 2009) of the British couple whose yacht was hijacked by Somali pirates is the model: hijacking for ransom, not hijacking for political ends.