The Piracy Problem: Monsters vs. Aliens

Why Terrorists and Pirates Are Not About to Team Up Any Time Soon

In the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good.
The Masters of Evil battle the Avengers superhero team. The Joker and
Scarecrow ally against Batman. Lex Luthor and Brainiac take on

And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with
their hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a
dynamic evil duo against the United States and our allies. We're the
friendly monsters -- a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold --
and they're the aliens from Planet Amok.

In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the
two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of
teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz
with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates
and taking a cut of their booty. Given this "bigger picture," Fred Ikle
urges us simply to "kill the pirates." Robert Kaplan waxes
more hypothetical. "The big danger in our day is that piracy can
potentially serve as a platform for terrorists," he writes. "Using
pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle
of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of
certain nationalities thrown overboard."

Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor,
the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors
are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other's
arms. "Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves
from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim
at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the
United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, 'for private
ends,'" writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Timesop-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.

We've been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a
distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the
superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians
have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the
1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of
terrorism and piracy, it's deja vu all over again.

Misreading Piracy

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down
the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention
of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess's
claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want

Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their
traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely
transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government
proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies
moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. "To make matters
worse," Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor,
"there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali
waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels
and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the
mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of

Despite their different ideologies -- al-Qaeda has one, the pirates
don't -- it has become increasingly popular to assert a link between
radical Islam and the Somali freebooters. The militant Somali faction
al-Shabab, for instance, is allegedly in cahoots with the pirates,
taking a cut of their money and helping with arms smuggling in order to
prepare them for their raids. The pirates "are also reportedly helping
al-Shabab develop an independent maritime force so that it can smuggle
foreign jihadist fighters and 'special weapons' into Somalia," former
U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn has recently argued.

In fact, the Islamists in Somalia are no fans of piracy. The Islamic
Courts Union (ICU), which had some rough control over Somalia before
Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006, took on piracy, and the number of incidents dropped. The more militant al-Shabab, which grew out of the ICU and became an insurgent force after the Ethiopian invasion, has denounced piracy as an offense to Islam.

The lumping together of Islamists and pirates obscures the only real
solution to Somalia's manifold problems. Piracy is not going to end
through the greater exercise of outside force, no matter what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may think. (In a recent column
lamenting the death of diplomacy in an "age of pirates," he recommended
a surge in U.S. money and power to achieve success against all
adversaries.) Indeed, the sniper killing of three pirates by three U.S.
Navy Seals has, to date, merely spurred more ship seizures and

Simply escalating militarily and "going to war" against the Somali
pirates is likely to have about as much success as our last major
venture against Somalia in the 1990s, which is now remembered only for
the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Rather, the United States and other countries must find a modus vivendi with the Islamists in Somali to bring the hope of political order and economic development to that benighted country.

Diplomacy and development, however lackluster they might seem up
against a trio of dead-eyed sharpshooters, are the only real hope for
Somalia and the commercial shipping that passes near its coastline.

From the Shores of Tripoli

It would have been the height of irony if the sharpshooters who took
out the three Somali youths in that lifeboat with their American
hostage had been aboard the USS John Paul Jones,
a Navy guided-missile destroyer. Considered the father of the American
Navy, Jones was quite the pirate in his day. Or so thought the British,
whose ships he seized and looted.

We are left instead with the lesser irony of the sharpshooters taking aim from the USS Bainbridge.
This ship was named for Commodore William Bainbridge, who fought
against the Barbary pirates in the battles of Algiers and Tunis during
the Barbary Wars and was himself taken prisoner in 1803.

The parallels between the pirates of yesterday and today are striking.
Then, as now, American observers miscast the pirates as Muslim
radicals. In fact, as Frank Lambert explains in his book The Barbary Wars,
those pirates actually served secular governments that were part of the
Ottoman Empire (much as Sir Francis Drake plundered Spanish ships on
behalf of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century or Jones served the
United States in the eighteenth). Then, as now, the pirates resorted to
preying on commercial shipping because they'd been boxed out of
legitimate trade.

The Barbary pirates took to looting European vessels because European
governments had barred the states of Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco from
trading in their markets. Back then, the fledgling United States
accused the Barbary pirates of being slavers without acknowledging that
the U.S. was then the center of the global slave trade. Today, the U.S.
government decries piracy, but doesn't do anything to prevent the
maritime poaching of fishing reserves that helped push pirates from
their jobs into risky but lucrative careers in freebooting.

The most improbable link, however, involves the conflation of terrorism
and piracy. In the aftermath of September 11, pundits and historians
identified the U.S. military response to the Barbary pirates as a
useful precedent for striking out against al-Qaeda. Shortly after the
attacks, law professor Jonathan Turley invoked the war against the Barbary pirates in congressional testimony to justify U.S. retaliation against the terrorists. Historian Thomas Jewett, conservative journalist Joshua London,
and executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington State
Rick Forcier all pointed to those pirates as Islamic radicals avant la lettre to underscore the impossibility of negotiations and the necessity of war, both then and now.

The battle against the Barbary pirates led to the creation of the U.S. Marine Corps (" the shores of Tripoli")
and the first major U.S. government expenditure of funds on a military
that could fight distant wars. For historians like Robert Kagan (in his
book Dangerous Nation), that war kicked off what would be a
distinguished history of empire, which he contrasts with the
conventional wisdom of a United States that only reluctantly assumed
its hegemonic mantle.

Will the current conflict with the Somali pirates, if successfully
linked in the public mind to global terrorism, serve as one significant
part of a new justification for the continuation of empire and a whole
new set of military expenditures needed to sustain such a venture?

The New GWOT?

The United States has the most powerful navy in the world. But what
it can do against the Somali pirates is limited. Big guns and
destroyers are incapable of covering the necessary vast ocean expanses
in which the relatively low-tech pirates operate, can't respond quickly
enough to pin-prick attacks, and ultimately aren't likely to intimidate
what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has quite correctly termed "a bunch of teenage pirates" with little to lose.

"The area we patrol is more than one million square miles and the
simple fact of the matter is we just can't be everywhere at once to
prevent every attack of piracy," says Lt Nathan Christensen,
of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Last year, approximately 23,000
ships passed through the Gulf of Aden. Pirates snagged 93 of them (some
large, some tiny). Yet, in part because these trade routes are so
crucial to global economic wellbeing, this minuscule percentage struck
fear into the hearts of the most powerful countries on the planet.

The failure of the U.S. Navy to stamp out piracy has led to predictable
calls for more resources. For instance, to deal with nimble,
low-intensity threats like the speedy pirates, the Pentagon is looking
at Littoral Combat Ships instead of another several-billion-dollar
destroyer. The Navy is planning to purchase 55 of these ships, which, at $450-$600 million each, will come in at around $30 billion, a huge sum for a project plagued
with costs overruns and design problems. With the ground (and air) war
heating up in Afghanistan and the CIA in charge of operations in
Pakistan, the Navy is understandably trying to keep up with the other
services. The Navy's goal of a 313-ship force, which boosters champion regardless of cost, can only be reached by appealing to a threat comparable to terrorists on land. Why not the functional equivalent of terrorists at sea?

Pirates are the perfect threat. They've been around forever. They
directly interfere with the bottom line, so the business community is
on board. Unlike China, they don't hold any U.S. Treasury Bonds.
Indeed, since they're non-state actors, we can bring virtually every
country onto our side against them.

And, finally, the Pentagon is already restructuring itself to meet just
such a threat. Through its "revolution in military affairs," the
adoption of a doctrine of "strategic flexibility," and the cultivation
of rapid-response forces, the Pentagon has been gearing up to handle
the asymmetrical threats that have largely replaced the more fixed and
predictable threats of the Cold War era, and even of the "rogue state"
era that briefly followed. The most recent Gates military budget, with
its move away from outdated Cold War weapons systems toward more limber
forces, fits right in with this evolution. Canceling the F-22 stealth
fighter aircraft and cutting money from the Missile Defense Agency in
favor of more practical systems is certainly to be applauded. But the
Pentagon isn't about to hold a going-out-of-business sale. The new
Obama defense budget will actually rise about 4%.

George W. Bush's Global War on Terror, or GWOT, turned out to be a
useful way for the Pentagon to get everything it wanted: an
extraordinary increase in spending and capabilities after 2001. With
GWOT officially retired and an unprecedented federal deficit looming,
the Pentagon and the defense industries will need to trumpet new
threats or else face the possibility of a massive belt-tightening that
goes beyond the mere shell-gaming of resources.

The War on Terror lives on, of course, in the Obama administration's surge in Afghanistan, the CIA's campaign of drone attacks
in the Pakistani borderlands, and the operations of the new Africa
Command. However, the replacement phrase for GWOT, "overseas
contingency operations," doesn't quite fire the imagination. It's obviously not meant to. But that's a genuine problem for the military in budgetary terms.

Enter the pirates, who from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp have always been
a big box-office draw. As the recent media hysteria over the crew of
the Maersk Alabama
indicates, that formula can carry over to real life. Take Johnny Depp
out of the equation and pirates can simply be repositioned as bizarre,
narcotics-chewing aliens.

Then it's simply a matter of the United States calling together the
coalition of the willing monsters to crush those aliens before they
take over our planet. And you thought "us versus them" went out with
the Bush administration...

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023