The American Legion Magazine | 5.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd

We all know about Captain Kidd and Blackbeard—pirates who became legends for their exploits on the high seas. Today, the pantheon of piracy includes the likes of Abdi Wali Dire, a Somali recently convicted, along with four others, in a U.S. court on federal piracy charges.

Dire made the mistake of attacking the frigate USS Nicholas, thinking it was a merchant ship. His conviction is just one example of the international community’s well-intentioned but hamstrung effort to fight the new/old problem of piracy. It reminds us of how much has changed since the days of Blackbeard—and how much remains the same. Now, as then, piracy is a costly and deadly problem that won’t be solved in a courtroom.


Just how old is the plague of piracy? In his book Piracy: The Complete History, Angus Konstam notes that the first identifiable pirate group—the Lukkans—came on the scene in the 14th century BC.[i]

All great powers have had to deal with piracy. Rameses III, for instance, eliminated the pirate threat to Egypt some 3,000 years ago. “The Athenian navy,” Konstam observes, “devoted much time and effort to clearing pirates from the Aegean.”[ii] When Rome emerged as the primary Mediterranean power, Konstam details how Pompey the Great employed a massive military force of 500 ships, 120,000 troops and “the equivalent today of half the U.S. budget and armed forces” to fight piracy. Pompey sank 500 pirate ships, razed 120 coastal bases and killed 10,000 pirates. “The whole operation lasted approximately three months,” Konstam reports.[iii]

Donald Puchala of the University of South Carolina notes that “wars against piracy” were waged in the 15th century in the Baltic and North Seas, and in the Caribbean between 1500 and 1750. “Might did in fact repeatedly set things right,” Puchala explains. “Reluctance to use countervailing force tended only to encourage the pirates.” He adds that piracy has historically been combated “by a single major power, frequently the hegemon of the era.”[iv]

Before the U.S. Navy played that role, Britain protected the world’s sea lanes. English jurist William Blackstone, in the 1700s, noted that since the pirate has declared “war against all mankind, all mankind must declare war against him.”

The problem was, and is, that all mankind can’t always agree on what defines piracy, let alone how to combat it. So, as Puchala explains, “the British government decided to take international law into its own hands,”[v] unilaterally outlawed piracy and set about the task of clearing the seas of what Cicero once labeled hostis humani generis or “enemies of the human race.”

America’s Oldest Enemy

From the very beginning of the Republic, these enemies have targeted U.S. shipping. It pays to recall that the Barbary States in northern Africa required ships traveling near their waters to pay tribute to guarantee safe passage. In fact, when George Washington was inaugurated, as Donald Chidsey observes in The Wars in Barbary, Americans were being held hostage by Barbary pirates. And as Gerard Gawalt of the Library of Congress details, in 1795 alone, the U.S. paid almost a million dollars in tribute and naval stores to ransom 115 sailors.[vi]

Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed this policy of appeasement, and he overturned it once he became president. He initially advocated an anti-piracy coalition not unlike today’s Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151), a multi-national armada that patrols the waters around Somalia. But major European powers failed to rally around Jefferson’s proposal, and so he opted to take the fight to the enemy, declaring, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.”[vii]

Skirmishes, battles and full-scale invasions followed—Chidsey calls it “the great pummeling”—until a series of U.S. victories finally forced the Barbary States to sign treaties, ending decades of attacks against U.S. shipping. Puchula adds that “it was France that finally removed the menace,” sending 37,000 troops to conquer and occupy Algiers.[viii]

Between 1801 and 1855, U.S. forces carried out counter-piracy missions in Tripoli, Algiers, Greece, Ivory Coast, Hong Kong and Sumatra.[ix]After what President Andrew Jackson called “an act of atrocious piracy” against a U.S. merchant ship in the waters around Sumatra, he deployed the USS Potomac, disguised as a Dutch merchant ship, “to inflict such chastisement as would deter them and others from like aggressions.” A force of Marines killed 150 pirates and destroyed the Sumatran pirate nest.[x]

Back in this hemisphere, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that there were 3,000 pirate attacks in the Caribbean between 1815 and 1823. The U.S. Navy responded in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish Florida and the Yucatan.[xi] Konstam notes that President James Monroe even created an “anti-pirate squadron.”[xii]

Closer to our times, President Ronald Reagan dealt with a kind of latter-day Barbary piracy, when Libya declared the Gulf of Sidra as its own, in violation of international law. In response, the U.S. Navy repeatedly engaged the Libyan navy and air force, to deadly effect. In 1985, Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to intercept and divert an Egyptian airliner carrying Palestinian terrorists who had pirated theAchille Lauro and murdered an American.[xiii]

In 2009, after Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama and took its captain hostage, President Barack Obama authorized Navy SEAL snipers to neutralize the pirates.


That brings us to 21st-century piracy. To be sure, piracy is a global problem, affecting international shipping in the Malacca Straits, South China Sea, West Africa and even South America. However, the pirate plague is hitting the waters around the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden especially hard. These waters account for as much as 40 percent of pirate attacks worldwide, according to CRS.[xiv] The International Maritime Organization reports that pirates operating in this area attacked 164 ships in the first nine months of 2010.[xv] There were 214 pirate attacks in 2009, 111 in 2008, 55 in 2007. Somali pirates are currently holding 476 people captive.[xvi]

As the number of attacks increases, so does the cost of piracy. The costs include lost cargo, damaged ships, delivery delays, ransom payments and increased insurance rates. CRS reports that insurers are charging extra premiums of up to $20,000 per trip through the Gulf of Aden. To avoid the pirates and the insurance costs, some cargo lines are choosing alternate routes, increasing total distance traveled by as much as 38 percent. Other shippers are sending goods by air, which costs up to 10 times as much as seaborne transport. Add it all up, and the cost of piracy may be as high as $16 billion annually.[xvii]These “piracy surcharges” are passed on to consumers.

Yet many cargo lines are literally taking their chances, calculating that the costs of countermeasures—such as traveling via safe corridors or deploying onboard defenses—outweigh the risks of being captured by pirates. According to a U.S. government report, a vessel runs just a 0.167-percent chance of being attacked by pirates in and around the Gulf of Aden.[xviii]

Another cost of piracy is human life. Not only are crewmen killed by pirates, but piracy off the Horn of Africa impedes the delivery of vital food aid to the starving people of East Africa.  

Finally, piracy poses a real, albeit indirect, threat to U.S. national security. In 2008, pirates hijacked a Kenya-bound freighter loaded with dozens of T-72 battle tanks. In 2010, they captured a tanker carrying poisonous chemicals. The worrisome reality is this: Men willing to commit piracy have no qualms about selling their plunder to the highest bidder.


One of the reasons that piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast is more difficult to combat than earlier outbreaks of piracy is related to how far these modern pirates operate from land. Using large ships to spawn dozens of smaller, high-speed boats, many Somali pirates conduct attacks a thousand miles out to sea.

Another reason is lawlessness on land. It’s no coincidence that the pirate plague is raging in the waters between the failed state of Somalia and the nearly-failed state of Yemen. Some, like UN official Antonio Maria Costa, argue that “the war on piracy must start on land”—and there’s certainly merit to that.[xix]Throughout history, according to Puchala, pirate crews have been drawn “from the ranks of unemployed youth, from poor peasants and town-dwellers who faced otherwise bleak futures.” That’s a fairly accurate description of modern-day Somalia.

However, in light of the UN’s failed nation-building efforts in Somalia in the 1990s and almost a decade of costly nation-building in Afghanistan in the 2000s, Washington has no interest in a new round of nation-building today. So, for now, the United States and other responsible nations must focus on targeting the symptoms of this plague: the pirates themselves.   

Yet the international community has been hesitant to apply the one cure known to work against piracy, which, as the history detailed above reminds us, is deadly force.

Instead, the United States and its allies have formed ad hoc counter-piracy flotillas like CTF 151 that focus largely on escorting merchant ships, deterring pirate activity through shows of force, creating safe corridors and apprehending pirates. According to a Reuters report, the European Union’s counter-piracy effort entails confiscating the pirates’ weapons and the ladders they use to board ships “and leaving them with only enough petrol to get back to shore.”[xx]

That’s hardly a deterrent to piracy, but it’s indicative of how the international community is responding to this problem.

  • The documentary TV program “U.S. Navy: Pirate Hunters” captures the futility of the anti-piracy coalition’s constrictive rules of engagement—and the frustration it causes among U.S. forces. Sailors aboard the USS Gettysburg jokingly call their ship “Hotel Gettysburg” due to the generous hospitality they offer captured Somali pirates, who are usually released. Regrettably, assault teams returning from intercepting pirate skiffs and boats have been conditioned to say things like, “We’ve got enough to prosecute them.”[xxi]
  • Countries with warships deployed to the counter-piracy mission have signed agreements with Kenya to process and prosecute captured pirates.[xxii] However, of the 136 pirates sent to Kenya since 2007, only 18 have been convicted.[xxiii] Worse, a top Kenyan magistrate, declaring that Kenyan courts have no jurisdiction over pirates arrested in international waters, recently ordered the release of several pirates caught by U.S. and German forces. The allies now fear that up to half of the pirates handed over to Kenya may be released.[xxiv]
  • Even when they make it to trial, the pirates turn the proceedings into a farce. After using RPGs to attack a Dutch-flagged cargo ship in 2009, Somali pirates were captured by Danish marines, taken to the Netherlands to stand trial and promptly claimed that the Dutch cargo ship had attacked them. The Somalis were found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, but now EU officials are worried about convicted pirates seeking asylum after serving their sentences.
  • A more common outcome when allied naval forces encounter pirates is temporary detention and release. Peter Pham of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies reports that nearly 60 percent of the 706 pirates intercepted by the counter-piracy armada during a 16-month period in 2008-09 were released. Eleven were killed. The rest were handed over for prosecution.[xxv] Costa adds that 600 pirates had been released as of June 2010.  
  • Although Dire and his partners were found guilty of piracy, U.S. courts have dismissed other cases involving Somali pirates on technicalities.[xxvi]

Something Better

This is a far cry from how our forebears dealt with piracy. The common denominator of successful counter-piracy campaigns is the use of military force not simply to apprehend pirates, but to target and destroy them, their vessels and their bases.

That may be too uncivilized for the 21st century, but surely there is something better than today’s catch-and-release arrangement.

[i]Angus Konstam, Piracy: The Complete History, p.10.

[ii]Konstam, p.13.

[iii]Konstam, p.22.

[iv] Donald Puchala, “Of pirates and terrorists: what experience and history teach,” Contemporary Security Policy, April 2005.

[v] Puchala.

[vi] Gerard Gawalt, “America and the Barbary Pirates: An international battle against an unconventional foe,” Library of Congress, September 10, 2010.

[vii] Gawalt


[ix] CRS, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2008, February 2, 2009.

[x] Daniel Sekulich, Terror on the Seas, pp.130-131.

[xi] CRS, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2008, February 2, 2009.

[xii]Konstam, pp.277-278.

[xiii] CRS, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2008, February 2, 2009.

[xiv] CRS, Piracy off the Horn of Africa, September 28, 2009, p4.

[xv] John Vandiver, “Successful pirate attacks off Somalia on the rise, U.N. says,” Stars and Stripes, November 4, 2010.

[xvi] Isabel Coles, “Somali pirates widen reach despite EU efforts,” Reuters, December 7, 2010.

[xvii] CRS, p.12.

[xviii]Stephanie Nall, The Costs of Piracy Are Passed Along, america.gov, June 1, 2009.

[xix]Antonio Maria Costa, “The war on piracy must start on land,” New York Times, June 8, 2010.

[xx] Coles.

[xxi] “U.S. Navy Pirate Hunters,” air date June 24, 2010, http://www.spike.com/full-episode/us-navy-pirate/38754.

[xxii] Peter Pham, “Anti-piracy, adrift,” Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2010.

[xxiii] Toby Sterling, “Dutch court sentences five Somali pirates to five years,” AP, June 17, 2010.

[xxiv] Mike Pflanz, “Legal loophole could see half of all Somali piracy suspects walk free,” London Telegraph, November 10, 2010.

[xxv] Pham.

[xxvi] Keith Johnson, “US Judge dismisses piracy charges against six Somalis,” Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2010.