Factors Accounting For Piracy – The RAND Corporation Weighs In On Piracy In Somalia

John Konrad
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February 11, 2009

Congress - Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation

Last week the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held hearings on the state of International Piracy On The High Seas. Along with the usual speach with Q&A session (Video Link) was excellent written testimony from well known figures in maritime security including  Rear Admiral William D. Baumgartner USCG, Giles Noakes BIMCO and Peter Swift, INTERTANKO. The testimony of most interest however  was that of Peter Chalk, Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation.While all of the testimony was worth reading, it was Chalk’s unbiased eye that caught our attention. How do we know it’s unbiased?  Well you won’t find the following statement in INTERTANKO‘s testimony:

At the outset I would like to stress one main point: piracy is, above all, an economically driven phenomenon. This is true both with respect to those who engage in the practice – profit being the main objective – and those against whom attacks are directed, ship owners – where the desire to keep operating costs as low as possible has frequently outweighed imperatives for more concerted on-board security.

We encourage everyone interested in the topic to read his full report (Click HERE) but for those with limited time here is the part of most interest;

Factors Accounting for the Emergence of Piracy in the Contemporary Era

Piracy has traditionally been “fed” by two underlying drivers, which when taken together, have
provided an almost limitless range of vulnerable targets from which to choose: the enormous
volume of commercial freight that moves by sea; and the necessity of ships to pass through
congested (and ambush-prone) maritime choke points such as the Panama Canal, Suez Canal,
the Straits of Hormuz, Strait of Bab el-Mandab, the Malacca Straits and the Bosphorous Straits.
The emergence of piracy in the contemporary era age reflects the continued salience of these
basic causal variables in addition to at least seven other contributory factors:

First has been a growing trend toward the use of “skeleton crews,” both as a cost-cutting
measure and as a reflection of more advanced navigation technology. Although this reduced
manning is undoubtedly more efficient, the smaller number of sailors now found on board many
vessels has reduced the options for concerted anti-piracy watches and has made the task of
gaining control of ships that much easier.

Second, the general difficulties associated with maritime surveillance have been significantly
heightened as a result of 9/11 and the concomitant pressure exerted on many governments to
invest in expensive land-based homeland security initiatives. This has further reduced what in
many cases are already limited resources for monitoring territorial waters.

Third, lax coastal and port-side security have played an important role in enabling low-level pirate
activity, especially harbor thefts against ships at anchor. Problems of this sort have been
particularly evident in Brazil, East Africa and across South and Southeast Asia. In many cases
there is either no functioning maritime police presence at all or the units in place are devoid of
adequate staff, boats, equipment and training.

Fourth, corruption and easily compromised judicial structures have encouraged official complicity
in high-level pirate rings. The nature of this involvement has been extensive, ranging from
providing intelligence on ship movements and locations to helping with the rapid discharge of
stolen cargoes.

Fifth, the endemic anarchic situation in Somalia has directly contributed to the rampant scale of
piracy that we are currently seeing being witnessed off the Horn of Africa. With no sovereign
government in place, gangs have virtual free-run of the area, enjoying widespread latitude to
enforce “rules” that further and protect their own vested interests.

Sixth, the ready willingness of shipowners to pay increasingly large sums of money for the return
of their vessels and cargoes has provided added incentive to engage in maritime crime. Somali
pirates are projected to have netted at least $20 million in ransoms last year, with the negotiated
deal for the release of the Saudi-registered Sirius Star allegedly running to an unprecedented $3
million. For many gangs, the prospect of windfall profits such as these far outweighs any
attendant risk of being caught or otherwise confronted by naval and coast guard patrol boats.

Finally, the global proliferation of small arms has provided pirates (as well as terrorists and other
criminal elements) with an enhanced means to operate on a more destructive and sophisticated
level. Originating from a variety of sources in Africa, Asia and Europe, these munitions include
everything from pistols, light/heavy caliber machine guns and automatic assault rifles to anti-ship
mines, hand-held mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Most commentators generally agree
that the availability of weapons such as these, most of which are readily transportable, easy to
handle, cheap and durable, is one of the main underlying causes that has contributed to the
growing level of violence that has come to typify piracy in recent years.

Read Peter Chalk’s testemony HERE and the RAND Corporation’s full report on piracy HERE.

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