How to Fight Somalia's Pirates

In the last year, Somalia's pirates have attacked 120 vessels in the Gulf of Aden, choking commerce in a critical shipping lane (the transit route for 20 percent of the world's oil), blocking aid supplies and driving up transport costs. There are two ways to stop such attacks: restore the rule of law to Somalia, the epitome of a failed state, or blockade the country, searching every vessel that leaves its shores. One of these solutions would be hard to implement. The other is quite realistic—yet outside governments have refused to try.

The last few weeks have shown how hard it will be to defeat the pirates on the high seas, which seems like the international community's approach. When British Marines tried to board a captured fishing dhow on Nov. 11, they had to go in with guns blazing and killed one possible hostage in the process. A week later, an Indian warship opened fire on what it thought was a pirate mother ship. But the target turned out to be a Thai fishing vessel. The pirates escaped, and 15 of 16 crew members were lost. When pirates seized their most valuable prize ever on Nov. 15—the Sirius Star supertanker holding 2 million barrels of Saudi crude—everyone kept their distance.

As this suggests, Somalia's seaborne bandits are making a mockery of all efforts to stop them. The region is currently patrolled by Task Force 150, made up of the navies of 20 nations under overall U.S. command. At any given time, there are 12 to 15 warships in the area, plus aerial reconnaissance and extra U.S. and Russian warcraft shadowing the MV Faina, a Ukrainian freighter captured in September with 33 battle tanks onboard.

Yet pirates have only increased their efforts, ranging across an area bigger than the Mediterranean. The Sirius Star was taken 450 nautical miles southeast of Kenya, and with it, the Somalis now hold 300 hostages and 15 ships. Fourteen others have been released for ransom this year. Total payoffs in 2008 topped seven figures, and the pirates have demanded $25 million for the Sirius Star alone (its cargo is worth four times that).

Yet allied navies oppose the one tactic that might stop all this. "Blockade is an act of war," says U.S. Navy spokesperson Cmdr. Jane Campbell. "Even a quarantine situation, there would be an incredible resource draw needed to do that. The Somali coastline is roughly the [length] of the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S."

That's true, but Somalia's internationally recognized transitional government has invited foreign navies to do what's necessary to stop the pirates, even attacking them ashore if need be. The Security Council has affirmed that option. Moreover, nearly all of Somalia's pirates come from one region (Puntland), live in a single town (Boosaaso) and stash captured vessels in one of three ports (Eyl, Hobyo or Haradhere)—making interdiction that much easier. Andrew Linington of Nautilus UK, a seaman's union that has had many of its members taken hostage, says the international community "knows where the pirates are, they know the ports they use, they know the mother ships. [Stopping them] could be done," he says. But that would be expensive at a time when U.S. resources are tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. Navy recently recommended that merchant ships arm themselves—an idea that's proved unpopular with sailors afraid it will only provoke pirates to greater violence. The Navy also points out that piracy affects less than 1 percent of the 16,000 vessels to pass through the Gulf of Aden each year. This overlooks the fact that the pirates managed to force the World Food Program to suspend grain deliveries last year, before Canada agreed to have its warships escort the transports at great expense. And in another sign of rising costs, a major Norwegian shipping company just announced that it will begin sailing around the Cape of Good Hope rather than going through the Suez Canal—which will double freight charges.

Linington of Nautilus UK complains that "if we were seeing aircraft attacked at the rate of 1 percent, it would have taken no time to respond." And he fears that it will take a major calamity—"an ecological disaster" or the death of "thousands of people in a passenger liner"—before the international community changes direction.

Such an event no longer seems unlikely: the pirates have given the Saudis 10 days to ransom the Sirius Star, warning reporters by satellite phone that "otherwise we will take action that could be disastrous." That could mean deliberately spilling the supertanker's cargo, which would cause an environmental crisis 10 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

The one way to prevent all this would be to make sure pirates never set sail in the first place. That may sound like a daunting task. Yet Britain successfully blockaded France, with a coastline 400 nautical miles longer than Somalia's, for more than a decade—and that was 200 years ago, using sailing vessels and signal flags. The allied fleet off Somalia today has nuclear-powered warships, aircraft and unmanned drones, radar and sonar at its command. So how hard could it be?