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Fight Off, Don’t Pay Off, Pirates

Good for South Korea. Last week its commandos staged a daring assault on a freighter ship hijacked by pirates off Somalia. Eight pirates were killed, five captured. All 21 hostages were released; only one of them — the captain of the ship — was wounded.

This raid comes only a few months after the ship in question, the Samho Jewelry, was freed by Somali pirates from a previous period of captivity. South Korea reportedly paid a ransom $9.5 million — the highest ever. Ransom payments to the pirates have been going up dramatically. According to the Financial Times: “A recent study from the US-based One Earth Future foundation showed the average ransom paid to Somali pirates rose nearly 60 per cent from 2009 to 2010, reaching $5.4m. The average ransom paid in 2005 was $150,000.”

The experience of the Samho Jewelry should  confirm that paying off pirates is not a wise move. Fighting them makes more sense. After all, the Somali pirates are lightly armed; professional military forces like South Korea’s can make mincemeat of them. The problem is that most of the countries that have sent naval vessels off the coast of Somalia have been reluctant to give them the kind of robust rules of engagement that would allow them to take the fight to the pirates. Too often, even when pirates have been captured, they have been released because Somalia has no functioning courts and no other country is eager to try them. Shipping lines have operated under the assumption that it’s cheaper to cooperate with pirates than to fight them. Under those circumstances, is it any wonder that piracy has grown and grown? If the risk is low and the payoff high, it’s safe to expect that more Somalis will take to the seas to take down merchant shipping.

The key to securing this vital shipping lane is to unleash all the naval power that is already in the region. The U.S. and our allies should give our fleets shoot-on-sight orders when they detect suspected pirates — the same kind of order our troops operate under when dealing with armed insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. It would not take many gunfights, I suspect, to deter all but the most foolhardy or daring pirates from continuing with their criminal racket.


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