The Great Pirate Conspiracy

Despite implications to the contrary, piracy’s impact on shipping, freedom of the seas, and U.S. interests appears negligible.

Maybe some people long for a story that’s easily embellished and that few will challenge. Maybe in this age of “terrorism,” “extremism,” and the improvised explosive device, people want a rogue and scoundrel — like a pirate.

The reality is that piracy impacts less than 1 percent of shipping. In the Gulf of Aden, that “hotbed” of pirate activity bordered by the tourist destinations of Somalia, Yemen, and Djibouti, between 20,000 and 33,000 ships transit each year. (The International Maritime Bureau cites the lower tally and the U.S. Navy reports the higher figure.) In 2008, there were 122 piracy incidents, according to the Navy. Using the 33,000 figure, that amounts to just .37 percent of overall traffic in this area. Of those, 42 incidents, or 38 percent, were successful, but that puts the overall success rate for the pirates at .13 percent of ships available. Even at 20,000 transits, the odds are a ship will steam unchallenged by high-seas bandits.

Keeping the sea lanes open and safe is a Navy mission, but law enforcement engagements, well … enter the lawyers. Piracy is an economic crime and a law enforcement issue with a tremendous web of legal challenges. Some of those legal questions are confronted as they present themselves, as with the rules of evidence as they relate to apprehended pirates.

On Jan. 8, the U.S. stood up Combined Task Force 151 to patrol 1.1 million square miles in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea. Looking at the statistics outlined in brief above, the U.S. response is interesting. Many of the 14 or so other nations patrolling the region with their whopping 20 or so ships have gone on record agreeing that the solution to Somali piracy is land-based. But Somalia is a failed state. It has been nearly 20 years since this East Africa nation has had a functioning government. Given the U.S. military’s deadly foray on the ground there more than a decade ago, chances are U.S. forces have no plans to return anytime soon.

So why do so many report piracy as an unprecedented challenge when figures (and history) show otherwise?

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