On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Somalia and Public-Private Anti-Piracy Measures (July 14, 2014)

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This fascinating discussion of the severe drop-off in pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean (particularly off the coast of the Horn of Africa) has made me think quite a bit about how harmoniously private interests and state organizations can work when money is at stake and violence is fair game. For many years, as this Wikipedia discussion shows, both the politics and geography of Somalia (and its region) have made it a haven for pirates: with over 3,000 kilometers of Somalia being coastline, and with the profoundly destabilized and decentralized government of Somalia allowing for relatively easy weapons trafficking (including imports from Yemeni weapons dealers), money laundering, hiding places, and relatively undisturbed sites for holding ships and their cargo for ransom (see the Mike Pflanz article on basic pirate necessities). As Pflanz’s article details, piracy has been kept at a minimum in the area for about two years, primarily due to increased security measures that stem from both private contractors and state agents, with American and Russian navies exploiting their economies’ mutual reliance on the oil trade to inspire effective cooperation in the region.

            Ransom has probably always played a major role in human interaction. In the Western Middle Ages, ransom was not even something exercised merely by what we would call pirates, but was woven into the very fabric of standard warfare: any medieval military conflict featured the taking of prisoners to procure ransom, with military expertise including having the ability to recognize which opponents on a  battlefield would be ransomable. While we might associate ransom merely with criminal gangs or with violent peoples whose primary economic activity was through robbery and kidnapping, we would—as far as the Western Middle Ages is concerned—be entirely wrong. And this only become more obvious in the early modern period, with such notable state-supported pirates as Francis Drake playing a role in the rise of states that recognized the need to secure some degree of control over key shipping lanes and ports.

             Somali piracy seems a lot closer to the sophisticated sort seen in early and pre-modern Europe, making the sophisticated security measures brought to bear on it seem highly appropriate. As this Economist analysis on Somali piracy makes clear, Somali piracy is highly sophisticated, involving complex financing, discipline, and the negotiation of transnational market and currency practices. The response to such a sophisticated ring has been appropriately sophisticated, involving both the individual and coordinated actions of state-based agencies from around the world (and you can get a good sense of the wide range of these groups in this MARAD [US Maritime Administration] report, as well as the intense range of one state’s many interventions in this Japanese Ministry of Defense report, http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/somalia/ ), as well as a wide range of private security measures funded by shipping (especially oil) interests (see Ben Quinn’s Guardian analysis of British mercenaries in the security trade, Dan Harris and Dan Lieberman’s ABC news survey of the effects of such measures, Christopher Spearin’s discussion of private anti-piracy measures and their links with Canada, and Peter Chalk’s essay on the context for counter-piracy measures).

            It is intriguing to me that, even as the terrestrial Middle East is being massively destabilized by ISIS and its geographically unsettling efforts to destroy borders and establish an expansive caliphate, and even as Ukraine and Russia are rewriting their borders in a violent and unrelenting chaos throughout eastern Ukraine, the Persian Gulf and other parts of the Indian Ocean in proximity to the Somali Coast are becoming more stable. Will this tense harmony of state and private security measures become the norm in this transnational maritime space? Or is it, as Alan Cole of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says here, simply a matter of time before the cost-cutting instincts of the business world will lessen security measures and open the door—or should I say floodgates—to a new wave of piracy? The fascinating patchwork of state, state-based, and private organizations and firms, combined with the immense savviness and maritime skill of the Somali pirate networks, ensures that this will remain a very rich subject to examine.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

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