July 20, 2019


The lyrics of the U.S. Marine Corps hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. We fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea” honor the Marines’ daring trek across the Libyan desert in 1805 to free the captured Navy frigate, the USS Philadelphia, and its 307-man crew from Barbary pirates.

That was one success among many failures in a long struggle against Mediterranean piracy that was sponsored by Morocco and the city-states of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli. A weekend Wall Street Journal article recalled that in 1785 Tripoli’s pasha demanded from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson a payment of $1 million – one-tenth of the national budget – to suspend the hijacking and kidnapping of American ships and crews. With no navy at the time, the American leaders let ship owners follow the classic European custom of paying “tribute” – bribing the pirates in return for safe passage.

In 1795, President James Madison sent a fleet under Commodore Stephen Decatur to subdue the Barbary states. Regular patrolling by U.S. and European navies finally ended that threat to international commerce.

Two centuries later, African pirates are active again, this time off the Somali coast in the continent’s easternmost tip. So far this year, they have made 120 attempts and succeeded in seizing 36 ships including the Saudi Aramco supertanker Sirius Star loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil. The International Maritime Bureau says pirates now hold hostage more than a dozen ships and 280 seamen in Somalia. Insurance rates are climbing and some shipping is avoiding the dangerous waters by taking the long route around Africa.

The good news about this present infestation is that the pirates are not state sponsored. Bad news includes the fact that many ship owners are still paying millions of dollars in ransom – a practice that just makes piracy more profitable and attractive. A Greek-owned tanker hijacked in September has just been released, but the Greek government says the owners won’t give details, including whether they paid ransom. It seems obvious that they did.

Worse is the fact that Somalia is in the midst of a long Islamist insurgency countered by U.S. airstrikes. Many of the hijackings take place within Somalia’s 12-mile limit and thus out of reach of naval patrols.

The United Nations Security Council has authorized enlarged naval patrols to protect shipping. But Refugees International, a nongovernmental advocacy group, condemns what it calls global hypocrisy, saying that the world has reacted quickly to piracy for financial motives but has failed to tackle a major humanitarian crisis that has killed 10,000 civilians since 2007, created more than 1 million internal refugees, caused 400,000 Somalis to flee abroad and left 3 million Somalis in need of food aid.

A stable, peaceful Somalia would cooperate in suppressing poverty. A humanitarian aid program would be a logical counterpart to naval patrols and anti-terrorism strikes.

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