Wall Street, Somalia, and Jack Sparrow

03/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Feffer Director, Foreign Policy In Focus and Editor, LobeLog

Here's the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean 4. The film opens with Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow dropping anchor in New York harbor. He descends on Wall Street with his mates and, after a quick costume change at Brooks Brothers, storms the boardrooms of Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, and other major firms. They don't need sabers to rake in the haul. Jack's a clever pirate. He takes advantage of the tools at hand. Applying mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, Jack seizes billions of dollars in booty. He distributes huge bonuses to his crew for a job well done. And just before the government steps in to clean up the mess, the pirates scramble back to their ship and set sail.

Quick question: why are more than a dozen of the world's navies converging on Somalia to battle pirates there instead of sailing into New York to capture the Wall Street pirates? Surely the global economy would be made more secure by forcing former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, who doled out $4 billion in executive bonuses even as his company was collapsing, to walk the gangplank than by cracking down on the bands of privateers in the Horn of Africa.

"Pirate," like "terrorist," has always been a slippery term to define. Just as the British considered George Washington a terrorist rather than a freedom fighter, they portrayed John Paul Jones as a pirate rather than a naval hero. After the Revolutionary War, the shoe was on the other foot when the United States fought several pitched battles with the "Barbary pirates." These fearsome vessels, however, were not really pirate ships. Rather, they worked on behalf of several Barbary states that were part of the Ottoman empire. As Frank Lambert writes in The Barbary Wars, Algeria, Tripoli, and Morocco preferred traditional commerce and resorted to piracy largely because European powers refused to open their markets. If terrorism is the weapon of those on the political margins, piracy is the weapon of those on the economic margins.

Fast forward to the latest piracy news. The newspapers have been full of stories about gangs preying on vessels passing through the Suez Canal and near the Somali coast. They seized dozens of ships last year -- including a Saudi tanker with $100 million worth of crude oil that yielded a $3 million ransom -- with the help of fast boats, GPS, and submachine guns. The pirates are currently negotiating for a comparable ransom before releasing a Ukrainian vessel that has 33 Russian tanks, heavy artillery, and grenade launchers.

As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Rubrick Biegon points out, the Somali pirates did not start out as Jack Sparrows. "Piracy in Somalia began because traditional coastal fishing became difficult after foreign fishing trawlers depleted local fish stocks," he writes in Somalia Piracy and the International Response. "Desperate fishermen started attacking trawlers until the trawler crews fought back with heavy weapons, leading the local fishermen to turn to other types of commercial vessels. The pirates prefer to call themselves the Somali 'coast guard,' noting that, prior to the recent spate of hijackings, they organized themselves to defend their communities from overfishing and, according to several accounts, to protect Somalia's coastline from toxic dumping by foreign vessels."

Piracy blossomed in Somalia after Ethiopia invaded in 2006 with U.S. support and deposed the Islamic Courts Union. "Under the Courts, there was literally no piracy," observes one maritime security expert. "While many Somalis disapproved of some of the more fundamentalist ways of the original courts, most felt that they were well organized, disciplined, and effective civil administrators who had certainly provided Somalia with its first semblance of order and leadership since 1991," write FPIF contributors Gerald LeMelle and Michael Stulman in Africa Policy Outlook 2009.

The anti-piracy campaign, argues FPIF contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt, is a giant red herring. "Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December 2006, backed by the United States, sparked an Islamist resistance that led to thousands of civilian deaths, displaced over a million people, and depopulated the capital, Mogadishu," he writes in Somalia: Waiting for Obama. "But instead of focusing on the aftermath of this crisis and helping foster a peace process, the United States, European Union, and other international actors are engaged in the more dramatic and media-friendly anti-piracy campaign."

Hussein Yusuf disagrees. "Somalia poses a grave danger to the United States and the Horn of Africa today," the FPIF contributor writes in What's Next for Somalia. "Despite the U.S. 'Global War on Terror,' piracy in the Gulf of Aden threatens the supply of oil and commercial trade to the West. Islamic extremists threaten the stability of this region more than ever." Yusuf and Nesbitt offer contrasting interpretations in their strategic dialogue on this topic.

Everyone agrees, however, that the pirates of the Somali coast have raked in quite a lot of money, somewhere around $30 million in 2008. That's more than a few pearls and pieces of eight. But compare that to the bonuses that Wall Street employees took home last year: $18.4 billion.

At least the Somali pirates were good at their jobs.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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