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Vanda Felbab-Brown Headshot

Paying off Somali Pirates: Still the Least Bad Option?

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DANISH BOAT PIRATES
AP File Photo

The recent murders of four Americans sailing off the coast of Somalia have led to calls for a tougher action against Somali pirates. Many argue that paying ransom only encourages more piracy, and that stronger action against the pirates is needed. Unfortunately, however, effective alternative options to stop piracy are limited, and tougher action will likely make the situation worse.

Until a few months ago, the Somali pirates treated their hostages well. The chances for a successful, if expensive, resolution were high, and violence against hostages was minimal. The greatest physical threat that hostages faced was lack of food and clean water. Their treatment was in stark contrast, for example, to the violent kidnappings in Mexico, where torture and mutilation are now routine mechanisms used to pressure families and businesses to pay substantial ransoms. But despite the deployment of ever larger counter-piracy flotillas, the incidence of piracy has increased off Somalia, and the patience of governments has begun to run out. Deadly raids have been undertaken against the pirates, but the attacks have only resulted in escalating violence by the pirates. Rumors of private militias being raised to attack the pirates on land also seem to have made the pirates even more trigger-happy.

Hostage-rescue raids on either land or sea are inherently risky -- as U.S. law enforcement agencies learned in the 1970s and 1980s. Then a series of raids resulted in the deaths of hostages. The U.S. domestic approach since has been to develop specialized negotiation units to secure the release of hostages while increasing the costs of hostage-taking: by negotiation the ransom down and using negotiations to develop intelligence on the hostage-takers to facilitate their subsequent arrest once hostages are free. Raids are used as a last resort if violence against hostages seems imminent.

It is not yet clear what went wrong in the negotiations that led to the death of the four Americans. But placing specially-trained negotiators on the vessels patrolling off Somalia could greatly help minimize violence against hostages.

Of course, a key element in raising the costs of kidnapping -- subsequent arrests of the hostage-takers -- is complicated in Somalia where the foreign forces cannot easily operate on land and where governing entities lack the will and capacity to act against the pirates. In the conditions of extreme poverty and unemployment that prevail in Somalia, the pirates have vast networks of supporters who benefit from the spin-off business piracy brings. Further complicating matters, many of the pirates' financiers are not located in Somalia itself.

The odds that military intervention could reverse the lawlessness, poverty, and absence of government in Somalia are extremely low. The resources and complexity of such an undertaking would be enormous -- as the United States learned in early 1990s and the Ethiopians learned in the 2000s. Any successful military endeavor in Somalia would result in a lengthy occupation and complicated state-building, which would make Afghanistan look easy. Any quick Special Forces action against the pirates' strongholds would only temporarily disrupt their activities at best.

Yet as another haven of piracy -- Southeast Asia -- teaches us, suppressing piracy often requires depriving the pirates of their safe-havens on land. In the 19th century, during the heyday of piracy in that region, colonial powers engaged in considerable effort to reduce privacy -- establishing firm control over their respective territories, working with local governing authorities to anchor the seafaring pirates firmly to land, and providing livelihoods for the pirates in agriculture and other land-based sectors.

Southeast Asia in the 1990s and 2000s provides further important anti-piracy lessons. Intensified maritime interdiction reduced the incidence of piracy in certain areas such as off the coast of Malaysia. However, those actions only pushed the privates closer to the Philippines. Crucially, the risks of raids and diminished safe-havens on land have motivated the pirates to focus on seizing and reselling cargo and ships, rather than trying to negotiate ransoms. Crews of seized ships are often shot on sight. Refusing to pay ransoms or arming ship crews would likely have the same effects as they have off Somalia -- lessening the incidence of privacy and hostage taking but resulting in greater violence.

U.S. anti-terrorism laws already complicate paying ransom -- if a part of a ransom ends up in al-Shabab's hands, the payer could be held liable for financing terrorism. Al-Shabab's presence in the piracy business has been limited. In fact, al-Shabab has fought the pirates. But if the pirates cannot obtain ransom from shipping companies, they may well decide to start selling their hostages to al-Shabab and other al-Qaeda-linked buyers, which could use the hostages as pawns in political extortion. Military actions against the pirates on land could indeed push them to seek accommodation with al-Shabab, which would likely increase violence against hostages and perhaps even enlarge al-Shabab's financial resources.

Bottom line? For a long time to come, paying ransom to the pirates may be the least worst option.