Pirates in Somalia: Abduction, Negotiations

The U.S. captain of a cargo ship tried swimming away from his pirate captors, only to be recaptured off the coast of Somalia. The military is negotiating for the release of Richard Phillips, taken from the Maersk Alabama. Video by AP
Ken Menkhaus
Political Science Professor, Davidson College
Friday, April 10, 2009; 2:00 PM

The FBI and the U.S. Navy continued delicate negotiations Friday with Somali pirates following an unsuccessful attempt by the American captain being held hostage to jump off the lifeboat drifting in the Indian Ocean and swim to a U.S. destroyer that hulked nearby.

Ken Menhkaus, professor of political science at Davidson College and an expert on Somalia and the piracy epidemic off its coast, was online Friday, April 10, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments and ongoing negotiations.


Ken Menkhaus: Hi, Ken Menkhaus here, I hope to help clarify questions on the Somalia piracy issue.


Hartford, Conn.: Some questions about what happens after previously hijacked ships are released. How are the ransoms paid and the transfers converted to cash or other things of value? And what do the pirates do with their "booty?" It's not like they can live in mansions and collect luxury cars on the Horn of Africa, can they?

Ken Menkhaus: Ransoms have usually been paid with cash airdrops and divvied up among the many, many local actors with a finger in this pie. The pirates and their financial backers use the money to build homes, get married, invest in businesses in Nairobi Kenya.


Washington, D.C.: Because this was a U.S. ship, there will be calls now for the U.S. -- and President Obama -- to take more aggressive military action against the pirates - but really, shouldn't we keep this in perspective? This is, after all, a relatively minor hindrance to world shipping, and absolutely no challenge to U.S. national security interests. The pirates have been surprisingly businesslike, generally not harming crews, and seeking "reasonable" ransoms. When you read that the reason ships don't arm their crews against the pirates is that the cost of insurance would be greater than the ransoms, you know that these pirates have hit the sweet spot and are basically imposing a tax on shipping around the Horn. Sure, it's illegal, but it's hardly worth engaging the U.S. military in an misadventure in a failed African state. Or am I wrong?

Ken Menkhaus: I would tend to agree with you. The piracy problem off the coast of Somalia is real, and needs attention, but over-stating its impact on international trade and overreacting is likely to make things worse. The total ransoms paid last year, $20-40 million, is a lot of money in Somalia but little more than a nuisance tax for global shipping.


NYC: Is there any viable alternative for these former fisherman? Is it there isn't enough fish left in their waters for them to make a living anymore (thanks to foreign commercial fisheries and governments which have dumped nuclear waste in their waters)? even if we came up with enough disincentives to deter future Somalian piracy, won't we just be running these guys into the hands of al Qaeda and al Shabab? I'm interested in the bigger picture that hasn't really been reported.

Ken Menkhaus: There are not many viable livelihoods for anyone in Somalia these days, but fishing is still an important and potentially lucrative sector. They can and do still fish (the dumping of waste is overstated, has not prevented int'l fishing trawlers from fishing in and around Somali waters). But it's important to note that most of the pirates are not ex-fishermen, they are just gunmen.


Seattle, Wash.: What's to prevent the pirates' flotilla [from] simply going up to the lifeboat and taking all individuals aboard and going onto shore?

Ken Menkhaus: That's what they plan to do, and is the best outcome in terms of safe recovery of the captain. Once a ransom is paid he will be released from shore.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm surprised that the Navy didn't send "frog men" in the night who could have swum under the lifeboat and drilled holes, causing it to sink. The pirates and their hostage could then have been retrieved from the water and liberated/captured as applicable.

Ken Menkhaus: That would have endangered not only the captain, but keep in mind the pirates are holding 12-14 ships and 100-150 crewmen as hostages. Any military action places all those people at risk.


Washington, D.C.: How far is the U.S. naval ship from the lifeboat?

Ken Menkhaus: I don't know the details, but the pirates have demanded that all naval vessels stay over the horizon.


Austin, Tex.: Is there any real ideological or political component to the pirates' actions? (Apart, of course, from the conditions in Somalia that allow them to operate.)

Or is this really pretty much all about money?

Ken Menkhaus: No, this has strictly been about the money.


San Francisco, Calif.: Why do you think there hasn't been a more harsh military response against the ports where the pirates launch from? I wouldn't expect the U.S. to bombard some coast over lost humanitarian aid but what about other countries who have lost more sensitive items? Why wouldn't a Russia who lost valuable military equipment stage some sort of offensive action? Don't they still have a navy?

Ken Menkhaus: Again, the fate of 100-150 captives from previously pirated ships makes direct military action very risky, and does not guarantee piracy will not return with more dangerous tactics.


Minneapolis, Minn.: I know you disagree with this, but it seems to me like the U.S. Navy has the upper hand here. I don't know why they can't just keep any relief crews from approaching the lifeboat and then just wait the pirates out. What's the end game for the pirates? They need to hold the hostage to have any leverage. But if they can't go anywhere, they can't stay out there indefinitely (at least not as long as the warships can). They can't kill the hostage -- then their one point of leverage is gone. As long as the Navy can keep the pirates isolated indefinitely, I don't see how the Navy doesn't prevail. (In this one isolated situation, anyway.) By the way, this also means it is not in the interest of the Navy to take any overt action.

Ken Menkhaus: The shipping company has interests here too, first and foremost to get its captain back safely, The easiest way to do that is to pay the ransom, which shippers have been willing to do for the past several years. The endgame is probably this -- pirates in the lifeboat will board one of the pirated ships now heading to rescue them (with hostages on board); they will take the captain with them, then negotiate a ransom from shore where they feel safe. How the captain will be released will be an added complication since he will have no ship of his own. Possibly a helicopter transfer.


Fairfax, Val.: What kind of communication is going on between our Navy ships and the kidnappers?

Ken Menthes: The pirates have communication equipment and have been in contact with the Navy either directly or indirectly.


Belfast, Maine: I understand that we're talking about a vast area to be patrolled but don't ships there travel in lanes that could be protected?

Ken Menkhaus: good question. The pirates use "motherships" (captured fishing trawlers or dhows)to go way out beyond the coast, then launch short attacks from their skiffs. That's 2.5 million square miles to patrol, which is impossible. There is a large and impressive new int'l group of Naval ships -- from China, Russia, US, Europe, Iran, and others -- patrolling the waters, and providing escorts in the Gulf of Aden. But even that has not always prevented piracies.


Gilbert's Corner, Va.: How are these hijacked ships being allowed to make it to port? If warships blockade Somalia's coast (blockade against the hijacked ships being brought back), wouldn't that effectively put the pirates out of business? I realize that in individual instances the economic and environmental cost of a sunk ship far exceeds the ransom/insurance cost, but collectively it seems like a small price to pay...

Ken Menkhaus: There is no blockade of Somalia's coast, only patrols along its very long coastline. The cost-benefit analysis you are considering in your question is a good one but it tends to be answered the other way -- that it's cheaper to just pay the ransoms than take on all the huge risks associated with armed response. That may change now that a US flagged vessel and US captain have been taken.


Virginia: Isn't the real cost involved the humanitarian cost in terms of lack of access to the greater Somalia area by people/businesses that can help the vast majority of folks who aren't benefitting from this "tax"? And the lawlessness of the area seems mighty inviting to any group looking to establish a base of operations beyond the reach of world govts, no?

Ken Menkhaus: Somali businessmen have been able to move their goods into ports without any problems -- pirates don't go after them. Commerce is obstructed on shore.


Washington, D.C.: I hear often that Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi is tipping off the pirates where the ships are.

Ken Menkhaus: I think PM Zenawi has better things to do!


Washington, D.C.: How do you see this problem resolved? This is the first time Americans have been involved in such an incident, I'm reading. How much money and goods are the kidnappers asking for in return for the captain and will they keep their promise?

Ken Menkhaus: The fact that we have a US hostage for the first time is a potential game changer which is why this story is getting so much attention.

It's possible there will be a military action of some sort after the captain is released, but keep in mind that it's unlikely that pirates will be dissuaded even if the risks grow. It's just too lucrative -- relatively low risk, very high reward. The solution will ultimately have to be on-shore, with more effective government in Somalia.


Davidson, N. C.: What's the difference between a pirate and a brigand? What variables would you use to operationalize the practice of piracy, so that we have a better handle on the phenomenon than simply "knowing it when we see it"?

Ken Menkhaus: I know who this is and you're in trouble!


Centreville, Va.: Why is it the French can send in their commandos to rescue hostages, which they reportedly have done three times already, and we can't do anything? Regardless of the financial realities of the situation, it makes us look weak and feeble.

Ken Menkhaus: The French rescues were at the time seen as a major change of policy, and a very risky operation. If the US were to do the same, and some of the 100-150 hostages -- all from other countries, remember -- were killed -- this would be a major diplomatic problem.


Chicago Ill.: I have to disagree with you -- violence is the necessary response here. We should make it abundantly clear that when these pirates attack a U.S.-flagged vessel, they will be met with deadly, overwhelming force. It worked with the Barbary States and it will work here. These pirates are businessmen, as you note, and they will not engage in activity they deem needlessly risky. Let them capture somebody else's ships -- I expect American vessels to travel unhindered anywhere on the seven seas. Thanks.

Ken Menkhaus: If military action looked to be the solution, I'd be with you. But most of the contacts I have, including in the shipping industry, emphatically do not want a military intervention -- the risks to crews would be too great. Again, a lot boils down to a cold cost-benefit analysis that to date -- and this could now change -- has concluded it's simpler and cheaper to just pay the 420-40 million a year in ransoms


Austin, Tex.: Reasonable people (not the blow-em-all-out-of-the-water types) have suggested that the time has come for merchant ships in the area to carry armed guards.

I understand that there are problems with this, but is it something that is going to have to happen?

Ken Menkhaus: This is a seemingly obvious solution, and yet turns out to be a non-starter. There are major insurance and legal liability issues involved that are too complex to go into here -- the shipping companies are deeply opposed.


"Strictly About Money": But once a hostage dies (for whatever reason, whether killed or medical condition), doesn't the game change and governments end up much more involved? If hostages start dying then I would imagine pirates would start dying too.

Ken Menkhaus: There are several game-changers, the death of a hostage being one of them (though they have had a couple of deaths in past years). That's why this case is so important and closely watched.


Stone Ridge, Va.: Do you honestly believe that the U.S. Navy would just stand by and let the captain be taken to shore by the hijackers?

Ken Menkhaus: If the captain's safe return (and the safety of other hostages) is placed as the highest single objective, then yes, the Navy will be instructed to allow the pirates to return to shore with him. If his safety is only one of several considerations, including a decision to enforce the principle of open waters, or if there were reasons to believe he is in danger on shore, then they might act to intervene. Obviously we don't have access to some of that critical information


South Riding, Va.: Seems like the pirates may actually be presenting the U.S. Navy with a good opportunity to deal with the larger problem -- surround the flotilla, force a stalemate, then negotiate with nobody leaving and getting ransom. Are the pirates really going to kill hostages/sink ships if that means they die too?

Ken Menkhaus: We don't know what they'd do if we change the rule of the game. But the rules of the game would have been changed in possibly dangerous ways. Keep in mind that to date pirates have not harmed crews and only wanted money. There are those who say that's a set of inconveniences we don't like but can live with


Alexandria, Va.: It would have been better to take a covert SEAL action on the lifeboat earlier this week than to wait for days for the pirate cohorts to arrive on scene.

It was not so complicated before, but it is getting more complicated the closer the other hostages are to the scene.

Quite frankly, I am surprised that you would rather just allow ransom payments to continue to go on. By allowing the Somali's a ransom for the captain, this will give them more resolve to engage other U.S. merchant cargo ships in the future.

Ken Menkhaus: I'm not expressing my own preferences, I'm explaining why things have been handled with the pirates the way they have.


Washington, D.C.: Have any previous pirate attacks been successfully thwarted? And if so, then how so?

Ken Menkhaus: Yes, evasive actions have worked, and a sound blast device was used by a luxury cruise ship. But crews are unarmed, are usually taken by surprise, and thus have no incentive to fight or take dangerous steps against men with RPGs and AK-47s.


Roosevelt Island, D.C.: Have any other countries tried to rescue their kidnapped countrymen? I'm thinking the French generally don't mind doing this sort of thing?

Ken Menkhaus: yes the French did, successfully. It may be that that becomes a preferred policy after this incident.


Leesburg, Va.: Professor Menhkaus,

A segment of the population seems to believe that there's more that we (the U.S.) could be doing to "solve" this situation. They believe that the U.S. Navy and, by proxy, the president aren't "doing enough" to "fix it."

My question is: Is this indeed the case? If so, what more could we be doing to fix it?

Ken Menkhaus: The question is fix what? The immediate piracy problem, or the state collapse on shore that allows it to thrive? Both would be great to solve, neither is as easy to do as one might think.


Washington, D.C.: I know other criminal organizations have been taken down via the banks, financing. How do the pirates figure out currency exchange? How do they store their money? Is there a way to tackle them that way?

Ken Menkhaus: The economy in Somalia is dollarized, so they don't need to exchange currency. The rich financial backers of this Mafioso activity do keep money in foreign banks and it would be interesting to squeeze them if the money can be traced.


Miami, Fla.: About ten years ago China faced a wave of piracy. The government responded by executing every pirate it could capture. Guess what, before long piracy stopped and never returned. For the first time in my life, I support what the Chinese government did. The piracy off the coast of Somalia will only grow worse if we keep coddling the criminals.

Ken Menkhaus: The Chinese government is a sovereign state and was acting against its own citizens, for better or worse. There is no such state in Somalia, and if foreign Navies start assuming the role of judge jury and executioner in Somali waters the jihadists in Somalia will have a field day with it. there are laws of the sea that the Navy pays close attention to.


Belfast, Maine: I'm not sure my question was clear. If the big ships in the Gulf of Aden travel only in a few narrow lanes, aren't there then only a few hundred square miles to patrol?

Ken Menkhaus: It's easier to patrol the Gulf of Aden, but even there pirates have nabbed ships in escorted convoys. And the pirates are moving to the Indian ocean where it's easier to capture vessels. Ironically, ships are lately shifting to to Cape Hope route rather than through the Suez Canal because of the drop in fuel prices compared to Suez canal fees, making it easier for the pirates in the Indian ocean. . .


Colorado Springs, Colo.: At a recent conference on the way forward in Somalia, one speaker suggested that Somalia could only be rebuilt from the bottom up, and that all the top-down efforts imposed by the West are doomed to fail. Looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, she's right. So why do we keep trying the same failed approach regarding Somalia?

Ken Menkhaus: there's a lively debate over how best to revive functioning government in Somalia; there's not enough space or time here to explore it, but I would say that a political solution in Somalia is likely to have to be unique, and may involve more sub-state governance than in most other places, at least as an interim measure. But that's for the Somalis to decide.


Washington, D.C.: Has the increased numbers of military vessels had any impact on the smuggling of people into the Gulf States? Has it made those journeys any safer? Or more dangerous?

Ken Menkhaus: great question, and the answer is no. The smuggling of desperate migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia to Yemen by boat has cost hundreds of lives, occurs in small boats, and is not a task of the international navies patrolling those waters


Springfield, Va.: If it is true that the crew tried to exchange one of the pirates for the captain, but the pirates reneged on the bargain, how can they be trusted to release the captain after a ransom is paid?

Ken Menkhaus: The pirates want ransom, These gunmen are focused exclusively on the cash, and have had a good thing going for some time. To be that close to the money, with a hostage in hand, they opted to keep him


Bethesda, Md.: The U.S. Navy originated as a force fighting pirates along the Barbary coast. What lessons, if any, were learned through that experience as to how to most effectively confront and control piracy? Similarly, in WWII, against lethal enemies, convoys of merchant ships were accompanied by protective warships. Even if shipping lanes are too vast to fully patrol, couldn't the convoy system be revived, with multinational participants, in the Gulf of Aden and perhaps beyond? It seems to me that effectively tolerating piracy is a mistake that will simply encourage its spread with no assurances that it won't become a funding source for rogue countries and terrorists (and every likelihood that it will). I appreciate that many of these thugs are motivated by economic desperation -- and the world can certainly offer trading and industrializing opportunity on the flip side of a policy that tackles piracy with a muscular response.

Ken Menkhaus: That's a good question, but for naval historians, not me. The rule of the game have changed in many ways since the Barbary coast. . .


Seattle, Wash: If the best, safest resolution is to let the pirates take the captain to shore and then be ransomed, what is the best thing for the Navy to do? Save face and simply sail away now?

Ken Menkhaus: I'm guessing that the short term answer to this is yes, but that this will produce some changes that will not be in the interests of the pirates in the future.

News is in that the pirates are asking for a $2 million ransom. . that's a starting price anyway


Annapolis, Md.: When you say "insurance problems," what exactly do you mean? Can't the ships be protected by private security forces? I'm surprised they don't have insurance.

Ken Menkhaus: Insurance companies would jack rates way up because of new risks associated with presence of weapons on board, and especially the risks of major lawsuits and impounding of the ship of the crew fired on a boat that accidentally killed non-pirates.

I have been surprised at how central legal and liability questions have been in this whole issue, almost makes me wish I were a lawyer. . . naa.


Virginia Beach, Va.: Taken to it's logical conclusion -- the pirates take their hostage away to shore, within sight of the U.S. Navy and collect a healthy ransom. Would that not clearly signal other hostile groups in the area to become "pirates" to finance terrorism?

Ken Menkhaus: this is the problem -- the "moral hazard' that the short-term solution that is low cost to the shipping company and safe for the crew only encourages the piracy, in Somalia and possibly elsewhere. You're right -- short term vs. long term interests are at odds.


Oxford, Pa.: If these activities can be dismissed as a "nuisance tax," then even U.S. gangs could use the same logic to begin kidnapping civilians. If that seems far-fetched, then you see my problem with your logic.

Ken Menkhaus: The logic is not mine, it's the logic that has prevailed among major actors, including the shipping companies, to date. it is flawed. But the alternatives have costs too.


Area of expertise: You're an expert on Somalia, and yet nobody is asking about the country or the people.

Tell me about what the locals think of this.

Ken Menkhaus: There is a Somali narrative on the piracy that is completely different than ours, that sees it is justifiable protection of Somali shores from illegal fishing, and that sees the piracy as a minor problem we are overreacting to. For instance -- they say at present there is a massive humanitarian crisis in Somalia, 3.5 million people at risk, and the UN is calling for $950 million in aid. We have only provided a fraction of that aid. yet we're willing to mobilize the world's navies at considerable cost to stop a $20-40 million piracy problem. That's how m(not all) Somalis see it.


Ransom: Do you really think the U.S. will pay a ransom? It may make sense to pay this "tax," but I'm guessing Obama would face blistering criticism that could make that option unpalatable.

Ken Menkhaus: The insurance company, not the US government, will pay a ransom


Aberdeen, Md.: What is the container ship carrying that's so valuable?

Ken Menkhaus: the cargo is not of importance. its the value of the crew and the ship.


Fairfax, Va.: It seems a bit cold-hearted to refer to the taking of dozens of hostages as a "nuisance tax" on world shipping. No one's been harmed yet, but they're in constant danger, and they're isolated from their homes and families.

Ken Menkhaus: no! quite the opposite. It's a preoccupation with the safety of the crew that is leading to the risk-averse strategy to pay the ransoms.


Davis, Calif.: What is the possibility that Somali pirates are part of a crime organization with links to jihadist money and the shipping and maritime insurance businesses?

Ken Menkhaus: so far, no evidence of links to Al Qaeda or int'l criminal network, but this is something to watch, The pirates know that if they collude with al Qaeda or al-Shabaab (the Somali jihadist group) that will be a game changer, and they like the game as played just fine.


Ken Menkhaus: I need to close out now, sorry I was unable to get to all the great questions here! Thanks and goodbye


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