It was March 2009, and I was bound for the USS Boxer to write about anti-piracy efforts in the gulf. Just a few weeks after I left, Somali pirates hijacked the MV Maersk Alabama—the hijacking that’s portrayed in this weekend’s blockbuster release Captain Phillips. After that crisis, Captain Richard Phillips was taken aboard the Boxer for medical examination and rest and the lone surviving pirate was held there before heading to the United States for trial.
Looking at a map, the Gulf of Aden seems to be a narrow river-like passage sandwiched between Yemen and Somalia. It’s a scant 20 miles across at its narrowest point. Refugees, smugglers and terrorists frequently cross the passage.
But that’s scant comfort for a landlubber when water stretches from horizon to horizon. It was like the helicopter floated above a lifeless, liquid desert. I was accustomed to covering wars on land. But here it seemed water dominated the conflict every bit as much as it dominated the horizon.
In reality, though, land lay just over the horizon of the conflict every bit as much as it did the actual horizon in the gulf. That’s because piracy has historically arisen from a power vacuum or politics in the land that the pirates call home. The sea just happens to be the battleground.
The Caribbean buccaneers who became the stereotype of piracy arose from conflict between European states, the inability of those states to enforce treaties and the great wealth being traded in the region.
The Barbary wars in Amerca’s early years started because of state-supported piracy that raised money for the North African states of Tripoli and Algiers. European countries had relied on privateers—also state-sponsored pirates—when making war with one another.
And just as piracy arises from land, successful anti-piracy efforts typically have a land component. The Marines stormed Tripoli while fighting the Barbary pirates, an event immortalized in the “Marine Corps Hymn.” Overland expeditions attacked settlements of the 17th-century Caribbean pirates.
Somalia fits comfortably within this pattern. When the Somali government collapsed, the country was no longer able to defend its coast. Foreign ships fished and dumped waste illegally in Somali waters. Local fishermen started off with the intention to simply defend their fisheries but soon realized they could make more money through ransoms.
The military recognized the significance of Somalia’s instability. When I was on board the Boxer, a press briefing listed three keys to success in the anti-piracy campaign. Among them: "Governance in Somalia."
Acting on that was another easier said than done, though. The Navy’s anti-piracy task force on the water fell under U.S. Central Command, while Somalia was under the purview of Africa Command. “We’re the sea. My charter is just in the water,” the Navy’s task force commander told me. Meanwhile, Africa Command said it couldn’t do anything without a functioning Somali government and denied having anything to do with piracy.
Since that time, land-based efforts have ebbed and flowed—with the United States conducting strikes and hostage rescues on land.
As it stands now, piracy is down from its peak a few years ago—and some of that is due to maritime efforts. Armed guards on ships and consistent implementation of anti-piracy measures have made it hard for pirates to take over vessels.
But significantly, those measures haven’t attacked the root of the problem. Some pirates just switched to land-based kidnappings that offer higher chances of success.
The real chance for long-lasting success may lie in efforts like the African Union Mission in Somalia and the establishment of the Puntland Maritime Police Force—a coastal police force in an autonomous region in northeastern Somalia. Neither is as Hollywood-friendly as the Maersk Alabama confrontation, but they address the same "Governance in Somalia" issues that the Navy spoke of back in 2009.
Captain Phillips is getting rave reviews for the way it zeroes in on the relationship between pirate and hostage in a cramped capsule. It’ll probably be this year’s best movie on the sea. But after you’re done watching, don’t forget to cast your gaze over the horizon to the land the pirates call home.