For many Americans, the 21st-century resurgence of piracy off the Horn of Africa was a distant, exotic curiosity until an attack on a U.S. cargo ship and the dramatic rescue of the ship's captain by Navy SEALs.
Relief at his safe return combines with pride in the skills of the highly trained commandos who rescued him. Three precise shots by three snipers killed three pirates who held Capt. Richard Phillips in a lifeboat. His crew had taken back the Maersk Alabama, but the pirates managed to flee with Phillips as a hostage.
Curiously, piracy is a niche business proving difficult to eliminate. Pirates operate out of Somalia, home to a failed economy, failed government and 1,900 miles of coastline. Piracy passes as a national industry, offering employment and income.
More than 20,000 ships annually pass through this part of the Indian Ocean. Even as Capt. Phillips was rescued, elsewhere there were 260 crew held on 14 hijacked ships. More than 100 ships were attacked last year, among them Norwegian, Greek, Saudi, Danish, German and Turkish.
If there is a ready solution it is not apparent. The European Union and ships from the United States, Iran, Russia, India, China, Japan and other nations have ships patrolling.
Shipping companies are more inclined to pay the ransom - an estimated $80 million last year - than interrupt traffic. Arming crew members has no appeal, with insurance costs and the ease of contracting for private emergency-response companies. Pirates have begun to attack ships farther offshore.
Given the vast expanse of open water to patrol, the task of confronting the pirates is daunting. Actual progress will be linked to stability and economic opportunity ashore in Somalia, bloodied by 20 years of chaos, with no credible central government or even territory held by a civil authority.
Piracy is a business model without regard to politics or religion - desperate people organized to survive. The work has paid well. A response that ignores the land-based realities cannot expect to succeed.
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