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A pirate's dozen

There's been plenty of action on the pirate front again today:

  • A French warship captured 11 Somali pirates some 550 miles east of the Kenyan port of Mombassa.
  • Other pirates released a Greek ship, and 24 crew members, that had been held since March 19.
  • The United Nations special envoy for Somalia — Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah — said pirate attacks are threatening international peace.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to bring Somali pirates to "justice."

To help you better understand the complexities of this ongoing story — pirates, global commerce, the long history of crime on the high seas — we've put together "Piracy 101: 13 things you need to know," culled from the best sources in the world and on the Web, as well as our own reporting here, here and here:

1) Global navies need not apply

Author (and former USAF special operations pilot) John Robb has got it bad for decentralized warfare: the way small bands can make big impacts. He’s riffed on Niger Delta saboteurs who blow up oil pipelines and send the price of crude reeling, for example. He says Somali pirates represent another manifestation of the prowling banditry of 21st century warfare. Here’s Robb on why the idea of Great Nation navies patrolling the Gulf of Aden won’t cut it.


2) Anti-piracy measures du jour

At every warmonger’s favorite blog, aka Wired’s “Danger Room," helmsman Noah Schachtman has the rundown of the range of current defensive measures — few of them good.


3) Same story; different ocean

For a pirate story half a world away from the Middle East, I’m reminded of a great Slate series by Kelly McEvers called “How (Not) To Find a Pirate in the Strait of Malacca." In it, McEvers tries to find an Indonesia pirate who would talk on the record. But it’s also a gripping yarn about the otherwise mundane lives of these would-be high-seas rollers.


4) WaterWorld: An Introduction

Regards to Abu Muqawama for directing us land dwellers to two indispensable resources for understanding the maritime piracy mess: First is Martin Murphy, who examines the links between piracy and organized crime. The second is “Information Dissemination" a site that pulls together great data like how many attacks occured in the Gulf of Aden last year (180), and how many have happened so far in 2009 (80).


5) The South African scenic route

Vessels wishing to bypass the mayhem in the Gulf of Aden can go the way ships used to travel before the Suez Canal opened: down around the tip of South Africa and back up the west coast of the contintent. According to Kevin Sterling, an analyst at Stephens, Inc., a ship traveling from, say, China to Rotterdam that opted for this route would add 10 days to the journey. But with the recent drop in fuel costs, and the rise in rogue seas, it might be an option. “When fuel was at $700 a ton, you couldn’t justify it,” he says. “But now that it’s at about $300, you can.”


6) It’s just like being there! Gulf of Aden edition

Here’s a more or less real-time link to piracy in action, courtesy of NATO.


7) Turning pirates from their evil ways:

What about giving pirates the financial incentive to work for their country instead of the black market? That’s a concept floated by Nikolas Gvosdev in the National Interest that works along the lines of turning former drug dealers into undercover cops.


8) From the Department of Duh

One thing that’s easy to overlook: the Somali pirates have zero interest in the non-human cargo on these boats. Why? Somalia has no ports that can handle large oil tankers.


9) Smile for the camera

This photo sideshow from the New Republic offers glimpses of the pirates who look nothing like Johnny Depp or Captain Hook.


10) Is Danish shipping company Maersk falsely impersonating an American one?

U.S. shipping comprises a measly 3 percent of the total of all ships afloat, according to Peter Schauer, CEO of Orion Marine Corp, a Chicago-based shipping logistics company. But when industry giant Maersk, which is a Danish company, ships cargo for the U.S. military it does so under a U.S. flag. They’re happy to do it, of course, because they charge more.

Schauer, who specializes in getting cargo to scary places like Congo and Sudan, has nothing but kind words for the government waste this incurs: “The wise men in Congress have so decreed it. In their infinite wisdom, we can’t entrust a foreign flag to ship our tanks to hotspots. As a result we as taxpayers are paying 3 to 5 times the rate if we went with another flag or carrier.”


11) A solution without the body count

Not sure how effective the Spider Man approach is, but this “non-lethal” net-casting concept, courtesy of the Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, seems like an interesting deterrent:


12) “Terrorists of the Caribbean” just doesn’t have the same ring

Time for a new nomenclature? So says Annie Lowrey at FP’s Passport blog.  The problem according to Lowrey: When people think of “pirates” they think of Captain Hook or Jack Sparrow — quaint, endearing and with an element of high-seas mystique. Houston, I think we have a branding problem.


13) The pirate cheat sheet

Finally, our good friends at the Council on Foreign Relations have this comprehensive round-up of need-to-know data about piracy.

Happy hunting.