Good Guys with Guns

Anyone who saw the film Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks in the title role, saw the chronicle of Somali pirates seize the merchant ship Maersk Alabama in 2009 and take its captain hostage to hold for ransom. These pirates, armed with AK-47s, were undeterred by the futile efforts of the unarmed merchant ship to evade capture. The story, factual with little dramatic license, ended with U. S. Navy seals killing three of the pirates in the course of rescuing Phillips. A fourth pirate is serving a life sentence in a U. S. supermax prison.

Piracy had been rampant in the waters off the Horn of Africa for some time. The failed state of Somalia, racked by civil strife and unable to form a functioning government served as a haven for pirates who preyed upon commercial shipping in that part of the world. These pirates, unlike the pirates of yore in the Caribbean, were generally not after the cargo. Their modus operandi was to board a merchant ship and hold it and its crew hostage until the company, or its insurer, paid a ransom. The chief beneficiaries of the loot were not the pathetic teenagers or twenty-something me who did the dirty work, but the elders of various Somali tribes who recruited and used them. It was not political terrorism; it was business.

The policy of most shippers was not to arm their crews, or provide armed security for the ships. Most regarded armed guards on vessels as too dangerous, for reasons sometimes of dubious validity. After a plethora of Somali pirate attacks, including the one on the Maersk Alabama, many shippers re-thought that policy. Trouble was that most of the countries served by merchant vessels will not allow private security organization or the crews to enter their ports while armed.

This weapons prohibition appears to have been circumvented by several enterprises that maintain arsenal ships on the high seas. These vessels that remain in the international waters of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman, and supply arms and guards to the merchant ships. The arms are delivered to merchant ships after those vessels leave territorial waters, and later retrieved the arms before the ships enter ports where they are prohibited.

A number of enterprises have arisen to provide these services. The international shipping industry spent around $1 billion for guards and arms in the Indian Ocean during 2013.

The result: Attacks on shipping around the Horn of Africa have fallen precipitously. Since 2012 not one merchant vessel has been hijacked and held for ransom by Somali pirates. Have there been attempts? Possibly, but how many is unknown. No reports or statistics seem to be available as to how many were foiled. Were pirates killed by the armed guards? Not known, but no one should be surprised if so. Certainly, killing pirates while defending a ship is justified by any rational standard.

This is but another example of private enterprise addressing a problem that governments cannot or will not. Its apparent success in stanching attacks by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean also demonstrates what can be accomplished by good guys with guns.

More about this can be read in The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, February 4, 2015, p. A1) or online.

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