'Captain Phillips' Movie Release Brings the Dangers of Piracy Into the Public Eye


Four years ago, a group of teenaged Somali pirates commandeered the American container ship Maersk Alabama bound for Mombasa, Kenya. These young men launched their raid from a Taiwanese fishing vessel that they had captured two days earlier, with the original crew held hostage. They then kidnapped the Maersk Alabama’s captain, who survived the ordeal after a successful Navy SEAL rescue operation

The broad multinational impact of this incident demonstrates what the world has to lose when it comes to maritime piracy. Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass’s new film, Captain Phillips, is drawing much-needed attention to this issue our international security debates still largely neglect. Witnesses at the occasional congressional hearing on this topic make their standard petitions for interagency cooperation, industry partnerships, and the like, but piracy’s multifaceted nature demands more targeted and specific policies and tactics.

It’s easy to forget that seaborne crime is not an isolated issue, but rather exacerbated and perpetuated by instability on land. The Horn of Africa’s ongoing geopolitical nightmare dominated our news channels during last month’s deadly siege on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall by Somali Al-Shabab militants, and observers worry that even more economic and political commitments are needed to combat the risks of violence on land and at sea. The International Maritime Organization’s Philip Holihead expressed anxiety about periods of mild pirate activity: “When there are no attacks people get complacent because it costs money to secure the ships. But take away any one part and you hand the power back to pirates.”

Furthermore, the economic burden of preventing piracy on industries in the U.S., Europe, and Asia is not something the ordinary observer should sweep under the rug. Oceans Beyond Piracy, a Colorado-based nonprofit, estimates worldwide costs of piracy during 2012 at around $6 billion, nearly 50 percent of which covered military and security expenses. While this figure represents a notable decrease from 2011’s statistics, it still poses a serious headache for governments and companies already struggling with constrained budgets. Some experts, such as the University of Notre Dame’s Carolyn Nordstrom, think that piracy’s role in causing and exploiting the overall global economic crisis is significantly understated in discussions today.

And just as the U.S. government came to rely heavily on private military contractors (PMC) for security during ground counterinsurgency campaigns, the commercial industry has entrusted private firms like Nexus Consulting, SeaGuard, and the Trident Group along with a slew of UK-based companies with battling the similarly complex problem of piracy. These companies have their share of problems for the long-term; smaller contractors are going bankrupt at a disturbing rate, and the commercial shipping industry is also suffering financially. The line that operates Captain Phillips’ ship continues to impose a hefty surcharge for carriers sailing through high-risk waters.

Still, while the fiscal corruption and violence often perpetrated by PMCs in the Middle East have made us wary of these companies, we shouldn’t rule out public-private partnerships as part of a security solution at sea. But while the use of private security professionals may seem reliable in theory, the nature of their work opens up a variety of legal obstacles and restrictions. Peter Chalk of the RAND Corporation also questions the effectiveness of arming commercial ships. Contractors don’t have legal authority to board a threatening pirate vessel, and the inconsistency of legal regimes from one nation to another means that container ships with armed personnel face serious logistical problems upon making ports of call.

So, while we shouldn’t completely devalue security countermeasures at sea to protect employees, vessels, and cargo, we must face the reality that economic and political grievances will continue to drive individuals to piracy and other profitable forms of transnational crime. Weak governance in countries like Somalia and Nigeria allows de facto criminal leadership to flourish, while obscuring the business efforts of legitimate industry actors.