National Security

Pirate Droves

How to deal with ransom on the high seas.

On many a 15th century nautical chart, the margins were embellished with elaborate warnings to mariners of largely mythical dangers -- from dragons to sea sirens to giant whirlpools. But the most feared warning was against something all too real: pirates. Amazingly, perhaps, this ancient scourge continues to plague mariners today.  The solutions to piracy are complex and interlocked, and solving them will require international coalitions and interagency cooperation -- along with private sector cooperation.

Just a week ago, two Americans sailing on a U.S. flagged merchant ship may have been kidnapped off the coast of Nigeria in western Africa. While details remain sketchy, the Nigerian Navy spokesperson, Kabiru Aliyu, said, "Yes, we are aware that they are missing but we still do not have any information on the whereabouts of the men." The Nigerians claim to be searching with teams in the coastal waters. Here in the United States, the State Department indicated in briefings that it believes this to be an act of piracy and that the safety of the mariners is a top concern.

At the same time, movie theaters are filled with viewers of the recently released film Captain Phillips, about the harrowing ordeal of merchant sea captain Richard Phillips, whose ship, SS Maersk Alabama, was pirated in April 2009. After offering himself as a hostage to protect his crew, he was held for weeks by Somali pirates on the east coast of Africa before being rescued by Navy SEALs in a dramatic raid launched from an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Most observers believe that the pirate activity in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, is more vicious than similar action on the east coast by Somali-based pirates.

Over the past decade, piratical activity on both coasts of Africa, in the Caribbean, and in parts of Southeast Asia has caused billions of dollars in disruptions to global transportation. Hundreds of ships have been attacked in the Indian Ocean alone, and at one point during my time as the NATO strategic commander in charge of the counterpiracy mission, Operation Ocean Shield, we had over 20 ships and several hundred mariners being held for ransom. Jay Bahadur's excellent volume, The Pirates of Somalia, revealed a culture fueled by kat (a narcotic chewed by many of the pirates), Kalashnikovs, expensive villas, and high-powered SUVs. A ransom could fetch a pirate group over $10 million, and there was a creeping sense of involvement by al-Shabab, the east African al Qaeda affiliate.

The international community responded with a significant military presence in the waters off eastern Africa -- NATO, the European Union, the Gulf States, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and even Iran all sent ships to fight pirates. Today, well over a thousand pirates are imprisoned, and piracy attacks off the Horn of Africa have dropped 70 percent from their highs only a few years ago. There have been only 11 attacks there so far in 2013, as compared to 70 attacks last year at this time and down from over 200 three years ago.

Unfortunately, the game is shifting west, and cases of piracy -- like the one in which the two Americans have vanished -- are up to 40 so far this year. But the modus operandi is different: more straight-up robbery than hostage-taking and negotiating for ransom. This is because in the west, it is far harder to find an isolated stretch of coast not under national control to hold a ship, and governments and their policing capabilities are stronger. The same holds true for the waters of Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca.

More needs to be done.

First, international cooperation along the model employed on the east coast of Africa should be used in the Gulf of Guinea. NATO and the European Union should offer to work with the nations of western Africa to counter piracy operations there, given the confluence of European and U.S. national interests in local shipping routes and hydrocarbon resources. The U.N. International Maritime Organization in London could help broker a dialogue.

Secondly, private-public integration is important. Shipping industry improvements that were effective on the east coast, including the use of armed private security teams, should be considered on the west coast and in Southeast Asia. To date, no ship equipped with such a security team (typically two to four trained operators with small arms) has ever been successfully pirated. Other so-called "best practices" of convoy sailing -- keeping in close communication with shore authorities with geo-positioning information, hardening vessels with water cannon and physical obstacles, and crew training -- are all smart precautions. Sharing information and intelligence between private and public sources is also important.

Third, and most important, we need to realize piracy will not be stopped at sea. That requires addressing the root causes ashore. This means better development of economies with alternatives to piracy, less corrupt and more capable coast guards, integrated international courts to prosecute and imprison pirates acting on the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, and surveillance infrastructure to find and destroy pirate facilities in coastal communities.

In the classic film Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Jack Sparrow crows, "Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me! A toast to piracy and all its many shiny rewards! As a career, what could be more rewarding?" If we are to foil his significantly less charming 21st century descendants, nations, agencies, and businesses will need to work together well into the voyage ahead.

U.S. Navy via Getty Images


What Lies Beneath

Nazi art, Bosnian graves, and Syria's dark secrets.

Treachery and crimes against humanity rarely stay buried forever. Despite all of the obfuscation and lies by their perpetrators, time has a doggedly persistent way of bringing truth to the surface -- sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. Two recent remarkable stories from Europe dramatically underscore that fact.

In Germany, a king's ransom of an art treasure, worth more than $1.35 billion was discovered in a grotty apartment over-filled with expired canned goods. Among the 1,500 paintings were exquisite masterpieces by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, and Chagall. So how did a national gallery's worth of art end up in a depressing Munich apartment behind a stack of 30-year-old canned beans owned by an almost identity-less recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt? The line traces directly back to the Nazi persecution of Jews and "decadent artists" in the run-up to World War II.

Gurlitt's father, Hildebrandt, an art historian and dealer had been charged by Hitler with the task of destroying art the Nazis deemed objectionable in the late 1930s. Gurlitt assembled the collection through seizures and buying entire collections for pennies on the dollar from Jews eager to flee Germany. Many of the Jews sold off their prized collections under the most extortionary of terms: they would only be granted exit visas from Germany if they turned over the paintings at farcical prices.

But Gurlitt, rather than destroying this vast trove of paintings or selling them off to support the Nazi war machine, secreted them away, subsequently claiming that they had been incinerated in the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. How exactly the collection passed from father to son remains a mystery, but now the difficult process of determining actual provenance and, hopefully, returning as many of the works to their rightful families, has begun -- more than 75 years after this art was effectively looted by the German state.

In Bosnia, a major discovery of a very different kind was making headlines: a mass grave in Tomasica with the remains of at least 360, and maybe significantly more, people. The bodies -- men, women, and children; Croats and Muslims -- are of villagers thought to have been slain by separatist Bosnian Serbs in the early 1990s.

But the fact that we are still recovering remains in Bosnia 20 years after the fact should not be entirely dispiriting. The pursuit of accountability, and the desire to bring closure for families who lost loves ones in the conflict that consumed the former Yugoslavia, has been considerable. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has secured convictions of scores of people, including some big fish from every major party to the war. Sixteen Bosnian Serbs were convicted for war crimes committed in the general area of Tomasica. Forensic excavation teams have scoured the countryside for years of patient, grinding, and incredibly laborious work to continually shrink the number of people simply listed as "missing" from the conflict, even if it means delivering remains to a heart-broken family. Closure is better than no closure.

Like the art looted by the Nazis, the crimes committed in the concentration camps, and the reality of the Yugoslav war, the decades have helped lay the truth bare.

One cannot help then but wonder how many years will pass before we learn the truth about exactly what is happening right now in Syria. While the West may content itself to turn away with the minor triumph of having rid Syria of its chemical weapons capacity, the killing continues apace. The estimates -- and they are wild estimates shrouded in the fog of war -- are that some 115,000 people have been killed, two million people are now refugees, and another five million are displaced in Syria.

How many tribunals will be required to bring those culpable to account? How many years will it take to raise the dead interned in makeshift graves by their executioners? How long will it take to repair $30 billion of economic damage, an economy that has shrunk by half, and a disturbing new outbreak of polio? Perhaps most importantly, how long before the world decides that the cost of inaction is higher than the numbers of people seeing hope extinguished on an almost daily basis?

Policymakers at the United Nations, in Washington, Moscow, and Brussels may well think that there is simply no appetite to grasp the nettle that is the Syrian tragedy. Maybe they are right.

But, then again, time can be the harshest judge of all.