Tag: pirates

Pirates, Hackers, and Terrorists

A hypothesis: Pirates, hackers, and terrorists are perennial actors in international relations. They will never be permanently defeated; the frontier will never be permanently settled.

The underlying material reason that these actors exist is actually quite simple. Each of these (Weberian) ideal type actors emerges as a consequence of the (proto-capitalist or industrial-capitalist) overproduction and networking of standardized technologies. [I am considering them as separate types even though they may overlap in practice.] Overproduction and networking creates vulnerabilities as access is dispersed and familiarity increases. Technologies may be reverse engineered, hijacked, or even commandeered if there is sufficient familiarity with the operational system. As technologies that connect people and places experience a paradigmatic shift, waves of piracy, hacking, and terrorism will recede until the new technology once again becomes overproduced, common, and accessible.

Although each type of actor has occasionally been licensed and/or supported and sheltered by state actors, state support for terrorism, hacking, and pirating is not critical. State support may enhance the lethality and frequency of activities but the activities are not dependent on state support. It is worth considering that the withdrawal of state sponsorship may actually create greater instability as happened in the Caribbean for example from the 16th to the 18th century when unemployed privateers would turn to piracy in peacetime. While some of these activities can be materially lucrative (e.g. ship piracy and ransom), they may be motivated by other psychological factors such as an anti-social disposition or a politico-religious ideology for example. State counter-actions may work to displace the physical and virtual sites from which pirates, hackers, and terrorists operate, but new sites will always emerge even if particular actors or organizations are dismantled. The reason is that the panoptic powers of states are never uniform and cooperation between states is often ephemeral in global politics.

Computer or cell phone hacking seems to be a relatively new and distinct activity, but before hacking there was phreaking of the 2600 Hz variety and hacking is basically a new label for burglary, espionage, and sabotage.  As computer programs are merely solvable mathematical equations, any computer system can be hacked — just as any lock can be picked — if there is the possibility of access. And access is always a possibility.

Okay, so what does all of this mean? I am not sure, which is why this is just being posted as a hypothesis, but here are some tentative thoughts…

First, it means that those who believe that drones and biometrics will pacify the “non-integrated gap” fail to understand the political economy of technology. While technology and biopolitics may temporarily calm a restive area, that technology will eventually be overcome. Drones and biometric devices will be hacked and pirated. These technologies which are currently giving states an advantage, if they continue to proliferate, will most likely be used against state actors in the future.

Second, while ideology or religion may matter in recruiting/retaining individuals in these types of activities, it is important to think through the material forces that enable these activities. The argument is not to replace one form of mono-causal thinking (i.e. ideational) with another (i.e. materialist), but to think through the ways in which material resources facilitate certain types of ideologically motivated political action in a dynamic manner.


Things I Learned Doing My First Bloggingheads Diavlog

1) A small puppy, if walked real hard first, will sit quietly outside long enough for a decent taping with no unseemly background noise. (I had worried about that.)

2) It’s important to spell out your acronyms on the first use in speech just like in writing.

3) I say “um” a lot more than I ever thought.

Anyway, check it out. UN Dispatch’s Mark Leon Goldberg and I talk about pirate economics, the Somalia aid scandal, gender politics, and the coming Cylon takeover how popular culture figures in UN public relations strategies.


Who will buy the movie rights?

The dramatic conclusion of the Maersk Alabama Pirate encounter is now a wrap, and this screams for a movie. My only question is who will buy the rights to Capt. Phillip’s story? NBC? Lifetime? I happen to think its bigger than a made-for-tv production, worthy of like Michael Bay or John Woo. Staring Bruce Willis as Captain Richard Phillips, Mark Wahlberg as first officer Shane Murphy, Keifer Sutherland as Special Operations commander Jack Bauer, and of course Johnny Depp as a Pirate.

Updated: It looks like SPIKE has made the first move, green-lighting the docu-series “Pirate Hunters: USN.”
H/T to the Roguish Commonwealth crew for this treasure!

One “Meta” note here, though…

The incredible level of detail we’re getting on how the Navy SEALS carried out the rescue isn’t by accident. Its not that reporters are unearthing special sources revealing juicy morsels of information. Rather senior officials want us to know 3 things (as in image building enterprise going on here):

1–This was in fact a dramatic rescue and the technical expertise of the SEALS to make those 3 shots involves quite a lot of skill. To fire from a moving platform (bobbing up and down on the high seas) and hit a target on another platform, also bobbing about, but not in the same way, is certainly not easy.

2–The Navy, and Administration in general, feel vindicated for how they handled things, slowly and deliberately. Buying time through attempts at negotiations did work. They managed to get 1 pirate off the lifeboat and into US control, they managed to get a tow-line attached, and they had the entire plan all ready to go.

3–Obama was a decisive, effective commander in chief. He was briefed, and he issued a standing order to use force (twice) at the discretion of the on-the-scene Captain. He made a key, life and death decision, he trusted his commanders.


Scribbles in My Notebook…

I have a mental queue of about 3 or 5 post that I’ve been meaning to get up in the past couple of days, but the demands of a new baby in the house are leaving me sleep deprived and somehow unable to find time to construct the posts I want to write (go figure…). So, in lieu of that, a couple of scribbles from my mental notebook that merit your attention and our discussion.

–SecDef Gates unveiled his defense budget. This could be one the most significant policy undertakings of the Obama administration and lead to some real, meaningful reforms with profound consequences on both domestic and international politics. This issue is being covered quite well elsewhere, so I will only give a couple of quick points that I hope you keep in mind.

Stop talking about this as budget cuts. Its not. It still represents an overall increase in US defense spending. Rather, its a reallocation of funds and priorities, away from some things and toward other things.

This shows how backasswards defense policy is. The vehicle for a major reorientation of defense policy is the budget. Not a policy document, not a strategic review, but procurement. Procurement and budgets drive defense policy more than ‘policy’ does, in that going to war with the military you have, not the one you want is the product of weapons requirements from 20 years ago. The F-22, the fighter jet at the center of all this, originated with a set of requirements in the late 1980’s during the cold war. Sure, they’ve updated and reaffirmed a new set of requirements to keep the plane alive. But, current AF strategy and policy discussions surrounding this plane are still captive to budget cycles from a decade ago.

I like the go-for-broke strategy that Gates is employing, as it makes it more likely, I think, to overcome Congressional opposition to any weapons system cuts. He’s shown with his comments that he’s ready to take on the defense spending as jobs argument head on.

Check out this story on how closely the US is studying Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah and how that discussion is serving as a proxy for the larger debate on the future shape of the US military.

–Obama was in Europe, had a major NATO summit, and called for nuclear disarmament. Foolish critics called him naive. Reagan also wanted disarmament, he offered to give up all our nuclear weapons if the Soviets would do the same. Obama’s going to try again to get the CTBT ratified. I think these are important steps. Proliferation is one of those global, multilateral problems that no one country can address alone. Reaching any nuclear deal ultimately runs into the fundamental bargain of the NPT that leaves some states nuclear and others not. That bargain requires the nuclear states to work towards disarmament. Obama’s call for nuclear arms reduction gives him major cred in seeking further arms control agreements with new and potential nuclear powers, as he can now claim with some credibility that he is interested in matching the disarmament that he is asking others to undertake.

–North Korea launched a missile / satellite that failed miserably, crashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The interesting question, I think, is how this impacts their credibility–they continually threaten war, testing, and proliferation, but then continually fail when they try to make good. And yet, within the DPRK, this is a reaffirmation of North Korean resistance and US surrender. To the rest of the world, well, I don’t think it helps North Korea make any friends.

Obama invoked the UNSC, which was nice, but (predictably?), no one could agree on anything. Russia and China were not happy with the test, but it seems there’s a difference between not liking the test and allowing the SC to sanction a state for violation of a resolution. We shall see how much more fun this makes Stephen Bosworth’s job.

–Pirates take a US cargo ship. Charli has that covered, but as I mentioned to a couple of students we’re working with on a Pirate project this summer, Now things might start to get interesting. Which is to say, we’ll see if the US changes its tune at all when US interests / persons / items are at risk.

–Opening day for baseball, lets go Cleveland!!!


It’s About Time. (For Regime Change.)

Finally, a resolution to the four-month-old stand-off with the hijackers of the Faina off the coast of Somalia. NY Times reported today that the pirate crew will disembark from the Faina after some sum of money, paid by the ship owners, was air-dropped onboard:

“According to one of the pirates, the owners of the ship had paid the ransom; the pirates had counted the money; and now they were just waiting for nightfall to slip away from the ship.

The hijacking of the Ukrainian ship, called the Faina, stirred up fears of a new epoch of piracy and helped precipitate a rash of similar attacks off Somalia’s coast and an unprecedented naval response in return. Warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain and Germany have all joined the fight against the pirates, though the attacks have continued.

The pirates aboard the Faina would not reveal how much they had netted in ransom — originally they were asking for more than $20 million. According to businessmen on shore, the ransom was around $3 million and the money was dropped by parachute from a small plane, which seems to be the new way to deliver pirate booty. Last month, a huge Saudi oil tanker that had been hijacked was freed in a similar way.”

You can look at this in two ways. One: as a triumph of diplomacy with no loss of life. Two: as an excruciatingly glacial policy response to an incident emblematic of a widespread human security problem afflicting civilian and commercial traffic on the high seas – a global governance failure which could be changed with a shift in priorities and some savvy institution building, if these could only be sparked off by a bit of political imagination.

I don’t have concrete proposals, but I tend to see it through the latter lens. Four months? Surely this track record could be improved if governments took hostage taking at sea seriously as a human security problem. In fact, the protection and liberation of hostages was one of the ‘human security problems’ identified by respondents to my human security survey that has not attracted significant advocacy or global policy response.

In other words, this strikes me as an example of what Radoslav Dmitrov and his collaborators called a “non-regime” on p. 235 of their 2007 International Studies Review article: “a transnational public policy arena characterized by the absence of multilateral agreement for policy coordination.”

I wonder how this might be changed. Readers are invited to submit their ideas: what concrete goals could human security activists push for in terms of mechanisms to protect and assist victims of high seas piracy?


An Alternative to Gibbeting

In a Reuters op-ed yesterday, Bernd Debusmann makes “the business case for high seas piracy”:

As far as illicit businesses with low risk and high rewards go, it doesn’t get much better than piracy on the high seas. The profit margins can easily surpass those of the cocaine trade. The risks? “There is no reason not to be a pirate,” according to U.S. Vice Admiral William Gortney, who commands the U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet. “The vessel I’m trying to pirate, they won’t shoot at me. I’m going to get my money.” Even pirates who are intercepted have little to fear. “They won’t arrest me because there’s no place to try me.”

Well, how might that be changed? Duncan Hollis reviews recent suggestions at Opinio Juris. They range from “create an entirely new international organization” to “hang ’em.”

Here’s another modest proposal: try them at the International Criminal Court.

But no, you say, the crime of piracy is not under the court’s jurisdiction. How true – and how ironic, considering that the idea of the court was originally put forward by Trinidad and Tobago in an attempt to deal precisely with transnational criminals (drug traffickers and the like) engaged in similar activities. But these crimes, as well as terrorism, didn’t make it into the Rome Statutethe only crimes under the court’s jurisdiction today are war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide and (when it’s defined) aggression.

However. This is all up for reconsideration in 2010 at the Review Conference of the International Criminal Court – an event at which the terms and procedures in the original ICC treaty can be reconsidered, amended or addended by States Parties. According to the website of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court:

“Although, there is yet no clear agenda for the Conference, it is foreseeable that considering the adoption of the Crime of Aggression will constitute one of the main issues on the agenda. Also, the Rome Statute provides for the revision of Article 124, an optional protocol which allows States to not subject their nationals to the jurisdiction of the Court for seven years with regards to war crimes; and the Rome Conference recommended in 1998 the possible consideration of terrorism and drug crimes. “

So, why not piracy as well? It is analogous to all of the above in that it is a crime of universal jurisdiction – meaning a crime that no one state was able to stamp out alone, but all states, as members of the civilized order, had a responsibility and right to prosecute. In fact, it is the very oldest crime under universal jurisdiction: in its heyday, it was seen as analogous to the contemporary scourge of genocide or torture. And thanks to recent events, it is as salient today as genocide was in 1998. (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s plenty salient. Any issue that can get my in-laws talking about Somalia instead of US electoral politics over Thanksgiving dinner is a candidate for some serious global policy-making.)

As a court of last resort, of course, the ICC would not be equipped to deal with an immediate backlog of cases as pirates are captured and extradited by nations such as Germany, India, France and the UK. But how much trouble would it be to change this? The maritime nations of the world (and those relying on maritime shipping) have a good incentive to put these folks behind bars: the ICC offers a legal avenue, and what is most needed is a prison in which to house suspects while they await trial. Why not fork over the resources, take care of capturing them where you can (not that this solves all the logistical problems there, just the legal ones), and let those who go on trial and end up in prison for life serve as at least a partial deterrent for others?

Just a hairbrained idea at twenty-six minutes to midnight with some rum in me. Thoughts?


Why It May Be Good To Think Twice Before Opening Fire On Pirates

Daniel Sekulitch provides an update on the pirate “mothership” sunk by India last week in a much-trumpeted police action on the high seas:

“It has now been confirmed by the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre that the vessel sunk last week by an Indian warship was not a pirate mothership but, rather, a fishing boat that had been hijacked by pirates. The Thai-owned fishing boat, Ekawat Nava 5, had been commandeered early on November 18 and the crew had been tied up by their captors, according to the shipowner. Later that same day, the Indian Navy Ship Tabar encountered the Ekawat Nava 5 and ordered the fishing boat to stop for an inspection. The pirates are reported to have threatened the warship, leaving the Indians no choice but to fire on what they believed was a mothership, eventually destroying the vessel. But with the rescue of a crewman from the fishing boat day ago, after six days adrift, the real story has come to light, with tragic consequences. Fourteen of his crewmates remains missing.”

More here. And here.

Not that the Indian military doesn’t have bigger problems than bad PR over its anti-piracy operations right now.


Pirates and Sovereigns

This post began as a response to the comments on Peter’s recent post on pirates, but they got to be so long, and required hyperlinks, I decided to start a new thread.

In his comment to that post, T. Greer asks what the pirates who hijacked the oiltanker Sirius Star were thinking, since they can’t deal with the logistics involved in selling the cargo and were certainly likely to provoke the great powers (further) by targeting such a prize.

Somali pirates want two things, as far as I can tell:

1) Money, which is why their strategies have been based on ransom demands – they don’t care about docking in port and selling cargo, they care about getting shipowners and their insurance companies to buy back their property and their crewpersons’ lives. This also explains (I think) why the hijackers of the Faina continue to negotiate at sea with the Ukrainian shipowners, rather than identifying buyers of the ships’ military cargo within Somalia (for which there is a market aplenty). Ransom is now Somalia’s fastest-growing industry and is contributing to an economic boom there, which is one reason why marrying daughters off to pirates has recently become an coveted indicator of upward mobility among villages within coastal Somalia.

2) Domestic Legitimation (which is why they tend to avoid killing hostages if possible and why they are seizing larger and riskier targets). The longer they keep the world powers at bay, the more powerful they seem and the more credible their claims to be “protecting” the Somali coast from rampant global capitalism and illegal fishing/dumping by other nations, which was destroying the local fishing industry (many of the pirates are former fishers out of work) and polluting the coastline. This legitimation helps them maintain their credibility and social power among land-based Somalis, which reinforces their economic gains.

None of this justifies piracy, of course, but just my two cents from following the complexities of it a bit over the past three years. Best to think of them not just as theives but as political players in the region.

In this sense, there are genuine parallels with eighteenth and nineteenth century maritime piracy. Janice Thomson’s landmark study of the relationship between piracy, privateering and state-building early in the Westphalian system situates earlier pirate bands as alternate forms of non-territorialized governance aimed partly at resisting the emerging European state system’s reliance on property rights and ability to discipline labor. It’s no surprise to me that as state system loses its grip on markets, its role as container of political identity, and even its monopoly on the use of legitimate force, piracy has reemerged not only as a practice (this has been going on for least 20 years) but now also as a political discourse.

Aside from how to solve the immediate problem, the constitutive and legal questions here abound. If political players they are, rather than mere brigands, then what political rulesets should guide diplomacy with these people in order to both bring about a useful causal outcome (the protection of shipping lanes, the reconstruction of a country), while contributing constructively to reconstituting international law / institutions to account for the exercise of political violence by non-state actors through asymmetrical means?

I don’t know. But that’s one frame for understanding the kinds of discussions that are needed here – they are not so different from the discussions, such as those taking place at Complex Terrain Lab, about how to reconceptualize the state-centric law of armed conflict to account for / bring into the fold non-state actors. Only difference is, most of that discussion has taken place regarding the law of land warfare only, rather than maritime war law, as Ken Anderson pointed out recently: all should read his complete Opinio Juris post on the matter.


Pirates get ambitious

Just when you thought that the Pirates couldn’t get any more ambitious than seizing a freighter full of Ukrainian weapons…

Somali Pirates seized a Saudi supertanker Tuesday. The tanker, one of the largest ships on the ocean, is the size of a US Aircraft carrier and three times a heavy when full. It has a crew of 25 (by comparison, an air craft carrier has a crew of over 5000). It carries over a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily crude output.

It is, perhaps, one of the most valuable targets that the Pirates could have seized. Its contents are estimated to be worth over $100 million. Of course, that will fluctuate with the price of crude, but still.

You wonder if this will prompt some more serious counter-piracy actions.

Update: The Indian Navy has sunk a Pirate Mother Ship, with the Pirates firing first, and the Indian ship returning fire and sinking the mother ship, while at least one smaller pirate craft got a way.


Meanwhile, Off the Coast of Somalia…

AP reports, in an article titled “Somali Pirates Stare Down Superpowers”:

With a Russian frigate closing in and a half-dozen U.S. warships within shouting distance, the pirates holding a tanker off Somalia’s coast might appear to have no other choice than to wave the white flag. But that’s not how it works in Somalia, a failed state where a quarter of children die before they turn 5, where anybody with a gun controls the streets and where every public institution has crumbled. The 11-day standoff aboard the Ukrainian MV Faina begs the question: How can a bunch of criminals from one of the poorest and most wretched countries on Earth face off with some of the world’s richest and well-armed superpowers?

In Somalia, pirates are better-funded, better-organized and better-armed than one might imagine in a country that has been in tatters for nearly two decades. They have the support of their communities and rogue members of the government — some pirates even promise to put ransom money toward building roads and schools. With most attacks ending with million-dollar payouts, piracy is considered the biggest economy in Somalia. Pirates rarely hurt their hostages, instead holding out for a huge payday.

The pirates are demanding $20 million ransom, and say they will not lower the price. “We only need money and if we are paid, then everything will be OK,” he said. “No one can tell us what to do.” Ali’s bold words come even though his dozens of fighters are surrounded by U.S. warships and American helicopters buzz overhead. Moscow has sent a frigate, which should arrive within days.

Good that the reporter is focusing on the root causes of piracy, not just the need for an immediate response. But I don’t know about this US/Russian Goliath held at bay by David Scallywag narrative. All that’s holding the US back is casualty aversion and the desire not to step on Moscow’s toes. Any guesses as to how this will go down when the Russians show up?


This Just In: Somali Pirates Are Definitely Human

No sooner did I blog about the growing security threat posed by maritime piracy than several powerful militaries took notice… not because I was particularly persuasive, but because a Ukranian freighter loaded down with $30 million worth of tanks, grenade launchers and other military equipment was captured by marauders off the coast of Somalia.

Two dozen crew members are still hostage aboard the MV Faina, now anchored off the Somali coast, while the pirates repeatedly isuse a series of ransom demands – though it’s not obvious to me to whom. (Also, their demands have fallen, like the global stock market, since Sunday: down to $20 mil from an original demand of $35 mil.) Both the US and Russia have sent vessels to intercept the MV Faina – Russia because many of her crew members are Russian; the US because of intel that the arms shipment may have been heading not to Kenya, as claimed by both Nairobi and Kiev, but rather to Khartoum. (The plot thickens.) Neither country wants the pirates to sell the weapons to Islamist warlords in Somalia, although it is quite unclear whether they would even be in any position to offload such heavy machinery.

In an mildly entertaining twist on the story, a spokesperson for the pirate crew was interviewed today by the NY Times.

The Somali pirates who hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition said in an interview on Tuesday that they had no idea the ship was carrying arms when they seized it on the high seas. “We just saw a big ship,” the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, said in a telephone interview. “So we stopped it.” In a 45-minute interview, Mr. Sugule spoke on everything from what the pirates wanted (“just money”) to why they were doing this (“to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters”) to what they had to eat on board (rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, “you know, normal human-being food”).

(Interesting how he feels the need to stress his shipmates’ human-being-ness, as if he wants us fend off misconceptions that he and his brethren are actually akin to those under the curse of the Black Pearl.)

He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

Though Adam Blickstein reminds us we can hardly take his rhetoric at face value, it does show him to be a skilled and savvy diplomat more than a common criminal. He manages to make a principled claim justifying his behavior on nationalist grounds, while claiming to side-step any political motives that would link him or his crew to US or Russian security interests in the region. Not that the superpowers are buying it for a moment – though neither are they storming the ship. Yet.

Meanwhile, pirate afficionados can take a certain guilty pleasure in admiring the swashbuckling bravado of the envoy, who, poking fun at Western humanitarian norms, told the reporter obligingly:

““Killing is not in our plans… We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.” When asked why the pirates needed $20 million to protect themselves from hunger, Mr. Sugule laughed and said, “Because we have a lot of men.”



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