Modern pirates need new response

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A couple that had been in pirate captivity for more than a year was released last Sunday, reportedly after paying $750,000 in ransom. Piracy has been increasingly problematic in recent years, particularly in the area around the Horn of Africa. Navies from countries around the world have been dispatched to fight piracy and protect shipping.

However, most of these efforts have been and will continue to be ineffective. Piracy is no longer the domain of deserters and renegades, which were largely eliminated in the Atlantic and Caribbean centuries ago. Instead, it has become an advanced and developed business plan. Old methods of fighting piracy will not work against these high-tech criminals.

Most pirates in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden are of Somali origin. Somalia is a failed state with a virtually nonexistent government. The average Somali family lives on about $500 per year. In such an environment, piracy is an occupation with high payout and not unreasonable risk. An attack leader makes about $15,000, according to an NPR investigative report. The operations are normally funded by Somalis living outside the country, who reap the majority of the payout.

In this business environment, stopping individual attacks is completely ineffective. The only true way to discourage piracy is to punish the outside investors and stabilize Somalia and neighboring countries. These are enormous tasks, and they will require much more planning than simply sending a fleet to intercept hostile vessels.

The small risk of capture for a Somali pirate pales in comparison to the ability to feed his family. The few times a hijacking makes the news, it is typically due to a rescue attempt, such as when the U.S. Navy took back the Maersk Alabama in 2009. But the majority of hijackings go unnoticed. The ransom is paid, the hostages are returned safely, and nobody gets hurt.

Modern piracy is not the cruel world of Blackbeard or the inventive one of Jack Sparrow. It has order and planning, and stopping it requires a reasoned response. Instead of sending ships to Somalia, we should be working with the nations of the world to lift that country out of poverty and give its citizens a better choice.