This just in: Somali pirates have executed four American yachters they kidnapped last week. I’m reprinting my Wired article from earlier this month addressing the escalation of the piracy war:
Let’s be perfectly clear: Somali pirates are not nice people. In a decade of banditry on a steadily-expanding slice of East Africa ocean turf, AK-47-armed sea thugs have attacked thousands of vessels, captured hundreds and held their crews for up to a year a time. It costs governments and shipping companies up to $12 billion a year to avoid or defend against the pirates — and to pay ransoms for ship’s crews that can’t flee or fight.
But for all their criminal behavior, Somali pirates have not gone out of their way to directly hurt or kill seafarers — until now.
In recent weeks, there have been reports that some pirates are “torturing” their hostages. Contrast this with 2009, when one pirate told Wired’s Scott Carney that “hostages — especially Westerners — are our only assets, so we try our best to avoid killing them.”
If the reports of torture are true, the implications are serious for the loose alliance of governments struggling to contain Somali piracy. In the grand scheme of things, pirates are not actually a huge threat to the global order, although their regional effect is pretty severe.
But if the world’s governments perceive pirates as a serious threat — and torture would certainly encourage that perception — then the governments’ “cure” for piracy could end up being worse than the “disease.” Today’s low-intensity “war on piracy” could morph into something akin to the unending, politically charged, super-expensive “war on terrorism.”
The reported shift in pirates’ attitudes has been a long time coming. Last month, South Korean commandos stormed a captured vessel and killed eight pirates. A surviving member of the pirate band told Reuters he and his minions would show no mercy to any South Korean crews they encountered in the future. “We never planned to kill, but now we shall seek revenge.”