In May of this year, a Danish tugboat operator named Colin Darch was piloting his craft out of the Red Sea when heavily armed pirates approached in two small boats and began screaming and firing weapons. Though he made a gallant attempt to resist, the thugs boarded the tugboat and took the crew hostage for six weeks until a ransom was paid by the company’s owners, reportedly at $700,000. Interviewed later, Darch said his “heart sank” when the assault began.

In April, the French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, was seized off the coast of Somalia where thirty people were taken hostage. A reported two million dollars in ransom money was paid for their release.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, seventy-one vessels have been boarded in the first six months of 2008, 190 crew members were taken hostage, seven were killed and another seven are missing, and presumed dead. Over 2,463 acts of piracy were committed around the world between 2000 and 2006. Their goal: food and supplies targeted as foreign aid, cash, personal belongings of passengers, and ransom money. The most hazardous routes are along the Nigerian and Somali coastlines of Africa, Indonesia and the Gulf of Aden where shipping lanes are vital in and out of the Red Sea. Authorities estimate only a fraction of attacks are actually reported, for fear of inflated insurance costs.

Such thugs are not the romantic figures of yore. No Captain Kidd, no “Shiver me timbers,” no swashbuckling Blackbeards, no swords, no eye patches. Modern pirates are sophisticated and armed to the teeth in their quest for blood money. In November of 2005, the U.S. cruise ship, Seabourn Spirit, was seized more than 100 miles from the Somali shoreline by pirates in speedboats launched from a mother ship. The attackers were armed with automatic firearms and grenades. Often, pirates don night-vision goggles, carry rocket launchers and navigate with global positioning devices.

According to estimates by the Rand Corporation, armed attacks on the high seas are costing over one billion dollars a year.

It’s tantamount to international terrorism. Fear runs rampant along shipping lanes. Individual crew members carry pistols. Thugs kill and maim. But we hear little about this form of terror in the media, because they don’t explode bombs in busy marketplaces or on school buses, nor does it involve al Qaeda and other known terror organizations. The news is not sensational enough.

Besides the costs in human life, it is certainly having an impact on international tourism, and the cost of commerce because cargo tankers are being forced to navigate hundreds of miles — consuming tons of extra fuel — out of the way to distance themselves from the threat of terror.

It’s nothing new. Rogues of southern Asia and northern Africa have engaged in pirating for a millennium. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Barbary Pirates menaced the Mediterranean and Atlantic shores, committing murder, robbing merchant chips, capturing hostages and taking more than 1.25 million Europeans as slaves to be sold in their markets along the North African coast.

(That’s right, victims of slavery were not limited to Africans)

The impact was devastating. France, England and Spain lost thousands of ships not to mention human beings. Long stretches of the southern coastline of Spain and Italy were abandoned for fear of pirates.

After America’s independence, the United States joined with other nations to engage in international shipping and commerce, but were impeded by constant raids and killings by the Barbary pirates. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams personally met with the ambassador from Tripoli, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, and asked why his government had been so hostile to our country and to Europeans.

The ambassador’s response was delivered to the Continental Congress:

“It was written in the Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once”


In order to fend off violence with violence, the practice of appeasement and capitulation was born, followed by the success of ransoms between the U.S. and the pirates. Payments of tribute and ransom amounted to 20 percent of United States government revenues in 1800. Algeria, for example, wanted $60,000 per prisoner, while the U.S. would only pay $4,000. History books are replete with horror stories about slavery, rape, murder and robbery stemming from the Barbary Coast. In the end, appeasement and negotiations did nothing to stem to flood of terror. President Jefferson, and congress, finally decided on a more formidable tactic: guns.

The first Barbary war lasted from 1801 to 1805, the second took place in 1815. The enemy was defeated by the U.S. Marines at Tripoli, thus the hymn lyrics,… “to the shores of Tripoli.” Shipping piracy and kidnapings came to a near halt. The Barbary pirates understood one message only: force.

The United Nations has basically been impotent in stemming these actions. A Security Council resolution passed on June 2nd allows for the U.S. and coalition nations to intervene by all necessary means to stem piracy off the Somali coast. But with attacks occurring far out into international waters, they come under no country’s jurisdiction, and no legal protection. Most often, for shippers and boaters, it’s every man to himself, defend as you can.

The U.S. has been active in patrolling waters and escorting some ships carrying foreign aid. We have also donated equipment, and coordinated training exercises for Indonesian sailors, urging them to work with their neighbors in Singapore and Malaysia. But the attacks continue. The U.S. cannot police the world.

Just like the action taken against the Barbary pirates of the 19th century, the only recourse may be the use of force. It is foreseeable that all seafaring crafts in hazardous regions will train and arm themselves with grenade launchers and heavy artillery which will send a dire message to the pirates of the 21st century; Seizing a ship may be hazardous to your health.

Once aware they are likely to be blown out of the water, the pirates will think twice.

There is another common denominator at the root of most acts of piracy today. It should be clear to anyone who studies this problem. Piracy is not just about money. It’s alluded to in the message from the Tripoli ambassador delivered by Jefferson to the Continental Congress in the 1780’s.

But I dare not demonize.