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.