Shiver me timbers, thar’s pirates lurkin’ in the waters off the coast of Africa in 2009! Who woulda thunk it! Blue Beard? Black Beard? Captain Hook? Do these fellas have peg legs, long beards, bandannas, eye patches, and parrots on their shoulders?

A bit light-hearted there, but there is really nothing funny about what is happening these days off the African coast. Modern day pirates are taking over ships, attacking crews and holding them hostage, and making off with loot by the millions.

One of the questions usually asked relates to wondering how a small speedboat can overcome a large fishing trawler or a huge cargo ship. Here is the general attack scenario.

The little speedboat moves at high speed and is loaded up with a small crew of ‘pirates’, often from areas around either Somalia or Nigeria. It approaches the larger ship suddenly and then the pirates cast a rope ladder onto the larger ship. They climb the ladder and make their way through the ship to the crew, taking them hostage and sometimes killing them.

The pirates are armed with sophisticated weaponry that includes high-powered automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and even hand grenades. Even at times when the larger ship sees the pirates coming, they cannot overcome them because of this advantage in weaponry.

Due to international shipping regulations, insurance concerns, and for other reasons, the crews on the ships do not normally carry the weapons necessary to overcome the pirates attacks. The pirates can hold the cargo and crew for ransoms which can run into the millions of dollars. Or they can simply hijack the ship and have it taken to land, where they steal whatever they can from that cargo.

The pirates come from poor lands, and that is the simple goal of their mission: money, wealth, material goods. CNN reported that the pirates also threaten and attack tourists, stating that “In March, Somalis hijacked a yacht and its crew of seven off the Seychelles.” 

The modern-day pirates attack sometimes hundreds of miles from the shorelines, and while U.S.-led efforts to combat the pirates has resulted in a decrease in their success rate, the overall number of attacks is increasing.

Despite the fact that the problem has been going on for some time, this past week saw the issue finally addressed by the American mass media, and thus the American public finally began to become aware of what is happening.

The American ship ‘Maersk Alabama’ was attacked by pirates in the waters off Somalia on April 8th. The crew initially managed to beat back the pirates, and the ship’s Captain Richard Phillips agreed to remain on-board with the pirates with his crew freed while negotiations took place between American authorities and Somalian groups.

Just yesterday a rescue was effected when three of the four pirates were picked off by snipers aboard the USS Bainbridge. The Somali groups have now vowed revenge on America, saying “France and the U.S. will encounter unforgettable lessons…We will take quick revenge on American ships if we don’t receive apologies…We will not only target ships and crew in the sea, but also American agencies’ staff in Somalia.”

Wonderful. They attack our ship, take our citizens and workers hostage, but we need to apologize to them? That would be hilarious if the pirates weren’t so deadly serious.

President Barack Obama and his national security people need to ensure safe passage through international waters for the American shipping business and for American tourists. Taking out the ‘Maersk Alabama’ pirates with sniper fire was a tremendous first step, but much more needs to be done. People need to learn that the answer to their need is never forcibly taking what belongs to someone else, especially when that action puts human lives in danger.

However, the larger solution to this problem ultimately will only be addressed by the solution to a far greater problem, that of African government instability. In the short run, the piracy needs to be dealt with harshly while those governing issues are dealt with diplomatically.