Monday, May 11, 2009

Applying Crim Theory to Piracy

I’ve been meaning to write about this issue for quite some time, but the NBA playoffs have gripped of my attention. Thankfully, it seems the Rockets will still push the Lakers without Yao. Back to the task at hand.

After taking Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama hostage in April, Somali pirates saturated our media. Watching CNN was like watching an international crime drama on TNT. Since the theatrics have settled, a sharper set of analyses have emerged, some of which speak to classic criminology theories.

Deviance/Labeling Theory

Society views piracy off the coast of Somalia as violently criminal only because it is defined, or labeled, that way. We witnessed armed kidnapping, attempts to extort millions of dollars and eventually, a violent intervention to save Capt. Phillips that resulted in the death of three Somali pirates. But as Ann Pettifor illustrates in the Huffington Post, violent criminality can take shape in other forms that society doesn’t so quickly label as violent.

Somali Pirates were condemned when they hijacked tankers, took sailors hostage and demanded million-dollar ransoms. But their demands were a drop in the bucket compared to the ransoms demanded by Wall Street. And the Somalis were kinder to their hostages than Wall Street is to millions of unemployed Americans. For while the Somalian pirates returned hostages unharmed, bankers, fraudsters and failed insurers continue to harm the US administration and hold millions of Americans hostage. The latter are being stripped effectively, of pensions, savings, livelihoods and jobs.

In other words, taking away working class people’s livelihood, has substantially worse and lengthier consequences than holding a group of individuals and the companies they work for hostage for millions of dollars.
Not that being held hostage at sea is pleasant by any means, but extensive physical violence is not carried out by the pirates “because Somali pirates rarely threaten or kill hostages. The moment crew members get hurt or killed, the pirates lose their most important bargaining chip” (Joffe-Walt, NPR).

Conversely, consider the violence that is bound to emerge from the economic crisis, not only in the form of increased property crime, drug trafficking, and intimate partner violence, but also in terms of the collective years people will have to work after losing their pensions and the psychological effects of mass under- and unemployment, such as suicide.

While the banking industry has been criticized, society does not label its irresponsibility as violent. Clearly, however, the disseminated imagery of Somali pirates evokes notions of highly violent crime – a labeling of violence.

Labeling theorists would argue that the above pictures and the description, below, of Somali pirates perpetuate their mainstream identity as violent criminals, while white collar criminals are portrayed as shrewd, callous businessmen, but not as violent per se. From Chris Parry’s article in The Independent:

The modern-day Somalian pirate comes from a country where some of Africa's worst factional fighting and communal killing has taken place. He is either an ex-militia fighter or a fisherman, and would have known deprivation and insecurity all his life. He will now have access to mobile phones, GPS devices and other expensive technologies, amassed by the reinvestment of cash from ship ransoms. He will be armed with a personalised Kalashnikov assault rifle and will be capable of firing rocket-propelled grenade launchers. And if he has any sense, he will steer well clear of the ongoing conflict in Somalia between the ruling Union of Islamic Courts, the strong al-Qa'ida presence, and the western-backed African Union and Ethiopian "occupation" forces.

Control Theory

Control theory assumes that society needs institutional forms of social control to keep people, well, controlled. These institutions are families, places of work, schools, churches, and so on. Furthermore, the theory assumes there is a dominant code of morality espoused by these institutions that the general populace believes in and follows.

Not only do these institutions socialize society into believing various social norms, but they also keep members of society emotionally attached and socially involved. Members of society develop social bonds with their classmates, teachers, family members, pastors, co-workers and so on.

If someone were to engage in crime or deviance, s/he would be forced to cut those social bonds. Moreover, members of society are busy participating in conventional activities (e.g., attending school, playing sports, planning family outings, working), giving them less time and energy to even think about engaging in criminal acts – “Idle hands do the devil’s work.”

Thus, social control theorists would explain piracy off the coast of Somalia by pointing out the lack of institutions in Somalia that would otherwise help form conventional social bonds and keep people busy in conventional activities. They would look at the lawlessness that has ensconced Somalia, beginning so blatantly in 1991. From The Ottawa Citizen:

Piracy starts inland. The problem is the lack of a central government in Somalia - there are no jobs, no schools, so there are millions of Somali youths sitting there with nothing... They are recruited by fundamentalists who give them hope of going to paradise in the fight against infidels, or they are recruited by the pirates, who say, 'Come with us, capture one ship and your share is $40,000.' What kid says no to that?

Related somewhat to social control theory is the theory of social disorganization. The theory of social disorganization historically applied to major cities in North America, noting that the concentric zone just outside of downtown business centers was muddled with ethnic heterogeneity, unemployment, poverty, and among other concerns, transience. These conditions were said to cause and perpetuate crime, irrespective of which groups moved in and out of the “criminogenic” zone.

While ethnic diversity doesn’t apply to the Somali situation, unemployment, poverty and transience certainly do. Daniel Howden’s article in The Independent describes Somali refugees’ mass movement into Kenya, noting the chaotic conditions that typify socially disorganized communities and frequently spark criminal behaviors.

The lucky ones come with their families, others appear out of the thorn bushes, walking alone. Five hundred Somalis are now arriving at this bleak Kenyan outpost every day. They join a population of 267,000 and counting, in a facility built to shelter just 45,000. While the world has been captivated by the high seas drama of Somalia's pirates, this human tide has swollen the ranks of Dadaab, turning it into the world's largest refugee camp. The new arrivals sit in their hundreds under a makeshift tarpaulin, trying to keep perfectly still in temperatures that reach 40C in the shade. It speaks volumes for the horrors unfolding in Somalia that people will abandon their homes, risk arbitrary arrest, death or starvation to reach the desolate welcome on offer in this corner of northern Kenya.

(Somali refugee camp)

Social control theorists would argue that in order to stop Somali piracy, there needs to be a bolstering of institutions on Somali land that stops excessive forms of social disorganization. To some degree, the following excerpt from Corey Flintoff’s piece on NPR speaks to this theoretical perspective (although at the end, it's rooted a bit heavily in enforcement).

Most officials and experts agree that the solution to piracy off the Somali coast will require more than enforcement by foreign militaries. It will require mending the failed Somali state, by helping to restore stability and a government in Somalia strong enough to enforce laws and police the coastline.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theorists argue that criminals, like conventional businesspersons, make rational choices by weighing the pros and cons of a criminal opportunity (I’ve always thought at base level, this was the simplest theory ever created).
It also assumes people are inherently bad, that if given the free will to commit crime, most people would jump at the chance. Thus, When opportunity knocks, if the negative possibilities that come along with committing the crime are minimized (e.g., low likelihood of getting caught, lenient punishment) in contrast to the possible rewards (e.g., wealth, power, prestige), potential criminals make a “rational” choice to engage in crime.

Substantial chatter around the internet supports rational choice theory, suggesting that the best way to stop piracy is to make the consequences of piracy appear and be more negative than positive. This essentially means fighting force with more force, ships having more artillery and artillery that is more sophisticated than that which pirates have.

According to Michael Sullivan’s NPR piece, piracy around Southeast Asia has dropped due to increased enforcement that was bankrolled through funds stemming from the war on terror, dedicated to areas with high Muslim populations, such as Indonesia.

…Indonesia has done a better job of dealing with the problem. And contributions by foreign governments — such as new coastal radar and new boats for the Indonesian maritime police — also have helped.

Rational choice theorists would argue that similar efforts should be taken in waters around Somalia. From Tom Bowman’s piece on NPR:

Navy ships to patrol for pirates off Somalia — but probably not more than a handful. Other countries are being encouraged to send more ships as well.

Increasing the number of warships makes sense to Rick Norton, a retired Navy commander who teaches national security at the U.S. Naval War College.

"You can do a lot with relatively low-end, inexpensive ships, corvettes, frigates, the types of ships that many navies in the world have," Norton says.


Pentagon sources say other options in Mullen's piracy review include placing U.S. Navy security teams of a half-dozen armed sailors or Marines aboard some commercial ships. The ships could provide security along shipping routes more at risk of piracy.

Convoys are another option, Norton says.

"You could set up a convoy system, you could set up traffic lanes, and you could patrol the traffic lanes and thereby reduce the amount of water you had to cover to prevent pirate attacks," he says.


Yet another option calls for military attacks against pirate havens in Somalia — the camps where they live and plan their raids.

On the flip side of that coin, pirates will continue to make rational choices, building their piracy businesses as long as the outcomes are profitable and losses are decreased. Chana Joffe-Walt had an excellent piece on NPR that illustrates this perspective and again, the rational choice theory:

[J. Peter] Pham [James Madison University] cautions, the pirates must choose their target carefully.

"Does it have any value? Who is the crew? Do they have any security onboard? Who owns the ship? All of those things have to be factored. This is a business decision, to seize a ship. Westerners command a lot more money than poor Filipinos, whose country and families don't have the money to ransom them," Pham says.

"A European is going to fetch you a lot more than a Filipino. No one is going to ransom an African. I'm being brutally frank, but it's true," he says.


If the pirates have made "good" business decisions, they will soon successfully seize a ship — and have "customers" such as Per Gullestrup, CEO of the Clipper Group, a Danish shipping company. One of the company's ships, with its crew of 13, was hijacked last November in the Gulf of Aden.

When it happened, Gullestrup called the company's insurer, who wanted Gullestrup to pay a ransom and get the ship back — otherwise, the insurer would be stuck with covering a $15 million ship. Gullestrup's company could have tried to take the ship back by force, but that is usually when hostages get killed.

So the insurer put Gullestrup in touch with a professional ransom negotiator.

After three days, the pirates called.
"They introduced themselves, you know, 'My name is Ali; I'm your friendly pirate today' — not quite, but you almost got that sense. They're not making threats or anything. They're very polite in their whole demeanor," Gullestrup says.

They just politely demanded $7 million.

Just as Gullestrup had hired a professional negotiator, the pirates hired one, too — usually someone who speaks English well, often a lawyer. In this instance the pirates' negotiator — "Ali" — had spent 29 years in the U.S.

And like conventional businesses across the world, pirates are organized in ways that stratify and bureaucratize their work force.

Gullestrup says they actually found time sheets onboard the ship after the pirates had left.

"We could see that there was a time sheet on a particular person who had been onboard and dates they had been onboard and so many dollars per day, and then a total sum on the time sheet," he says. The pirates, in effect, were clocking in and out.

From this and other ransom situations, here's a typical accounting for a piracy operation: About 20 percent goes to pay off officials who look the other way. About 50 percent is for expenses and payroll. The leader of an attack makes $10,000 to $20,000 (the average Somali family lives on $500 a year). The initial investor — who put in $250,000 of seed capital — gets 30 percent, sometimes up to $500,000.

In short, potential pirates look at their occupational options, which include various criminal enterprises and virtually no conventional choices. When the pros of piracy outweigh the cons, they move in the logical direction. Rational choice theorists feel ending piracy means making the cons of piracy more apparent. Here’s the bottom line from the rational choice theory perspective, from Tom Gjelten’s piece on NPR:

Ship owners, like all businessmen, look at the bottom line: Time is money, and when pirates attack one of their ships, owners typically just want to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. So they pay the ransom.

And back to Gwen Thompkins’s piece on NPR:

For many Somalis, choosing a line of business is the most practical decision of all. What works is right, and what doesn't work is wrong. That is why piracy has taken hold in the country: It's a multimillion-dollar industry that works.

Critical Criminology

Critical criminologists argue that crime is a ramification of power imbalances in society and that crime perpetuates these power imbalances, often times covertly through the development of laws and infrastructure that protect the powerful and keep the poor powerless. To this end, those within this school of thought argue that the real crimes committed on society are not those we see in the news (e.g., piracy), but those that are not so obviously apparent, including the cultural mores that create poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.

Actually, a good deal of analysis on contemporary piracy has taken a critical lens, spotlighting how the Somali people, already reeling from civil war, have been victimized by developed countries and their cargo ships that have ruined Somalia’s fishing waters and dumped toxic waste off Somalia’s shores. In doing so, the cargo ships have ruined the one industry Somalis had – fishing, which has made piracy an even more attractive and necessary occupation. From a video produced by the CBC:

Over the past years, Somali pirates have attacked over 100 ships, holding them for ransom before freeing them and their crews. They’re estimated to have gotten away with $30 million.

All but unnoticed amid the outrage over the hijackings, a different group of pirates has managed to wreak havoc off Somalia without international labor patrols bothering to stop them. In this case, it’s not Somalis who are the pirates. They are the victims. With no government to enforce its sovereignty, foreign ships have been dumping toxic waste off Somalia’s coast, and foreign trawlers have been fishing illegally in its waters.

President of the Canadian Somali Congress: “When you see the coverage of piracy, in most of the national media, you don’t hear much about the $300 million annually that’s lost by Somali fisherman in illegal fishing done by foreign interests. You also never hear about the cost that cannot be estimated, the negative costs of toxic waste.


It is understandable that outside powers, having been bitten, are now gun-shy about trying to intervene. What is hard to comprehend is why the outside world would make things worse for the Somalis by turning a blind eye to foreigners fishing illegally in Somali waters and poisoning them with toxic waste.


And as can be expected, the starving people who’ve been robbed have retaliated with some countering of their own. The attacks on foreign ships, Somalis say, started as a reaction to foreign pillages trying to put their fishermen out of business.


…you could perhaps dump a ton of toxic waste in Africa for about $8, per ton. Versus the cost of safe disposal in Europe or maybe North America for about $1000 a ton. So there’s a huge potential profit in such an illegal trade … (Narrator) It makes the $3 million paid to the pirates who held a Saudi oil tanker for two months look like chump change … Clearly, the international community is culpable to the extent that they have allowed toxic waste to leave ports in developed economies and end up in a vulnerable community, a vulnerable country like Somali with enough problems, let alone dealing with toxic waste.

Johann Hari from The Independent adds to this:

In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.


At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving.

Critical criminologists would contend that Somali pirates are not the ultimate criminals in this situation. Instead, the true criminals are the international corporations and their executives who take advantage of Somalia’s unsteady government and destroy Somalia's fishing waters and shores. They would also point to powerful sectors in the international community that looked away when Somalis were further victimized.

Thus, while piracy is not applauded, it is seen as a symptom of a much greater crime that has more disastrous effects financially and in terms of human health. Critical criminologists would point to the fact that three of the four pirates holding
Capt. Phillips are dead. Since this international tragedy has transpired, what punishments have been dealt to the corporations that dump toxic waste off Somalia coasts? Exactly.

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  1. Chasing the Somali piracy money trail

  2. "The Inside Story of a Pirate Hijack" by Rob Walker. An OUTSTANDING podcast covering a series of interviews with those intimately involved in contemporary piracy.

  3. "Jihad: The Somalia connection" (9/13/09)