Could Pirates Become an Army for the Stateless?

A group of pirates is holding a US ship captain hostage in East African waters after hijacking his freighter. Forget robot soldiers - the ancient pirate is the future of warfare in a post-national world.

The US is negotiating with the pirates who took the freighter Maersk Alabama. Though crew retook the ship, their captain is still being held in a lifeboat by pirates while the ship itself is being escorted by crew from the US destroyer Bainbridge to safer waters. Over the past five years, hundreds of ships have been attacked by pirates off the coast of East Africa, as you can see using the International Chamber of Commerce's live piracy map (a snapshot from today's map is below). France has even gotten into intense firefights with some of them, sparking UN debate.

Could Pirates Become an Army for the Stateless?

Sea-going piracy is back, and is likely to grow into the foreseeable future as government controls in countries like Somalia weaken. Late last year, the BBC reported that pirates are working with radical Islamic groups in East Africa, helping them smuggle weapons and training them in maritime battle techniques. You could say piracy is a symptom of unstable governments and a growing population of people who are stateless. In the absence of national identity, it makes sense to claim a pirate identity, which has elements of tribalism and a kind of rogue internationalism.

Could Pirates Become an Army for the Stateless?

Interestingly, sea piracy as we know it got its start with another rogue state - England. During the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth enlisted the aid of "privateers," a term that referred to state-authorized pirates. In return for safe harbor on British shores, these privateers would give the Queen a cut of their booty (often stolen from British rival Spain), and pledge to plunder only ships belonging to England's enemies. Francis Drake was one such privateer/pirate, as was Walter Ralegh.

Other pirates, like the infamous Irish pirate queen Gráinne Mhaol (pictured here meeting with Elizabeth), fought against Elizabeth. Gráinne Mhaol used her booty to fund local Irish rebellions against the crown.

Could Pirates Become an Army for the Stateless?

My point is that pirates have a long and rich history of springing up at times when nations are unstable. They are the anarchic military wing of upstart states. It's quite possible that the rise in piracy we're seeing in East African waters may (ironically) be the bleeding edge of a coming stability for the region. After all, pirates brought England the stability it required to become a world power. The allegiances of Somalian pirates and their counterparts from other regions may someday decide the fate of nations.

Top image via Sergent Dupont Sebastien / ECPAD / Reuters. Photo of fleeing Somalian pirates via Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky / U.S. Navy.