Taking the Fight to the Pirates


By: Greg C. Reeson

The recent pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia was the first such attack by pirates on a U.S.-flagged ship in more than 200 years. Shortly after the U.S. Navy rescued the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, pirates responded by seizing three more vessels and firing on another U.S.-flagged ship, the Liberty Sun. While the attacks on U.S. ships are new, the Somali piracy problem has been going on for at least the last decade. As a result of international inaction over the years, attacks have now increased to the point where they threaten international trade and humanitarian assistance to Africa. Ignoring the pirates is not an option. They will continue their attacks until we decide to stop reacting and choose instead to go on the offensive to find a solution to the problem.

Taking the fight to the pirates first requires identifying who they are and why they do what they do. The pirates attacking cargo and fishing vessels off the coast of Somalia are not maritime terrorists, as some have suggested. They have no political purpose and no specific, predetermined civilian targets. They are, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said, common criminals who attack targets of opportunity with the goal of making a fast buck through ransom payments or the sale of captured cargo. They are the product of a failed Somali state, and until the conditions that prompt their actions are addressed, they will not go away. The problem for the United States, and the international community, is that no one seems to have the stomach for another intervention in Somalia.

If no country or group of countries is willing to undertake the massive nation-building effort that would be required to establish a functioning state in Somalia, one that would provide non-criminal opportunities for income and prosperity, then the only solution for the foreseeable future is strategic management of the piracy problem. Actions taken thus far have not worked. Patrolling the shipping lane off the Somali coast is an inefficient and ineffective use of critical naval resources. The area to be monitored is too vast for the number of ships available for patrols, and the tactics used by the pirates – moving in fast on small boats and quickly taking control of targeted ships – minimize the reaction time available to allied navies. Paying ransoms, which several shipping companies have done, has rewarded the pirates’ behavior and promoted additional attacks.

So what can be done? While there is no silver bullet or magic solution for bringing the piracy under control, there are several courses of action the United States can take, with or without assistance from other nations threatened by Somali pirates. To begin, the crews of vessels transiting the shipping lane off the coast of Somalia can be armed so that they can defend themselves against pirate attacks. Thus far shipping companies have balked at this idea because of the increased risk of harm to crew members and because of legitimate legal concerns. But relying on reactive naval support from the international community is not a practical solution, and the arming of crews with sonic cannons, water guns, and lethal small arms and crew-served weapons remains the best option for an immediate response to the piracy problem.

A second option is the use of contracted security personnel. This no doubt would be a controversial course of action, given the allegations made against private security contractors in Iraq, but shipping companies could bear the cost of protection for commercial cargo and receive assistance from the United States, or other participating nations, for humanitarian shipments sent to Africa by foreign governments. Another possibility is the use of a convoy system like that used to escort allied supply ships during World War II. At a minimum, the United States could maximize the use of its naval forces in the region by grouping multiple cargo ships together under the protection of the U.S. Navy. Ideally, other nations would participate in a convoy system, guaranteeing safe passage for ships involved in international trade. Those shipping companies declining to participate because of business worries concerning speed of transport and loss of control and flexibility would be responsible for their own safety and security. Finally, the United States and other willing nations could target the assets and safe havens used by the pirates in the planning and execution of their attacks. That means hitting the docks where they moor their boats, destroying their “mother ships” and attack craft, and taking out the facilities where they live, primarily in the Puntland region and especially in the “pirate city” of Eyl.

None of these measures, employed either individually or in concert with other measures, will completely eliminate the piracy problem. As long as Somalia remains an ungoverned space, and as long as the international community remains reluctant to bring that ungoverned space under control, the conditions that motivate the pirates will continue to produce armed thugs that seek out weak targets in the waters off the Somali coast. But the absence of a final resolution to the problem is not an excuse for continued inaction, especially when the lives of Americans are at stake. To protect U.S.-flagged ships and American crews, and to ensure the unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid and international trade, the United States must take immediate action to reduce the problem of Somali piracy to a manageable level.

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