US Navy Snookered in Pirate Hostage Drama

by , April 12, 2009

In what has become a commonplace occurrence, a small boat pulled alongside a container ship and a band of men from the smaller vessel boarded the larger one. It was just another day off the Somali coast – the latest in a series of more frequent and bolder acts of piracy.

What made Wednesday’s incident different was that the target of the pirate attack was a U.S.-flagged ship, the first pirate attack on one in nearly 200 years.

For Washington, the seizure of the Alabama serves as a powerful reminder that the world is full of different kinds of threats and that the U.S.’s military might alone is incapable of neutralizing them.

While the crew of the Alabama eventually retook the ship, some of the pirates escaped on a lifeboat with the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips of Vermont, as a hostage.

In a hyper-poignant example of the ineffectiveness of military force, a beefed up U.S. (and international) naval presence in pirate-infested waters has failed to prevent acts of piracy, and, in the case of the Alabama, proved virtually useless in resolving the standoff.

The case in point is the almost farcical dance occurring now off the Somali coast – the tiny enclosed lifeboat containing the pirates and Phillips is being shadowed by an 8,000 ton, 125-meter-long U.S. Navy destroyer.

Unable, for various logistical and legal reasons, or unwilling, fearing harm to the hostage, the naval ship has not directly attacked the lifeboat.

"What we’re seeing now is the irrelevance of the naval response to piracy," Peter Chalk, a maritime security expert from the RAND Corporation, told IPS. "They can’t really do anything."

"I think it really underscores the impunity of attacks," he added.

Indeed, many of the companies operating the merchant ships at risk opt out of armed resistance. Instead of arming ship crews, relying on security forces, law enforcement, or even the naval patrols now attempting to dissuade pirates of their ambitions, the companies operating the ships usually choose to give the pirates exactly what they are looking for: money.

"The number one objective in these situations is the return of their cargo and crew," said Chalk. "For them payment of ransom is the cheapest way to go."

The amount of cash the pirates have managed to get is difficult to estimate, but news reports usually put the number at between at between 30 and 120 million U.S. dollars for 2008 alone, with most experts saying the number is probably towards the higher end of that range.

"On the part of the pirates, there is a great economic incentive to do this, and the costs of being caught are pretty low," said Chalk.

Following the money is difficult for the same reason that it’s nearly impossible to go after the land bases of the pirates – Somalia has been effectively without a ruling central government since 1991. This makes it an ideal base for criminal activity like piracy.

Many experts agree that, though attempts to reduce piracy on the seaside of the operation might prove effective, completely eliminating piracy requires a land-based solution that will bring Somalia’s anarchy to an end.

"Addressing piracy at sea is addressing too late," said Chalk. "That’s the endpoint. You have to address the root source – and that’s on land. It will have to be addressed at some point."

Chalk is not advocating armed raids on land-based pirate centers. Rather, he says that the most important part of a comprehensive plan would be to bring economic viability back to Somalia. In its anarchy, the country has relatively no economic life.

In an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor late last year, Katie Stuhldreher suggested that focusing on ending commercial fishing ships’ destructive practices off of Somali coasts may allow the "disgruntled fisherman" who became pirates to return to their jobs as fishermen.

But Chalk’s notion of providing employment opportunities as alternatives to piracy will take an effective government of some sort to implement. Furthermore, it’s not clear that pirates would be willing to give up their lucrative trade to return to something like fishing, the traditional occupation of coastal Somalis.

"They’re making so much money from piracy that fishing can’t compete," said Amb. David Shinn, who has been stationed in Somalia’s neighbor, Ethiopia, and currently is a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Shinn also doubts that commercial fisheries are even still operating along the dangerous Somali coast.

"There’s certainly total agreement between people looking at this problem – in and out of the military – that there is virtually no solution of this problem of piracy until you have a solution on the ground in Somalia," he told IPS. "Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen overnight."

"In the meantime, in order to prevent or reduce these incidents, I would take tougher action in the sea," he said. "It means danger and risk, but you have to do something."

Shinn suggests that ships in danger employ small security crews, as a few have.

"When you have a fast moving skiff coming at you in the ocean, you shoot a flare at it," he said. "And they turn around and go for [a ship] that doesn’t have someone shooting a flare at them."

Shinn also suggests that if good intelligence exists on "mother ships" – usually trawlers or other larger boats used to launch the smaller quick boats – they should be sunk.

"That’s a tough action, and there’s a great reluctance to do that," he said, "but until there’s a government in Somalia, I would do that."

(Inter Press Service)

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