NAIROBI — After the dramatic rescue of American captain Richard Phillips from the clutches of Somali pirates, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his determination to end piracy: “We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region,” he said.
Easier said than done. Dozens of international warships patrolling the Indian Ocean coastline have done little to deter the pirates.
And pirates seized an Italian tug with impunity even as the the world watched a small lifeboat of Somali pirates with their one solitary hostage facing down a flotilla of U.S. warships.
Currently the pirates hold more than a dozen ships with more than 200 hostages from a range of mostly poor countries.
“The pirates are smarter and more sophisticated than people assumed,” said Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “They are going further and further out to sea and they play hide and seek with the navy.”
With the pirates extending their range by using captured trawlers as motherships from which to launch small, fast skiffs, there are millions of square miles of open sea to patrol. Short of escorting every one of the estimated 20,000 ships that use the Suez Canal every year, it is an impossible task to end piracy with navy patrols.
Some argue for armed guards on board ships or for distributing firearms to the sailors themselves. But no one so far has managed to defeat Somalis by outgunning them, either on land or at sea. U.S. forces thought that superior firepower would allow them to pacify Somalia in 1993 — that ended with 18 dead troops dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Others argue for a blockade of the Somali coastline — lock the problem up inside the woefully failed state, they say — but Abdi argues that this may make things worse. “Tighter patrolling of the Somali coast will incubate another problem inside Somalia,” he said.
Desperate young men who know how to shoot guns are precisely the demographic that avowedly anti-western Islamist groups such as al-Shabaab, which controls large parts of Somalia, likes to recruit.
Somalia remains out of control. On Monday mortars were fired upon a plane carrying U.S. Congressman Donald Payne as it took off from Mogadishu’s airport. Payne, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, had been speaking with Somalia’s president and prime minister to find a way to stabilize the situation in Somalia. Al-Shabaab, claimed responsibility for the attack on Payne’s plane, according to Reuters.
Already the tension has been ratcheted up. The shooting yesterday evening of three Somali pirates by Navy SEAL snipers has upped the stakes, coming only days after French special forces launched a similar — though less successful — assault on a French yacht. The French freed the sailing boat, but its owner was killed in the crossfire and two pirates also died.
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, conceded, “This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it.”
Somali pirate leaders defiantly threatened bloody revenge. “The American liars have killed our friends after they agreed to free the hostage without ransom … this matter will lead to retaliation and we will hunt down particularly American citizens traveling our waters,” said Abdi Garad, a pirate chief in the coastal stronghold of Eyl, speaking to Reuters.
Abdullahi Lami, a pirate based in the Somali town of Gaan, said, “Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate for the killings of our men,” he warned.
One pirate threatened to execute hostages if similar assaults were launched while another declared that, “America has become our new enemy.” The anger stirred up by Sunday’s killings may prove to be bad news for any U.S. citizen captured by Somali pirates in the coming days and weeks.
However, a bloody backlash from the pirates is not necessarily the case. The French have assaulted and killed pirates before without any hostages being killed. The pirates are businessmen, pure and simple, and killing hostages does not pay.
The solution to the problem of pirates along the Somali coast, as seasoned observers argue, is to fix Somalia, a country that has become a byword for disaster and violence over the last 18 years. But that, like stopping piracy, is no easy task.