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Piracy News & Commentary

Notes and Observations on Recent Somali Piracy

Predictions and Outcomes. Many analysts had predicted that the US would not use force to resolve the Maersk Alabama hostage situation, arguing that hostage rescues are risky, both for hostages and for rescuers. And they are. However, many analysts forget about two critical elements of tactics: the seizing of opportunity, and the creation of opportunity. The US Navy helped create an opportunity, and seized it successfully.

US Intervention. A few analysts, not to mention a few television pundits with limited experience in the areas of piracy, special operations, and military operations in general, are proposing that the US send military forces into Somalia (and providing a variety of unlikely tactics to use in support of such a mission) in order to counter Somali piracy. Although feasible, the occupation of any part of Somalia by US forces is probably both impractical and unlikely. US attacks on pirates ashore, given the fluid nature of the pirates as well as the fact that they are embedded in local populations, would likely result in civilian casualties and the possibility of aligning at least some pirates and their supporters with Islamist extremists. The use of surrogates may be unlikely as well: Ethiopian troops have withdrawn, the Arab League has declined to send troops, and right now there appears to be no support among other governments to venture into Somalia. The US experience in Mogadishu will weigh heavily on any decision to use force in Somalia. Even so, the possibility of surgical strikes against pirate vessels or profiting leaders should not be ruled out.

Appropriate Forces. In France there has been criticism over the recent rescue of the hostages held by pirates aboard the private yacht Tanit. During the rescue, one hostage was killed. The four other hostages were rescued unharmed. Two pirates were also killed and three were captured, two of whom were wounded in the raid. The assault was carried out primarily by members of the Commando Hubert (a naval commando unit similar to US Navy SEALs, and which carried out the successful rescue of hostages aboard the private yacht Carré d’As captured by pirates last year). However, some critics believe that the GIGN (Groupe d'Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), a highly trained and highly regarded unit dedicated to counter-terrorism and hostage rescue, should have carried out the attack. The Commando Hubert is also highly trained and highly regarded, and in general, hostage rescue at sea should be carried out by those trained for special operations at sea. The environment is unique, and requires specially trained forces. That being said, hostage rescue is itself a specialized skill, requiring units who train in it fulltime. Critics point out that hostage rescue is the GIGN's primary mission, and that the GIGN is better prepared than the Commando Hubert to carry out this mission. An autopsy will determine whose bullet--a pirate’s or a rescuer’s--killed the French hostage. (, 15 April 2009)

Al Jazeera Piracy Report. News organization Al Jazeera has produced an excellent video report on Somali piracy, emphasizing it as a symptom of the political and economic chaos in Somali. The video can be viewed here. (My thanks to Mary Crouch for sending me this link.)

Tactical Innovation. As expected, Somali pirates are altering their tactics, and, as they find them successful, are increasing their attacks. New tactics include venturing farther at sea and into areas poorly patrolled, and night attacks. All of this was entirely predictable as coalition forces stepped up anti-piracy patrols. US and coalition forces must anticipate such changes in tactics, and be prepared to deal with them. (See my posts of October 19, 2008 and February 5, 2009.)

Mother Ships. The French frigate Nivôse has captured a Somali mother ship responsible for supporting pirate attacks. The warship identified the vessel as a mother ship, then engaged it, a tactic likely to continue yield excellent results. (See my post of October 19, 2008, in which I recommended the identification and destruction of pirate mother ships, as well as other tactics.) However, according to Lloyd’s List (15 April 2009), “EU Navfor officials in Brussels...added that forces cannot target a suspected mothership until it is proven they harbour criminals.” Many nations still appear unwilling to accept the costs of both piracy and anti-piracy operations.

Deadly Force. Although some pirates have been repelled by a combination of fire hoses or sonic lasers and evasive tactics, only the use of or viable threat of deadly force is sufficient to thwart determined pirates. Somali pirates are armed with assault rifles and RPGs, and have used them in the past--these are hardly the weapons to be opposed by fire hoses and sonic lasers. Although the Somali pirates have so far treated prisoners relatively well (if you discount death threats made against some of them), sooner or later a merchant crewman is going to be killed by random rifle fire or an exploding grenade during an attack. Deadly force is not only lawful but prudent against an attacker who uses or threatens deadly force. That being said, armed crewmen or security forces must be well-trained, well-armed, and willing to use deadly force. Otherwise, firearms aboard merchant vessels will not only be worthless, but a liability.

Somali Pirate Excuses. Somali pirates like to make claims such as, “We’re defending our waters from foreigners dumping toxic waste and plundering our sea resources.” (Mail & Guardian Online, 14 October 2008). A social psychology professor of mine used to refer to these excuses as “verbalized motives”--excuses that range from the marginally acceptable to the “noble” and attempt to put blame anywhere but on the actor himself or herself. Most of us call this sort of thing bullshit. (Politicians are notoriously fond of these “verbalized motives,” blaming their transgressions on any and everything but themselves, and seeking attention as they do.) In this case, words don’t matter: deeds do. And it is clear from their actions that the Somali pirates are exactly that, common pirates. Piracy exists because the Somali coast is along a major trade route, because the route is poorly protected, and because the Somali government and economy are in shambles. Piracy is a viable, but criminal industry in Somalia. The Somali pirate excuses or rationales for piracy are but false romantic claptrap. The truth might better serve their interests.

Pirate Threats. Anyone who has ever been in a fight in elementary school, or watched one, will recall that the loser often makes threats against the winner--but tends to keep his distance, or at least avoid another outright confrontation against his victorious adversary. Instead, he’ll smart off from a distance, or backstab, or find a weak point to exploit. Criminals likewise make threats of retaliation against police officers, prosecutors, judges, and witnesses, most of which come to naught. One Somali pirate claims that they attacked the US-flagged Liberty Sun last night not to capture it but to but to harm it and its crew in retaliation for the death of three pirates at the hands of US Navy SEAL snipers, and of two others at the hands of French Commandos Hubert. “We also assigned a team with special equipment to chase and destroy any ship flying the American flag in retaliation for the brutal killing of our friends.” (BBC, 15 April 2009) Was he telling the truth? Perhaps, but it’s much more likely to be mere revisionist history. Having been repulsed, the pirates may say what they like. Would they turn down the possibility of several million in ransom just to take a token revenge that would without doubt trigger armed US retaliation? Perhaps, but hopefully not. Still, many of the pirates are under the age of twenty--hot-blooded, inexperienced, and armed, just the sort to make empty threats one moment, and resort to violence the next. The possibility of a degree of escalation is almost certain, perhaps a violent instance to remind the world that the pirates “mean business.” A single such act might cow other crews into surrendering when attacked. After all, it’s a tactic used successfully by pirates for thousands of years. However, any such retaliation against US or French vessels, and possibly others, would bring severe consequences, the use of armed force being one of them. US commanders have vowed to take such threats seriously.
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