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Piracy News & Commentary

Countering the Gulf Pirates

A Bravo Zulu* to the French, in particular to the French Navy and its special operations force for the rescue of two French citizens held by Somali pirates, and to President Sarkozy for authorizing the raid. On the night of September 15, a force of French naval commandos composed of the commando Hubert--a French naval special operations unit specializing in "combat swimming"--parachuted into the ocean, swam underwater to the hijacked yacht Carré d'As IV, boarded it, and rescued the two hostages, killing one pirate and capturing six in the process. The details of the operation have not been released, nor should they be. However, the rescue also included the French frigate Courbet, two Atlantique 2 maritime surveillance aircraft, a helicopter, one or more special operations elements in zodiac inflatables, the possible participation of special operators in addition to the commando Hubert, and a diversion.

To date, only a few governments have taken direct action against the pirates of the Gulf of Aden. In April 2008, French commandos captured six pirates after a ransom was paid to Somali pirates holding hostages aboard the luxury yacht Le Ponant, and in the same month Puntland Somalis attacked and liberated a UAE-flagged merchantman held by Somali pirates. In September 2008 the Danish warship HMDS Absalon intercepted two suspected pirate vessels and arrested ten men, but due to circumstances of jurisdiction and logistics the Danes were obligated to set the men ashore less than ten days later. On October 14, 2008, Puntland Somali forces attacked pirates holding the Wael H, and successfully freed both vessel and crew after a failed assault two days earlier. There is also the possibility that, if negotiations fail, US or Russian forces will take direct military action against Somali pirates holding the MV Faina, a Belize-flagged Ukrainian merchant vessel carrying T-72 tanks and other military arms. Beyond these instances, however, naval forces in the Gulf of Aden have responded to vessels under attack, but have seldom specifically targeted and attacked pirates, although this is due in part to the limited forces available for such duties. However, this may be changing: various governments and international coalitions, including the EU, are at this moment preparing strategic military plans to combat piracy in the region, and such plans almost certainly include direct action, at least as a contingency.

It is unlikely that any remedy short of the political stabilization of Somalia will put an end to all Somali piracy, and this will not happen anytime soon. Somalia is a failed state dominated by warring factions, including self-serving warlords, politically motivated Islamists, and government-backed Ethiopian troops. Not even the government of the breakaway region of Puntland can impose order on its own shore. Further, given the scale and success of recent Somali piracy, some analysts fear it may set the example for large scale piracy in other regions, including a resurgence in Indonesia or a significant escalation in the Gulf of Guinea. Pirates may also realize the value of ecological blackmail, capture a tanker, and threaten ecological disaster if their monetary demands are not met, although such an action would inevitably meet with severe reprisal. The costs of doing nothing are escalating: ransoms, cargos lost or delayed, insurance premiums, and the very real potential for significant harm to seafarers, including loss of life. Terrorist organizations may come to see piracy as a viable means of funding their operations. Historically, it has been economic losses, and in some cases, the human cost, both above a somewhat arbitrary threshold, that finally leads to military and attendant political action against pirates. In the minds of many, we are currently at the economic threshold, if not also at the humanitarian, the latter of which should be the critical factor.

At present, quite understandably no nation or coalition is willing to deal with the consequences of invading and occupying Somalia in order to impose order. The loss of life among the occupying military, the attendant political consequences of such losses, the expense of maintaining a large military force, the potential for an occupation to become the focus of an insurgency, and the previous experience of US coalitions in Somalia and Iraq all serve to discourage intervention. Further, the US, one of the few nations with the military capital to undertake such an expedition, is already tied down with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will not risk further domestic and international fallout by attempting to nation-build in a violent failed state that poses only a limited threat to the US. The Arab League has declined to intervene. UN-backed forces have been insufficient to restore and maintain order. At present, a military solution to the failed state of Somalia is thus out of the question.

However, there is still much that can be done to reduce Somali piracy to an acceptable level. Many of the following recommendations are already at some stage of consideration or development.

First, when the risk is acceptable, do as the French and Puntland Somalis have done: rescue hostages and vessels, and attack, arrest, and prosecute pirates. Historically, military action and subsequent criminal prosecution alone have never put an end to large scale piracy. However, they have often been a critical part of the overall solution, and were and often are necessary in the name of humanity. Further, they make plain the risks of piracy to the perpetrators. Two or three successful military actions may do little to diminish piracy in the Gulf of Aden (and so far they have not), but a dozen or more might. It is well to remember when contemplating such actions that they are high risk. Hostages and commandos may be injured or killed, and the political fallout from a failed special operation can be significant.

Some observers have advocated denying ransom to the pirates, but this will only put hostages at even greater risk, culminating at some point in the loss of some of their lives, either at the hands of Somali pirates as a means of making their intentions clear, or by accident during a rescue operation. Until Somali piracy is substantially suppressed, merchant owners will have little choice but to continue to negotiate ransoms, both as a means of preserving their crews from harm and of recovering their vessels, and as a means of gaining time while military action is considered and, as necessary, prepared and implemented.

A critical component of this direct action strategy is the identification and removal of pirate "mother ships" operating in the Gulf of Aden. Appropriate surveillance must be continued after the capture or destruction of existing mother ships, and warships and naval commando units kept on call, in order to handle the almost-certain reappearance of such vessels. The identification and removal of these mother ships is an important step in limiting the access of Somali pirates to the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden. In line with this, whenever practical, naval forces should identify, track, board, search, and as necessary seize and destroy pirate craft departing from or returning to shore bases.

The use of "Q ships" or "mystery ships"--disguised warships or armed merchantmen manned by navy and marine personnel whose mission is to lure pirates in order to attack and capture them--should also be considered. The tactic has been a common one throughout the history of piracy and privateering, although with mixed success. Even so, at the very least the knowledge that a merchant vessel might actually be a pirate hunter should give Somali pirates pause.

Second, and more broadly, increase the naval presence in the region and devote part of it solely to anti-piracy operations, including escort, surveillance, and direct action. Surveillance aircraft are mandatory, as are armed ship-launched helicopters. Further, the entire naval presence in the region must be coordinated, whether or not forces belong to an established coalition. Intelligence support is critical, and must be composed both of HUMINT--human intelligence gleaned from individuals by individuals--and of the various surveillance technologies. Naval patrols alone have only had limited success historically, unless actively acting on good intelligence and with the authority to seek out and engage pirates. Convoys, of course, are the ideal means of protecting merchant shipping, but are expensive, both in the cost of naval escorts and in the cost of shipping delays.

Third, wherever possible, deny pirates the use of their major bases ashore, or at least make their use too risky for the potential gains. Historically, this has been one of the most significant means of reducing piracy, although, given Somalia's long coastline, political chaos, and heavily armed population, this may be unreasonably difficult. Quick raids to destroy pirate craft "in harbor"--drawn up on shore, in many cases--might also be suitable, provided the intelligence is available and the risk to local populations can be maintained near zero. Military action against Somali pirates must not give rise to increased support for piracy among local populations.

Fourth, consider direct action against the warlords who support piracy. Such action, which might include raids culminating in the arrest and prosecution local leaders who profit from piracy, would bring home, so to speak, the consequences of engaging in armed theft and blackmail on the sea.

Fifth, arm merchant vessels, at the very least those whose cargos, if discharged into the sea, burned, or detonated, would cause significant environmental damage. Shipments of arms, munitions, or other military equipment should be similarly protected. Arming should consist of well-trained, well-armed private security forces or military personnel. Or, if naval assets are sufficient, an escort can be provided. At present, private companies are available to (1) provide security forces aboard merchant shipping, (2) provide rescue forces should a merchant ship be captured, and (3) in the case of Blackwater Worldwide, provide an armed escort vessel, complete with helicopter surveillance. Arming merchant vessels does, however, increase the risks of escalation, reprisal, and, in the case of hazardous cargos, harm to both crew and environment. It should be noted that the International Maritime Bureau does not recommend the arming of merchant shipping, although a number of naval commanders and analysts do. Further, security forces are expensive to maintain routinely, and the number of specialized security force personnel capable of successfully engaging pirates in a significant firefight is limited--and such security forces must be of sufficient number and armament to repel attackers who may be willing to put up a fight. On a positive note, historically most pirates have been reticent to put up much of a fight against a well-defended merchant vessel, and this includes the Somali pirates. After all, pirates are in it for the money, notwithstanding the notions of some romantics and scholars who equate piracy primarily with social or political rebellion, as opposed to material gain.

Sixth, ensure that merchant crews are trained in standard anti-piracy measures and practices, including those recommended by the International Maritime Organization, and outfit merchant vessels with locating devices and non-lethal weapons such as sonic devices. Also, consider equipping merchant vessels with appropriate radar, thermal imagers, or other devices designed to assist in the detection of small craft at sea. Historically, both during the age of sail as well as during the past century, it has been difficult for the small crews of merchant vessels to maintain an adequate lookout in threat waters. Lookouts quickly lose their effectiveness, and must soon be relieved. (In the First and Second World Wars, this limitation was alleviated somewhat by convoy protection.)

Consider developing and outfitting merchant vessels with secure bridge compartments from which the vessels may be commanded and crews protected. During the age of sail, most merchant crews could retreat to "closed quarters"--prepared barricaded spaces--and from there sail and defend their vessels. With a modern version of such closed quarters (more sophisticated than but analogous to the locked, reinforced cockpit door now required on commercial aircraft), a merchant vessel might be able to hold off an attack long enough for help to arrive. An armed helicopter, for example, is sufficient to halt most attacks, given that Somali pirates are only lightly armed.

Seventh, develop a criminal data base so that photographs, fingerprints, and other evidence can be used to identify and prosecute pirates. Such a database must be coordinated with intelligence developed by naval and other military forces, and by intelligence agencies.

Eighth, review the existing law of piracy and revise it as necessary to provide nations, coalitions, and unions of nations the means of pursuing and prosecuting pirates effectively. Jurisdictional problems remain and must be resolved. For example, lawyers for the Somali pirates and others complicit in the hijacking of the yacht Le Ponant are arguing that France had no legal right to arrest the Somalis. Already noted are the jurisdictional issues that caused the Danes to set pirates ashore recently, rather than try them.

Consider whether nations that support piracy, or whose governments are so marginal as to be unable to prevent piracy by their citizens, need to be contacted for permission to engage pirates in their territorial waters, particularly in the case of hot pursuit. Permission from such states--Somalia and Puntland, specifically--is always to be preferred, but the invariable delays in obtaining such permission must be balanced with the risk to seafarers held hostage.

Some legal scholars believe we should abandon the law of piracy entirely, and pursue and prosecute pirates under other existing laws; the proposition merits review. Given the issues that have cropped up regarding the prosecution of Somali pirates, including jurisdiction and potential claims of asylum, consideration should be given to establishing an international court in which to try pirates. As to the standard of practice, the treatment and prosecution of suspected pirates must be carried out exactly according to international legal standards, with due respect to the right to due process. However, recognition of due process and other legal rights should not preclude military action when circumstances warrant, including the aggressive use of deadly force.

Ninth, develop and implement a plan to diminish economic hardship among coastal Somalis. Although piracy is typically a crime of opportunity, it is exacerbated by poverty, other hardship, and political chaos. Although naval and military forces could have a limited role in this by aiding the development of local economies via civic action programs, ultimately such economic development must be primarily coordinated and overseen by the UN or a strong international coalition, with the aid of various non-governmental organizations and appropriate security. Given the chaotic state of the Horn of Africa, this is probably impossible until some semblance of order is restored to Somalia in general.

In line with this, consider whether amnesty and other incentives might reduce Somali piracy. However, when this has worked in other regions historically, it has only worked hand-in-hand with aggressive military or police action, and often as well with measures designed to reduce the conditions that support piracy.

Tenth, repair the failed state of Somalia. This is the only viable long-term solution, and it is by far the most difficult of all the tasks set forth here. It will require solid, patient long-term diplomacy and negotiation among the various Somali factions and neighbors, the support of the UN and of various non-governmental agencies, and at some point for an indefinite period, very likely a military presence of sufficient force to defend itself against a large scale attack, given the heavily armed population of Somalia. The elevation of Somalia to a functioning state integrated with the world economy is necessary not only to put an end to piracy in the region, both by improving the economic circumstances of Somalis and by removing the support of Somali warlords for piracy, but also to stabilize the region in general, not to mention to improve the quality of life of the Somali people.

* "Bravo Zulu," or "BZ" as it is often written, is a NATO naval term indicating "Well done!" It derives from the name of the signal flags--bravo and zulu--used to convey the message.
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