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Piracy News & Commentary

Somali Piracy

This year alone, Somali pirates have attacked more than fifty vessels, captured more than thirty, and have been paid more than $30 million in ransoms. Somali pirates are currently holding ten or more vessels and nearly two hundred sixty hostages. Six separate gangs are involved in the trade, and some estimates place annual income from Somali piracy at $100 million. The commercial shipping world agrees unanimously that piracy in the Gulf of Aden is out of hand, and that a solution is needed immediately. And there are plenty of government and private analysts with proposed solutions. Although many commentators routinely point out differences between modern and historical piracy, they are in fact much alike, sharing the same origins, circumstances, and even tactics. Most notably, piracy from past to present has been predominantly characterized by gangs of lightly armed men in small swift craft attacking large, slow merchant vessels.

To date, military action against the Somali pirates has been used sparingly, and for the most part in response to ships under immediate attack. However, in several recent critical instances armed forces took direct action against the Somali pirates. In April, pirates captured the luxury yacht Le Ponant (the West or Occident) and its crew of thirty. Members of the elite French Commando Hubert and GIGN were immediately dispatched, but a reconnaissance by nageurs de combat (combat swimmers) of the Commando Hubert made it clear that conditions around the vessel would not support an underwater ingress. Almost certainly an aerial ingress would have been spotted or heard, and surprise lost, thus compromising both the mission and the safety of the hostages. The hostages were eventually released after a private negotiation and payment of ransom. Immediately, commandos swept in via helicopter and arrested six pirates or associates and sent them to France for trial. In the same month a force from Puntland (a breakaway region of Somalia) attacked pirates holding the UAE cargo ship Al-Khaleej, liberated both vessel and crew, and captured seven pirates. In September, Commando Hubert combat swimmers parachuted into the ocean, used closed circuit dive equipment to swim underwater to the French yacht Carré d'As (Four Aces) being held by Somali pirates, boarded it, and rescued the two hostages, killing one pirate and capturing six in the process.

In general, though, navies have not sought out and attacked the Somali pirates. Naval forces are limited and the sea surrounding the Horn of Africa is large, making routine patrols unlikely to discover or deter pirates. Hostage rescues are high risk operations, and are usually undertaken only when the lives of hostages are in immediate danger, or when the operations have a high probability of success with a correspondingly low probability of harm to hostages. Before they can be attacked and arrested (or killed in action), pirates cruising at sea or lounging ashore must first be located, a difficult, but not impossible, task. Some shipping companies are hiring private security firms to protect their vessels, a practice many naval commanders approve of. Other shipping firms do not want to arm their vessels, probably both out of fear of escalation or reprisal and out of concern for the expense, and are instead clamoring for naval protection.

However, this reticence to attack pirates, whether deliberate or circumstantial, may be changing. The recent capture of the Ukrainian merchant ship MV Faina and its cargo of thirty-three refurbished Russian T-72 tanks, plus rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns, ostensibly destined for the Kenyan military, might very well precipitate a military raid on the vessel, both to rescue hostages and to secure the arms aboard. At present the ship is surrounded by US Navy warships whose mission is to prevent the ship's movement and the offloading of arms. A Russian warship with naval commandos aboard is en route. As for the pirates, they are asking for a reported $20 million in ransom. One of the hostage crew has died, apparently of a stroke. The remainder of the crew appears to be in good health, based on a visual inspection by the crew of a US warship. (US personnel did not board the captured ship.) The hostages were brought on deck at the warship's request, in order to confirm their health and well-being. Given the circumstances of the situation--arms that must not be permitted to get into Somali hands ashore, hostages whose safety will grow more tentative if tensions increase, the tendency of Russia to use force--military action is a possibility unless a deal is struck soon, as the Somali pirates claim is likely. Military action here would be risky to the hostages, though, given that there are reportedly roughly fifty pirates aboard the ship and twenty-one crew to rescue. More broadly, the capture of this ship of arms adds to the reasons to take action against pirates. Many nations are now calling for an end to Somali piracy, as is the UN. The European Union recently established a coalition to fight piracy in the region, and other nations are dispatching warships, in addition to those already there. Almost certainly the likelihood of direct action has increased, at least as a contingency.

In a curious, even amusing, twist to the capture of the cargo of tanks, the Somali pirates may have exposed regional skullduggery beyond mere piracy. Already the pirates aboard the ship have reportedly had one gunfight over what to do with the cargo, a not unusual occurrence when men seek material gain by force of arms. A similar incident occurred ashore within the past year when a disagreement between pirates and local militia erupted into gunfire, with at least one local militiaman reportedly killed. Now comes another plot twist: the BBC has examined documents provided by the pirates, which they claim prove that the tanks and other arms aboard were destined ultimately for South Sudan. If true, this would be a political embarrassment for Kenya, implying not only that the nation is not neutral in the conflict between the two Sudans, but is actively supporting one side with arms. If wise, or at least if they are good "sea lawyers," the pirates holding the MV Faina will complicate the accusations of piracy against them by claiming that they did not engage in an act of piracy, but instead acted as a local coast guard and intercepted an arms shipment intended to escalate a civil war. Even so, little good it will do them: relying on the vacillation of nations is far more reliable.

(Facts stated in this commentary were taken from various news articles and reports, including those of the BBC, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, New York Times, MarineLog, Lloyd's List, Le Figaro, Le Monde, London Times, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the International Maritime Bureau.)
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