After a one month European trip, it's time to get back to work, and I thought Somali Piracy, while seemingly an odd choice, is an appropriate subject, given a number of significant factors. Before I provide some brief background and provide my personal views, I want to make it clear right off that I feel strongly that the international community victims have handled this criminal piracy activity incredibly poorly.
For those that are not very familiar with Somalia or this subject, this is an Islamic country of 9.5 million largely poor people located on the horn of Africa, with the Gulf of Aden on the north, the vast Indian Ocean on the east, and the countries of Ethiopia and Kenya on the west and south. Its size of 246,000 square miles makes it just a little smaller than California. For the most part the people are Sunni Muslims and the languages spoken are Somali and Arabic. The capital is Mogadishu and the current country was formed in 1960 when British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland became independent and merged. There's a very weak, dysfunctional coalition central government with alleged links to al-Qaeda.
Piracy has been a threat to international shipping since the civil war which took place in the early 1990's. There's not a lot of reliable available information on the pirates, but they seem to be based in a number of smaller seaports and villages on the Indian Ocean coast, especially in and around the port of Eyl in the northeast and to a smaller extent on the northern coast by the Gulf of Aden across from Yemen. Ransoms collected from several ship seizures last year apparently totaled between $30 million and $50 million, which we understand have been used to cover their living expenses and to purchase weapons and related pirate equipment.
Most noteworthy among recent seizures were a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 battle tanks and a Saudi Arabian tanker vessel carrying $100 million worth of crude oil. The current total of seized vessels is more than twenty with 300 hostages. U. S. interest got greatly escalated when on April 8th, only a few days ago, a small number of pirates temporarily seized the U. S. registered 17,000 ton "Maersk Alabama" container ship bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa with a cargo of food aid for several African countries, but at the time an estimated 400 miles off the coast northeast of Mogadishu. The ship is operated by a U. S. subsidiary of the huge Danish shipping concern, A. P. Moeller Maersk Group headquartered in Copenhagen.
As most people who follow international news know, the 20 member crew of the "Maersk Alabama" managed to expel the 4-5 pirates, but they managed to escape in their covered lifeboat with the ship's American captain, Richard Phillips, as a valuable hostage. Subsequently the lifeboat apparently ran out of gas and was bobbing relatively idle alone several hundred miles off the coast. Shortly afterwards the U. S. Navy's destroyer "Bainbridge" and frigate "Halyburton" arrived on the scene to monitor the situation and be prepared to take whatever action is decided upon by their superiors and the Pentagon. Clearly their top priority is keeping Phillips safe and rescuing him, secondarily trying to apprehend the pirates. So far no military action has been taken, but some radio contact has apparently been made with the pirates.
What has been done by the international community over the past year to deal with this highly unacceptable situation? In October 2008 the U. N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1838, calling on nations with vessels in the area to apply military force to repress acts of piracy in the area. India has called for a U. N. peacekeeping force under a unified command to tackle the piracy. But nothing much further been done, though yesterday the French navy initiated a military operation against pirates who had seized a French luxury yacht with 30 or so people onboard that appears to have been successful, though one or two hostages apparently died.
This is obviously a significant U. S. political issue at the moment, since an American vessel has been attacked by pirates for the first time in about 200 years, an American is held as a hostage, a sizable ransom appears to have been demanded, the Somali government is linked to al-Qaeda, and the U. S. is the key member of the U. N. Security Council which has voted to deal with this situation. Furthermore, those involved include the U. S. Department of Defense, the FBI, CIA, State Department, and probably also the National Security Council and President Obama himself.
Limited U. S. action to date to deal with the pirates no doubt is due to the facts that no U. S. vessel was seized before April 8th, our federal government has been understandably preoccupied with higher priority issues including, but not limited to, rescuing our economy and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and because the U. N. Security Council typically is not geared to come to agreement and follow up resolutions with effective action. As far as the shipping companies are concerned, their primary motives appear to be the safety of their crew and keeping their ships sailing as much as possible, quickly agreeing to ransoms which are covered by freight revenues and insurance against piracy. These are not adequate excuses, at least now.
It would be nice if there were a strong, unified central government in Somalia that could take effective action against the pirates under serious international pressure. However, that will most likely not happen in at least several years. I think the shipping companies should quickly reconsider their current widespread policy of having their crews unarmed with no hired security guards onboard. The risk to the safety of crews should be fairly limited with training and arming their crew with modern weapons and/or hiring a half dozen or so trained and experienced guards. The economic incentives of keeping their ships sailing and not paying ransoms should be adequate to do so.
Another practical option would be organizing to have the ships sail in periodic convoys, like in World War II, protected by a multinational naval force manned especially by the U. S., the British and the French, but also other NATO navies on a rotational basis to limit costs to any one country. This should be fairly easy to do, and be very effective, keeping in mind the pirates have
no submarines, like the Germans and Japanese during the war, and limited resources and weaponry. Isn't this really a no-brainer?