Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Battling Somali Pirates

The explosion of piracy off the coast of Somalia has become a front-burner concern to America in light of the near-hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the capture and rescue of the U.S. captain over the past week, as well as a subsequently unsuccessful attack on another U.S. ship, the Liberty Sun. Now the U.S. government has announced a four-point plan to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Aden region.

According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States plan to address Somali piracy involves: 1) sending an envoy to the Somali donors’ conference in Brussels next week to create a plan to improve the situation in Somalia, 2) working with the Contact Group on Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia to expand multinational efforts to contain piracy, 3) pressing the Somali Transitional Federal Government and the regional leaders in the Puntland region of Somalia to take action against pirate from bases in their areas and 4) working with shippers and insurers to address gaps in vessel self-defense measures. Secretary Clinton also urged the international community to consider ways to track and freeze pirate assets.

Action against Somali pirates will be difficult. First of all, according to J. Peter Pham in his article, “The Pirate Economy” on, the Somali pirates are not a ragtag bunch of sailors on small boats, but rather a syndicate operating in coordination with larger “mother ships” operating far offshore. The International Maritime Bureau is reporting a number of such vessels in the Gulf of Aden. Pham quotes United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as acknowledging that “these groups now rival established Somali authorities in terms of their military capabilities and resource bases.”

Furthermore, the pirates are providing income to their base communities in Eyl and Xarardheere and portray themselves as being forced into piracy to defend their coastal waters from over-fishing. While that explanation seems hollow now, any attacks that claim the lives of innocents will make them seem like the victims of major powers. The pirates already are pointing out that the Americans and French have been the first to take lives first in their encounters.

Finally, there has been little support for military action in Africa (beyond limited air strikes) by the United States or other Western nations. Since Arab countries have preferred to pay the ransom for hijacked ships and crews and African nations are already challenged to provide sufficient troops for missions in Sudan and elsewhere, any sustained military action against the Somali pirates is unlikely.

One hopes that Secretary Clinton’s plan will have more success than it would seem to offer at this point.

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