>First published on BlogCritics, 12 April 2009
In November of last year, I wrote an article about the pirates of Somalia. Since then, things had not got noticeably better, until today, 12 April. Indeed, from the standpoint of the United States, things had got worse. On 8 April, one of the very few U.S. flag freighters still plying international waters, the Maersk Alabama, was attacked as it was carrying relief supplies to Africa. Although the unarmed officers and crew managed to overwhelm the pirates, the pirates were able to take Captain Richard Phillips hostage. Captain Phillips is understood to have been the first U.S. citizen taken by pirates since 1804. Then, the U.S. Navy responded by defeating the Barbary pirates off the northern coast of what is now Libya, and the U.S. Marines stormed the shores of Tripoli.
Between 8 April and 12 April, Captain Phillips had been floating around in the Indian Ocean in one of the Maersk Alabama's lifeboats with four pirates, drifting toward the coast of Somalia. The Maersk Alabama, with an 18-person armed security detail on board continued to her port of destination, Mombasa, where she arrived on 11 April. I have read nothing suggesting why an armed security detail was not on board the Maersk Alabama when she sailed toward an increasingly popular pirate playground. For the reasons stated previously, she should have been so protected, then.
Soon after the unsuccessful hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, several U.S. warships arrived to assist her. At some point, Captain Phillips managed to jump into the water from the lifeboat where he was held captive and attempted to swim to safety on the Navy vessel. The pirates apparently fired at him and he was returned to custody. At some later point, a small boat from the Navy vessel approached the lifeboat for reasons which are unclear. It was fired upon and returned to the Navy vessel without returning fire. Then, on 12 April, close to the coast of Somalia,
Capt Phillips was freed in what appeared to be a swift firefight.
Reports say he jumped overboard for a second time, and the pirates were shot and killed before they could take action to get him back.
US forces apparently took advantage of the fact one of the pirates was negotiating on the USS Bainbridge when the incident happened.
The surviving pirate is now in US military custody, and could face trial in the United States. If convicted, he could be punished by life in prison. A Justice Department spokesman stated, "The Justice Department will be reviewing the evidence and other issues to determine whether to seek prosecution in the United States." It has been reported that President Obama gave the go ahead for the rescue and, apparently, for the use of firepower to accomplish it.
Until then, the powers that be were apparently trying, with excruciating patience, to figure out what to do. The pirates, meanwhile, put on a good front.
Somalia's Islamist insurgent movement al Shabaab, on Washington's list of terrorist organizations, lambasted the international naval patrols aimed at keeping ships safe.
"You are the ones who are the pirates. Leave our waters. You will be defeated," said a spokesman. The group denies it has links with the pirates, most of whom used to be poor fishermen.
It should be noted that the Maersk Alabama was attacked some 350 miles off shore in the Indian Ocean, in what are presumably international rather than Somalian waters.
Soon after the unsuccessful hijacking attempt, the FBI started a criminal investigation. It was reported that
The FBI investigation is being run out of New York because the office there oversees cases involving U.S. citizens in Africa. Other field offices take the lead depending on where in the world the crime occurs.
The FBI has a legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and has agents elsewhere in Africa to assist the investigation.
Whether charges ever get filed depends on how the standoff plays out. If the pirates are captured at sea, it will be much easier for U.S. authorities to prosecute.
The pirates have summoned reinforcements and are trying to make it back, with the hostage, to lawless Somalia. That would make it harder for authorities to stage a rescue attempt and would make the FBI's case murkier because the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Somalia.
It had previously been reported that the crew of a U.S. destroyer on the scene was cooperating with the FBI in attempting to resolve the matter of the hijacking of the U.S. Flag vessel and the taking hostage of Captain Phillips.
Meanwhile, the United States appeared puzzled and undecided about how to deal with al Shabaab, one of the principal terrorist organizations in Somalia whose spokesman referred to above claimed that the folks trying to limit piracy are themselves pirates and should go away. The possibility of strikes on Somalian soil generated rather heated discussions.
Some in the Defense Department have been frustrated by what they see as a failure to act. Many other national security officials say an ill-considered strike would have negative diplomatic and political consequences far beyond the Horn of Africa. Other options under consideration are increased financial pressure and diplomatic activity, including stepped-up efforts to resolve the larger political turmoil in Somalia.
Neither increased financial pressure nor increased diplomatic activity seems likely to do any good at all, however: There is no viable government in Somalia with which to engage in "increased diplomatic activity," and since piracy has become a major revenue source for the people of Somalia, it is far from obvious where the "increased financial pressure" might be applied.
Along much the same lines,
The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed Saturday for the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.
"We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured," said Vice President Noli de Castro.
"Moreover, any military action is best done in consultation with the United Nations to gain the support and cooperation of other countries."
U.S. rules of engagement prevent the Americans using their vastly superior fighting power to engage the pirates if there is any danger to civilians.
Senator John Kerry announced plans to hold hearings "to further examine the growing threat of piracy and all the policy options that need to be on the table before the next fire drill becomes an international incident with big implications." No indication was given as to whether representatives of the pirates would be invited to testify. Although I viewed the holding of hearings as an exercise in political point-making, now that the crisis has passed and the end result was good, such hearings might possibly be productive. The notion of relying on the UN, however, still strikes me as silly, because it seems quite unlikely that the UN would do more than offer a strongly worded condemnation of piracy as it just did in response to the North Korean missile launch. That would certainly work as well with the pirates as it is likely to work with North Korea.
Sitting at a comfortable desk in far away Panama, I am in no position to judge the actions of the officers and crew of the U.S. Navy vessels on site. Nor, since I have never been held hostage, am I in much of a position to argue that the possibility of danger to civilians should not be the absolutely overriding concern. Even the French, however, appear to be prepared to take an occasional risk in that regard, as evidenced by the recent death of a civilian on a hijacked yacht stormed by French navy commandos.
However, I would be curious to learn why, when Captain Phillips jumped out of the life raft and attempted to swim to safety the first time, no covering shots were fired from the Navy destroyer to protect him, and none were fired in at least an attempt to scuttle the life raft bearing the four pirates. Surely, some sharpshooters were aboard. I would also be curious what was hoped to be accomplished by the small Navy complement in a small boat which was chased away by gunfire, which it did not return. There is doubtless a reason. There has to be.
My suspicion is that the captain of the Navy destroyer on scene was waiting for permission from superior authorities, who were in turn awaiting specific guidance from that well known Virginia landmark, the Pentagon aka Puzzle Palace, which was awaiting clear guidance from the State Department and the FBI, which were awaiting clear guidance from the White House. The White House, it has been reported, viewed the whole unfortunate mess as a bit of a distraction and President Obama had made made no public comment prior to the successful outcome after guidance eventually came.
The present hijacking ended well, with the ship, her captain, and crew safe and three of the four pirates dead. The prospects for reductions in piracy are at least modestly encouraging because, in this one instance, piracy has been made to have adverse consequences substantially outweighing the profits. Clearly, it was the proper function of the U.S. to protect her own interests, and she must be better prepared the next time to take similar action, vigorously and without further hesitation.
Now that a precedent has been established and what happened is well known, I hope that piracy, at least against U.S. flag vessels, will be dealt with more quickly based on general guidance given to U.S. Navy vessels operating off Somalia before another hijacking or hostage taking develops. Commanders should not be left to flounder around awaiting specific instructions when something bad happens; they need useful and thorough guidance in advance. While a crisis may be a terrible thing to waste, to waste a victory would be even worse. If similar guidance is promptly given to naval vessels of other nations, at least a dent may be made in the piracy problem. Meanwhile, it still seems imperative that commercial vessels operating in or close to those waters take the reasonable precaution of sailing with a team of properly armed and trained security personnel.