Somalia and the Pirate Problem

By Everett Pyatt

After the hijacking of the Alabama, the commentary began. The U.S. Navy was whining about how big the Indian Ocean is and the political scientists said it was all due to the situation of the failed Somali state. Each of these comments, in their own way, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the piracy problem and its history; thereby making available, simple, straight-forward controls more difficult.

Let’s look at the size of the ocean problem first. To begin with, the Indian Ocean has been this size for several million years and is not likely to change soon. Yes, traffic in the Gulf of Aden is dense, but convoy controls similar to World War II convoy controls have put significant pressure on the pirates. Gulf of Aden pirates now seem to focus on stragglers, just as U-Boat commanders did in the search for easy targets. More needs to be done, but the piracy reports shown on the International Maritime Bureau website make it clear that the pirates fear helicopters and break off hijacking attempts when helicopters show up. If international cooperation continues and a few more ships and aircraft are added to the Gulf area, I expect that this part of the problem will become confined to those mariners who refuse to become part of protected convoys.

The ocean would be a lot smaller if patrolling forces were given better information on surface traffic. This information is readily available from satellite surveillance. They should be able to plot the position of every ship in a designated transit lane and weed out the suspicious ones. After the warning provided by the hijacking of the Saudi tanker a few months ago, and the common knowledge that the hijacker bearing skiffs are supported from mother ships (usually hijacked fishing ships), there should have been increased surveillance and investigation. Then, the Alabama hijacking would have been avoided. Now is the time to apply all US surveillance tools to make up the lack of force numbers. (Please note that Defense and Navy leadership decommissioned and destroyed many of the frigates useful for this investigative mission a few years ago and the acquisition system has failed to produce replacements.)

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The proposition that Somali pirates exist because there is no organized state to control them is preposterous. Somalis have been engaged in piracy for dozens of generations as a profitable endeavor. They are organized as groups, some of which are based in Yemen and some in Somalia. A poor state would likely condone this effort for the revenue and the Yemenis may have. Pirates reached an earlier peak when the Silk Road moved to the sea as a result of Turkish conquests, high tariffs and crime on the land route. By now piracy is quite likely genetic. I remind the cultural scientists that the last time the U.S. was involved in anti-piracy actions was the Barbary Wars when piracy was a state sponsored activity.

Current Somali pirates have to draw professional respect. They are courageous, resourceful, excellent seafarers, not very bloodthirsty, but focused on collecting cash. A major concern is the use of this cash, a portion of which is very likely to wind up supporting terrorist activity. They use easily available GPS devices to aid them and widely available small arms and RPG to press their activity. They're also very likely to be getting some intelligence help, because encounters outside of the Gulf of Aden do not just happen. Somebody sends them to the target.

So what should be done? I recently argued for a mobile anti-piracy force consisting of heavy lift ships carrying patrol craft converted from workboats, supported by blimps and TV cameras for surveillance. Much of this could be deployed in a month. If this low tech approach is not satisfactory, high tech satellite surveillance can be used. There are also many other workable approaches.

Communications security has to be improved to eliminate an intelligence source. Remember the World War II slogan “Loose lips sink ships”? It is only slightly different today.

The pirate mother ships in the Indian Ocean have to be eliminated, either by capture or in the Indian Navy style. There has been much talk about bringing pirates to justice, but as recent negotiations over the Alabama hostage prove, there is no local willingness to punish pirates. Other examples include the Danish capture of pirates; released to justice in Yemen and promptly freed. The lesson is that pirates have more local stature than any other body.

This is not a problem of daunting proportions, particularly for a Navy that has solved so many high tech problems. It only needs the application and coordination of appropriate multinational forces, clear thinking, common sense and creativity to defeat the Somali pirates as shown in the rescue of the hijacked Capt. Phillips.

Everett Pyatt was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the Navy (USA) in the Carter and Reagan administrations.

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