While speaking at a maritime security conference on Tuesday, I discussed the threat currently posed by Somali pirates, this in the face of reports that hostages taken by pirates have been tortured and in some cases murdered. I offered that the two American couples recently kidnapped by so-called pirates would likely face a similar fate, this with the recent conviction of the one surviving pirate involved in the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of its captain (the first US citizen to captured by pirates since 1804.) In that case U.S. Navy SEALS, with the authorization of the President, shot and killed the pirate kidnappers when they threatened the life of Captain Phillips. Pirates have since gone out of their way to state the threat Americans would face if captured, and with a similar British couple’s (Paul and Rachel Chandler) experience at being held for 388 days by these pirates, the fate of the current four hostages was perilous at best.
Pirates had already dispatched carloads of their cohorts to the Somali shore, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the captured sailboat, its four hostages and their almost 20 pirate captors. If; a big if; the boat had reached land in Somalia, the four hostages would have been quickly separated and taken to different land locations, this to prevent any type of hostage rescue mission on the part of the U.S. military. Then the pirates would have attempted to trade the four hostages, really human pawns, for the lone pirate currently held in a U.S. prison. This, of course, would have been a trade the U.S. could ill afford to make. To do so would set a terrible precedent for any nation whose citizens would subsequently become the target of these seaborne terrorists.
The commander of all European Union Naval forces recently indicated that pirates have tied hostages upside down, dragged them in the sea, locked them in freezers, and tied their genitals with plastic ties: torture by anyone’s definition. At least eight hostages were murdered by pirates in 2010, this while 53 ships were successfully hijacked with over 1,200 hostages taken. The average ransom for a ship and its crew? $5.4 million dollars, with a high of $9.5 million last year. With the records set by Somali pirates last year, they have become even more embolden and, unfortunately, more violent. Pirates currently hold 33 ships and over 700 hostages, and by the use of 20 or more captured “mother ships,” the pirates now attack targeted ships at a distance of over 1,300 nautical miles off the coast of war torn Somalia. Usually under cover of darkness, the mother ships launch fast attack zodiac-like boats against every type of ship, large or small, and even against international Naval vessels, in these few cases with obvious limited success.
Evidently the sailboat Quest with its four American crew members had left a larger group of boats to make the passage off the east coast of Africa on its own. Captured by Somali pirates off the coast of Oman last Friday, the sailboat was quickly located and followed by a number of U.S. warships, to include the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. At least two of the pirates went aboard one of the warships to conduct face to face negotiations with U.S. officials, probably trained FBI hostage negotiators. It was during such negotiations that one of the pirates on the sailboat fired an RPG at a nearby U.S. warship, followed by a series of small arms fire onboard the hijacked boat. Special operations forces quickly boarded the sailboat, but the four U.S. hostages had already been murdered. Two pirates were killed and 15 others were captured.
The bottom line is that the rules of hostage taking by Somali pirates have been drastically changed, and, therefore, so might the "rules of engagement" for dealing with the pirates. Remember that prior to the hijacking of four American airlines on 9/11, the normal “game plan” was to fly hijackers where they wanted to go, conduct negotiations and eventually secure the release of the plane and its crew and passengers. On 9/11 we learned that we could no longer sit still and hope for the good will of hijackers, something the passengers on United flight 93 quickly realized. In their case it was fight for their lives or die like sheep – not a very good choice, but again, you play the hand you’re dealt.
In our post 9/11 world, ships and their crews and passengers must also realize that pirates have drastically raised the stakes for ship hijackings, with their spokesmen openly stating that hostages, especially Americans, can and will be murdered. Said one pirate spokesman, “never will we allow ourselves to be captured and imprisoned again.” With this pirate initiated “change in the rules of engagement,” the international naval forces operating against the ever increasing tide of pirates must consider how they will respond to any new act of murderous aggression by this apparent new and violence prone piranha of the seas.
We know it will be a painful mistake to allow these pirates to take their captives ashore, and we know the almost insurmountable problems associated with mounting land-based hostage rescue missions in Somalia, a painful lesson we learned in 1993 as portrayed in “Blackhawk Down.” Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991, and with a population of 10 million and a coast line 1,900 miles long, it is a country in name only. The pirates who live in this lawless land know the U.S. is bogged down in land conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while military forces have enjoyed some successes against these pirates, there are more pirates spread across thousands of miles of square ocean than we can currently deal with.
Pirates were first seen in the 13th and 14th centuries BC when Lukkan pirates raided the coast of Cyprus. In 75 BC Caesar was captured by pirates and forced to negotiate his own release, only to later hunt the pirates down and kill them. For us in the 21st century, our choices seem limited. While we currently want to avoid a new land war in Somalia waged by a large anti-pirate coalition force assembled from the affected countries across the world, we may see the need for the navies of these countries to do more than just police the waters off of Somalia. One naval expert suggested it would take 62 war ships to cover the coast of Somalia, a sizable force that might be needed to challenge and forcibly board every potential large pirate mother ship to small skiff, likely hundreds of boats and ships, that travel from any of the ports known to be associated with this ever increasing number of seaborne thieves and killers. This is, of course, no small and no cheap task, especially when carried out halfway across the world.
We have found in other land based situations that we can’t sit by and see innocent people captured and killed by pirates, terrorists who have no appreciation for the value of another human life. And while life must be tough in Somalia, the price of obtaining the release of hijacked ships has gone from $150,000 to over $5 million in just five years, therefore the pirates have too much to gain and no current reason to quit. If we cannot foster some type of land based solution, we appear to have little choice but to make hostage taking and hijacking so utterly painful that the pirates will have no choice but to stop. It’s a whole new game, a very deadly game that we are being forced to play. Let’s hope we win…
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