June 1, 2009  

No mercy

Kill and destroy is valid policy against the pirate menace

The drama at sea that revolved around the taking of the Maersk Alabama ended April 12 with the deaths of three of the pirates holding merchant Capt. Richard Phillips and the capture of one of these freebooters. This was a superb first step in ending the scourge of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Of course, this tactic — offering a tow line and first aid — cannot be used again. The pirates will learn as well. It followed an almost equally successful hostage rescue conducted by French commandos April 10. But the ultimate answer to this scourge lies in making the cost of piracy too great for the pirates and those who support them to bear. This will require land action and the destruction of pirate bases along the Somali coast, just as Lt. Presley O’Bannon famously fought during the First Barbary War.

Our policy must include an objective to destroy pirate bases and their means to carry out these illegal attacks. Our overall goal should remain freedom of the seas for world sea traffic and trade. In this essay, I will offer a strategy to attain these objectives and really fight pirates.

The pirates operating in the waters near Somalia are a disparate group. Christian Bedford, a senior analyst and acting program manager at the Canadian Navy’s Maritime Forces Pacific, wrote an essay on piracy for Lookout, the newspaper of the Canadian Pacific Fleet. Bedford asserts that the Somali pirates are not “a random group of miscreants high on Khat and looking for a quick buck.” Rather, the Somali pirates are a part of a large, well-financed and organized criminal organization based in the semiautonomous northern regions of Puntland and Somaliland, and even in states such as Kenya, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates. The reasons for piracy in Somali waters range from a lack of a central authority to prevent it to the view held by many in the country that the pirates are acting as a de facto “coast guard” by policing the country’s territorial waters to prevent illegal fishing and toxic waste-dumping. Bradford cites unnamed experts who count five main pirate gangs that operate along Somalia’s 3,025-kilometer coastline, the longest in Africa. Each of these groups is tied to a powerful local warlord who, in turn, has connections to the largely ineffective Transitional Federal Government of President Abdullahi Yusuf. Since there is no effective government in the failed state of Somalia, the world must go to the U.N. for the authority to act.

The groundwork for policy must be set in the international political domain as well as our own domestic area. This is the age of seeking international legal authority before taking any action, so we must go to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC did pass Resolution 1816 last June, giving foreign warships the right to enter Somali waters “for the purposes of repressing acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea” by “all necessary means.”

Our diplomats and their legal staffs will coordinate efforts to obtain a resolution calling on all member nations, but focusing on major maritime powers, to use all necessary means to ensure free passage of the sea, especially off the coast of Somalia, and the authority to conduct land operations to destroy associated pirate dens. The U.N. imprimatur will make military and legal action easier. The next step of a strategy is to work with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC will be extremely useful in assisting in the fight against international piracy. Somalia is a failed state. There is no functioning legal system within the country; therefore, it is appropriate to try cases of piracy, an international problem, before the ICC. Groundwork also must be done to establish a presence of the court in Kenya, Yemen, Oman or some other country in the region. This will ensure that captured pirates or so-called “persons under control” (PUCs) do not remain on board naval vessels for extended periods. Finally, there must be a change to the rules of engagement that call for killing or capturing pirates.

In their February AFJ article “Fighting piracy,” Cmdr. James Kraska and Capt. Brian Wilson pointed out that there were instances in which several countries, including France and the U.K., simply put captured pirates back on the beach in Somalia. (Admiral Nelson must be shuddering somewhere.) In these vital areas, chokepoints on international sea lines of communications, the UNSC resolution should include language that all small boats beyond the internationally recognized border areas (three miles from the coast line) will be boarded, and if they do not heave to when ordered, they will be presumed to be pirates and will be destroyed. If there is no stomach in the West for taking on the extended task of restoring Somalia to the community of nations, then maritime nations must contain this uncontrolled piracy by force of arms.

Answer with violence

The way to make piracy a less attractive option for these Somali “fishermen” is to make the penalty too high. People who have “nothing to lose” do have something to lose: their lives. On Oct. 7, the UNSC adopted Resolution 1838, calling on nations with vessels in the area to apply military force to repress the acts of piracy. At the 101st council of the International Maritime Organization, India called for a U.N. peacekeeping force under unified command to tackle piracy off Somalia. The trouble is peacekeepers do not “tackle” piracy. Violence does solve problems. The West must remember this fact, and use violence as well as legal structures to solve the challenge of piracy.

Beginning with a policy objective of freedom of the seas for the movement of trade by cargo ships, a coherent strategy can be formed using the time-honored method of linking ends, ways and means. The strategic end is unfettered transit of global chokepoints on sea lines of communication. The way to accomplish this end is through the use of convoys, strike operations, in extremis hostage rescue operations and short-duration land operations launched from a sea base. Piracy is an attractive option to the range of people conducting freebooting because the maritime companies of the world have made it attractive by paying ransoms. Early in our American history, and the history of our maritime operations when faced with the Barbary pirates, the cry was, “Millions for defense, not one cent for ransom.” It is time to return to this tradition of burning out pirate nests.

Trading ships will be encouraged to cooperate with the naval task force convoy operations. The stick to enforce this suggestion is coordinating with the maritime insurance companies so that ships cooperating with the naval task force and participating in convoys through threatened areas will get a break on maritime insurance. The shipping companies and independent ships that opt to not participate will not be insured or face higher insurance rates. Convoys are harder to break up by even swarms of small boats and easier to defend by the naval task force. Once convoys are established, the next step in the strategy is to attack pirate bases on land.

The Somali pirates sail the hijacked ships to the Somali pirate hub town, Eyl. There, pirates usually take the crew ashore, where they are held hostage. Since the crew represents a valuable commodity, the pirates normally take good care of its members until a ransom is paid, and then the crew is released. Clearly, before even short-term land operations are conducted, the crews of captured ships must be rescued. All major powers and even minor ones have special operations forces with high levels of training. These forces can be used to rescue crews after time for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering on the locations of the crews. The actual timing of these in extremis rescue operations must be left to the task force commander, advised of course by the policymakers of the nations involved.

A crime against free trade

Short-duration land operations focused on the bases used by pirates (shades of O’Bannon) must be launched to reinforce the point that the price of piracy is the loss of what the pirates and those who support them hold dear. For example, if there are high-priced restaurants in the port of Eyl that make a living from the ill-gained money of pirates, they should be destroyed. Piracy is a crime against the world and the right of free trade.

The major maritime powers of the world all have marine forces — the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands, for example. These forces are trained to conduct short-duration land operations from the sea. These operations will be all arms operations as well as coupled with information operations to persuade any “innocent” people to leave the pirate ports. Areas under pirate control will be declared criminal, and the small boats and ships will be confiscated or destroyed. The means used by pirates to conduct their operations must be taken from the pirates. These are punitive and pre-emptive operations that are designed to punish acts of war against the world.

Once these steps are taken, we can then pursue the long-term actions advocated in “Fighting piracy,” actions that will ensure that when pirates do return on the international scene, naval forces will not have to return pirates to the beach because there is no means to punish them.

For the present, though, action must speak louder than words, and these pirates must be destroyed. We can either prove we are worthy successors to O’Bannon, or we can continue to be ineffective and pay ransom.

Col. Kevin C.M. Benson (RET.) last served as director at the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a seminar leader at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies.