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John Metzler Archive
Friday, April 17, 2009

'Armed teenagers' off Somalia take world shippers for punks

UNITED NATIONS — Somali pirates continue to attack and seize merchant ships and humanitarian aid vessels off the troubled Horn of Africa. These modern-day buccaneers have scornfully thrown down the gauntlet to shippers and have turned the coastline off East Africa into an “enter at your own risk” zone for global commerce. The harassment and attacks present a clear and present danger to the international community and something which most countries should agree on solving; seriously and soon.

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Pirate raids from Somali ports have attacked and seized cargo ships with the primary plan to gain ransom for the crews or stealing humanitarian cargo. The buccaneers, operating from a lawless Somali territory, have become increasingly brazen and only on rare occasions have met their match. Over the past few years, the United States, France, and Japan have led efforts in the UN Security Council to stop the scourge; resolutions have been passed but without serious consequence to the pirates.

The International Maritime Bureau reported a spike in piracy in 2008; there were 293 incidents of which 111 occurred off Somalia. So far this year, there have been 74 attacks.

The pirates ran out of luck when they seized the U.S.-flagged ship the Maersk Alabama, a vessel ferrying humanitarian supplies to Kenya. The attack was initially rebuffed, but the pirates seized Capitan Richard Phillips and held him as a hostage. That was their mistake; US Navy ships came to the rescue and the hapless buccaneers found themselves on the business end of the Navy Seal team snipers. Three kidnappers were killed and one captured. A day earlier a French yacht was captured. French naval units soon counterattacked and killed two pirates.

Naturally the buccaneer braggadocios boast revenge; that will be most certain, but not necessarily successful.

The U.S. Navy and French action against pirates provocations are entirely justified. Yet many in the American Administration view the Somali pirate problem as an unfolding law enforcement operation, albeit half-way around the world. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went so far as to say the pirates are “untrained teenagers with heavy weapons” as if somehow hinting the problem should be solved as treating “speedboat juvenile delinquency” in the Indian Ocean. Get real!! Armed teenagers yes, but so are most of the militias and thugs which continue to bleed and destroy so many African countries with near impunity.

According to UN reports “most of the prominent pirate militias today have their roots in the fishing communities of the Somali coast.” Two main groups are based in Puntaland and the southern Mudug region. The infamous Eyl port hosts the biggest buccaneer base and is currently holding six vessels and over 220 crew. Ransoms totaled $30 million in 2008. The UN adds, “it is widely acknowledged that some of these groups now rival established Somali authorities in terms of their military capacities and resource bases.”

The Gulf of Aden and Mogadishu attack zones, according to the UN are served by “mother ships” based both in Somalia and Yemen.

The United States Navy, various European Union Navies, and even China and Japan have sent military vessels to the disputed region. The EU’s “Operation Atalanta” has currently deployed five frigates from France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Results have paid off. Last year the World Food Program delivered 260,000 tons of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, quadrupling the amount delivered in 2007. Over two million starving Somalis were fed, largely thanks to maritime protection for cargo vessels.

Despite this, many diplomats concede a lack of enforcement capacity both in terms of more ships being needed to patrol a vast area as well as more precise rules of engagement. Underlining the challenge remains effective enforcement of current Security Council resolutions. This is easier said than done.

Yet here’s the bottom line regarding shipping in the strategic waters off the Horn of Africa; Pirates and militias prosper in a power vacuum of poverty and a “failed state.” Rebuilding an effective Somali government anytime soon is not going to happen.

Some of the pirate groups could be Al-Qaida “franchise operations” raising cash through blackmail and ransom. Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists thrive here.

Key UN member states (U.S. Japan, EU, China, Russia) have suffered losses from the attacks and none have any reason to support these stateless sea-borne thugs.

Thus given near unanimity and the enduring threat to life, navigation and commerce, serious military countermeasures must be implemented to take the fight to the pirates both on the high seas and in their secure ports.

Not responding to these latter-day Barbary pirates invites further attack, humiliation and global lawlessness. Let’s get serious!

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for
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