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Hostage rescue: Will US intervene more in Somalia?

The US military has largely left East African nations to bring peace to Somalia. But hostage rescue, such as the SEAL operation Tuesday, is a tool the US military is using more often.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 25, 2012

This photo shows President Barack Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, during a phone call from the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, immediately after his State of the Union Address, informing John Buchanan that his daughter Jessica was rescued by Special Operations Forces in Somalia.

Pete Souza/White House/AP

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Now that the US Navy Seals have successfully rescued two hostages – an American and a Dane – from Somali criminal gangs, will the US military begin to increase its presence in the ongoing Somali civil war?

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Not likely.

For starters, the US has largely delegated regional security to others. The fight to control Somalia, led by a shaky transitional Somali government and supported by an African Union peacekeeping force, as well as Kenyan and Ethiopian military forces, is primarily an East African affair. In this fight against the radical Al Shabab Islamist militia, the US military plays only a sporadic and peripheral role. Even in the ongoing foreign naval patrols aimed at controlling Somali piracies in the Indian Ocean, the US Navy is just one of many participants in an operation under European Union naval command.

Yet President Obama praised the Special Operations Forces (members of the famed Navy Seal Team 6), and said that commando operations sent a strong message to kidnappers like Somali pirates

“The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to bring their captors to justice,” Mr. Obama said. “This is yet another message to the world that the United States of America will stand strongly against any threats to our people.”

But even as a tool to combat kidnapping in Somalia, the military option has its drawbacks. While it has proven effective in some individual cases, going in with guns has tended to increase the militancy of the Somali pirates and kidnap gangs, and merely displaced rather than dispersed them. 

“The rise in kidnapping on land in Somalia is in part due to the fact that the operations against piracy on the sea have increased,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, director of the Horn of Africa program for the International Crisis Group. “The pirate gangs are not trying to take the ships, they are kidnapping the crews and holding them for ransom from the shipping companies, much as the gangs are now kidnapping foreigners on land and holding them for ransom.”

Increased naval sea patrols have managed to protect sea lanes along the crucial route through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and US Navy ships have mounted some surprising rescue missions, including the freeing of Iranian flagged fishing boat Al-Molai on Jan. 5.

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