Critics say US should attack Somali pirates' land bases

Is it time to replace bluewater policing with tactics of Jefferson, who defeated the Barbary pirates on land?

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As the US Navy moves additional ships to the Indian Ocean to attempt to free the American captain held hostage by pirates, some are criticizing Washington's tactics and calling for strikes on the Somali pirates' land bases.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the US is sending additional naval vessels to join the USS Bainbridge, which has been in a standoff with the pirates who took an American captain hostage Wednesday. But experts say that an increased US naval presence will not solve the ongoing issue of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean, writes The Wall Street Journal.

"I actually think this naval response is not the right thing to be doing at all," said [Peter Chalk, an expert on piracy at the Rand Corp.,] of the presence of the USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer which reached the Maersk Alabama early Thursday morning. "We have ratcheted up the situation."...
"Governments like the US have little choice, given the public pressure and the political pressure," Mr. Chalk said. "I don't think that the naval presence out there has anything to do with the protection of ships. It's been politicized."

Rather, argues Mr. Chalk, the US needs to target the pirates' bases in Somalia, where they have had free reign to establish camps in various port cities of the failed state. In a commentary for CNN, Tom Wilkerson of the United States Naval Institute, a nonprofit professional association, also advocates targeting the pirates' home bases, which he says is a lesson "we seem unable to learn from our own history."

In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson said "Enough" to paying 20 percent of the US national budget as tribute to Barbary pirates. His response was clear and successful – build a strong naval task force, equip it with a sizeable contingent of Marines, and send it to attack and defeat the pirates in their lair. The sailors and Marines sent on that mission did just that – and in the process wrote a stirring page in our nation's early history.
The problem today is that we have refused to take the Jefferson model. We've confined our anti-piracy efforts to the open seas and left the pirates' home bases on land as a sanctuary. Thus, the pirates continue to operate with relative freedom and stealth. We and our allies only respond, never seizing the initiative.
The Jefferson model is a better answer: Take on the pirates where they are, rather than guessing where they will be. In short, attack them at their home bases.

Roger Middleton, an expert on piracy for Chatham House, notes in The Independent that increased naval presence in the Gulf of Aden since last year has reduced the number of attacks there. However, he notes that "the navies have fallen victim to their own success."

The effectiveness of the patrols in the Gulf of Aden seem[s] to have caused the pirates to refocus their attentions on the western Indian ocean. ...
Now hijackers are threatening an area of up to two million square miles, they are much harder to locate. European, US, and other navies are still overwhelmingly concentrated off Somalia's northern shore, hours or even days journey away from the recent attacks.
Although the pickings may be slimmer and the sea more dangerous in the ocean the pirates have found an easier place to work and the western Indian Ocean may soon be as notorious as the Gulf of Aden.

While national governments decide how to resolve the Somali pirate problem, sailors are left to consider their own measures to protect their vessels. The Christian Science Monitor reports that some US maritime academies are considering adding weapons and defensive training to their curriculums. The Monitor adds that shipping companies are also reviewing new ship defenses.

In November 2005, a cruise liner, the Seabourn Spirit, used a sonic blast from a "long-range acoustic device," or LRAD, to repel pirates who were trying to board.
Shocks from an "electric fence" have also been tried, along with night-vision systems to prevent pirates from being able to get close to the vessels. Indeed, outrunning pirates is still one of the best approaches. Although pirate boats are faster, a large ship moving at 16 knots or more creates an enormous wake that makes it hard to board. Razor wire ringing the ship is another technique.
The extra security isn't cheap. Sonic deterrent equipment and operators can cost $20,000 to $30,000 per trip, according to documents on the US Maritime Administration website.

Radio Netherlands notes that some companies are considering posting security personnel to their vessels. But they add that Pottengal Mukundan, director of the piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau, believes that such an approach could make matters worse.

"We feel that arming merchant vessels is not really the answer. Given the current legal framework in which merchant shipping operates, we may be creating more problems than trying to solve them."
There are several reasons why arming merchant vessels may not be the best option. First, the presence of armed security agents would not guarantee that fewer ships would be hijacked. Second, the pirates have rarely harmed captives and arming these ships could increase the likelihood of injuries and deaths. Furthermore, if only some ships are armed and others are not, then the armed ships may remain safe while exposing the unarmed ships to increased violence.
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