Piracy now high on Washington agenda

Secretary Clinton vows action, and seeks an international effort against the Somali pirates

SOURCE: International Maritime Bureau/Rich Clabaugh/STAFF
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday about piracy and Somalia.
Alex Brandon/AP
Crew members from the Maersk Alabama, which was attacked by Somali pirates, arrive at Andrews Air Force Base early Thursday.

The kidnapping and sea rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama is moving the problem of piracy up the already-charged agenda of a new administration in Washington.

The 19-member crew of the US-flagged freighter arrived in Maryland Thursday morning on a chartered jet from Mombassa, Kenya. Captain Phillips was was delayed after the USS Bainbridge, the ship that rescued him, was diverted to help another US ship fend off a pirate attack.

After years of low-level attacks off the Horn of Africa, the pirates have been picking up pace. Since January, pirates have attacked 79 ships in the Gulf of Aden or off the east coast of Somalia and taken 352 hostages. At press time, 17 seized ships were still under negotiation, according to the International Maritime Bureau in London.

The Obama administration pledged "swift and decisive action" this week to combat the threat.

"These pirates are criminals. They are armed gangs on the sea," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday. "And those plotting attacks must be stopped, and those who have carried them out must be brought to justice."

But with some 400,000 square miles of ocean to patrol along one of the world's most vital trade routes, it's not a mission the US can – or cares to – take on alone. "This is a huge expanse of ocean, four times the size of Texas, so we have to be able to work together to avoid the pirates," Secretary Clinton said. "We also need to secure the release of ships currently being held and their crews, and explore tracking and freezing pirate assets."

It's also challenging for the US to exert power in this region at a time it is fighting two wars elsewhere, says a leading antiterrorism expert.

"This underscores the constraints on American power in an asymmetrical world," says Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

"Afghanistan requires a density of troops we don't have. The same [is true] in an ocean that is large. We don't have the kind of Navy invested with sufficient number of warships to guarantee safety of shipping lanes. Nobody does," he adds.

State Department officials say that there will be a lot of diplomatic work on the ground to coordinate a regional response. Kenya has agreed to prosecute the pirates.

Ultimately, though, someone will have go after the pirates' land bases. "If you look at a history of piracy, very often you will read that everyone reaches the same conclusion: that you have to go after the land bases," said Clinton at Wednesday's briefing.

With Somalia now virtually a failed state, it's not clear that the government has the will or capacity to police its own territory. Clinton left open the option of an international intervention.

"We have a pretty good idea where the land bases are, and we want to know what the Somali government, what the tribal leaders, who perhaps would not like to have the international community bearing down on them, would be willing to do to rid their territory of these pirate bases," she added.

In addition to a multinational naval deployment and International Contact Group – first proposed by the US – to coordinate antipiracy efforts, the US is urging increased international support to "help the Somalis assist us in cracking down on pirate bases and in decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy," she added.

A steering group that includes the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Transportation, and Homeland Security, as well as the intelligence community, is set to meet Friday to craft ways to counter piracy.

Even with international cooperation, the scope of the problem is vast. "The Gulf of Aden is one of the most important trade routes between Asia and Europe. What makes it so difficult is that one particular country does not have the capability to police its own people," says Cyrus Mody, manager of the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks attacks on commercial vessels.

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