As Somali pirates continue to find attacking cargo ships in the West Indian Ocean profitable, they have become more and more aggressive, forcing the international community to send naval ships from more than a dozen countries to help patrol the vast waters off Somalia.
But the patrols are expensive and deprive the global fleet of precious resources, and they can’t continue such costly operations, says Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, the top naval commander in Europe and Africa.
“I don’t think we can sustain the level of operation we’ve got down there forever,” said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald did not indicate the Navy would abandon the mission any time soon. Instead, his remarks suggest that the answer to piracy may lie elsewhere – especially if it becomes a more violent activity. He says the shipping industry should ensure it is doing everything to deter attacks, including hiring armed security guards, as well as taking other nonlethal actions to thwart pirates.
“The maritime industry has got to make a decision about how seriously they want to take this on,” he said, in a roundtable discussion with reporters at the Pentagon this week.
Naval patrols have been effective
About 40 naval vessels patrol those waters at any one time, including as many as 10 US Navy ships. Those patrols have been effective.
The US Navy’s presence alone has thwarted several attacks, including one Friday in which a helicopter from the destroyer Farragut scared off an attack from a pirate skiff. Last week, the USS Ashland, a Navy amphibious ship, received small-arms fire from a pirate skiff. When the ship returned fire and the skiff caught fire, the pirates jumped into the water and Navy personnel rescued them. Over the past 10 days, the Navy has apprehended 21 suspected pirates.
The industry has resisted hiring security guards in part out of fear of escalating the violence on the high seas. There are also legal issues with having weapons aboard ships that port in various countries, industry officials have said.
The Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged ship, was pirated twice, including once last year when its captain was held until the pirates were killed by US military sharpshooters. The second time it was attacked, it had armed security guards aboard who thwarted the attack. But those guards were there because the US government contracts with Maersk Line, Limited to ship military supplies to the war zone.
“Our company policy is we don’t want weapons on board our vessels, and we don’t allow them except in instances where governments or authorities mandate us to do so,” says Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk Line, Limited. He noted that various carriers, including his own, have taken a number of nonlethal measures to avoid attack.
Legal issues with captured pirates
From the US Navy’s point of view, there are long-term legal questions about what to do with captured pirates. Typically, they are low-level operators from Somalia who provide little in the way of useful intelligence for addressing a problem that costs the shipping industry millions of dollars a year.
Fitzgerald says the solution is for the US to go after the source of piracy. While he didn’t rule out using military force, he said following the money might be a good place to start. Kenyan officials have told Fitzgerald that money from Somalia is being used to buy up high-end real estate there and in Ethiopia with what appears to be the proceeds from piracy.
Indeed, the US has begun to get serious about going after money earned by pirates. President Obama on Tuesday gave Treasury officials additional powers to sanction or freeze assets of individuals involved in piracy, the Associated Press reported. According to the executive order signed by Mr. Obama, the justification for the broader powers is US national security.
“The deterioration of the security situation and the persistence of violence in Somalia, and acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” writes Obama in his executive order.