Daring special forces raid shows Somali pirates are on the run

The SEAL Team Six rescue of an American hostage shows US special forces are tightening the noose on increasingly desperate Somali pirate groups, military analysts say.

Danish Refugee Council/AP
This combination photo made from undated images provided by the Danish Refugee Council shows Dane Poul Hagen Thisted, left, and American Jessica Buchanan. U.S. military forces flew into Somalia in a nighttime raid Wednesday and freed the two hostages while killing nine pirates, officials and a pirate source said.

The SEAL Team Six raid on a pirate compound to rescue an American hostage early Wednesday morning is one signal that the US military is tightening the noose on marauding criminal gangs who kidnap civilians for ransom.

The abduction of Jessica Buchanan and her Danish colleague Poul Hagen, who were snatched from a car in late October, is a sign, too, of the growing desperation of pirate groups increasingly feeling the pinch of stepped-up maritime operations, according to military analysts.

It is particularly notable, analysts point out, that the self-proclaimed pirates seized their hostages on land, rather than at sea. 

“I think they’re looking to expand their markets and looking for any vulnerable targets that they can use to do that,” says Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, Director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That’s because preemptive strikes by naval forces have helped to reduce by half the number of successful strikes by Somali pirates, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which monitors pirate attacks.

Indeed, while the number of attempted hijackings increased from 237 in 2011 to 219 in 2010, the number of hijackings that were actually successful among Somali pirates decreased from 49 in 2010 to 28 last year.

“The overall figures for Somali piracy could have been a lot higher if it were not for the continued efforts of international naval forces patrolling and responding to the threat,” according to an IMB report.

Just over 800 crew members were taken hostage in 2011. It was in 2010 that this figure reached a four-year high of 1,181.

Piracy has become an integral aspect of local economies along the Somali coast, whether it is those who become pirates, or those who build ships, or procure the weapons they use, Mr. Nelson says. “Kidnapping for ransom is a very lucrative business for pirates looking for resources.” 

At the same time, vessels are becoming more skilled at protecting themselves, whether it is by “going faster” and pulling up ladders – as former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously advised them to do – or by hiring private armed guards.

But while the successful measures taken by vessels bodes well on the sea, it could offer some added measures of risk for US citizens abroad working in ungoverned regions such as Somalia.

“If you’re a US citizen abroad in a region like this, you’re taking great personal risk to take on missions such as de-mining,” says Nelson. 

Such risks to citizens abroad may increase if countries such as Yemen “continue to unravel,” he adds. “That’s one of the things we’re going to have to continue to address. Yemen could be facing the same model.” 

The American, Jessica Buchaman, a relief worker for the Danish Demining Group, and the Dane, Poul Thisted, were unharmed during the rescue, according to US military officials, as were all members of the Navy SEALs.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated November as the month hostages Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen were abducted.]

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