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.

Pete Souza/White House/AP
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.
Danish Refugee Council/AP
Hostages Dane Poul Hagen Thisted (l.) and American Jessica Buchanan were rescued by US military forces on Wednesday in a nighttime raid in Somalia.

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?

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.

But studies have shown that increased military patrolling have not reduced pirate attacks, but may have simply spread them out over a wider area, reaching as far east as the Indian coast and as far south as the Seychelles and the coastline of Mozambique. For every pirate “mother ship” captured by European Naval forces, there are dozens of others operating with impunity.

At present, 44 foreign vessels and an estimated 418 hostages are being held by Somali pirate gangs, according to the piracy watch group, Ecoterra International. And pirates have begun to use more violent tactics in capturing ships and in negotiating for ransoms. One pirate gang, holding onto the fishing vessel FV Shiuh Fu-1, reportedly amputated the arm of the ship's Vietnamese captain, Chao-I Wu, in order to increase pressure on the ship’s owners over a $3 million ransom.

Andrew Mwangura, spokesman for the East African Seafarer’s Assistance Program in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, has long argued that increased militarization of the open seas will simply prompt the pirate gangs to use more violent tactics in hijacking ships. But Somali piracy is by no means an organized activity. Rather it's a symptom of lawlessness in Somalia, and the only effective way to combat it is by increasing Somalia’s ability to maintain law and order, and deny safe havens for pirates.

“Nobody knows how the pirates will respond,” says Mr. Hogendoorn. “But the reason for hijacking ships and kidnapping foreigners is to make money. The incentives to stop it are not very high, since very few pirate gangs get caught, but the rewards are potentially enormous.”

US, French, Russian, Indian, and Chinese ships have had their share of successes in halting piracy on the open seas as part of Operation Atalanta, now in its fourth year. But hostage rescues have also gone terribly wrong.

In late February 2011, four American hostages – Jean and Scott Adam of California and Phillis Macay and Robert Riggle from Seattle – were killed aboard their yacht by their captors, after the US Navy detained two Somali pirates who were leading the negotiations. The New York Times reported that an FBI hostage negotiator on board the US Sterett didn’t believe the two negotiators were serious and told the pirates to send over someone else. A fight broke out among the pirates, and all four hostages were killed.

In April 2009, French commandos stormed a hijacked French-owned yacht, the Tanit, in the Gulf of Aden. Two Somali pirates were killed and 15 others captured in the raid, but one of the hostages, yacht owner Florent Lemacon, was killed in the cross-fire. Mr. Lemacon’s wife and three-year-old child and two friends were rescued by French commandos.

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