EU airstrike on Somali pirates echoes US drone strategy

An airstrike on Somali pirate logistics by EU helicopters puts EU members on footing similar to that of the US, which has used drones and special forces to target Islamist militant group Al Shabab. 

This morning's airstrike on Somali pirates by a European Union military helicopter brings the EU more in line with US military methods in the country, but key differences in priorities remain.

The raid, launched from one of nine EU Naval Force warships patrolling off the Somali coast, wrecked five pirate attack boats and destroyed fuel supplies and a weapons cache, officials and witnesses said. It follows a strengthening of the EU force’s mandate, approved two months ago, that now allows airstrikes on known pirate “logistics” on the ground, not just at sea. 

Military commanders with the EU Naval Force, headquartered in Britain, took pains today to stress that the mission was conducted entirely from the air. “At no point did EU Naval Force ‘boots’ go ashore,” the force's press office said in a statement. 

France is the only European country known to have ever sent soldiers into Somalia, despite the fact that far more Europeans have been kidnapped than AmericansThat one mission, to rescue a French yachting family, ended in tragedy when the boat’s skipper, Florent Lemacon, was killed in the crossfire.

The European reticence to put boots on the ground contrasts with the recently redefined, more assertive US approach to combating Somalia's combined challenges of piracy and growing radical Islamism. 

In January President Barack Obama ordered a small unit of elite Navy Seals deep into pirate territory in central Somalia to rescue Jessica Buchanan, an American aid worker, and her Danish colleague, Poul Thisted. 

It was the first time that Washington admitted that US “boots” were ashore in Somalia, but defense sources and Somali eye witnesses have reported on several occasions in the past that American forces have carried out raids in the country. This has always been denied by US government officials. 

Meanwhile, unmanned drones launched from a circle of US airbases, or airports in countries allied to Washington, have targeted – often successfully – agents of Al Shabab, Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants.

'A dangerous game'

By bringing its fighting strategy more in line with that of the US, Europe is playing “a very dangerous game," says Bronwyn Burton,  deputy director of the Michael S. Ansari Center at The Atlantic Council and an expert on Somalia. 

“Both sides would probably agree that the solution to both piracy and terrorism is state building in Somalia,” she said. “But despite a lot of lip service being paid to that kind of policy, what we have now instead is first the US and now the EU pursuing a policy of diplomacy by airstrike.” 

And for the US, the focus remains on fighting terrorism. “Piracy is a distinctly second-order priority in Somalia for the US” Ms. Bruton says.

“There are very, very few US-flagged vessels passing Somalia. Simply by a factor of the geography, Europe has a great deal more at stake there.” 

A US official in Nairobi, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that Washington prioritized combatting terror over combatting piracy. “Somalia is a country with myriad difficulties,” the official said. “We examine each issue according to its place within a holistic whole, and try to shape policies accordingly.” 

Still no appetite for a substantial intervention

But there is little doubt – the US official agreed – that there will be no large scale intervention of Western troops into Somalia, no matter how entrenched its challenges. 

“That won’t happen, simply because of Black Hawk Down in 1993,” says Andrews Atta-Asamaoh, conflict prevention senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. “The US went in there with all the power that they had, and they still failed and no other country wants to put its young men and women in harm’s way like that, in what is a very complex dynamic.”

Perhaps even more pertinently, there is almost universal agreement that Somalis do not respond kindly to explicit foreign interventions, especially those managed by governments perceived as opposing Islamic states. 

“That can very easily play into the hands of the Islamists, and allow them to whip up nationalism that would turn all progress towards a peace process around completely,” Mr. Asamoah says.  

Targeted airstrikes from European helicopters that avoid civilian casualties but disrupt pirates’ abilities to put boats to sea appear to be the safest way to display aggression without risk of backlash.

“The pirates have felt in the past that once they are on dry land, we have to back off,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jacqueline Sherriff, spokeswoman for the EU Naval Force. “Following the extension to our mandate, we are now able to deny them that impunity on land, and this morning’s mission is a clear demonstration that we intend to make life as difficult as we can for them on land, as well as at sea.” 

But this is exactly the “dangerous game” described by The Atlantic Council’s Ms. Bruton. 

“If there is any collateral damage, any civilians killed, you suddenly find yourself with a very quick and very powerful backlash against these international forces,” she said. 

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