This March 2010 file photo shows a boarding party from the EU NAVFOR French warship FS Nivose on Somali pirate skiffs off the Somali coast.

Europe launches airstrikes on Somalia to uproot pirate base

This is the first time the European-led naval expedition, Operation Atalanta, has attacked a pirate base on Somali territory.

At sea, Somali pirates have taken a beating as increased European naval patrols have helped cut the number of pirate hijackings in half.

Now, the European Naval Force patrolling the waters off the Gulf of Aden and along the Somali coastline have launched air attacks on known pirate supply bases on land, destroying fuel barrels, boats, trucks, and other supplies. This was the first time the EU-led force had attacked pirate targets on land, although exact locations of the attacks was not announced.

"This action against piracy is part of a comprehensive EU approach to the crisis in Somalia, where we support a lasting political solution on land," The Associated Press quoted Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, as telling reporters.

If you added up all the ways in which commercial shipping has to protect itself from possible pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, from insurance to private security guards to avoiding Somali waters altogether, the ticket would come to $7 billion annually. This would include, of course, the $160 million paid last year in ransoms to Somali pirates. Small wonder, then, the patience of the European naval contingent has run out.

But long-term solutions, most defense officials say, don’t come from the barrels of guns, but rather from solving political problems on Somali territory itself. If the weak transitional government of Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed can be strengthened – as a recent London conference on Somalia aimed to do – and if the poorly equipped coast guards set up by the semiautonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland can be better equipped and trained, then Somalis can patrol their own waters, raid their own pirate havens on land, and make Somalia a less hospitable place for piracy.

All along, the fight against piracy has been a game of cat and mouse. When European (and American, and Russian, and Chinese, and Indian, etc.) naval ships began to control the Somali coast, Somali pirates simply moved farther out to sea, capturing large commercial ships and using them as floating pirate havens, attacking commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean, as far away as the Mozambican coast, the Seychelles archipelago, and the waters of India and Pakistan. In the first years of the EU's Operation Atalanta – which encompasses all EU naval operations in Somalia – the number of Somali pirate attacks actually increased. 

Some pirate operations seem to be smartly run, and there are persistent rumors that some pirate gangs receive inside tipoffs from commercial seaports in the Persian Gulf or from the insurance industry in London to gain the exact GPS location of specific ships. Other pirate crews seem less canny, chasing whatever ship happens along their way, including clearly marked gray-painted naval ships with surprisingly big guns aboard. For some pirates, this is just a numbers game. With few countries willing to put captured pirates on trial in their own court systems, the pirates just have to attack enough ships, and luck will turn their way.

So if the best military strategy is to anticipate your opponent’s next move, how does one do that, exactly, with Somali pirates?

Controlling the crucial shipping choke point of the Gulf of Aden certainly denies Somali pirates their “home turf” and increases their costs of operations. It’s a lot harder to find commercial freighters on the wide-open high seas of the Indian Ocean than it is to sit on the white sand beaches of Somalia, waiting for an oil tanker or a container ship full of flat-screen TVs to come sailing by.

Bombing fuel supplies or beached motorboats back home in Haradheere or Eyl may have a temporary effect on pirates at sea. But such bombing runs also carry a potential human cost. Since pirate bases are usually located in populated seaport towns, there is the potential of collateral damage – the killing of civilians.

A few years back, a US defense official told Reuters news agency that the US was unlikely to launch attacks on pirate bases on land.

"We are not really looking at, from a U.S. standpoint, doing anything on land," the senior defense official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. "These base camps are located, co-located essentially, with villages so the potential for collateral damage is significant."

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