The Corner

How to Be a Somali Pirate

With his call for piracy hearings, John Kerry is a bit behind his House colleagues, who held a very informative one last month. The hour-and-forty minute hearing dealt with pirates’ tactics and government progress so far in curtailing pirate activities off the coast of Somalia, which tripled between 2007 and 2008.

Our government has (1) coordinated with other nations and passed a U.N. Security Council Resolution allowing land-based operations in Somalia to combat piracy; (2) created an understanding with Kenya (which has a lot of economic activity at stake) to try the pirates in their court system; (3) worked with the shipping industry to teach them best practices; and (4) put military ships and aircraft in the region to fight the pirates. Ambassador Stephen Mull, undersecretary of State for International Security and Arms Control, testified that the U.S. has “worked with our military partners to create a transit lane throught the Gulf of Aden, which has an enhanced military presence, to further protect international shipping from the threat of piracy.”

As of last month, the progress had been noticeable. As recently as October 2008, 64 percent of pirate attacks were succeeding. By contrast, only 17 percent succeeded in February. Moreover, there were only six ships being held hostage when the hearing took place last month, compared to 14 at the same time one year earlier.

But it isn’t easy to stop the pirates, as Vice Admiral William Gortney described:

“If the coalition is out there with ships, airplanes and helicopters, there aren’t any pirates. If they see us, they’re ‘fishermen.’ If they don’t see us, they are potentially pirates…

The pirates’ skiffs are exactly the same as the fishing boats in the area. And even when apparent pirates are identified — out “fishing” without fishing gear — the U.S. military releases them unless they are caught in the act.

When we get on top, either with maritime patrol or with helicopters, or with a ship, and we look inside these skiffs, and we determine that they don’t have nets or baskets, and they have AK-47s, RPGs and ladders, we know that they’re not involved in fishing. And that’s when we take them, we disarm them, we take their pictures, we fingerprint them, biometric them, and then we release them if we did not catch them in the act.

Gortney described their modus operandi:

If we’re not around, they will attempt to attack a type of vessel that is susceptible to attack, which is based on the speed of a vessel and the freeboard – the height of the first deck from the water…We see the attacks in the morning and with a sea-state of less than three feet. If it’s less than three feet, in the morning, then we watch for these ‘fishermen’ to become pirates.

“Low and slow” invites the attack — a low freeboard doing 13 knots or less. The pirates use grappling hooks and rope ladders to board them. But ships with high freeboards doing over 15 knots tend to get away. More:

“[The pirates] will get in their skiffs and pull up alongside and intimidate either with AK-47s or rocket-propelled grenades, in some cases shooting both to get the captain to stop…The time from the initial attack to on-board the vessel is about a 15-minute window of opportunity. If we’re not there to prevent them from getting aboard in that 15-minute window of opportunity, and they’re successfully on board and they stay on board, then we’re in a hostage situation, and the pirates take it to the East Coast of Somalia and work the negotiation process with the shipping company that’s responsible for that vessel.”

The pirates belong to well-coordinated and hierarchical clans, not unlike commercial militaries, and clan leaders call the shots during negotiations. Our government does not involve itself in this “arbitration,” witnesses testified. The average hostage situation lasts for 45 days, and the average ransom is anywhere from $1.5 to $2 million. It makes sense that most shipping companies would pay ransoms for their crew and cargo, yet at the same time this heightens the incentive for more pirate activity.

“Every time a pirate is successful and extracts a ransom, that encourages others,” says Rep. John McHugh (R, N.Y.), the ranking member of Armed Services. “Success breeds success. . . . The paying of ransom does encourage more rather than less, but I think we have to look at the other side. The ship owners have crews and valuable cargo. They and their insurance companies make what for them is a financial decision as well — that paying a certain sum up front is cheaper in the long term than risking the lives and the ship itself.”

In addition to McHugh, I spoke earlier today with Rep. John Fleming (R, La.), a Navy veteran who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. In the March 5 hearing, he had asked about the use of “low and slow” decoys to lure out the pirates and crush them, and was told that the United States had “contemplated that a few years back and rejected it as not as effective.” Given Gortney’s testimony about the phony “fishermen,” though, he is still high on the idea.

“I think it would be a good idea to put ships out there that will attract the criminals, and then of course we end up ambushing them,” he said. “When we make it very risky, so that they can’t tell a law-enforcement vessel from a merchant vessel, I think that’s going to make it an even more high-risk situation for them. . . . The problem is, if these pirates can be successful even one out of ten times, that’s enough to keep them coming back. We need to make it so that the risk of committing the crimes is higher and higher and the return is lower and lower”

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