The seizure of the M/V Maersk Alabama represents a first in the recent increase in ship hijackings in the vicinity of Somalia. It is the first US-flagged vessel to be seized and its crew are the first Americans to be kidnapped by Somali pirates. While significant, this does not necessarily make it a problem for the US government to solve.
Counter-piracy efforts over the last 12 months suggest the US government is ill-equipped to solve this problem. In spite of having various naval coalitions in the region headed by the European Union, NATO, and the United States, pirates have illustrated that they can still operate, seize ships, and generate ransoms.
But the hijacking of a US-flag vessel does raise a series of questions to determine if this hijacking is indeed a game changer for the transatlantic community.
Whose problem is it?
While the media continue to highlight the fact that the United States is now a victim, we shouldn’t rush to seeing this as an attack on the US government. There’s no evidence to suggest that a US-flagged ship was deliberately targeted. Rather, pirates targeted a slow ship where their probability of success was higher.
This hijacking was the sixth over the last week. Their other targets were a British-owned cargo ship, a German container carrier, a Taiwanese tuna fishing vessel, a Yemeni tugboat and a small French yacht. All of these hijackings have one thing in common: they could not fend off a pirate attack. Greed, not ideology, underlies the attacks.
Undoubtedly, Maersk’s number one concern is the safe treatment of its crew and return of its vessel. Unlike the United States government, it can negotiate with the group responsible for the hijacking. As the pirates have shown over the last year, they have little agenda beyond securing ransom payments. Maersk is in a much better position to resolve this than the United States government.
Is the game changing?
It is very easy to talk about direct action against pirates to liberate the US crew and ship. In the main, however, tactical operations increase the risk to the crew. To date, countries have shown an unwillingness to send in special forces to retake ships and it has been unnecessary. If the coalition forces prevent the Alabama from reaching anchorage in Somalia, then things may change.
Unless pirates offer to sell the American crew to terrorists, which is highly unlikely, we should see this hijacking resolve as the others have: Maersk‘s owners will quietly pay a ransom. Piracy is big business and the pirates do not want to change the rules.
Likewise, commercial shipping is big business too and remains undeterred by pirates. Shipping companies continue to accept the risk of operating in this dangerous part of the world with relative safety. Of the 30,000 ship transits that occur every year there, about 400 were attacked and only 100 were hijacked last year. This represents a 0.3 percent chance of being hijacked — not very high when you consider the risk to life by changing the game through military action in Somalia.
What is to be done?
As the world ponders what to do about piracy (again), it is important to remember that piracy is a nuisance that the world has lived with for thousands of years. As I wrote in Foreign Policy, the problem of piracy begins ashore. The hijackings over the last year have not been prevented by naval coalitions sponsored by the United States, European Union, or NATO. Naval forces can continue to patrol the Gulf of Aden and provide escort for commercial ships that seek it. However, Somalia’s large coastline and the area of water to protect is enormous (four times the size of Texas or France). To be sure, coalition helicopters have stopped pirate attacks, but the operating area is too large to do this from the sea alone. This raises many possibilities.
Attacking pirate towns like Eyl is unlikely to prevent future attacks and is dangerous to the hundreds of crew members from many countries currently being held in Somalia. Considering how to rescue the crew of the Alabama without considering the effect on the other hostages would be irresponsible.
Arming merchant ships through private contractors or government forces has been discussed many times, but largely rejected by international groups who fear for the safety of the crew. Perhaps it is time to rethink this. To be sure, ships undertake are more likely to evade capture through their own means versus naval assistance.
Finally, there is the improbable idea to reinforce the “reliable” actors of Somalia in Puntland or Somaliland in an effort to co-opt pirate gangs. AFP earlier reported that Puntland security minister Abdullahi Said Samatar, whose breakaway region is the main hub for piracy in the Gulf of Aden, made his appeal for help. “The campaign against the pirates can achieve quick success if the international community heeds our calls for help because this war needs local community forces to help the international forces.” Unlikely, but perhaps one man’s pirate is another man’s coast guard that can protect Somalia from illegal fishing and international shipping that transits near it.
Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. These views are his own.