The U.S. military is considering attacks on pirate bases on land and aid for the Somali people to help stem ship hijackings off Africa’s east coast, defense officials said.
The military also is drawing up proposals to aid the fledgling Somalia government to train security forces and develop its own coast guard, said the officials, who requested anonymity. The plans will be presented to the Obama administration as it considers a coordinated U.S. government and international response to piracy, the officials said.
The effort follows the freeing yesterday of Richard Phillips, a U.S. cargo ship captain held hostage since April 8 by Somali pirates. Security analysts said making shipping lanes safe would require disrupting the pirates’ support network on land.
“There really isn’t a silver-bullet solution other than going into Somalia and rooting out the bases” of the pirates, said James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based group.
In 1992, under then-President George H.W. Bush, U.S. forces that landed in Somalia to confront widespread starvation found themselves in the middle of a civil war. Forty-two Americans died before former President Bill Clinton pulled out the troops in 1994.
No such broad military effort is being seriously considered now, the defense officials said.
Need for Somali Support
The defense officials cautioned that any actions, whether diplomatic or military, would need the support of the Somali people, who are traditionally suspicious of foreign intervention.
President Barack Obama, who gave permission for the military operation to free Phillips yesterday, is coordinating the U.S. response to piracy with other countries and the shipping industry to reduce vessels’ vulnerability to attack, boost operations to foil attacks and prosecute any captured suspects, said a senior administration official.
The administration official, who requested anonymity, declined to provide further details.
U.S. officials said the goal of a response to the piracy problem would be to encourage Somalis to help clamp down on lawlessness and to ease poverty, an outgrowth of 18 years without a strong central government.
“Piracy is one symptom of the difficult situation in Somalia,” said Laura Tischler, a State Department spokeswoman.
Under discussion are ways to send more direct food and agricultural aid to the country, the defense officials said.
The U.S. military’s African Command, or Africom, could lead the land-based effort. Unlike other commands, Africom doesn’t have large military units. It also has only one permanent base, in Djibouti. The staff of Africom is half civilian and half military personnel and includes representatives from the Departments of State, Treasury and Health and Human Services.
Any U.S. actions on the seas may be coordinated by the Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain.
Also, efforts to ferret out pirates may be jointly conducted with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the defense official said.
The U.S. has used a similar partnership between the military and law enforcement to fight drug cartels in South and Central America.
U.S. action would come as new approaches to fight piracy have emerged over the past seven months. In August, countries increased ship escorts and naval patrols around the Gulf of Aden, site of most East African attacks. In December, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed an anti-piracy resolution.
The UN measure allowed for attacks on pirate land bases and led to the formation of a 28-nation group that has met twice since January to coordinate diplomatic, legal and military efforts.
In January, the U.S. also signed an agreement with Kenya to prosecute suspected pirates handed over by the U.S. military. The U.S. will try anyone who attempts to hijack U.S. ships or hold U.S. captives, Tischler said.
Countries should use existing legal codes, such as the Law of the Sea Treaty and Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, to develop a process for prosecuting pirates, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said.
‘Ample Legal Requirements’
There are “ample legal requirements and jurisdiction to be able to take action against these pirates,” Allen said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week.” “That’s what we should be doing.”
The Obama administration also is urging shipping companies and international maritime groups to employ private security forces and take steps such as unbolting ladders that pirates could use to board a vessel.
The U.S. should make sure to involve other countries, international aid organizations and the shipping industry in its plans, security analysts said.
Lack of coordination has been a major reason for the proliferation of piracy incidents, said Yonah Alexander, director of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies’ International Center for Terrorism Studies, a Washington-based policy group.
Lack of Strategy
“Everyone is trying to water their own tree rather than looking at the whole forest,” said Alexander, co-author of the soon-to-be-published “Terror on the High Seas: From Piracy to Strategic Challenge.” “The international community doesn’t have a coherent, holistic strategy to deal with this.”
Current military efforts have had limited success, security analysts said. In January, the U.S. formed Task Force 151, which uses ships, helicopters and Marine Corps snipers to thwart piracy in the region.
In February, the task force prevented pirates from seizing two vessels. It also responded to the seizure of Phillips’ vessel, the Maersk Alabama, which is operated by Maersk Line, the Norfolk, Virginia-based U.S. unit of Copenhagen-based A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S.
About 25 warships from the European Union, the U.S., Turkey, Russia, India and China have concentrated their efforts to protect the Gulf of Aden.
In response, the pirates have moved south and further out to sea.
The capture of the Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked 500 miles south of the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean, shows the futility of concentrating security forces solely at sea, said Neil Livingstone, chairman and chief executive officer of ExecutiveAction LLC, a Washington-based anti-terrorism consultant for businesses.
“It’s a massive area,” he said. “You can’t patrol all of it.”
The region Somali pirates operate in is equal in size to the Mediterranean and Red Seas combined.
The U.S. should take as its model the 1801 decision by then-President Thomas Jefferson to send a naval force to assault the land bases of Barbary pirates, who were extorting money from U.S. merchant ships off Libya’s coast, security analysts said.
The pirates eventually succumbed to a mixture of U.S. military and diplomatic pressure.
Before taking any action, though, the U.S. should come up with a plan so it isn’t caught unprepared like it was during its 1992 Somalia intervention, Carafano said.
“We need to be a little more thoughtful and rational” this time and develop a detailed strategy, he said.