The Piracy Problem

Last week, an American cargo ship captain who was being held hostage by pirates was rescued by US naval forces in the Indian Ocean near the Horn of Africa.  During the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, three Somali pirates were shot and killed by Navy Seals snipers operating from the destroyer Bainbridge.  President Obama had authorized the use of force if it appeared to military commanders on the scene that the captain’s life was in imminent danger

 

Capt. Phillips had been a captive since Apr. 8 when his ship, the Maersk Alabama, was boarded by pirates.  He persuaded his captors to let the other members of his crew go after volunteering himself as a hostage.  The captain was then forced at gunpoint into a lifeboat which the pirates used to flee the location.  American forces soon began tracking the pirate craft and attempted to negotiate the release of Capt. Phillips.  The pirates demanded $2 million and repeatedly threatened to kill their abductee before they were neutralized on Apr. 12 after a five-day standoff.

 

This episode highlights the serious problem posed by piracy on the high seas.  Somali pirates are currently holding 12 ships and at least 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau.  Other pirates threatened to highjack more ships and kill Americans in retaliation for their comrades’ deaths. 

 

The Indian Ocean is the main area where piracy occurs.  The waters near Somalia are a major hazard for commercial ships as are the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.  Somalia, which has the longest coastline in Africa, is considered by many to be a failed state and the pirates stationed there have a safe haven due to the weakness of the Somali government.  The country is plagued by an insurgency led by Islamic extremists who hold views similar to those of Al Qaeda.  National security analysts Robert Kaplan and Andrew Exum from the Center for New American Security have pointed out the possibility that terrorists could join forces with the pirates to make money and further their political aims, a development which would certainly undermine American interests.

 

The Obama administration has stated its resolve to halt piracy, although it is unclear exactly how it will pursue this goal.  International cooperation among naval forces similar to that of Combined Task Forces 150 and 151 will likely be strengthened.  Airstrikes against pirate bases and the use of special operations forces are also viable policy options.  It appears unlikely that the US will attempt to bring stability to Somalia and eliminate the pirates’ safe haven by sending in a large number of ground forces given the ongoing troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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