The United States and other nations conducting international trade can seize the opportunity to disable the piracy scourge off the Horn of Africa, or they can let a tyranny continue to hijack and hold hostage the world's attention as the maritime right to safe passage is challenged.
The gripping 100-hour hostage standoff between the U.S. Navy and Somalia-based pirates ended on Easter Sunday as dramatically as it began. On rolling seas as nightfall approached, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers clandestinely positioned on the USS Bainbridge fired simultaneously at three exposed hostage-takers after one fired his AK-47 in the air and another threatened the life of hostage Richard Phillips. The response ended the five-day drama that had been playing out hourly on international news reports since the Maersk Alabama was hijacked.
While the ending was breaking news, the subject was not, as alerts on the hijacking/hostage-taking and ransom industry have grown exponentially. Piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia have doubled every year for the past three years. According to a 2008 U.N. report, there were more than 111 attacks in the region, a 200 percent increase over 2007. With more than 51 attacks already reported by the International Maritime Bureau, 2009 is on track to break 200. This harsh reality of high-seas terror continues despite the presence of a maritime force consisting of more than 20 international naval combatants patrolling the seas.
Only after an American-flagged vessel with an American crew was involved in a hostage situation did the United States respond aggressively. Why not before? The issue is complex, but it essentially boils down to a reactive U.S. hostage policy, not one that prevents future incidents.
The latest hostage-ransom industry is driven principally by three factors: 1) Somalia's constant state of lawlessness and anarchy; 2) pirates able to operate largely with impunity; and 3) a complicit shipping industry that does not take proactive defensive measures and pays exorbitant ransoms, fueling the industry.
The solution lies in addressing all issues. Piracy has been around for centuries, but only on select occasions have nations taken action against these nonstate actors.
Somalia is a failed and largely terrorist state, which is at the center of the problem and must be factored into any equation for long-term success. In the ungoverned and largely tribal-based rule, mafia-style criminals and terrorists work hand in hand, aligned in ideology and violent extremism. The Somali pirates are said to work in concert with the al-Qaida partner al-Shabaa terrorist network. Pirate attacks continued immediately after the rescue of American Richard Phillips, and many pirates have publicly claimed they will retaliate for recent U.S. action.
By any definition, the pirates infesting the Gulf of Aden are terrorists and should be dealt with accordingly. The stakes have been raised, and now is not the time to lose momentum against these enemies.
It was a bit of historic irony that the Navy snipers were positioned on a U.S. warship named for Commodore William Bainbridge, who alongside Commodore Stephen Decatur brought an end to the original American approach to piracy and terrorism during the Second Barbary War in 1815. After the first Barbary campaign, the United States quickly learned that tribute and concessions, the accepted policy of the day by European powers, did not work. Today most Europeans, like the rest of the world, have again embraced the ransom-paying model, which recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown only makes those nationalities more likely to be targeted again and again.
The United States made a dramatic entry, inserting its elite naval commandos to resolve a crisis scenario for which they were expertly suited. Beyond their weapons skills, they are the most capable visit, board and search-and-seizure force in the world. Maritime law provides ample justification and authorization to address piracy by force.
The United States, in concert with our most capable allies, has the means to selectively destroy pirate sanctuaries and attack boats threatening merchant shipping. Preventive lethal actions and nonlethal information operations with proper collaboration and coordination would be acceptable to most of the world community. As safe transit returns to the strait, so too will the delivery of desperately needed supplies to improve the life of all Somalis.
The "whole of world" solution is to acknowledge the requirement for a proactive, projected campaign and lethal force when life is at risk or when economic freedom of the seas and the right of safe passage for all nations is at stake.
Dan O'Shea established and served as the Coordinator of Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. He is the president of Daniel Risk Mitigation Inc., risk consultancy and a Navy SEAL commander in the reserves. David Grange is president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation in Chicago, and a former commander of a variety of infantry and special operations units. He is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general.