Posted by MataHarley on 10 April, 2009 at 5:52 pm. 4 comments already!

The Somali pirates – which is more akin to mercenary kidnappings to me – had become somewhat the norm in the int’l news. But it’s never burst onto the US scene en masse until it happened to a ship flying US colors, and manned by US crewman.

Yet this was on the radar for quite some time as inevitable. As I noted in my Dec 19th post, even John Kerry was advocating “cautious” hot pursuit on the heels of the UN Security Council giving it’s blessing for any and every willing and able country to wage war on the sea thugs… at sea, in the air, and with boots on Somali ground.

At the time of my December posting, I wondered what then Pres-elect Obama had planned for Somali pirates. Perhaps he put it to the back of his mind, hoping it would happen to anyone other than Americans, and focusing on other issues. But the US POTUS has no luxury to ignore such events… and now the time has run out to turn the cheek on the unchecked piracy.

Unlike previous seizures of ship, the unfolding of this particular event differs in ways beyond it’s American connections. The series of events have created a standoff like no other, and brought the piracy issue to what may be the breaking point.

First the crew – trained in combating piracy without arms (???… like, why no arms???) fought back, and regained control of the ship. The crew captured one scumbag, money grubbing mercenary/pirate, while the pirates held the Captain. Negotiating a trade with human filth never involves honor, so it’s no surprise that Captain Richard Phillips ended up trading his own safety for that of his 19 crewmembers.

Now, the situation is four cockroaches with one feisty and brave maritime captain in a lifeboat that is surrounded by US warships, thwarting any efforts of pirate reinforcements to come to the rescue.

The Bainbridge, backed by drones and surveillance aircraft, was standing guard a few hundred yards from the lifeboat, which had run out of fuel. The frigate USS Halyburton and the assault ship USS Boxer, armed with about two dozen helicopters and attack planes, sailed to the scene yesterday.

According to Bloomberg’s account today, the Bainbridge is constantly monitoring images from a drone flying over the lifeboat.

Despite the constant feed, Capt. Phillips attempted escape was unsuccessful as one pirate dove after him, hauling him back into the lifeboat.

However the pirates have been exceptionally busy this past week, and according to one pirate mouthpiece, they’ve called the calvary. Other seized vessels under control of the pirates are steaming towards to the scene…. along with their captive crew members.

Mohamed Samaw, a resident of the pirate stronghold in Eyl, Somalia, who claims to have a “share” in a British-owned cargo ship that was hijacked on Monday, said that four foreign vessels held by pirates were heading towards the lifeboat. The ships include a seized Taiwanese fishing vessel and a German freighter carrying a total of 54 captured crew members from China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan.

“The pirates have summoned assistance – skiffs and mother ships are heading towards the area from the coast,” a Nairobi-based diplomat said. A Somali in contact with a pirate leader said that the captors wanted a ransom and were ready to kill Captain Phillips if they were attacked.

Their strategy appears to be to link up with fellow pirates and take Captain Phillips to Somalia, counting on the presence of the other hostages to deter the warships from an attack.

“They had asked us for reinforcement, and we have already sent a good number of well-equipped colleagues who were holding a German cargo ship,” said a man claiming to be a pirate from the lair of Haradhere. “We are not intending to harm the captain, so we hope our colleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him.”

This now means the pirates, some of their most recent booty and hostages, are now all eyeballing the US warships somewhere hundreds of miles off the Somali coast.

Obviously these seized cargo vessels are utterly useless against heavily armed warships. Nor do the pirates, no doubt enjoying the national spotlight on their standoff, appear to fear the US naval forces.

Despite the odd picture of three warships and a lifeboat, and several pirate controlled cargo ships on the perimeter, the IBD has an op-ed today, commending the Obama admin’s aggressive actions.

Obama’s response was a resolute and overwhelming one that’s likely to demonstrate to bad actors everywhere that he’s not about to hand-wring or go to the United Nations, but show that the U.S. will come after its own with the full force of its military and security apparatus.

First, he ordered the USS Bainbridge after the pirates. As the naval destroyer shadowed the 20-foot dinghy of pirates and their hostage with an obviously prepared contingency plan, a P-3 Orion surveillance plane circled above.

Advanced communication equipment caught everything the pirates said and did on video. Then FBI negotiating crews moved in, offering the pirates their only chance to get out alive by freeing their hostage.

No ransoms. No bargains. No surrender. Nothing like the past ships they’d taken over. Just the prospect of overwhelming force, to help concentrate pirate minds.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Obama administration maintained tight radio silence, giving the pirate networks intently monitoring his response nothing to go on.

Obama refused to answer reporters’ questions about his plans, even as some in the media howled.

State Department spokesman Robert Woods was splendidly bland, saying “we are working to do what we can,” annoying the reporters in his briefing, too.

For the pirates, that leaves nothing but a Navy ship shadowing their every move and surveillance aircraft circling overhead as their sole information about U.S. intentions.

In a delicate hostage situation, this entire picture shows probably the most effective course. The professionalism and collective knowledge of the U.S. government’s best practices in a hostage crisis is clearly at work. It’s not force first, but the threat of force, with the saving of life paramount.

Most obvious in this is Obama’s leadership, today’s version of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, the only policy that has really worked for the U.S.

In one way, I agree. On the other hand… much depends on what happens next. The “threat” of force only works well when the other side doesn’t call the bluff. And in this case, what is the US Navy to do? Fire on the lifeboat and other pirate-occupied and unarmed cargo ships?

Or do they end up watching the ransom getting paid, thereby suggesting that the US military and government actually *do* negotiate with terrorists … er, excuse me “criminals”.

Ironically, the French won’t be having that problem. French commandos freed a yacht from piracy with a battle that resulted in the deaths of two pirates, and one hostage. This is the second such action against these pirates launched by Sarkozy… and so far they are batting a 1000, and taking prisoners.

Until yesterday, the only other boat to be freed by force from pirates was a yacht liberated by French naval commandos in September.

Somali pirates seized 43 boats last year and at least 11 so far this year. Roger Middleton, a researcher at Chatham House, a London-based foreign policy institute, estimates pirates have earned up to $80 million from ransoms.

Yesterday’s rescue raid by the French special forces came after pirates made threats against their five hostages and tried to navigate toward the Somali coast, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said in a statement.

“France refuses to give in to acts of piracy and takes steps to avoid that its citizens are taken ashore as hostages,” the statement said.

The Tanit sailboat, en route to the tourist island of Zanzibar, was hijacked April 4 by Somali pirates. Four hostages, including a 3-year-old boy, are safe. Three pirates were taken prisoner, the French military said.

Tho successful twice with aggressive response, the French commandos ocean theatre was small compared to the moment we find ourselves in now. For US commandos to pull off the same success, the casualty rates of hostages, and fallout of property loss of private cargo ships, could be much higher.

It’s hard to say how this will play out. Especially since so few could predict it would escalate to this status now. But it may be time for Obama to revisit those defense budget cuts, ensuring those faster Naval vessels designed for this purpose aren’t part of the cuts… because it’s obvious they are going to be needed for some time to come.


Other links:

Maritime President: Time’s Running Out For Pirates

Somali pirates sail German ship to standoff scene