Monday, April 13, 2009



The USS Bainbridge is named after Commodore William Bainbridge, a famous
19th century US Naval Officer who fought pirates in the same waters
Captain Phillips’ was captured.

(April 13, Norfolk, VA) With three Navy Seal executed accurate shots from the stern of the USS Bainbridge, the first US mariner held for ransom by Somali pirates was freed on Sunday. The permission to use deadly force was issued by President Obama from the White House late Saturday. One of the four pirates is in custody of the Navy while the hostage, Captain Richard Phillips, is en route home. Phillips’ captivity began after a failed hijacking by Somali pirates on April 7. He is reported to be unharmed and in good physical condition.

In recent years pirates, primarily based out of Somalia on the western horn of Africa, at the mouth of vitally important Gulf of Aden, have seized over 60 ships and held the ships and crews as hostages. Virtually all of the hijackings were resolved after the ships owners decided to pay ransom. An estimated $80 million has been paid to pirates over the past 7 years. The American freighter, Maersk Alabama, was the first US flagged ship to fall victim to the increasingly brazen west African pirates.

The Gulf of Aden is extremely important to international maritime shipping. Virtually all of the crude oil and petroleum products exported by Saudi Arabia must transit through the Gulf. Keeping the vital waterway and immediately adjacent shipping lanes secure has become of prime importance in recent years as pirate activity has grown. Currently an international armada and a NATO led group patrol the vast area. Despite the enhanced international naval presence the pirates appear to be able to hijack with impunity. Just since Captain Phillips rescue, three ships have been seized.

Some of the first photographic images of the Maersk Alabama incident showed three US Navy warships surrounding a 26 foot life boat containing the four pirates and Phillips. The contrasts in capabilities were stark and just another illustration of the asymmetrical engagements the United States will confront in the years to come.

Since September 11, 2001, we have seen the challenges of confronting asymmetrical actors. A small band of radical terrorists were able to launch the dramatic attacks on US soil in 2001. Based out of a lawless region of Afghanistan they were able to prepare, plan and plot in isolation. As “non state actors” retaliation becomes a thorny issue for several reasons not the least of which is the difficulty locating terrorists when they reside in “safe havens” within sovereign nations.

Somali pirates are prime examples of such “non state actors” operating from a lawless country which is basically an ungoverned, failed state. To launch military strikes against their shore bases raises a variety of questions regarding the nature of the action, the rules of engagement and international law.

Piracy, over the centuries, has always been considered a crime on the high seas punishable under the auspices of well defined, internationally recognized, maritime law. During the 17th and 18th centuries justice was usually swift and deadly. When US Navy Seals fatally wounded three of the four Somali pirates, they were acting within long held, established tradition regarding piracy. The questions are now how to prevent or at least minimize the occurrence of this high seas crime.

Some of the questions now being discussed at the highest levels of our government have actually been answered already. There is no and never has been any ambiguity for how to bring pirates to justice. As mentioned previously, putting the current rash of pirate hijackings and kidnappings in historic context, the methods and legal justifications for dealing with them is well known. Piracy has never been tolerated and it should not now. The fact that shippers have chosen to negotiate and subsequesntly pay ransom for their ships and crews has established a very dangerous precedent. As proven on Easter Sunday, the United States will not negotiate with pirates; the only payment they will receive from America will come in the form of deadly force.

Piracy is not terrorism although the two are cousins of a similar mindset often with similar motives, aims and rationales. In some ways piracy can be seen as terrorism if it presents a national security threat. If interruptions in commercial maritime activities such as the timely delivery of crude oil escalates to the point it creates shortages, then it can be considered terroristic. One concern is that we are seeing how difficult it is to “bring terrorists to justice.”

With piracy there is no need to get bogged down in troubling issues of precisely how to prosecute them as terrorists. Pirates should be prosecuted according to the established laws of the high seas which includes the use of lethal force on the scene and the death penalty from a maritime court or other state sanctioned court after apprehension. Some are already arguing if pirates should be tried in US criminal courts. Provided the well defined body of piracy law is enforced, in whatever venue they may find themselves legally, they should be dealt with swiftly and accordingly: there is no legal defense for piracy, plain and simple. The United States must muster the fortitude to deal with it plainly and simply.,2933,514719,00.html

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