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The Ungoverned Space Moves Out to Sea; Clinton Outlines Response

Editor's note: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Wednesday that the US must get international help to presure the Somali pirates where they live -- on land -- and eventually remove the reasons driving them to piracy. "The solution to Somali piracy includes improved Somali capacity to police their own territory. Our envoy will work with other partners to help the Somalis assist us in cracking down on pirate bases and in decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy."

As part of that effort, Clinton said that a steering group that includes State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence community, will meet Friday to figure out what to do and how to do it. In the story below, Greg Grant argues the solution lies ashore and analyzes some of the arguments about the best responses to Somali piracy.

Greg's story:

At a naval strategy conference I attended back in 2007, Stephen Carmel, VP of Maersk Shipping, said that while piracy was a problem for regional coastwise trade, it didn’t really register for international shipping. There was an “unfortunate tendency,” he said, to conflate “petty thieves in bumboats, something we have been dealing with forever,” with the the threat of hijacking on the high seas. “I make a distinction between a 300,000 ton [supertanker] loaded with crude and a barge carrying a couple cups of Crisco.” Stowaways, Carmel said, concerned him more than pirates. Efforts to get an update from Carmel have so far proven unfruitful; Maersk is a bit inundated with calls these days.

To be fair to Carmel, Maersk operates a fleet of some 1,000 ships across the entire world. To get a sense of why he tended to downplay piracy, and also why that particular part of the Indian Ocean that abuts Somalia has become such a happy hunting ground for pirates, go to the U.S. Coast Guard’s AMVER web site and click “Density Plots” on the left hand column. The plot shows the shipping bottleneck that forms in the Gulf of Aden as ships go to and from the Suez Canal. It also shows the extent of global shipping; it is truly global, with ships literally covering the world’s ocean surface. Now take a look at the “Live Piracy Map,” updated by the International Maritime Bureau. It illustrates just how localized the piracy problem is, most activity is concentrated in the Gulf of Aden.

The real challenge is the vast ungoverned, Hobbesian space called Somalia that provides pirate gangs a conveniently located home port, says Martin Murphy, a maritime strategist with CSBA. The unique characteristic of Somali piracy, he says, is the sanctuary that allows pirates to hold hostages for ransom, without threat of capture, until shipping companies reach the pirate's monetary demands. Once ashore in Somalia, the hostage takers are truly in the driver's seat, which is one of the reasons the Navy was so determined to prevent Captain Phillips’ captors from reaching shore.

Lately, the pirates have moved operations further out to sea, adopting their own version of the U.S. Navy’s “seabasing” strategy intended to provide large offshore operating platforms for ships and amphibs. Pirates attack much further from the Somali coast, well into shipping lanes, staging from a “mother-ship,” usually a large fishing vessel, and then running down slow moving freighters with small, fast Zodiac or Boston whaler type boats. It’s a very effective business model, akin to a whaling fleet roaming the oceans hunting prey, occasionally putting in at foreign ports to resupply, but able to remain at sea for long periods.

Since ransoms run into the millions of dollars, there is a huge incentive for more parties to enter the marketplace. Piracy is becoming an established piece of the “underground” economy. Once such huge market incentives are in place, the problem becomes nearly impossible to eradicate. Sweeping up pirates won’t work either as there is an inexhaustible supply of willing freebooters in a country like Somalia where there are so few economic options. Even if you catch pirates in the act, what do you do with a bunch of teenagers who just tried to hijack a ship? Shooting hostage takers is one thing, shooting cargo hijackers is another. The enforcement at sea problems become ever more complex for the world’s navies.

There is a real risk that these sorts of pirate whaling fleets may begin to spread across the globe, moving up the "adaptation" chain, using better ships and technology to stay linked to each other and to track shipping, constantly refining tactics. Murphy believes the recent spread of piracy along major shipping lines likely stems from Somali mother ships motoring ever further from homeport hunting vulnerable freighters.

"The initiative is with the pirates," Murphy says. "They’re evolving their tactics and their ability to shift their operating area much more quickly than we can respond." The world’s navies simply don’t have enough ships to patrol the more than 2 million square miles of Indian Ocean, let alone the entire "global commons." Then there is the identification challenge. “How do you tell a local fishing boat from a pirate boat? How do you tell a dhow from a pirate mother ship?” he asks. While some vessel configurations may look suspicious, you have to prove it, which can require boarding the ship in question and looking under the tarpaulin, or catching them in the act. Helicopters and aerial drones flying off Navy ships greatly expand the area that can be patrolled. But the eye-in-the-sky hardly solves the positive identification challenge as the pirates swim in a sea crowded with fishing vessels.

While there has been some talk of putting private security guards on ships, the insurance industry sees big legal and liability issues and doesn’t much like that idea. Arming sailors is a non-starter as most merchant sailors don’t have the required skills and they didn’t sign up to take and return fire; shipping companies prefer their crews remain non-combatants.

The solution must ultimately lie ashore. “We can’t continue to have the Navy floating around without some political direction,” Murphy says. Adding more ships offshore is not going to solve the Somalia as pirate safe-haven problem. The area is also fast becoming another sanctuary for not only criminal gangs but Islamic extremists, along with the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

While President Obama vowed to stop the piracy scourge, the American public and the international community, understandably, have little stomach for another go-round at trying to create some semblance of governance in Somalia. So, for now, available options are few, other than sending more ships to the area. That likely means the U.S. Navy is going to get increasingly sucked into a mission that has realistically little chance of success and no end in sight.

Following is the full text of Clinton's statement:

Announcement of Counter-Piracy Initiatives Hillary Rodham Clinton Secretary of State April 15, 2009

The following statement was made today at a press availability with Haitian Prime Minister Michele Duvivier Pierre-Louis after their meeting.

SECRETARY CLINTON: But before I turn to the important issues that we discussed today about Haiti, I’d like to take a moment to discuss an issue that affects us all, and that is the scourge of piracy. The attempted capture of the Maersk Alabama and the attack yesterday on the Liberty Sun off the coast of Somalia are just the most recent reminders that we have to act swiftly and decisively to combat this threat. These pirates are criminals. They are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped, and those who have carried them out must be brought to justice.

Last weekend, we were all inspired by the courage and heroism of Captain Phillips and his crew, and by the bravery and skill of the U.S. Navy. These men are examples of the best that America has to offer. And I salute and thank them. But now it falls to us to ensure that others are not put into a similar situation. As I said last week, we may be dealing with a 17th century crime, but we need to bring 21st century solutions to bear.

I want to commend the work that this Department’s anti-piracy task force has already done, along with their counterparts throughout our government. In the past several months, we have seen the passage of a robust United Nations Security Council resolution, a multinational naval deployment, improved judicial cooperation with maritime states and an American-led creation of a 30-plus member International Contact Group to coordinate our efforts.

But we all know more must be done. The State Department is actively engaged with the White House and other agencies in pursuing counter-piracy efforts, both unilaterally and in concert with the international community. This Friday, a steering group that includes State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence community, will meet to consider recent events and potential responses.

This week, the State Department is taking four immediate steps as we move forward with a broader counter-piracy strategy. But let me underscore this point: The United States does not make concessions or ransom payments to pirates. What we will do is first send an envoy to attend the international Somali peacekeeping and development meeting scheduled in Brussels. The solution to Somali piracy includes improved Somali capacity to police their own territory. Our envoy will work with other partners to help the Somalis assist us in cracking down on pirate bases and in decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy.

Second, I’m calling for immediate meetings with our partners in the International Contact Group on Piracy to develop an expanded multinational response. The response that came to our original request through the Contact Group for nations to contribute naval vessels has turned out to be very successful. But now we need better coordination. This is a huge expanse of ocean, four times the size of Texas, so we have to be able to work together to avoid the pirates. We also need to secure the release of ships currently being held and their crews, and explore tracking and freezing pirate assets.

Third, I’ve tasked a diplomatic team to engage with Somali Government officials from the Transitional Federal Government as well as regional leaders in Puntland. We will press these leaders to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories.

And fourth, because it is clear that defending against piracy must be the joint responsibility of governments and the shipping industry, I have directed our team to work with shippers and the insurance industry to address gaps in their self-defense measures. So we will be working on these actions as well as continuing to develop a long-term strategy to restore maritime security to the Horn of Africa.

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