Dickey: How the French Deal With Somali Pirates

In the dusty pirate havens of Puntland, a province in the country formerly known as the nation of Somalia, today's Kalashnikov-bearing buccaneers are said to be leery of the French flag. If they're not, they certainly should be. Three times since April of last year Somali gunmen have seized pleasure boats with French passengers and crews—and all three times, including just last week, the French have negotiated, stalled (in the first case even paid a ransom), then attacked. The French response to Somali piracy is now so well known that "in Puntland they talk about avoiding 'the French option'," says John S. Burnett, author of the prescient 2002 study of modern piracy, "Dangerous Waters." "They know French commandos will come after them," says Burnett, "and some of these French guys are really tough mothers." Burnett says that to his knowledge the Somalis have never attacked a cargo ship carrying France's flag. On Wednesday, the French defense ministry announced that the frigate Nivôse had intercepted and detained 11 pirates on a small "mother ship" about 500 nautical miles east of Mombasa, Kenya. The French Navy had tracked the pirates through the night after using a helicopter to foil their attack on a Liberian-flagged vessel. (Story continued below...)

There are lessons for the United States in the French actions, some of which may already have been learned. The dramatic rescue of the American Capt Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama on Easter Sunday was carried out with tactics very similar to the French operations. But the most important lessons are about what goes on before the first round is fired, then what comes after. Confrontations already are escalating. Pirates attacked another American container ship, the Liberty Sun, with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades Tuesday evening. If they intended to board, they failed. They damaged the ship but none of its crew members was hurt and the U.S. Navy destroyer Bainbridge arrived on the scene three hours later to escort the Liberty Sun onward. Earlier Tuesday, a Greek-operated vessel and a Lebanese owned one were hijacked successfully. And as what had been largely bloodless hijackings evolve toward hit-and-run warfare, the most important thing to understand is that no one country can solve this problem simply by protecting, or rescuing, its own people.

Some 260 sailors from all over the world are now held hostage by various Somali pirate organizations. Most are from developing countries, and as French counterterror consultant Alain Bauer warns, the message ought not to be that the Somalis "have the right to kill Filipinos and other Third World mariners but mustn't kidnap French tourists or an American captain." The message ought to be that the world will act in concert to end such threats. The French and Americans, among others, have called for such unity. Yet the armada assembled in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean includes dozens of warships from many different navies willing to act only when their own nationals are under threat, if then.

The reasons are well understood in the shipping industry. No navy or collection of navies could patrol all of the vulnerable waters off Somalia all the time, and the pirate syndicates have very good intelligence out of Europe about what ships to hit and when and where, according to Burnett. Why don't the merchantmen defend themselves? Gunplay on boats filled with volatile chemicals could lead to disastrous explosions. Vessels could be sunk. The mostly untrained men and women aboard could be slaughtered. Losses and liabilities could multiply astronomically. So owners and underwriters think it is safer and indeed cheaper to insure crew and cargo, then pay the ransoms, than to fight off the hijackers or call in the fleet—even if there were a fleet ready to respond. "The shipping companies don't want blood on their decks," says Burnett. Piracy becomes part of the cost of doing business.

What is largely left out of these calculations, however, is the matter of national prestige. And that was what French President Nicolas Sarkozy set out to defend when he ordered commandos into action against the pirates twice last year and again last week. National prestige was also at the core of the showdown over the Maersk Alabama. An America severely weakened economically and still feeling physically vulnerable after 9/11 and the botched wars that followed cannot let itself be faced down by a pirate rabble. So the global 24/7 news cycle touted the Alabama incident as President Barack Obama's first big foreign-policy test. And try as he might to keep his response low key—to allow the hostage negotiations to proceed like a police matter, a sort of "Dog Day Afternoon" in a lifeboat—he was portrayed first as absurdly ineffectual, then as gloriously triumphant.

The danger of such hype, says Burnett, is that it inflates the self-importance of the pirates even as it gives proud and vengeful Somalis reason to move from banditry to something more like guerrilla warfare on the water. Whether that will extend to alliances with terrorist-linked Somali groups like Al-Shabab is an open and worrisome question. But the pirates are almost certain to develop their organization and their tactics more quickly than any combination of international players. So we will see a growing number of showdowns at sea that follow an increasingly predictable pattern, and as the French now know, they don't always have happy endings.

The basic tactics are simple:

First, negotiate with the pirates and keep them talking. (For the legalistic Americans, this could be complicated by a problem with definitions. If the pirates are deemed to be terrorists or working with terrorists, then talks would be precluded. The United States does not negotiate with terrorists. So, for the moment at least, it's important that they be identified exclusively as criminals.)

Second, prevent the pirates from taking the hostages onto the land where they can be scattered and hidden in countless places. The shoreline is the red line they must not be allowed to cross under any conditions.

Guillaume Goutay, commander of the French warship L'Aconit, which took the lead in the French operation last week, told the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that the pirates wanted "to prolong the conversations as much as possible so they could get to the coast." They had seized the 12.5-meter Tanit hundreds of miles out at sea, but were only 70 nautical miles from shore when the first French warships arrived on the scene. On board the Tanit were the boat's owner, 28-year-old Florent Lemaçon, his wife and their 3-year-old son, as well as two friends, guarded by five Somali pirates.

"We were looking at people who didn't want to listen," said Goutay. When the coast was only about 20 nautical miles away, the warship fired on the Tanit's mast, bringing down the sails. The pirates, hysterical, put guns to the heads of some of the hostages and threatened to kill them, but after hours more of negotiations, some of their rage and fear subsided. The next afternoon, concerned that the Tanit might make landfall during the night, the French decided to act. With authorization from President Sarkozy, they attacked at dusk. Accounts vary slightly, but it appears that snipers took out the three Somalis on deck as a Zodiac-type boat with eight commandos rushed the Tanit. Those hostages on the deck were secured quickly, but two pirates had Lemaçon in the tiny cabin. He took a bullet in the head during the shootout—possibly from one of his rescuers—and died soon after.

The account of the American liberation of Captain Phillips from one of the Alabama's enclosed lifeboats has obvious parallels. The vessel had made it to about 20 miles from shore, and tensions escalated when the American destroyer Bainbridge, which had shadowed the boat and then actually given it a tow as part of negotiations, reportedly started taking it back out to sea. The decisive moment came at dusk. The SEAL team on the Bainbridge had been authorized by President Barack Obama to use lethal force if Phillips's life seemed in imminent danger. By the official account, one of the Somalis pointed a gun at him, but that most certainly had happened before. Indeed, the Somalis had shot at Phillips when he tried to escape earlier in the week, apparently before the SEAL sharpshooters had arrived. What is clear is that three snipers now saw that they had clear shots at two of the Somalis who had put their heads up out of the cabin, and one who still was inside. "Three pirates, three rounds, three dead bodies," as a senior U.S. military official told The Washington Post.

There will be more.