Will Deadly Force Deter Somali Pirates?

While it has been almost universally praised stateside, President Obama's directive authorizing snipers to kill Somali pirates is getting criticized from one quarter: the international shipping and insurance industries, which fear the commando action will only spur pirates to greater violence and put merchant ships at greater risk. (Story continued below...)

Obama was praised across the political spectrum after he authorized a team of Navy SEAL commandos to shoot three Somali pirates who had been holding Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, hostage for five days. In what appears to have been a perfectly executed operation, the Navy snipers killed all three pirates and freed Captain Phillips. U.S. officials have said that because it appeared one of the pirates was pointing a rifle at Phillips's back, the snipers believed he was in imminent danger.

But some shipping experts worry that using deadly force in hopes of deterring the pirates could backfire. "We are already concerned that last week's rescue operation could increase the level of violence," says Hannah Koep, West Africa analyst with Control Risks, an international consulting and security company that advises insurers and ship owners on piracy-related issues. In lawless and impoverished Somalia, adds Jim Wilson, a Middle East correspondent for Lloyd's Register-Fairplay, a shipping information service, "life is cheap. If you kill one pirate, someone is going to take his place. If you kill a hundred pirates, hundreds will take their place ... If you are going to go around shooting people, you are going to radicalize the [Somali] population."

There have been a spate of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia since the stirring Navy SEAL rescue of Phillips on Sunday. In one incident reported Wednesday, pirates used rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons to attack the Liberty Sun, a U.S.-flag vessel, but were unable to board when the ship took evasive maneuvers. Meanwhile, Somali pirate leaders are vowing to avenge the deaths of their fellow pirates. "No one can deter us from protecting our waters from the enemy because we believe in dying for our land," Omar Dahir Idle, a pirate leader, told the AP in a telephone interview. Another pirate, a 25-year-old involved in the attack on the Liberty Sun, told the AP: "We will seek out the Americans, and if we capture them, we will slaughter them."

U.S. officials and commentators have portrayed the commando action as appropriate and necessary, not only to rescue Phillips but also as a message intended to deter Somali-based pirates from future attacks on merchant shipping in the vast and busy sea lanes that cross the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for the arrest and prosecution of pirates, and unveiled a plan to "track and freeze and try to disrupt" their assets.

But according to both Koep and Wilson, over the past year or two there have been numerous incidents in which Somali pirates have attacked merchant ships in the gulf and taken crews and/or ships hostage for ransom. But until very recently, they note, violence to crew members has been minimal, and in most cases cargo and crew were released unharmed. Wilson says one captain was taken ashore and subjected by pirates to "mock executions." But the captain was not injured, and Wilson says the pirates apparently only wanted to frighten him as part of a "negotiating tactic."

Koep warns, "The use of force raises the stakes for pirates and the international community." Although U.S. Navy representatives have emphasized the deterrent effect of the recent operation, the International Maritime Bureau has cautioned that military interventions may spur the pirates to more violent measures.

Piracy is now big business—perhaps one of the only viable and profitable businesses—in Somalia. Koep's company estimates there are about 300 professional pirates currently operating out of Somalia, who in turn are supported by a few hundred confederates and sympathizers who stay on shore. The pirates' tactics are increasingly sophisticated. After they commandeer a ship—usually easily overpowering the crews, who due to international law and insurance considerations are almost always unarmed—they now often move them close to the Somali coastal villages where they are based. Small boats and shore-based operatives then come out and tend to the ships. In this kind of operation, the ships can be held hostage for weeks while the pirates press ship owners and insurers for large ransoms.

According to a shipping-industry official, who asked for anonymity when discussing operational details, ransom payments are almost always delivered in large loads of cash—which could thwart Clinton's plan to go after pirate assets. "There are no banking transactions," the official says. Lately the pirates have been requesting that ransoms be dropped by parachute onto captured ships. Once the cash is collected, say industry and U.S. government officials, it's almost impossible to trace, though some of it clearly is divided up among the pirates and their helpers, with kickbacks to warlords or clan leaders for protection.

Whatever the industry's reservations about the American decision to shoot back at the pirates, the United States and its allies are forging ahead with efforts to build up a naval presence in the region where the pirates operate, though officials acknowledge that the area is so vast and shipping traffic so voluminous that even a substantial naval task force would have trouble driving the pirates out of business. One estimate cited by U.S. national-security officials is that a fleet of as many as 60 naval ships would be necessary even to begin to try to bring the pirates to heel. At present, the United States and allied antipiracy fleet in the area reportedly consist of fewer than 20 ships.

Industry experts say that the only way to suppress piracy in the long run is to improve political and economic conditions in Somalia, and no one has figured out how to do that. "There is a clear recognition that no purely military solution exists for what is fundamentally a problem of state collapse," Koep says.