Safeguarding the Seaways: Increasing Cooperation Means Decreasing Success for Pirates

Posted by Tom Countryman
March 9, 2010
U.S. Naval Officer Monitors Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia

About the Author: Tom Countryman is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

It's been just over a year since the United States joined with partners across the international community to establish the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which has honored Secretary Clinton's call for a 21st century solution to a 17th century crime of pirate attacks in the waters off the Horn of Africa. In the year since this voluntary effort was founded following the United Nations call for such an effort, it has grown from 24 countries to more than 50 countries. In addition, several international organizations participate, including the African Union, the European Union, the League of Arab States, the International Maritime Organization, INTERPOL, and NATO.

Those of us participating in the Contact Group also share a conviction that joint action, sharing of effective tactics and strategies, and coordination of military, business, and legal measures together offer the best means of dealing with piracy. In that regard, there are three general areas in which we have made steady progress to meet this challenge:

Security: Everyday, ships from more than 20 nations jointly patrol the Gulf of Aden, creating an internationally recognized transit corridor to provide safe passage for the 30,000 cargo ships that pass through this area every year. This effort represents cooperation not only among American and European naval forces participating under NATO and the European Union, but also remarkable individual contributions by a number of other countries, such as Russia, China, and India. This is a result of a coordination mechanism based in Bahrain, which also obviates the need for a supreme commander to lead the effort. As a result, the success rate for pirate attacks in this transit corridor has fallen to nearly zero. It's a good model not only for the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin, but for future cooperative security endeavors.

Partnering with Industry: Since naval vessels can't be everywhere all of the time, employment of relatively simple means of deterring pirates, such as briefing crews and increasing watch in high-risk waters, upgrading lighting, preparing to take evasive action or positioning fire hoses to repel would-be boarders, has proven to be the most important factor in the declining rate of successful pirate attacks in the region. Over the last year, the Contact Group has worked closely with the International Maritime Organization to establish and codify best management practices that ships should employ when they're in this dangerous territory. We hope to see other states require the same kind of best management practices that we've adopted for U.S.-flagged commercial ships operating in the region. It's the lowest cost and most effective way to deter pirate attacks.

Legal prosecutions: Since piracy has long been defined as a universal crime, every state has the jurisdiction to prosecute pirates. Whether it's an attack on their flag, their property or their citizens, we encourage the states affected by piracy to prosecute. We recognize, in particular, that Kenya has stepped forward and offered itself as a site for the prosecution of suspected pirates. This has been a step of great responsibility, and we respect and thank the Kenyans for taking that step.

What also binds Contact Group participants together is a realization that the root causes of piracy off the coast of Somalia rest in the state of disorder that has characterized Somalia now for 20 years. While a parallel UN-led diplomatic effort to stabilize Somalia continues on land, the Contact Group seeks to manage piracy's consequences for disruption to aid and trade, as well as the human cost it ultimately imposes upon the people of Somalia.

We're mindful of some of the motivations that cause young Somali men to go to sea in this desperate effort. The economic situation in Somalia has led to a situation in which some may undertake these very high-risk criminal activities. However, when past pirate attacks have been successful, the money has not come back primarily to benefit the economy of Somalia. As in other forms of criminal activity, the people deriving the primary benefit are the enablers and organizers on land convincing young men to endanger their lives. To these organized crime leaders, the young Somali man is just as disposable as the leaky old boats and second-hand small arms they use to threaten shipping traffic.

The United States supports the Djibouti Peace Process as the Somali-led vehicle for bring stability back to Somalia. We encourage Somalia's Transitional Federal Government to reach out to those actors who want peace in Somalia and to move forward on transitional tasks. As surely as the Somali fisherman, farmer and teacher are victims of Somalia's continuing land-based instability, peace and stability can only be realized by addressing Somalia's governance, security, humanitarian and development needs.

Related Content: Briefing on U.S. Anti-Piracy Efforts.



Donald M.
Virginia, USA
March 10, 2010

Donald M. in Virginia writes:

3 10 10


If the United States brought back just one of the Iowa Class Battleships and placed in that area, I seriously doubt the Pirates would even think of going after any vessels. Walk softly and carry a big stick. The Battleship with sixteen inch guns would send a message to the Somalia Pirates, LOUD and CLEAR.

New Mexico, USA
March 10, 2010

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Deputy Assistant Secretary Countryman,


"We encourage Somalia's Transitional Federal Government to reach out to those actors who want peace in Somalia and to move forward on transitional tasks."

Well Tom, I appreciate the diplomatic efforts by one and all, especially DOD's efforts in support of the Somali Trans. gov. to "reach out and touch" al-shabab/al quaida.

Eventually piracy will stop when folks get real busy and do a tap dance on the heads of ethical infants and we deliver WFP humanitarian aid in force, clear, hold, and build confidence.

I know this isn't the most diplomatic way to put this, but Donald has a point about using overwhelming force to solve the problem, it's just that the problem originates on land.

No one seems to be willing to deal with this in a comprehensive manner, that's why the problem lingers much to the distess of the Somali people.

We can provide recon and logistical support, weapons, and munitions in support of the transitional government, but in all honest assesment we're going to have to get a coalition of the willing involved on the ground, boots and all..

Otherwise there will be no peace for years to come, and we'll be dealing with pirates for the next decade.

So let's not muck about, and get the job done right. Starting with the UN's "rules of engagement".

This notion that "there is no military solution" is pure BS. You create the space for diplomacy to happen.

There was a military solution to Hitler, there's a military solution to the taliban as well. Which is eventually going to lead to reconciliation of those who are willing to lay down their weapons and walk the road to peace, because our armed forces have provided adequate "incentive" for them to make a correct choice. The same is true for Somalia in principal.

If the international community has the capability to enforce the peace, then there is no excuse for lack of political will on the part of the international community to protect populations from terrorists.

Then all the refugees will have the chance to go home and rebuild a life.

I think it holds true that the longer folks wait to do this, the harder it gets and the longer it will take to heal Somalia, turning it into an ally in the war on terror rather than a source of it.

Bottom line is a whole generation of Somalis have been victims of instability that could have been prevented. Similar to the abandonment of Afghanistan that led to 9/11.

Well, I've come to the general conclusion that the war on terror has been in large part the going about of correcting mistakes made by the international community.
Same goes for the removal of Saddam by resolving the unintended consequence of leaving him in power when he should have been removed in 91. 20/20 hindsight and a few lessons from history later...

There's solution to be found in the answer to this question; "Why does the international community keep on having these problems?"

I think it can be found in the definition of "success" and how effective and willing folks are to attain it.

If the UN was more into solving problems, they'd call it a "peace making force" with a pro-active offensive capability funded and supported with manpower by the member states.

To separate civilian populations from the terrorists that hide behind them for cover.

Then run roughshod over those holding a gun and their sponsors.

Too bad it's not possible to clone Gen. McCrystal, but just maybe it's possible to clone his mindset, and graft it onto international institutions.

We need to simply stop having these conversations, Tom. Piracy should never have reared it's ugly head from the dustbin of history in the first place.

Thanks for your post and the update, hope you'll pass my thoughts on up the chain of command.

Be safe,

Richard G.
New York, USA
March 22, 2010

Richard G. in New York writes:


Maritime piracy is an International problem that is rapidly expanding and is being fueled by insurers who are paying ransoms, but are still profiting from the sale of new K&R policies. Increased military efficiency in the Gulf of Aden has forced Somali pirates to operate further offshore where military intervention is far less effective. Although warships have had some success apprehending some mother vessels when departing the Somali mainland, pirate tactics are continually changing and their inevitable success offshore will continue. The answer is therefore not a military one. In addition, the use of armed guards raises many questions, runs the risk of antagonizing the situation and is simply too expensive on a continuous basis. The sollution is that Merchant vessels will have to protect themselves for longer durations and further offshore. The pirates always use small, high speed watercraft to gain access to the vessel under attack. If boarding can be prevented then there will be no hijack. We have developed a passive non-lethal, cost effective system that will immobilise multiple attacking watercraft and prevent future hijackings. Our system is simple and is intended to be used as a deep sea stand alone sollution. The system can be operated by the vessel's own crew, is very efficient and will provide 24/7 effective all round protection.



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