Piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden threatens a vital artery of international trade. Sources at Lloyds of London warn that if they are not stopped, the Somali pirates will threaten Suez Canal traffic.
Piracy also is contributing to instability and warfare on the African continent and is enabling radical Islamist and secessionist forces in Somalia and Sudan. For now, it seems, some pirates may have al Qaeda Somali affiliates, such as the Islamic Courts committees, as supporters but are lacking a prominent state sponsor. This, too, may change.
Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia have risen significantly since 2004. Pirates use assault rifles, submachine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, grenades and machine guns. There are indications that some may have man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.
The long coast and the sea are for the pirates what the mountains are for the Taliban and urban slums are for the Iraqi or Gazan terrorists. It is a sign of the times that in addition to the small arms and small weapons, pirates employ a variety of modern information technologies to support their attacks: global-positioning systems (GPS), satellite phones and laptop computers.
While most attacks take place in the Gulf of Aden or off the coast of Somalia, the pirates recently have begun venturing farther out into the Indian Ocean - up to 250 or 300 miles offshore, which requires sophisticated navigational skills and the use of GPS.
Pirates use modern technologies and spies to gather intelligence, select targets, coordinate attacks and conduct negotiations. Though many pirates still are in small bands using just a few boats launched from a coastline, more sophisticated and well-organized pirates have numerous speedboats launched from a larger “mother ship” that can overwhelm a victim with a number of vessels or cut off avenues of escape. There are reports that pirates operate a number of mother ships simultaneously, making tracking and interdiction even more difficult.
Importantly, the pirate tactical doctrine - speed, surprise and stealth combined with overwhelming force of violence - is the key to a successful raid or hijacking. Pirate gangs generally are armed with intelligence about the target ships, including destinations, cargo and ownership. A sophisticated piracy support structure exists in Somalia and the neighboring African countries, providing arms, trade in captured goods, liaison for the negotiation of ransom payment and other services.
The embattled Somali government is incapable of controlling pirate activity, and the international naval presence in the region so far has failed to deter it. The increase in piracy - an old scourge - is a symptom of growing international chaos.
Pirates are holding 15 vessels and 300 crew members captive in Somali waters, notably the Belize-flagged Ukrainian ship Faina, carrying 33 T-72 tanks.
A combined naval Task Force 150, comprising ships from the United States, Canada, France and five other countries, is in charge of security for the region’s shipping. It is based in Bahrain, the home base of the U.S. 5th Fleet, and recently has increased the number of patrols in response to the increase in pirate attacks.
Because of the wide area it must cover and the sheer number of potential targets for pirate attack, the task force is unable to provide a comprehensive defense for ships traveling in the area. A vessel can be hijacked before the combined task force ships can get close enough to intervene. There are too many ships transiting the region for the combined task force to escort them individually.
The pirates’ favorite targets, the U.N. vessels that bring food and other supplies to Somali refugees, need special protection, as they often bring up to $1 million in ransom fees.
It is time for the task force to start escorting ships to and from Bab-el-Mandeb - the southern entrance to the Red Sea - and to Somalia and Aden in convoys while preparing for decisive naval action against the buccaneers. Naval powers with much at stake must recognize the growing problem and act decisively to deter and defeat the pirates.
cAriel Cohen is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Heritage Foundation. His most recent book is Kazakhstan: the Road to Independence.