- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

A House committee Thursday looked into a security threat as old as the republic itself — pirates.

Top Defense and State Department officials told lawmakers that the U.S. Navy and a coalition of allies have curbed but not eliminated a growing threat of pirates preying on international shipping lines off the coast of Somalia. Boarding attacks spiked last summer, leaving shippers scurrying to beef up protection along one of the world’s key shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.

But Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, head of the U.S. Central Command fleet headquartered in Bahrain, said stopping the pirate attacks entirely will depend on efforts to build a working government in the failed state of Somalia.

“Ultimately, piracy is a problem that starts ashore and requires an international solution ashore,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

“We made this clear at the outset of our efforts — we cannot guarantee safety in this vast region,” he said.

Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, called the surge in pirate attacks “disturbing,” suggesting the administration push for an “international counterpiracy league” under the auspices of the United Nations.

“Until recently, piracy seemed a thing of the past — part of the stories we tell our children or part of the history lessons about the Barbary Pirates or Blackbeard. Recent events in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, however, make this very much a current and important issue for American national security,” Mr. Skelton said.

With private shipping lines readily paying large ransom fees to rescue their crews and vessels, the piracy surge included spectacular raids such as the November capture of the huge Saudi crude oil tanker Sirius Star. The ship was released Jan. 10 after ransom payment was made by air drop.

In a second episode that stunned international security experts, Somalian pirates in September captured a Belize-flagged Ukrainian cargo ship off the coast of Kenya laden with tanks, grenade launchers and ammunition reportedly bound for a rebel faction in Sunan’s civil war. The boat was freed after the owners paid a $3.2 million ransom.

Somali pirates this week released an Egyptian ship seized more than two months ago carrying a cargo of fertilizer.

Adm. Gortney said an estimated 123 merchant sailors are now being held hostage by the Somalian clans that dominate the piracy activity.

The admiral said the pirates typically operate out of camouflaged fishing boats, staging lightning raids on “low and slow” commercial targets and piloting them back to safe havens along the Somali coast.

Stephen Mull, acting Under Secretary for International Security and Arms Control, said the beefed-up international military presence in the region had helped pushed successful piracy attacks from an average of seven a month in the latter part of 2008 to just two a month so far in 2009. For all of 2008, 42 of 122 attacks (38 percent) were successful, while in 2009 to date just 4 of 26 (15 percent) have succeeded.

A “combined task force” of international navies operating in the region since January has to date detained and disarmed some 250 pirates, with more than 100 turned over for prosecution. Under a new bilateral agreement, the government of Kenya this week accepted seven suspected Somali pirates captured by the U.S. Navy for prosecution under Kenyan law.

Adm. Gortney told lawmakers that the pirates appeared to be motivated by financial gain, and there was no hard evidence of links to either international terror groups or to the strong Islamist extremist movement that has challenged the authority of the new unity government in Mogadishu.

“We don’t see a linkage” to terrorists, he said. “We have been looking very closely and we don’t see it yet. That would be, of course, a significant game-changer for us.”

The admiral said there was good cooperation between the navies patrolling the Somali coast, although different countries have different rules of engagement and levels of communication with U.S. commanders. He noted that the U.S. and Chinese navies currently keep tabs on each other’s movements.

The fledgling Somali government under new moderate Islamist president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, has little effective control of the lengthy coastal areas of Somalia where the pirates hide out. U.S. officials said there are no plans for the United States or its allies to go ashore to attack the ports and inland bases where the pirates operate.

“At present, there are no intentions to do land operations,” said Danel W. Pike, acting head of the Pentagon’s Office of African Affairs.

“The Department of Defense is looking into that, and we don’t preclude it,” he said, “but there is no intention now to do so.”

Adm. Gortney said it was still unclear whether the recent drop in pirate attacks would last.

“Piracy has been around for centuries and will be around for centuries more,” he said. “My concern is where will be a year from now.”

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