- The Washington Times - Monday, January 18, 2010


Whether Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, was connecting the dots in a recent interview is unclear. In the Pickle Factory muddle at Langley, Va., these days, not much is discernible. But what Mr. Bond said — that ransom payments for the Somali pirates are funding Islamist terrorism — is, if not yet true, a near certainty in the future.

No one has to be reminded of al Qaeda’s ability to franchise terrorist groups in Muslim/Western countries to zig when American defenses zag. Al-Shabaab is operating inside the failed Somali state, apparently pairing up just across the water with Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, godfathers of the Nigerian Detroit would-be underwear bomber. Alas, al-Shabaab has recruited ethnic Somalis in America and Europe, some already casualties in internecine fighting.

Meanwhile, an 18-nation maritime coalition, led by elements of the U.S. 5th Fleet, is losing the war against piracy. Ecoterra International, a radical environmentalist Web site, notes last year’s figure of 211 attempted hijackings doubled the 2008 number, with 45 vessels successfully seized by pirates, compared with 42 in 2008. Apparently a dozen ships are now in the hands of pirates and “under negotiation.”

That has implications for Jolly Roger wannabes in other parts of the world, including the Gulf of Malacca chokepoint near Singapore, and the Gulf of Guinea from where much of the U.S.’s African oil imports come.

In a world beset with multiple crises, Somalia piracy has become routine, with incidents not only increasing, but hostage prices inflating. The asking tab for Britons Paul and Rachel Chandler, hostages since Oct. 23, is more than $3 million. The Somali thugs say they will shoot the yachtsmen in March if they don’t get the loot. A video showing the Chandlers begging for mercy has been obscured by a world of violence elsewhere.

Whatever the personal tragedies — and heroism — among captives playing out in the pirates’ realm, which now stretches a thousand miles into the Indian Ocean, world commerce is increasingly held hostage on one of the most important world sea lanes.

Nobody really knows how much the pirates have squeezed out of the ship owners, insurers, the hostages’ families, and government payments under the table, including the French, of course. Even China recently paid a $3.5 million ransom for one of its merchant ships, and Beijing has used the piracy problem as a reason to dip its navy’s toes into blue-water adventures.

Rising insurance rates, increasingly expensive naval patrols, longer trips from bypassing the Suez Canal are adding hundreds of millions and soon billions of “rent” for the 20,000 ships that pass this way annually. It’s one more dagger at the throat of a world economy trying to climb out of a financial and trade crisis.

The allied warships, deployed off the Horn of Africa since early 2009, operate convoys, monitor guarded transit corridors. But the U.S. Persian Gulf naval headquarters obviously is stretched, coping with the possibility of sudden explosions by increasingly obstreperous Tehran, including the restive Shi’ite majority in its own Bahrain headquarters. There are the worrying threats from the Iranian mullahs — if and when the Israelis or whoever take action against Iran’s nuclear weapons — to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which a huge stream of the world’s fossil fuel passes.

To quote Lenin: What is to be done?

British Adm. Mark Stanhope, pointing out the anti-piracy patrols are dealing with 1.1 million square miles of water, told Reuters, “We are not going to eradicate piracy — it’s still a very, very large area.”

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, unsuccessfully imploring Europe’s royal courts to act against piracy during the republic’s infancy, heard the same rationalizations for continued bounty/tribute payments. What isn’t generally remembered by our latter-day “multinationalists” is that in the end, the infant America couldn’t persuade the Europeans to act. It was the U.S. Navy and Marines acting “unilaterally,” after some fumbling, who tamed North Africa’s Barbary pirates.

It’s obvious that a naval blockade of Somali ports and hanging the pirates (they often get sent home with food parcels) is the only way to stop this growing pest: I leave it to the naval bodies to determine when and how it should be done. But some of us are suspicious the snail-like distribution of “stimulus” could have something to do with delivering pork closer to the November election. The Obama administration should recall how the Reagan rearmament, including his 600-ship Navy, helped rescue the U.S. economy from the Jimmy Carter administration’s stagflation malaise. President Obama’s cutbacks in naval construction — not only postponing the next aircraft carrier but putting the brakes on brown- and green-water additions designed to pursue just these kinds of coastal conflicts — makes no sense given the obvious tasks ahead for the major world waterways policeman, the U.S. Navy.

Sol W. Sanders, a veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on international politics and business-economics.

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