State Department: ‘Too Much Water to Patrol’ in Fight Against Somali Pirates
The U.S. Navy worked with partner countries to set up a nearly 500-mile long corridor in the Gulf of Aden to ensure safe travel for commercial vessels. The transit zone is heavily patrolled by naval forces and even used by some countries for convoy operations. It is used less now by pirates, who have set their sights on bigger targets farther away from shore.
“The corridor has helped reduce the number of attacks in the transit zone, but it has also had the unfortunate side effect of pushing pirate activities farther out to sea,” Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said during a March 27 discussion at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
“This demonstrates how pirates are constantly adapting their tactics in response to international effects,” he said.
Pushed away from the coastline, pirates have increased their use of “mother ships,” which are hijacked vessels. They are launch pads for groups of pirates who employ smaller and faster boats to conduct attacks. The larger ships can carry dozens of pirates and tow several skiffs for multiple simultaneous attacks, Shapiro said.
“This has made pirates more difficult to interdict and more effective operating during monsoon season, which previously restricted their activities,” he said. “Mother ships have extended the pirates’ reach far beyond the Somali basin.”
Somali pirates now operate in a space covering 2.5 million square nautical miles, about the size of the continental United States. Their activities have reached waters off the coast of India, making it more difficult for naval forces to reach the scene quickly enough to thwart pirates, Shapiro said.
“There is just too much water to patrol,” he said.
There have been successful interdictions, including one in January in which the U.S. Navy rescued an Iranian fishing vessel that had been hijacked and was being used as a mother ship.
While the pirates increase their attacks on the high seas, authorities also have been putting renewed emphasis on related activities happening on land.
The European Union recently announced it would expand its battle against piracy to include possible strikes against boats on the Somalia shoreline and on ground vehicles.
The United States has shifted its focus to land as well, but not quite in the same way.
Pirates have shown an increased willingness to take hostages on land, Shapiro said. In January, Navy SEALS conducted a raid to rescue an American aid worker and a Danish colleague that were being held inside Somalia.
“Picking up pirates at sea isn’t enough,” Shapiro said. “We need to target the networks.”
Authorities must find connections that will lead them to facilitators who supply boats for the criminal operations and investors who bankroll them expecting large returns from ransom payments. The United States also is working to increase prosecution of pirates and expand prison capacity in Somalia to house them, Shapiro said.
The U.S. effort has included cooperation with dozens of nations, including China. Shapiro offered statistics that show these international collaborations have begun to pay off.
More than 1,000 pirates are in custody around the world, he said. And while the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia has increased, the success rate for these attacks was cut in half last year.
Hostage situations also have improved. In January 2011, pirates held 31 ships and 710 hostages. Early this month, they held eight ships and 213 hostages.
The United States opposes making ransom payments to pirates, believing that this cash flow has allowed a once disheveled activity to become a highly organized criminal enterprise. Currently, the average ransom payment to pirates is about $4.5 million, with some totaling as much as $12 million. Shapiro urged governments, ship owners and private parties involved in a hostage crisis to seek assistance from the U.S. government before paying any ransom.
The State Department last year conducted a review of its anti-piracy strategy and has decided to focus on pirate networks and the flow of money, in an effort to disrupt “the pirate business process,” Shapiro said.
“Often the best way to attack organized crime is to follow the money,” he said.