By William Marmon

Escalating the fight against Somali-based maritime pirates, the EU has announced that its naval task force (EUNAVFOR) will expand operations to “include Somalia’s coastal territory and internal waters” – taking the anti-piracy campaign on land for the first time.

Although EU foreign ministers did not specify after their meeting on March 23, what they meant by "coastal territory and internal waters," officials briefed journalists that the new tactics could include using warships or their helicopters to target pirate boats moored along the shoreline and land vehicles used by the pirates. No major operations by Western ground forces are envisaged, they said.

The new tactics, officials said, will permit more direct cooperation with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government in trying to curb piracy that uses the country as a logistical base, launching pad and lair for holding hostages.

At the same time, the EU extended its anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, code-named Atalanta, through the end of 2014 – a time line to which the U.S. is also committed.  But the Obama administration says it has no intention of expanding military operations to the Somali mainland. No one in Washington has forgotten the humiliating experience of U.S. forces under the previous Democratic President Bill Clinton when a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down by a local warlord’s forces and the dead American pilot’s body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

That particular factor – and the EU action – was not mentioned in an otherwise thorough public talk about the piracy problem by Assistant Secretary for State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro at the Center for American Progress in Washington earlier this week.  Queried on this point afterwards by “European Affairs,” Shapiro indicated that while the U.S. works closely with the EU in this campaign, “we think our approach is better,” referring to a strategy focused on 1) cutting off financial flows involved in financing the piracy by ransoms for hijacked ships and crews and 2) penetrating and breaking up the organized criminal networks that mastermind and control the overall piracy operations.

Shapiro said the U.S. agrees that sea defense is not sufficient – a point frequently made by historians who say that pirates have historically been defeated on defeated on land, when their lairs are captured. (For example, the U.S. crushed the Barbary Pirates in the 19th century when Marines stormed their land bases on the shores of Tripoli on the North African coast.) So, he added, the Obama decision to refrain from U.S. ground operations now does “not of course prejudice the possibility of a change in the future.”

In what was a rare U.S. public official assessment of the piracy challenge, Shapiro sought to play up the success of transatlantic and international cooperation to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. While the number of attacks continue to increase and the average ransom has risen to $4.5 million (with one recent payment reaching $12 million), the number of successful piracies has fallen over the past year by almost one half.  In January 2011, pirates held 31 ships and 710 hostages. In early March 2012, pirates held eight ships and 213 hostages, a 70 percent decline in both categories.

Shapiro credited this trend to better coordinated international patrolling by the U.S, the EU task force and several other navies (including Indian, Chinese and most recently an African effort) – an expensive operation whose costs are estimated to run several billion dollars annually.

More importantly, tankers and other merchant ships have introduced new and more muscular self-defense measures to deter pirates – including steps in many national maritime industries to post armed security teams on board vessels sailing in high-risk waters. Calling this step a “game changer,” Shapiro noted that has not been a single successful piracy against a vessel with armed security on board. Critics had warned private armed security could behave as undisciplined “cowboys” and cause increased violence. In practice, this has not happened – despite a recent incident where Italian military forces mistakenly fired on an Indian fishing vessel, killing several innocent Indians and creating a diplomatic incident. And private ship-owners worry about unanswered questions of liability and about how much support they can expect from their home governments in some future incident involving private armed security “contractors.”

Releasing another indicator of international determination to curb the piracy scourge, Shapiro said that over 1,000 pirates are in custody in 20 countries around the world. The issue of handling captured pirates remains a problem because many countries are unwilling to accept and incarcerate pirates unless their own national interests have been directly threatened.  For example, the U.S. has only accepted 30 captured pirates for trial. Seeking more help from Indian Ocean countries in this respect, he praised the Seychelles for taking pirates from a captured Iranian vessel that was freed by the U.S. Navy. (These pirates, however, have recently been transferred to Somaliland.)

The timing of Shapiro’s public appearance was seen by some observers as a way to lay down a marker on the Obama administration’s toughness in international security ahead of his reelection campaign. (A subsequently published piece in NY Times noted that Obama would, uncharacteristically for a Democrat, be using national security and foreign policy as a key campaign theme.)

In the longer run, both Europe and the United States are realizing that combating pirates only at sea is insufficient to wipe them out, who increasingly operate as an organized transnational criminal enterprise – sometimes from headquarters as far away as Kenya.  Pirates captured at sea are often low- level operatives who can be easily replaced by new recruits to work under the orders of managers working from safe havens deep inland. But international cooperation, spearheaded by direct U.S.-EU coordination, seems be gaining traction on the issue, with slightly different but mutually reinforcing approaches and strong leadership from the U.S. and the EU.


William Marmon is Managing Editor, European Affairs