Looking Ahead

Andrew J. Shapiro, US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs has provided testimony on “Confronting Global Piracy” before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, DC.

His statement outlined the US’ new approach to combat this scourge and recognised that piracy off the coast of Somalia is a crime of growing global concern.

He recognised that the number of pirate attacks has risen steadily since 2007. In 2010, Somali pirates captured over 1,000 sailors aboard 49 vessels. As of June 14, 400 seafarers were being held as hostages, and 18 hijacked ships were being held for ransom.  While stressing that the increase in the total number of attacks has tragically come with an increase in the level of violence against hostages.

Through the use of “motherships” and GPS technology, pirates have been able to expand their geographic range from the southern Red Sea to the eastern Indian Ocean. Motherships are hijacked ships used as floating bases, which allow pirates to stage attacks hundreds of miles from the Somali coast.

A vicious cycle has formed where ever-rising ransom payments have not just spurred additional pirate activity, but have also enabled pirates to increase their operational capabilities and sophistication. Piracy has gone from a fairly ad hoc disorganized criminal endeavor to a highly developed transnational criminal enterprise. In response, the United States has taken the lead in pursuing a multilateral and multidimensional approach to combating piracy emanating from the coast of Somalia.

The most poweful statement was an admission that piracy can only be effectively addressed through “broad, coordinated, and comprehensive international efforts”. In January 2009, the United States helped establish the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (Contact Group), which now includes nearly 70 nations, international organizations, and maritime trade associations. The Contact Group helps coordinate national and international counter-piracy policies and actions. It has galvanized action and harmonized counter-piracy policy among participating countries and international organizations. There is immense international concern over piracy and an increasing willingness amongst affected nations to expand counter-piracy efforts and increase cooperation and collaboration with the United States.

With this multilateral framework in place, the US pursued a multi-dimensional approach that focuses on security; prevention; and deterrence.

Improving security on the seas has been a principal focus of these efforts. As pirate tactics have grown more sophisticated and aggressive, the international naval forces performing counter-piracy operations have responded in kind. U.S. naval forces have thwarted pirate attacks in-process, engaged pirate skiffs and “motherships,” and successfully taken back hijacked ships by opposed boardings.

U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) has worked with partners to set up the 463 mile-long Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC). This has successfully reduced the number of attacks within that area. But it also has had the unfortunate side effect of pushing pirate activities elsewhere, outside of the corridor. Given the immense area in which pirates operate, it is often impossible for naval forces to respond in time to stop an attack. There is just too much water to patrol.

That is why the United States has also focused on prevention, by encouraging commercial and private vessels to implement industry-developed “best management practices.” These are practical steps shipowners and seafarers can take to prevent pirate attacks from happening in the first place.

The testimony stressed that more flag States are also allowing armed guards on merchant vessels. While noting that no vessel with an armed security team embarked has been successfully hijacked.

Lastly, to deter piracy, the US has sought to expand prosecution and incarceration. When suspected pirates have been captured, the United States has consistently advocated that the states directly victimized take on the responsibility to not only try these suspects, but to also incarcerate them if convicted. There are more than 1,000 pirates in custody in more than 18 countries where national prosecutions are taking place.

Taken in concert, this multilateral and multi-dimensional approach seems to have led to a drop in successful of pirate attacks. The total number of successful attacks in March, April and May of this year was eight. This is still unacceptably high but is down significantly from the 27 successful attacks for the same three-month period in 2010. This is a small sample size so we do not know for sure if this signifies a turning of the tide or a brief aberration. But even if these figures do point to significant progress, given the lucrative financial incentives, pirates will likely attempt to further adapt their approaches.

Since pirates are already adapting and expanding their efforts, we must as well. Earlier this year, Secretary Clinton expressed impatience with the lack of progress against piracy and urged for more to be done to address this scourge. After an intensive review following the QUEST tragedy, Secretary Clinton approved a series of recommendations which, taken together, constitute a new strategic approach.

This approach calls for continuing naval actions at sea, as well as exploring non-military options to target pirate leaders and organizers ashore. The US intention is to pursue innovative measures to maximize all tools in order to disrupt the activities of the financiers, organizers and logistics suppliers of piracy.

The focus on networks is essential. As piracy has evolved into an organized transnational criminal enterprise, it is increasingly clear that the arrest and prosecution of pirates captured at sea – often the low-level operatives involved in piracy – is insufficient on its own to meet the longer term counter-piracy goals.

Pirate leaders and facilitators receive income both from investors and ransom payments, and disburse a portion of the proceeds of ransoms back to their investors and to the pirates who actually hijack the ships and hold the crews hostage. As such the US will focus in the coming months on identifying and apprehending the criminal conspirators who provide the leadership and financial management of the pirate enterprise, with the objective of bringing them to trial and interrupting pirate business processes. Already, the United States has recently indicted and extradited two alleged Somali pirate negotiators for their respective leadership roles in the attack on the QUEST.

To achieve this the US is working to connect law enforcement communities, intelligence agencies, financial experts and international partners to promote information sharing and develop actionable information against pirate conspirators. This effort includes tracking pirate sources of financing and supplies, such as fuel, outboard motors and weapons.

Additionally, an important element of this “recalibrated counter-piracy approach” involves renewed emphasis on enhancing the capacity of the international community, and particularly states in the region, to prosecute and incarcerate suspected pirates. The United States supports a comprehensive approach that addresses concerns about incarceration and repatriation by:

increasing prison capacity in Somalia;  developing a framework for prisoner transfers so convicted pirates serve their sentence back in their home country of Somalia;  and by working to establish a specialized piracy chamber in the national courts of one or more regional states.

Finally, the US believes that supporting the re-establishment of stability and adequate governance in Somalia represents the only sustainable long-term solution to piracy. This will require concentrated and coordinated assistance to states in the region to build their capacity to deal with the social, legal, economic and operational challenges to effective law enforcement.

He added that acknowledging the difficult situation ashore does not preclude progress at sea. Through the US State Department’s new strategic approach, significant progress can be made to degrade the ability of pirates to conduct attacks and threaten vital shipping lanes. We should have no illusions: there is no simple solution to modern-day piracy off the Horn of Africa. But through the shared commitment of the United States and the international community there is much we can do in the months and years ahead to finally achieve progress against this growing challenge.

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