“Accept the reality that a unified Somalia is not possible” Professor NIKOLAS GVO

No Easy Solutions To Somali Piracy Threat

February 24, 2011

The U.S. military says it may try 15 Somalis in connection with the deaths of four American hostages in February. Despite the presence of an international flotilla off the Somali coast, pirates continue to seize a growing number of vessels over an ever-larger geographic area.


On Monday, Somali pirates shot and killed four Americans held hostage aboard a captured yacht as U.S. naval forces stood by. These are the first U.S. citizens to die in the pirate attacks off the east coast of Africa . The U.S. military says that the 15 Somalis detained after the killings could face trial in the U.S.

Pirates continue to hold hundreds of other sailors and dozens of ships. If business continues, as it has over the past several years, they will eventually be ransomed for millions of dollars, and business appears to be booming. Despite an international flotilla of some 30 warships, more ships are being seized than ever, and pirates now operate over a wider area.

Professor NIKOLAS GVO< span=”">an>SDEV (U<>.S. Naval War College): Thank you.

CONAN: The U.S. military certainly has the manpower, the training and weapons to tackle the pirate threat, but deterrence doesn’t seem to be working.

Prof. GVOSDEV: Well, let me give you my opinion on that. I’m not speaking on behalf of the Navy. These are my own assessments. It’s a mix of issues. The first is the will, the political will to get involved in Somalia itself because this problem is being addressed right now only from the sea. We’re trying to deter attacks. We’re trying to protect ships. But the problem lies on land. It lies in villages and port cities, in ungoverned spaces, where, as you just alluded to in your opening, this is a profitable business. It is essentially the main driver for revenue in Somalia . Everyone – it trickles down not only from the businessmen who sponsor pirate attacks through to the pirates, through to a whole variety of villagers and people who provide services.

And if you’re not going to tackle this issue on land, what we’ve been doing up to this point – not just the United States, but the entire coalition, the European Union, China, Russia, India, South Korea – has been to try to limit these attacks at sea. But again, as you noted in the opening, the pirates are getting better equipped. They’re able to strike over a much wider range of ocean. We’ve even had reports now of pirate vessels using mother ships that had been off the coast of India .

And you think of this as a problem emanating from Somalia and if there are now pirates who are in the middle of the Indian Ocean and actually closer to the Persian Gulf and closer to the coast of India itself, it gives you an idea of the ability to which they’ve been able to extend their range. Thirty ships simply can’t cover that degree of ocean, not with the number of vessels that transit the area. This is a key shipping lane. It’s a key link to energy markets. And there’s just simply not enough vessels there to protect all of the ships that could potentially enter the area.

CONAN: And when you say deal with the problem on land, what are you talking about?

Prof. GVOSDEV: It depends. There are several ways forward. One would be to start aggressively carrying military action to the shore, because up to this point pirate sanctuaries have not been attacked on land, with the exception of the French commando raid in 2008, which liberated several people who had been taken hostage. Otherwise there’s been no on-land action against pirates. There’s a sense that Somalia is sanctuary.

One of the things we saw with this incident, which led to the four Americans being killed, was that the pirates were desperately trying to get the yacht back into Somali territorial waters, because there is a sense, over the last number of years, that if you can just simply get back into Somali waters, you’re safe from retribution. You can then take your hostages ashore and negotiate for their release.

Another item we may begin to look at – and the situation is changing because of what’s happening in Sudan . With South Sudan separating from North Sudan, that removes perhaps some of the reluctance we’ve had up to this point to countenance the division of Somalia itself into smaller, more sustainable entities which could, in fact, exercise greater control over their coastline, provide more opportunities for their citizens. So I’m thinking specifically here of Somaliland .

Up to this point, U.S. policy, EU policy has been to try to create a functional, central government for Somalia to control the entire country. We may now be moving to a situation where we move away from that and accept the reality that a unified Somalia is not possible. So let’s try to at least narrow the areas of ungoverned space in Somalia , make it more manageable by recognizing some of these other statelets that have risen on Somali territory.

CONAN: As we look at the situation that developed in the last few days, does the killing of American citizens change the calculations here?

Prof. GVOSDEV: It does change the calculations, because first, this has been a change of operations for the pirates. Up to this point, you have not had people killed by the Somali pirates. You’ve had deaths. You had, for instance in 2008, when you had the hijacking of the Ukrainian freighter, the captain died of a heart attack when the pirates boarded. You’ve had some accidental deaths. But you’ve never had the pirates deliberately targeting or killing the captives that they’ve taken.

This may send a different signal now, that there’s a greater degree of desperation. We also have to look at the number of pirates that were involved in this incident. And it raises the question of: Was this one, single, unified pirate gang? Or was this several different pirate groups that converged on the yacht at the same time and couldn’t agree on how to negotiate with the United States, how to proceed forward?

CONAN: The circumstances of what actually happened in the shooting are unclear at this point. It’s not known whether the hostages were executed or caught in a crossfire in an argument.

Prof. GVOSDEV: In a crossfire – exactly. And we don’t know – and that -but it raises this point that since – increasingly, over the last year, more and more Somalis are turning pirate. This initially started off as a relatively small group of ex-fishermen and ex-militia men. But over the last several years, success begets success.

And the more that people have seen that this is a profitable sideline, the more you’ve had demand for people to get involved in this activity, and that raises the question of: Do you have more competing gangs, less control? Are they fighting over potential targets? Which make it all so harder.

In the old days, you had a relative sense of who to negotiate with, and the rules of the game were clear. They’re becoming a lot less clear now. It also raises the question about the rules of engagement for the navies that are participating in the anti-piracy mission.

We’ve seen – particularly in the last number of months – the Indian Navy, the South Korean Navy, the U.S. Navy being much more aggressive now in going after pirates, in trying to retake ships, in trying to prevent them from getting back to Somalia . The pirates may be interpreting this as that they need to show that they are serious, that they mean business and that they will, in fact, be willing to inflict deadly force on their captives should they take control of vessels.

Linked to this further is now questions about what happens to pirates after they’ve been captured. You noted that there’s now talk that we will take the pirates who were captured and extradite them to stand trial in the United States .

Other than the Maersk incident, this is a – this represents a departure for the U.S., because traditionally, we have sought to have pirates be tried in African locales, in Kenya or the Seychelles rather than bringing them back to the United States for trial. So this may reflect a change in our own modus operandi in dealing with pirates, moving away from either taking them to Kenya or, what most countries were doing up to last year, the famed catch and release. Again, this was part of the rules of the game that many Somali pirates assume that we were operating under, that if you captured pirates and they hadn’t harmed the crews, you would just simply disarm them and let them go.

Now, the sense that we may be trying to not just simply capture them but take them in for trial, and then hand down some serious jail time which, again, may be changing the rules of the game as far as the pirates see operations in the last several years.

CONAN: Nikolas Gvosdev teaches national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport , Rhode Island . He speaks for himself and not the War College or the U.S. Navy.

Let’s get some callers in on the line. This is Jennifer. Jennifer with us from Monroe , in Michigan .

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi.


Prof. GVOSDEV: Hello.

JENNIFER: Well, I’m a teacher, so I’m a little bit biased. I think that we should take a look at history and take a look at what has been done before in dealing with piracy and take the lessons from there and build onto that, because piracy was a huge, huge problem for the East and the West Indies companies in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And there was a lot of work that the United Kingdom , Holland and even the United States had to do on cracking down on piracy and essentially eradicating and making it so unprofitable that these guys just didn’t want to risk hanging. Because for a while there, the policy wasn’t catch and release. The policy was catch and hang. And…

CONAN: Nikolas – Jennifer, thanks very much for the history lesson, as Nikolas Gvosdev, I’m sure, knows this history. And this goes back at least to the Roman Empire and Julius Caesar.

Prof. GVOSDEV: Certainly. We’ve always had pirates. And the question has been – there are several ways of dealing with pirates. One of the classic ways in the Mediterranean , particularly during the Ottoman period, was for pirates to be legitimized. One of the famous North African pirates ended up as an admiral of the Ottoman navy. He was -easier to bring him into the system than to take him out. These are some of the issues we have with Somalia today, unlike, say, the Barbary states , which is usually a comparison you hear of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

CONAN: This is on the coast of North Africa .

Prof. GVOSDEV: The coast of North Africa . That was state-sponsored. You had states that were involved in the pirate activities, so you had actually authorities that you could negotiate with. And, in fact, John Adams impressed the negotiators from North Africa with his anecdotes about his ability to blow smoke rings when he was sitting around, negotiating the amount of tribute that would be paid – protection money that would be paid. And the U.S. , under the Washington and Adams administrations, in fact, paid protection money to the states of North Africa .

And then under Jefferson , the decision was made that the tribute was becoming too expensive, and too many ships were being seized. So then we went for the military option. In Somalia , the problem, of course, is that we don’t have – this is not being sponsored by a state. This is not – these are non-state actors, so there’s a command and control issue there, which, I think, is – makes it harder to say, well, if we just simply deal with a state actor, we could solve this.

One of the proposals that’s been circulating is – and it goes back to this question of opportunity: You know, why are fishermen setting out to be pirates? Why not do something else? There’s been this talk about taking the Sons of Iraq model, which worked to get Sunni tribesmen in Iraq hired to be security guards and to be auxiliary military forces alongside U.S. forces as a way to get them to stop attacking American forces and to become de facto allies.

So there’s been some talk in Somalia of could you do a Sons of Somalia, which is to go and recruit – among fishermen, among sailors – a kind of rudimentary Somali Coast Guard. It would have to, of course, be paid for and equipped, but not – Somalia couldn’t support it itself. But then you would be offering an alternative to people who otherwise would feel that their only livelihood would be to turn pirate, would be to say: Well, why not come in and work on a kind of rudimentary Coast Guard with the international community, with the international taskforce that’s there, as a way of building up a counter-economic incentive, instead of turning pirate? Again, the question about would we want to work with Somaliland and others to also build up their capabilities. So there are some – some of these different ideas are floating around there.

CONAN: We’re talking about what to do with Somali pirates. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let’s see if we can go next to – this is Eric, Eric with us from Cincinnati .

ERIC (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ERIC: You know, we’ve been batting around historical notions, and I’d like to toss out the name of Stephen Decatur, the premise being that you rationally has to clean up pirate nests, which is what he famously did so well.

A couple of comments here. First, piracy – there’s state-sponsored piracy and private enterprise piracy. We’re dealing in Somali with private enterprise piracy. There’s really not much we can do, except when we see them, catch them in the act, don’t lug them home for trial. History says throw them overboard or sink them. I think we should be doing exactly that.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much…

ERIC: But if they do get away with it, we’ve got to go out and clean them out. It’s nasty. It’s expensive. But what else are you going to do?

CONAN: Well, what else are you going to do, Nikolas Gvosdev? Up until now, the shippers whose ships are being seized and held hostage have found it easier to just pay the ransom and ship – escalate the insurance charges a little bit and say, well, this is just a cost of doing business. We don’t want to get involved in military action.

Prof. GVOSDEV: And that is still the dynamic that is prevailing. It is still cheaper to pay ransom once in a while. When you think about the number of ships that transit the area, you have less than one percent chance of even being approached by pirates, much less being taken over, so that for most people, most shipping companies, most boaters and others, they’re willing to gamble. And up to this point, as long as it doesn’t happen to you, you say: Well, why should I have to pay these extra cost? Why do I want more security? Why should I pay extra taxes to fund a naval presence that’s there?

What this incident may end up doing – because not simply that you had an American yacht seized, but Americans killed – is to begin changing some of that dynamic to say something’s changed.

Some people have talked about this being the equivalent of a 9/11 moment, that when 9/11 occurred, up to that point, the rule of thumb was if you were hijacked on a plane, you cooperated with the hijackers because they were going to land the plane and negotiate for your safe release. After 9/11, the rule of thumb is is that you have to take hijackers out.

The question is whether or not we’ve reached that tipping point in the waters off of Somalia where shipping companies and governments and publics have reached that 9/11 moment where they say, we can’t tolerate this anymore. This isn’t just simply a price of doing business that you accept some extra insurance payments and the costs of ransoms are spread out throughout the system, but something actually has to be done. And then you move to – as the caller alluded – the Decatur solution, which is you actually have to begin cleaning out the pirate nests.

And again, the historical example is the first two presidential administrations in the U.S. found it cheaper to pay tribute. The third found it cheaper, in the end, to go for military action. And then, ultimately, the regime changed in North Africa .

CONAN: Nikolas Gvosdev, thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. GVOSDEV: Thank you.

CONAN: Nikolas Gvosdev joined us from a studio at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport , Rhode Island . Again, he spoke for himself.

Tomorrow, it’s TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will join us with a look at our love affair with technology. Have we grown too fond of our devices? That’s tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Have a great weekend. We’ll talk to you again next week.

I’m Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington .