Piracy along the coast of Somalia has been growing at an alarming rate, with 122 attempts in 2008 and another 78 in this year alone. Until now, no ships operated by American crews have been hijacked. The response by our Navy to the incident involving Captain Richard Phillips and his crew on board the Maersk Alabama is a source of pride for our country and sent a clear message: we will protect our own. The textbook rescue of Captain Phillips showcased the focused precision of our Armed Forces, hardened after years at war. It should also make clear to these pirates that the United States will not tolerate this type of behavior.
The Somali pirates are not affiliated with terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. Rather, piracy is a direct result of the lack of a stable Somali government able to enforce the rule of law. Somalia is a failed state, offering few economic opportunities to its inhabitants. Since 1991, the country has operated without a central government and has been ruled by competing clans. These factors have created general lawlessness, which has only encouraged piracy and other crimes.
These modern-day pirates are not attacking Western values or advocating ideology. Instead, they are using piracy simply as a means to make money. For years, the pirates have successfully hijacked merchant ships and held them, their crews, and their cargo hostage, until a ransom was paid from the shipping company.
I am troubled by the acquiescence of many foreign countries and international companies in paying ransoms to these criminals. Such actions appear to have emboldened the pirates, causing them to increase the number of attacks and the amount they demand. Just as the U.S. refuses to negotiate with terrorists, we should not pay a ransom to pirates.
THE WAY AHEAD
Without a stable Somali government, the path forward to eliminating piracy in the region is challenging. As we have learned from the Straits of Malacca in Southeast Asia, the best way to decrease piracy is to work jointly with strong regional governments and to meet the threat forcefully.
In January, the United States Naval Forces Central Command established Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 to deal with this situation. The mission of this U.S.-led, multi-national maritime coalition is to disrupt, deter, and thwart piracy. Currently, over a dozen countries actively conduct counter-piracy operations as part of, or work in conjunction with, CTF 151.
I believe Congress should hold hearings with experts such as leaders of CTF 151 to determine the best path forward. Some options to be considered include:
• Providing security crews for merchant ships.
• Conducting targeted attacks against the pirates, including their mother ships and land-based sanctuaries.
• Bolstering U.S. Intelligence-gathering and international efforts inside Somalia.
THE LONG TERM
I wish I could report that this problem can be easily solved, but in fact it is very complicated, involving multiple governments and private industry. A stable Somali government able to enforce the rule of law would certainly help. However, until that is a reality, the international community must work with other countries in the region to rectify the situation.
Through my membership on both the Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, I look forward to working with my colleagues on this issue. I will also encourage the Pentagon and State Department to work together toward a long term solution to piracy in and around the Horn of Africa.