Sunday, April 12, 2009

Maersk Alabama captain freed. Will Somali pirates now treat hostages differently?

It appears to have been a dramatic end to the hostage-taking of the Maersk Alabama's American captain, Richard Phillips, earlier this evening. News reports say that at a little after 7:00pm local time, US Navy snipers fired on the lifeboat containing Phillips and his four captors. Three of the pirates were killed and the fourth was captured, the climax of five days of activity in the seas off East Africa.

The successful efforts to free Phillips would appear to show that American forces acted in a timely and deliberate manner, and hopefully puts a stop to all those armchair critics who were being harsh about the U.S. reaction to the incident. This was a unique case with regard to recent pirate events off the Horn of Africa, and could have turned out much worse had Phillips and his captors been able to seek refuge in Somali waters.

There are some fears that the killing of the three pirates could endanger other hostages by provoking "retaliatory attacks". According to AP, American Vice Adm. Bill Gortney says,"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it." The AP report also quotes two other Somali pirates who talked about the situation. One, Abdullahi Lami, said that, "Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men." The second, Jamac Habeb, told AP from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl, that, "From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)."

While there is the distinct possibility that these comments do reflect a more dangerous reaction from pirates, I would point out that there was no real change in the activities of Somali gangs last year after French forces acted against elements of these sea robbers. A dead hostage is worthless to the pirates as you can't negotiate a ransom for a corpse. The Somali pirates have always understood this as a key element in their activities. Even last Friday's incident, when French commandos boarded the yacht Tanit and killed two pirates - as well as the skipper - did not seem to cause the same worry that it would ratchet up the reactions from the Somalis. (But then, maybe, the American press has just been hand-wringing a little too much.)

As well, it is important to remember that the term "Somali pirates" should be understood to mean a variety of disparate groups who often do not see eye-to-eye, not some blanket entity that is all-encompassing. These guys fight over the prizes available and value their zones of operation as strongly as street gangs do in urban centers. It's quite likely that some pirates are sitting ashore in Somalia tonight and, rather than pondering the killing of hostages, are thinking their brethren who died tonight were unlucky, or just plain dumb.

Was the U.S. action correct? Absolutely. Will it lead to the deaths of other hostages as a result? I doubt it. And I hope I'm right, given there are well over 200 mariners being held for ransom by Somali pirates tonight.