Reports Raise Troubling Questions about US Role in Deaths of American Boat Hostages

February 27th, 2011 - by admin

Los Angeles Times & Agence France-Presse & McClatchy Newspapers & The New York Times & ECOTERRA International – 2011-02-27 01:01:55

Deaths at Sea Are Reflection of Failed Policy
Editorial / Los Angeles Times

Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., lived a life many would envy, until it was cut short Tuesday by a band of Somali pirates. They had spent most of the past decade on their yacht, Quest, sailing to exotic locales and were on a trip from Thailand to the Mediterranean with another couple, Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle of Seattle, when their boat was intercepted off the coast of Oman. All four were shot to death Tuesday by their captors after negotiations with US naval officials for their release apparently broke down.

Pirates plying the seas off Somalia have been a scourge of international shipping for years, but this week’s slayings mark the deadliest incident yet involving Americans. In response, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on foreign governments to contribute more toward the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.

Solutions to that country’s piracy and governance problems are elusive, but the peacekeeping effort backed by Clinton isn’t working, and US policy toward Somalia could stand another look.

Tempting as it is to call for more naval involvement, it’s clear that a purely military approach won’t cut it. To avoid the US 5th Fleet and other international warships plying the waters near Somalia, pirates are simply ranging farther afield; the seas between Somalia and India are too vast to be effectively patrolled.

Meanwhile, every effort by the United States to intervene in Somali affairs since 1993, when the Clinton administration’s attempts to subdue Mogadishu’s warlords ended in the catastrophe chronicled in the film ‘Black Hawk Down,’ has backfired spectacularly.

The latest failed initiative is the so-called Transitional Federal Government, a United Nations fiction that controls a few square blocks in Mogadishu. The United States has invested millions of dollars arming a peacekeeping force to protect the TFG, which has little public support and is widely viewed by Somalis as an invading foreign force. Bronwyn E. Bruton, an Africa scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations, argues convincingly that the TFG is not only failing to spread democracy and the rule of law, it is actually strengthening radical Islamist movements by prompting quarrelsome extremist groups to unite against a common enemy.

Bronwyn’s proposed solution is ‘constructive disengagement,’ in which the US stops backing a failed U.N. experiment and vows to engage with any government that emerges, including an Islamist one, as long as it renounces international terrorism and agrees not to interfere with humanitarian relief workers. A government with a measure of legitimacy is far likelier to stabilize Somalia than the current puppet regime, even if it’s not as secular as we’d like.

US Navy Killed Hostages, Say Pirates
Agence France-Presse

The high-seas shoot-out that left four Americans dead after their yacht was hijacked in the Indian Ocean was provoked by the US navy’s intervention, Somali pirates said on Wednesday.

The US military said that four Americans onboard a yacht sailing from India to Djibouti captured on Friday had been killed by their pirate captors on Tuesday.
“We got information that the American hostages were killed after the US navy stormed the yacht,” a senior commander from the pirate lair of Garacad, in Somalia’s northern self-declared state of Puntland, said.

“They tried to rescue the hostages but unfortunately heavy gunfire was exchanged and they (the hostages) died as a result,” the pirate, who asked to be named only as Ali, told AFP. He did not further elaborate on the exact circumstances of the four hostages’ deaths.

According to Vice Admiral Mark Fox, head of the US Naval Forces Central Command based in Bahrain, two of the pirates had been brought onboard a nearby US warship to conduct negotiations to free the hostages.

Then Tuesday morning, with “absolutely no warning,” the pirates launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the warship, the USS Sterett, though several Somalis also raised their arms in surrender on the yacht’s deck, Fox said.

US Special Forces raced to the yacht on small boats. By the time they boarded, they heard gunfire and saw that all four Americans had been shot, Fox said. They died after efforts to treat them failed. He said two pirates were killed in the assault.

Abdi Yare, a top commander in Hobyo, currently the main piracy hub in Somalia, rejected the US military’s version of events, stressing that pirates have only ever been after ransoms and never shoot their hostages unprovoked.

“We are very surprised by the news of the hostages’ death,” he told AFP by phone, adding that a scenario in which the hostages were killed by US bullets should not be ruled out.

“What I know is that pirates would never gun down their hostages without a reason and it can’t be ruled out that they were caught in the crossfire,” said the pirate boss. “The Americans have attempted reckless rescue operations before and now they have done it again,” he said.

Most of the hundreds of hijackings that have occurred off the Somali coast over the past three years have been resolved through the payment of a ransom, albeit after sometimes protracted negotiations.

The US said on Wednesday that it may bring the 15 Somali pirates to US courts for prosecution over the killings. The US military said it would hold the pirates at sea until the Justice Department decides what to do in the case, which has led to calls by top US leaders to step up the fight against piracy.

“We will continue to hold them until new determinations are made,” said Colonel Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. “It has happened in the past before that we’ve had prosecution here in the US of pirates, so that’s certainly one of the options,” he said.

Just last week, a US judge sentenced a teenage Somali pirate to nearly 34 years in prison for his part in the 2009 hijacking of another US ship, the Maersk Alabama.

That incident had a more successful outcome for US special forces, who freed the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, in an operation that killed three pirates.
In another deadly military intervention, French forces launched a commando operation to free a yacht held by pirates in 2009 and rescued a small child and his mother but killed his father.

The multi-billion-dollar naval deployments in the region have failed to stem piracy, which is currently at an all-time high, with more than 40 vessels and 800 hostages in pirate hands.

According to Ecoterra International, an NGO monitoring maritime activity in the region, many more yachts are currently waiting for a safe opportunity to cross the Indian Ocean.

The Dutch organisers of a Thailand-to-Turkey convoy of some 30 yachts have complained that their demands for naval protection have been either rejected or ignored. They argued that the death of the four Americans was also the result of the world’s anti-piracy operations neglecting the yachting community.

Tactics Questioned in Deadly Negotiation with Pirates
McClatchy Newspapers

US negotiators told pirates holding four American hostages off the coast of Somalia that they would not be allowed to go ashore with their captives, US officials said, one of several moves that heightened pressure on the pirates before the hostages were killed Tuesday.

The warning that the US intended to block the pirates from taking the hostages onto Somali soil was communicated early in the four-day standoff as Navy ships shadowed the 58-foot yacht carrying the 19 Somalis and their prisoners, the officials said. “The thought was, if these guys succeed in getting the hostages to shore, we have almost no leverage anymore,” said a US defense official.

Another official called the decision not to allow the hostages to be taken to Somalia as “nonnegotiable.” More than 700 hostages of various nationalities are currently being held on shore by pirates demanding ransom.

It remains a mystery what caused the outbreak of gunfire aboard the yacht that resulted in the shooting deaths of the two couples, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle of Seattle. US officials have played down the possibility that their negotiating tactics may have contributed to the deadly outcome.

Experts in hostage negotiations endorsed the decision to block the American from being taken off the yacht, saying it is always important in such situations not to let hostages be moved to a new location where recovering them would be more difficult. “One of the goals is always to contain a situation as best you can,” said Stephen Romano, a retired FBI hostage negotiator.

But several experts questioned whether the US negotiators went too far in boxing in the pirates, which raised tension in an already fraught situation. An alternative might have been for the Navy not to tell the pirates that it intended to prevent the hostages from being removed.

“You never want to say no to a hostage-taker,” said Dan O’Shea, a former Navy Seal who was a hostage negotiator at the US Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006. “They are already on edge. It wouldn’t take a lot to put somebody over the edge.”

Along with the warning that they would be blocked from moving the hostages, the US negotiators, including a representative from the FBI, detained two of the Somalis who came aboard the USS Sterett to discuss a resolution of the crisis. The US decided that the two pirates were “not serious” about negotiating and refused to permit them to return to the yacht, US officials said.

The decision to detain the two pirates was first reported by The New York Times.

The four-day standoff came to a head Tuesday morning when a team of 15 Navy SEALs boarded the yacht after the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an American warship and gunfire broke out aboard the yacht. They found four hostages already fatally shot. Four of the 19 pirates were also killed.

Suddenly, a Rise in Piracy’s Price
Jeffrey Gettleman / The New York Times

For years, the infant American government, along with many others, had accepted the humiliating practice of paying tribute — essentially mob-style protection fees — to a handful of rulers in the Barbary states so that American ships crossing the Mediterranean would not get hijacked. But in 1801, Tripoli’s pasha, Yusuf Karamanli, tried to jack up his prices. Jefferson said no. And when the strongman turned his pirates loose on American ships, Jefferson sent in the Navy to bombard Tripoli, starting a war that eventually brought the Barbary states to their knees. Rampant piracy went to sleep for nearly 200 years.

The question now is: Are we nearing another enough-is-enough moment with pirates?

On Tuesday, Somali pirates shot and killed four American hostages. A single hostage intentionally killed by these pirates had been almost unheard of; four dead was unprecedented. Until now, the first thing that came to mind about Somalia’s buccaneers was that they were brash and mercurial. Just a few weeks ago they let go some Sri Lankan fishermen after they essentially said, “You’re poor, like us.” They were seen as a nuisance, albeit an expensive one, but not a lethal threat.

Exactly what happened Tuesday is still murky. Pirates in the Arabian Sea had hijacked a sailboat skippered by a retired couple from California, and when the American Navy closed in, the pirates got twitchy. Navy Seals rushed aboard but it was too late. It’s still not clear why the pirates would want to kill the hostages when their business model, which has raked in more than $100 million in the past few years, is based on ransoming captives alive.

“Of course, I do not know what the US will do in response to this latest atrocity,” said Frank Lambert, a professor at Purdue who is an expert on the Barbary pirates. But, he said, “Jefferson advocated an armed response and eventually war against Tripoli for far less provocation.”

For years now, Somali pirates with fiberglass skiffs and salt-rusted Kalashnikovs have been commandeering ships along one of the most congested shipping routes in the world — the Gulf of Aden, a vital conduit for Middle East oil to Europe and the United States. More than 50 vessels are now held captive, from Thai fishing trawlers to European supertankers, with more than 800 hostages. Those numbers grow each year.

But the international response has been limited, partly because the most promising remedies are intensely complicated and risky. Western powers, including the United States, have sent warships to cruise Somalia’s coast and discourage attacks.

When a vessel is hijacked, ship owners cough up a ransom, nowadays in the neighborhood of $5 million, and most of that cost gets passed to the end user — consumers. Until recently, most hostages would emerge unharmed, albeit skinny and pale from being locked in a filthy room. The average time in captivity is around six months.

But recently the pirates have been getting more vicious; reports have emerged of beatings, of being hung upside down, even of being forced at gunpoint to join in raids. And now the pirates have gunned down four Americans.

“I think there’s going to be some type of retaliation,” said a European diplomat in Nairobi, Kenya, who trades ideas on anti-piracy strategies with other diplomats and was instructed not to speak publicly about the issues. “I could see the Americans going after the pirate bosses, the organizers, maybe even blockade some of the ports that they use,” he speculated. “I don’t think the Americans are going to invade Somalia, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, but they can use local allies.” Another obvious possibility would be American Special Forces, who have killed terrorism suspects in Somalia.

The American government isn’t revealing its plans but officials suggest — as long as they are not quoted by name — that the killings of the four Americans could be a game-changer. “We get it,” said one State Department official. “We get the need to recalibrate.”

Any course of action, however, will confront two huge obstacles: the immensity of the sea and the depth of chaos in Somalia.

The pirates used to stick relatively close to Somalia’s shores. But now, using “mother ships” — hijacked vessels that serve as floating bases — they attack ships more than 1,000 miles away. Sometimes that puts them closer to India than to home. The red zone now covers more than one million square miles of water, an area naval officers say is impossible to control.

Piracy Inc. is a sprawling operation on land, too. It offers work to tens of thousands of Somalis — middle-managers, translators, bookkeepers, mechanics, gunsmiths, guards, boat builders, women who sell tea to pirates, others who sell them goats. In one of the poorest lands on earth, piracy isn’t just a business; it’s a lifeline.

And this gets to the real problem.

“The root cause is state failure,” the American official said. Somalia’s central government collapsed more than 20 years ago, and now its landscape includes droughts, warlords, fighters allied to Al Qaeda, and malnutrition, suffering and death on a scale unseen just about anywhere else.

The United States and other Western powers are pouring millions of dollars into Somalia’s transitional government, an appointed body with little legitimacy on the ground, in the hope, perhaps vain, that it can rebuild the world’s most failed state and create an economy based on something like fishing or livestock. Young men then might be able to earn a living doing something other than sticking up ships.

But the transitional government has been divided, feckless and corrupt. Islamist rebels control much of the country. Few Somalis think the nation will stop being a war zone any time soon.

The shipping industry seems to know this.

“Until things change on land, you have to come down very hard on them at sea,” said Cyrus Mody, manager of the International Maritime Bureau in London.
Shipping companies are frustrated, he said, because while many pirates are apprehended at sea by foreign navies, the vast majority are typically released unless they are caught in the act of a hijacking a ship — which is a very narrow window because once pirates control a vessel, it’s extremely dangerous to intervene.

“The laws have to be amended,” Mr. Mody said. “Why would a skiff be 800 miles off Somalia with a rocket-propelled grenade, a ladder and extra barrels of fuel? What are they doing? Fishing? These people need to be arrested and prosecuted.”

The last resort is military action. Many people ask: Why not storm ashore and attack the pirate bases? These dens are well known. I even visited one last year and met a pirate boss who was using millions of dollars in ransoms to build a land-based army that at first glance looked more disciplined and better equipped than Somalia’s national army.

But the military option would not be pretty. The 800 or so captured seamen could be used as human shields. And no Western country has shown an appetite to send troops to Somalia, not after the Black Hawk Down fiasco of 1993, when ragtag Somali militiamen downed two American helicopters and killed 18 elite American troops. And a military attack could easily backfire.

“They might kill a few pirates, but more would certainly spring up to replace them,” said Bronwyn Bruton, who wrote a widely discussed essay on Somalia. “The replacements would probably be even angrier and more violent.” In her essay, she advised the international community to essentially pull out and let Somalis sort out their problems on their own.

She added that collateral damage from a raid could be severe and “a lot of civilian casualties could actually wind up aggravating a much bigger security threat to the US — terrorism.”

So it seems that Jefferson may have had an easier piracy problem to solve.

“I can offer a couple thoughts based on the US’s dealing with pirates more than 200 years ago,” Mr. Lambert said. “If the US response is a vigorous military response, it is likely to be difficult, costly, and prolonged” — a reference to the war that followed bombardment of the coast.

But, he warned, “If it is a continuation of the present policy (whatever that is), it is almost a certainty that we will see more or perhaps escalated atrocities.”

Piracy Watch: Monitoring the East African Indian Ocean
ECOTERRA International

ECOTERRA Intl. is an international nature protection and human rights organization, whose Africa offices in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania also monitor the marine and maritime situation along the East African Indian Ocean coasts as well as the Gulf of Aden. ECOTERRA is working in Somalia since 1986 and does focus in its work against piracy mainly on coastal development, marine protection and pacification. ECOP-marine ( is an ECOTERRA group committed to fight against all forms of crime on the waters. Both stand firm against illegal fishing as well as against marine overexploitation and pollution.

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