x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Obama implored to end 'pirate scourge'

International military efforts to stop lawlessness have mostly failed because pirates off Somalia's impoverished shores 'have nothing to lose'.

Shane Murphy, first mate of the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, gets a hug from his wife Sarena as he arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Thursday.
Shane Murphy, first mate of the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, gets a hug from his wife Sarena as he arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Thursday.

MOMBASA, KENYA // The Maersk Alabama floated listlessly in Berth 11 in port here this week, just five days after its US crew thwarted an attack by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Instead of being shadowed by a flotilla of US warships, the Alabama was guarded by a throng of international journalists including TV crews from CNN, Fox News and NBC. As FBI officials investigated what they called a crime scene, authorities used shipping containers to set up a barricade around most of the ship, preventing curious onlookers from getting too close.

Crew members, growing increasingly restless on the ship, ventured to the stern of the Alabama to address the media. "We would like to implore President [Barack] Obama to use all his resources to increase the commitment to ending this Somali pirate scourge," said Shane Murphy, the ship's first mate. "It's time for us to step in and put an end to this crisis." For his part, Mr Obama pledged to get tough with the Somali pirates, who have been plaguing one of the world's busiest shipping lanes for the past year.

"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks," Mr Obama said at a news conference on Monday. Last week's attempted hijacking of the Alabama captured the world's attention partly because of the drama in which the events unfolded: Somali pirates tried to take the ship; the crew fought back; the ship's captain gave himself up as a hostage to protect the crew; pirates held the captain in a lifeboat surrounded by US navy ships; the captain was rescued after navy snipers killed three of the pirates.

The standoff was also significant because it was the first known attempted hijacking of a US ship off the coast of Africa since the Barbary pirate scourge more than 200 years ago. But with much less fanfare, the Somali pirates were back at work this week. They hijacked at least four more vessels and brought the total number of ships currently held to 17 with 300 sailors held hostage, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Mr Obama was not alone this week in calling for tougher military action to deal with the pirates. "I strongly believe that concrete efforts, such as the international maritime presence off the Somali coast, should be increased to help marginalise and suppress piracy," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top United Nations envoy for Somalia. But the dozens of international navy vessels already patrolling the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean have failed to deter the pirates from operating. One reason is the vastness of the ocean off the Horn of Africa. At 3,000km, Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa. With sophisticated technology paid for by some of the millions of dollars in ransom money they receive, the pirates have ventured farther out to sea in recent months.

Another reason why the military solution has failed is that the pirates have nothing to lose, according to analysts. Somalia, one of the world's poorest countries, has been gripped in civil war for the past 18 years. There are few opportunities for Somali men to earn a living, and the promise of million dollar ransoms far outweighs the risk of being thwarted by international navies. The long-term solution is to bring peace and stability to Somalia and train Somalis to patrol their own waters, experts say.