Globe and Mail
April 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
There is some irony in the fact that the U.S.
Navy vessel sent to assist the first American merchant ship
captured, temporarily, by Somali pirates should be the USS
The destroyer is named after William Bainbridge,
a naval officer who played a less than glorious part in the first
U.S. war against Muslim pirates, the struggle against Tripoli in
Libya at the start of the 19th century.
The frigate commanded by Commodore Bainbridge
accidentally went aground near Tripoli in 1803, leading to the
capture of both ship and crew. American honour was restored the
following year when Cmdre. Stephen Decatur led a daring raid on
Tripoli harbour and burned the captured American frigate.
Such bold actions won fame for Cmdre. Decatur,
but it was the American government's decision to keep a naval
squadron in the Mediterranean and maintain a continuous blockade of
Tripoli that finally led the port's ruler to come to terms in 1805.
Cmdre. Bainbridge was released from captivity and
later restored his naval reputation by success against the British
in the War of 1812. Cmdre. Decatur also added to his laurels in that
conflict, then, in 1815, returned once more to fight the Barbary
corsairs of North Africa, leading a successful campaign against
Recent events seem likely to increase naval
operations by the United States and other countries against the
Muslim pirates of Somalia, but which course of action will they
follow? Daring raids on pirate strongholds in the tradition of Cmdre.
Decatur? Or prolonged blockade such as that which eventually freed
Given the large areas of sea involved, naval
patrols by a few dozen warships are unlikely to curb the activities
of the Somali pirates. The obvious alternative is to attack the
pirates in their home ports. This can be done by either blockade or
In the struggle against the Barbary pirates of
North Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries, the European naval
powers bombarded pirate bases such as Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli on
a number of occasions. Such action often forced the local rulers to
come to terms, but such treaties usually proved short-lived, while
civilian casualties inflicted by the bombardments only further
antagonized the pirate communities.
Today, the idea that the armed forces of the
United States should bombard a Somali pirate port such as Eyl into
ruins is clearly unthinkable. Even "smart" munitions would still
inflict collateral damage on local civilians, as events in Iraq and
Afghanistan have shown, while commando raids to free captured ships
and crews would still demand levels of fire support that would
inflict considerable damage on the local area.
Bombardment is thus not a viable proposition
today, so what about a naval blockade of the pirate bases? This
would not need to cover the whole of Somalia's long coastline.
Southern Somalia is largely controlled by Islamists who are hostile
to pirate activities. Much of the northern coast of Somalia, on the
Gulf of Aden, is ruled by the self-declared state of Somaliland
which also does not support piracy.
The Somali pirates are concentrated in the
semi-autonomous region of Puntland, which occupies the actual "horn"
of Africa. There are no more than half a dozen significant ports
here to which large captured vessels could be brought.
Currently, American and other warships patrolling
off Somalia use bases such as Djibouti or Mombasa in Kenya to
support their activities, but these ports are distant from the main
pirate strongholds in Puntland. A better course of action would be
to persuade Yemen to allow an international blockading force to use
its island of Socotra, just off the horn of Africa, as its principal
base. Pirate ports such as Eyl on the Indian Ocean and Bosaso on the
Gulf of Aden could then be more easily reached and contained by
The number of warships patrolling off Somalia is
steadily increasing. If they are to have any success in curbing the
activities of the Somali pirates, then they need to be part of a
co-ordinated international force blockading the main pirate bases,
rather than patrolling aimlessly around the Gulf of Aden and the
Some commentators have argued that in the long
run Somali piracy can be stopped only by developments ashore. This
may be true, but in the short to medium term, there is little
likelihood of this happening.
There has not been an effective Somali national
government since 1991 and there is little sign of one appearing in
the near future and imposing its rule on the pirate ports.
Similarly, it is very unlikely that the United States and its allies
will be ready to send ground forces into Somalia to restore law and
order. The Black Hawk Down episode of 1993 still casts a long
Naval blockade of Somali pirate ports probably
offers the best way to curb local piracy. It will no doubt be a
lengthy commitment, but in the end if the pirates cannot put to sea,
they will have to turn elsewhere to earn a livelihood. More violent
action against Somalia's pirates will only drive them into the arms
of the country's militant Islamists, while hopes of a revived Somali
national government imposing order ashore seem unrealistic. A
warship patrolling outside every Somali pirate port is worth a dozen
scattered across the vast expanse of the western Indian Ocean.
Alan G. Jamieson is author of
Faith and Sword: A Short History of