With our Hollywood images of swashbuckling heroes and fairytale villians the idea of taking pirate – pirates? – seriously sounds like a bit of a joke. But this ancient scourge is playing a role in the 21st Century global war on terror in an important part of the world: off the east coast of Africa, near Somalia to be exact.
These aren’t lovable ruffians of the high seas. Clan warriors from Somalia, they are bloodthirsty criminals in small motorboats that like to either kill or capture the crews of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vessels trying to bring aid relief to Somalis scarred by war.
Over the course of 2007, there have been at least 26 actual and attempted pirate attacks on large vessels in international waters of the east coast of Africa, up from eight in 2006. The real number is undoubtedly much higher. Pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increase off the coast of Somalia through which more than half of the world’s crude oil and 95 percent of the cargo trade between Asia and Europe crosses.
“This is a very serious security problem on the African coast,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “These are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp. These are quite different kinds of pirates.”
In February, the MV Rozen, a U.N.-chartered cargo ship was hijacked, drawing the attention of American warships attached to Combined Task Force-150, the maritime adjunct to Operation Enduring Freedom which the United States launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Other incidents are even more serious. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Criminal Crime Services Web site, On Oct. 28, a Japanese chemical tanker called the Golden Nori and possibly carrying highly flammable benzine put out an “undesignated distress” signal as it was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. It went silent soon after, and Coalition ships in the area guessed it had been hijacked and taken into Somali territorial waters.
Now, normally, ships attached to the CTF-150 aren’t allowed to enter the Somali waters because there’s no U.N. mandate or request from the government of Somlia to enter. After all, there’s not really a Somali government. But that didn’t stop the guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter from chasing a hijacked ship into Somali waters and even opening fire on skiffs tied up to the Golden Nori. As I write, the Porter and the pirates are in a standoff, with the Somalis demanding the Navy ship move off while the Navy is determined to remove the pirates from the ship.
But what does all this have to do with the war on terror? Plenty.
CTF-150 was established in the months after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
I was able to accompany some of the men and women of the FGS Bremen, detailed to CTF-150, last May as it patrolled in the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti, right where the tip of Arabia reaches to meet the Horn of Africa. To the south of us, for miles, the Somali coastline stretched. It is a dangerous stretch of land and water infested with pirates, traversed by jihadis and trafficked by smugglers. No ship is immune.
The Bremen was part of the 10-ship task force from 10 nations, which has responsibility for a 2.4-million square-mile patch of ocean that covers the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, an area about the size of the continental United States. Around the 7,480-mile-long rim of the area of operations lie 14 nations ranging from the friendly Bahrain and Qatar to the chronically disintegrating Somalia — a basket case of a country that is much of CTF-150’s raison d’être.
The CTF-150’s area of operation is a maritime crossroads – a kind of floating Dodge City – where massive amounts of legitimate trade intersects with narcotics traffic headed to Europe from Pakistan to Yemen and Kenya. Weapons are smuggled from Yemen to Somalia, fueling the violence there. Even more worrisome is the movement and trafficking of people from Sudan and Eritrea into Saudi Arabia, refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen and “people of particular interest” moving from Yemen to Somalia.
In many ways, this battle is a return to the original mission of the U.S. Navy. The war on the Barbary pirates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first war on terror the United States ever fought, and was also the first protracted overseas war fought to protect the personal and commercial interests of Americans abroad. As today, the pirates were ruthless and unconventional enemies, much like al Qaeda. And there is growing evidence al Qaeda is learning from, and influencing, today’s pirates, aiming to interfere as much as possible with the flow of crude oil traffic.
Oil and chemical tankers like the Mori are increasingly targeted, both for their cargo and for the possibility the ship itself can be turned into a floating bomb. Offshore oil terminals like those dotting the Persian Gulf are vulnerable to hijacked supertankers set on collision courses. And don’t forget the USS Cole – a picture of which hangs in the gangway of the Bremen – which was attacked by suicide bombers on an explosive laden speedboat. Seventeen crew members died.
While on the Bremen, some of its sailors told me they didn’t feel they were at war. They’re wrong. The maritime battlefield affects everyone who buys things or puts gas in their car, and Europe is especially vulnerable to trade interruptions. Piracy has always been with us, but now it’s part of a larger struggle – one that is moving off the sands of the Middle East and into the azure waters of the world’s oceans.