U.S. Approaches to Counter-Piracy
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
Good afternoon and thank you Dr. Parasiliti for having me here today. For more than a half century the IISS has been one of the leading think tanks in international affairs not just in the UK, but in the world. I can not think of a better venue to speak with you about the challenges of piracy emanating from Somalia that now threatens maritime traffic across the entire Indian Ocean. IISS highlighted the problem of modern piracy before many were aware it existed. It was this organization that presciently warned in 2007 of the threat piracy would grow and spread, and IISS has continued to speak out against this international scourge.
Piracy is an age old problem. Pirates in the Mediterranean plagued the Roman Republic. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century piracy bedeviled European merchant ships in the Caribbean and elsewhere. America, too, confronted piracy in its earliest days. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, U.S. merchant ships and crews were subject to routine attacks by pirates from the Barbary States of North Africa. For years, it was deemed cheaper to pay them off than to fight. Then, as now, this answer proved counterproductive and unsustainable. The United States intensified its military and diplomatic efforts, eventually ending the tribute payments to Barbary pirates in 1815. The problem of how to deal with rogue individuals determined to exploit the security weaknesses in commercial maritime trade is not a new problem.
Yet the modern day implications of piracy are now global in scope. In today’s globalized age the problem of piracy is one that affects not just individual countries or shipping companies but potentially the entire global economy. We live in an era of complex and integrated global supply chains where people in countries around the world depend on safe and reliable shipping lanes for their food, their energy, their medicine, and basic consumer goods. By threatening one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, piracy off the Horn of Africa threatens not just specific ships, but has broader strategic implications.
The problem is both significant and urgent.
Despite two years of international political and naval coordination, the problem is growing worse. Last year, 2010, witnessed the highest number of successful pirate attacks and hostages taken on record. And thus far 2011 is on track to be even higher. Close to 600 mariners from around the world are being held hostage in the region, some for as long as six months. Tragically, four Americans were brutally murdered by Somali pirates just last month.
The attacks are more ruthless, more violent and wider ranging. Hostages have been tortured and used as human shields and blowtorches have been used to open safe haven areas on ships in order to seize crews, and hold them for ransom. Pirates currently hold around 30 ships, most for ransom.
As international action has been taken to address the challenge, the pirates have responded. The way pirates operate has become more sophisticated. In recent months the use of mother ships – which are themselves pirated ships with hostage crews – has extended the pirates’ reach far beyond the Somali Basin. Mother ships launch and re-supply groups of pirates who use smaller, faster boats for attacks. They can carry dozens of pirates and tow many skiffs for multiple simultaneous attacks.
This has made pirates more difficult to interdict and more effective at operating in seasonal monsoons that previously restricted their activities. Somali pirates now operate in a total sea space of approximately 2.5 million square nautical miles, an increase from approximately 1 million square nautical miles two years ago. This increase makes it difficult for naval or law enforcement ships and other assets to reach the scene of a pirate attack quickly enough to disrupt an ongoing attack.
At Secretary Clinton's direction, we are intensively reviewing our counter-piracy efforts to determine an even more energetic and comprehensive approach to respond to piracy in the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean region. As we move forward, we are looking into many additional possible courses of action that seek to overcome the ongoing challenges of piracy.
In the near and mid-term, we plan to focus on several approaches that have the potential to significantly increase risks to the pirates while reducing by equal measure any potential rewards that they think they may gain. We are considering a broad range of options, from intensifying naval operations, to pursuing innovative approaches to prosecute and incarcerate pirates through innovative national and international approaches. Furthermore, we are looking at additional ways to more aggressively target those who organize, lead, and profit from piracy operations, including disrupting the financial networks that support them.
But before I go into depth on our way forward, let me discuss briefly the actions that are already underway.
To address the problem, the United States has, from the beginning, adopted a multilateral approach. Piracy affects the international community as a whole and can only be effectively addressed through broad, coordinated, and comprehensive international efforts. In January 2009, we helped establish the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which now includes over 60 nations as well as international and industry organizations, to help coordinate national and international counter-piracy policies and actions.
We have also developed an integrated multi-dimensional approach toward combating piracy that focuses on: security - through the projection of military power to defend commercial and private vessels; prevention – through best practices measures conducted by the private sector; and deterrence – through effective legal prosecution and incarceration.
I’ll now expand on each of these areas:
First, security. In an effort to prevent attacks, the United States established Combined Task Force 151 -- a multinational task force charged with conducting counter-piracy naval patrols in the region. The objective of this Combined Task Force is to secure freedom of navigation for the benefit of all nations. It operates in the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Somalia, covering an area of over one million square miles. In addition to this effort, we have a number of coordinated multi-national naval patrols off the Horn of Africa. NATO is engaging in Operation Ocean Shield, the European Union has Operation ATALANTA, and other national navies in the area conduct counter-piracy patrols as well. On any given day up to 30 vessels from as many as 20 nations are engaged in counter-piracy operations in the region, including countries new to these kinds of effort like China and Japan.
U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) has also worked with partners to set up a 463-mile long corridor through the Gulf of Aden, called the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor or IRTC for short. This transit zone for commercial shipping is heavily patrolled by naval forces and used by some countries for convoy operations. Use of the IRTC has been successful in reducing the number of attacks within the corridor. But it also has had the unfortunate side effect of pushing pirate activities elsewhere, outside of the corridor. Naval forces are limited in their ability to disrupt attacks beyond the IRTC – there are simply an insufficient number of ships, helicopters, and overhead surveillance assets to patrol much beyond the corridor. International naval cooperation will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future to help protect shipping and interdict pirate attacks, but naval presence on its own will be insufficient to prevent or measurably deter piracy beyond the IRTC. There is just too much open water to patrol.
The second area we have focused on is prevention. Any effective approach to combating piracy must involve the private sector. To prevent pirate activity, we have encouraged the commercial and private vessels to take action to prevent piracy before it happens.
The shipping industry is increasingly implementing industry-developed “best management practices” to prevent pirate boardings before they take place. These guidelines were developed to identify self-protection measures that have proven successful in preventing boarding and seizure, and enabling rescues by naval forces when boarded. They include practical measures, such as:
- proceeding at full speed through high risk areas,
- placing additional lookouts on watches,
- using closed circuit television to monitor vulnerable areas,
- employing physical barriers such as razor wire,
- reporting positions to military authorities, and
- mustering the crew inside safe haven areas of the vessel.
These measures, when properly implemented, remain the most effective manner to protect against pirate attacks.
At the same time, there are vessels using the shipping lanes along the coast of Somalia that do not implement these recommended security measures. Approximately 20 percent of all ships off the Horn of Africa are not employing best management practices or taking proper security precautions. These 20 percent account for the overwhelming number of successfully pirated ships. These companies either deem these measures as not cost-effective or they unrealistically, some might say wishfully, assume that military forces will be present to intervene if pirates attack. As a result, some in the industry have been unwilling to invest in the basic security measures that would render them less vulnerable to attack.
We continue to discourage ransom payments and to actively seek to deny the benefits of concessions to hostage takers. The increase in attacks over the last year is a direct result of the enormous amounts of ransom now being paid to pirates. The United States has a long tradition of opposing the payment of ransom, and we have worked diligently to discourage or minimize ransoms. But many governments and private entities are paying, often too quickly and to the detriment of future victims, the escalating ransoms that enable the pirates’ predatory behavior. Some consider it the cost of doing business. However, every ransom paid, which now averages $4 million per incident and has reached as much as $9.2 million dollars, further institutionalizes the practice of hostage-taking for profit and funds its expansion as a criminal enterprise. Since January 2010, Somali pirates received approximately $75-85 million in the form of ransom payments. Of course, companies want to get their crews, ships, and cargoes back, but we have to find a way to break this cycle of increasing the pirates' success and to shut down this ballooning criminal enterprise that makes piracy an increasingly lucrative profession, especially for the impoverished Horn of Africa.
Third, to deter piracy, effective legal prosecution is vital. We are urging all states to share the burden of prosecuting suspected pirates in their national courts, and incarcerating those convicted.
When attacks do occur, the international community needs effective and appropriate ways of dealing with captured pirates. Under international law, piracy is a crime of universal jurisdiction. This means that all states are authorized under international law to prosecute cases of piracy, whether or not that state has a direct link to the event. We applaud the approximately 18 countries that have pursued the prosecution of almost 950 pirates in their national courts. However, despite this figure, a significant number of suspected pirates encountered by naval forces are still being released without being prosecuted, sometimes for lack of evidence. We have not seen evidence that the prosecutions to date have had a deterrent effect, probably not least because pirates are reaping enormous returns with relatively little risk.
In addition, many of the countries affected by piracy – flag states, states from where many crew members hail, and many of our European partners – have proven to lack either the capacity or the political will to prosecute cases in their national courts. Furthermore, states in the region that have accepted suspects for prosecution to date have been reluctant to take more, citing limits to their judicial and prison capacities and insufficient financial support from the international community. As a result, too many suspected pirates we encounter at sea are simply released without any meaningful punishment or prosecution, and often simply keep doing what they were doing. This is the unacceptable ‘catch and release’ situation that has been widely criticized, and for which we must find a solution.
This multi-dimensional approach, focusing on security by expanding naval activities, emphasizing prevention through encouraging best practice measures by the private sector, and providing a deterrent through legal prosecution, provides a solid framework for our counter-piracy efforts.
Unfortunately further action is needed. As pirates have adapted their tactics to evade naval counter-piracy operations and shippers’ reliance on best management practices, we must respond in-kind by re-energizing and refocusing our counter-piracy approach. We are dealing with smart, hardened criminals who adapt to changing situations. We need to adapt to and counter their actions while moving forward with the sense of urgency the situation demands.
Before I continue, it is important to recognize that piracy’s root cause is state failure in Somalia, and cannot be resolved exclusively through naval patrols and interdictions. The reality is that there will be no end to piracy at sea until there is both political reconciliation and economic recovery on the ground in Somalia and a local government capable of and willing to enforce law and order on land and offshore. Achieving stability and good governance in Somalia represents the only sustainable long-term solution to piracy.
We are currently pursuing a diplomatic dual-track approach in Somalia to support the most important lines of action for countering piracy: building governance, security, and economic livelihoods on land in Somalia. On track one, we continue to support the Transitional Federal Government and the Djibouti Peace Process, as well as the African Union Mission in Somalia.
On track two, we are expanding engagement with local and regional administrations, civil society groups, and Somali clan leaders outside the Djibouti Peace Process who seek stability in Somalia and oppose extremism, including those in Somaliland, Puntland, and parts of South Central Somalia. In coordination with international partners, we will evaluate the utility of increased partnerships with regional governments of Somaliland and Puntland, as well as with local and regional administrative units throughout South Central Somalia, who are opposed to and who are willing to address piracy and governance concerns.
Achieving the necessary governance improvement throughout Somalia will not happen overnight, but this cannot deter us from supporting every improvement we can for the sake of greater stability in Somalia and, in the process, combating piracy.
Acknowledging the challenge of the situation ashore does not preclude progress at sea. We can make advances in combating piracy, irrespective of the situation in Somalia. But we must understand that this is a problem without a simple solution. There exists no silver bullet to solve modern piracy. Instead, there are a number of measures that can be taken to manage the problem and reduce its impact.
In the near and mid-term we can focus on several approaches that have the potential to significantly increase risks to the pirates while at the same time reduce their potential rewards. We are considering a broad range of options. These center on four key areas: pursuing additional mechanisms to prosecute and incarcerate pirates; aggressively targeting those who organize, lead, and profit from piracy operations; exploring expanded military options that will not place undue risks or burdens on our armed forces; and intensifying efforts to encourage the shipping industry to employ best management practices.
First, on enhancing the prosecution and incarceration of pirates. One of our major efforts to counter piracy has been to find creative ways to increase the ability and willingness of other states to undertake what should be a national responsibility to hold criminals accountable for attacks on national interests. The United States has actively prosecuted pirates involved in attacks on U.S. vessels where there has been sufficient evidence to support the case. To date, that totals 26 persons involved in several attacks:
- the April 2009 attack on the MAERSK ALABAMA,
- attacks in April of last year on the USS NICHOLAS and the USS ASHLAND,
- and most recently, the attack in February that resulted in the killing of the four Americans on the QUEST.
Fourteen men, thirteen from Somalia and one from Yemen, have been indicted on federal criminal charges for their suspected involvement in this heinous incident. The Somali pirate convicted in the MAERSK ALABAMA attack received a sentence of 33 years and 9 months and the pirates involved in the NICHOLAS attack have received life sentences plus 80 years. These successful prosecutions, like the over 900 other national prosecutions taking place around the world, prove that pirates can be successfully prosecuted in any state with the basic judicial capacity and political will to do so.
Despite these successes, we need to acknowledge the reality that many states, to varying degrees, have not demonstrated sustained political will to criminalize piracy under their domestic law and use such laws to prosecute those who attack their interests and incarcerate the convicted. The world’s largest flag registries – so-called “flags of convenience” – have proven either incapable or unwilling to take responsibility. And given the limited venues for prosecution, states have been reluctant to pursue prosecutions of apparent or incomplete acts of piracy, limiting our ability to prosecute suspects not caught in the middle of an attack.
It is true that suspected pirates have been successfully prosecuted in ordinary courts throughout history. Because of this, the Administration has previously been reluctant to support the idea of creating an extraordinary international prosecution mechanism for this common crime. Instead, the Administration has focused on encouraging regional states to prosecute pirates domestically in their national courts. However, in light of the problems I’ve described to you today, the United States is now willing to consider pursuing some creative and innovative ways to go beyond ordinary national prosecutions and enhance our ability to prosecute and incarcerate pirates in a timely and cost-effective manner. We are working actively with our partners in the international community to help set the conditions for expanded options in the region. In fact, we recently put forward a joint proposal with the United Kingdom suggesting concrete steps to address some of the key challenges we continue to face.
One of the most important things we must do is expand incarceration capacity in the region, as lack of prison capacity is perhaps the most common reason states are reluctant to accept pirates for prosecution. We are already seeing progress in this area. Just this week, a new maximum security prison opened in Northern Somalia to hold convicted pirates. We also support the efforts underway to develop a framework to accommodate the transfer of convicted pirates back to Somalia to serve their sentences in their home country.
In addition, we have suggested consideration of a specialized piracy court or chamber to be established in one or more regional states. The international community is currently considering this idea, along with similar models that would combine international and domestic elements. These ideas are under discussion both in the UN Security Council and in the Contact Group.
It is also critical to continue to support and enhance the prosecution-related programs in the region that are already underway. And we continue to believe one of the most vital aspects remains Somalia’s long term ability to construct its own active and independent judicial system.
The second area we are considering is how to more effectively target financial flows from piracy, possibly by using approaches similar to the ones we use to target terrorists.
Somali piracy is an organized criminal enterprise, like a mafia or racketeering criminal organization. A key element of our overall counter-piracy approach is the disruption of piracy-related financial flows. We need to hit pirate supply lines – cutting them off at the source. A significant effort must be made to track where pirates get their fuel, supplies, ladders and outboard motors in Somalia and in other nearby countries and to explore means to disrupt this supply. Most importantly, we must focus on pirate leaders and financiers to deny them the means to benefit from ransom proceeds. They must be tracked and hunted by following the money that fuels their operations using all available information. This should include by tracing the money that fuels their operations with the same level of rigor and discipline we currently employ to combat other transnational organized crime.
This is particularly critical, considering the recent uncorroborated open source reports of possible links, direct or indirect, between al-Shabaab in Somalia – specifically al-Shabaab-linked militia – and pirates. Al-Shabaab and the pirates operate largely in separate geographic areas and have drastically opposed ideologies. However, we have seen reports that al-Shabaab is receiving ad-hoc protection fees from pirate gangs working in the same area. Obviously, this is concerning. Let me be clear: while we have seen no evidence to date of direct ties between the two groups, it would not be uncommon for criminal gangs working in the same ungoverned space to share resources or pay kickbacks to one another.
Finally, it is time to explore additional means to map and disrupt the financial flows and criminal masterminds behind the business of piracy before any links are solidified or money is put into the pockets of a group responsible for terrorist attacks. At the beginning of March, the United States hosted a meeting of Contact Group members at which the international community began discussing the development of methods to detect, track, disrupt, and interdict illicit financial transactions connected to piracy and the criminal networks that finance piracy. As we make progress and pirate leaders are identified, we should press local authorities in the piracy-affected region to take action against these leaders and either prosecute them or turn them over to other states for prosecution. Piracy is impacting Americans’, Africans’, and others’ lives around the world, and we should devote resources commensurate to the problem.
The third area we are exploring for increased action involves additional ways to work with our Department of Defense colleagues to take further action at sea, focusing on steps that would have real impacts on pirate activity without overextending our military. For its part, the United States Navy is already taking proactive measures to remove pirate boats from action when they can do so without unduly risking human life or unnecessarily expending scare resources. Just last week, U.S. naval forces successfully answered a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel’s distress call as pirates attempted to board. U.S. forces, already in the area as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, fired warning shots, causing the pirates to flee and foiling the attack. As American assets were already on the scene, the U.S. military was ready and able to respond without stretching our armed forces too thin.
We at the State Department need to continue to work with our DoD colleagues to explore using other tools at our disposal to further disrupt pirate vessels at sea. Of course, we must always act in a fashion that does not cause the situation on land in Somalia to worsen.
Fourth and finally, we must intensify our efforts to encourage commercial vessels to adopt best management practices. The best defense against piracy is vigilance on the part of the maritime industry. The vast majority of successful pirate attacks are against ships that do not adopt best management practices. The U.S. government requires U.S.-flagged vessels sailing in designated high-risk waters to take additional security measures, including having extra lookouts, having extra communications equipment, and being prepared at all times to evade or resist pirate boarding. I would note that, to date, not a single ship employing armed guards has been successfully pirated.
Combating piracy is not just the job of governments. It requires joint action from both the international community and the private sector. If all commercial fleets worldwide were to implement the measures as appropriate, we would be in a much better position to reduce the rate of successful pirate attacks. Our partners in the maritime industry must continue to step up and take further action to do their part.
In the cat and mouse game of modern day piracy, we must always look for new methods and new approaches to improve our efforts. After all, this is exactly what the pirates are doing. I believe we have the right multi-faceted framework in place to address the challenge. Focusing on security by expanding naval activities; emphasizing prevention by encouraging best practice measures by the private sector and dissuading lavish ransom sums; providing a deterrent through enhanced legal prosecution; and efforts to disrupt the financial flows all provide a solid way forward. There is much work to do in the coming months and years, but through the shared commitment of the United States and the international community the challenge of modern-day piracy is one that we will surely meet.
Thank you. With that, I’d be happy to take a few questions.