The Indian Ocean standoff between an $800 million U.S. Navy destroyer and four pirates bobbing in a lifeboat low on fuel showed the limits facing the world’s most powerful military in dealing with a booming pirate economy in a treacherous patch of international waters.
Driven solely by economic gain, not politics or religion, the brand of pirates who captured an American merchant ship’s captain on Wednesday are an unconventional foe for the U.S. military. In recent years, they have shrewdly extorted millions of dollars from international shipping companies; to help negotiate the captain’s release, the Navy turned for advice on Thursday to an FBI hostage rescue team, practiced in a patient approach.
“This is strictly for the money,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College. “They are not taking the cargo, and they are not interested in killing people.” He added, “It’s a business model that has proven very effective for them.”
While surveillance aircraft kept watch on the pirates and their captive, the Navy task force that had steamed more than 300 miles to go to the captain’s aid showed no sign of confronting the pirates. There is no evidence, experts say, of any links between the pirates and Islamic militants in Somalia, and officials said that the United States would have difficulty striking directly at pirate sanctuaries along the Somali coast, even though the U.S. military has fired missiles within Somalia several times in recent years at people suspected of links to al-Qaida.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the pirates “nothing more than criminals” and noted that they were not a new problem for the United States — though this was the first time in 200 years that pirates had captured an American vessel. “One of the very first actions that was undertaken by our country, in its very beginning, was to go after pirates along the Barbary Coast,” Clinton said at a State Department news conference, in which she called on the international community to “come together to end the scourge of piracy.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Thursday that two additional ships would be dispatched in coming days to the region around the Gulf of Aden and the coast of Somalia, to augment an international naval armada that has tried in vain to secure thousands of square nautical miles of sea.
The gulf, one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping lanes, is patrolled by an anti-piracy flotilla from the European Union and a U.S.-led coalition of ships, plus warships from Iran, Russia, India, China, Japan and other nations. But pirates using mother ships — oceangoing trawlers that carry speedier attack vessels — have extended their reach into the waters far off the East African coast. On Saturday, for example, a German freighter was hijacked about 400 miles offshore, between Kenya and the Seychelles.
The Maersk Alabama, the vessel hijacked on Wednesday, is a 508-foot-long container ship that was carrying food and other agricultural materials for the World Food Program and other clients, including the U.S. Agency for International Development.