Unfortunately this turn of events doesn’t improve upon the worst-case scenario of a land raid.
Current focus is largely centered around two topics: the yacht’s final hours and how America will respond. However these questions are more connected on land than water. Emerging details posit a disagreement between pirate leaders after a channel had been opened with the USS Sterett. Two pirates boarded the guided-missile destroyer tailing the yacht and stayed overnight. But at 8 AM local time, pirates on The Quest fired an RPG on the Sterett and small arms fire erupted soon afterward. Several pirates then appeared on the yacht’s deck with their hands up, at which point U.S. Special Forces rushed aboard the vessel.
All four Americans had been shot, two fatally, while two pirates also lay dead. Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, head of Dryad Maritime Intelligence, remarked, "We have heard threats against the lives of Americans before but it strikes me as being very, very unusual why they would kill hostages outright.”
The probable scenario is a basic disagreement over their fate. With the Sterett closing fast and the pirates suspecting a raid before land, 19 pirates stood a good chance of disputing a single course of action. Some clearly wanted to give up and others obviously resisted. But this quarrel soon fades into a surprisingly unanimity from local observers. For all the talk of “changing the game” by abducting U.S. citizens, pirates are indeed undergoing a change in attitude.
Killing hostages "has now become part of our rules," said a pirate who identified himself as Muse Abdi, referring to recent imprisonment of captured pirates. "From now on, anyone who tries to rescue the hostages in our hands will only collect dead bodies. It will never, ever happen that hostages are rescued and we are hauled to prison."
"It's a black day for us and also the Americans, but they lost bigger than us," echoed Bile Hussein, another pirate. "If they still want a solution and safety for their citizens in the oceans, let them release our men they arrested."
The sum of today’s events point to a hardening in the pirates’ ideology; what started as pure profit is beginning to take on political overtones. Imagine, for a moment, life as a Somali pirate. Already resentful of overfishing and illegal dumping along their coast, the international community’s response has avoided their own concerns with direct imprisonment. No aid is offered to their plight, and no reason to cease piracy except fear. This policy bears little resemble to Western ideals of corrective punishment.
One doesn’t need to count the rise in hijackings despite increased naval activity to realize the counterproductive psychology at work. Pirates are naturally going to reject this perceived injustice, and respond more aggressively and personally to threats against them. A boy that survives Somalia’s chaos to reach 18, only to risk the next 30 years in a foreign jail, will at least consider alternatives to imprisonment, including suicide. That option may have struck a note of discord with the present crew.
Abdullahi Mohamed, one pirate who claimed to know The Quest’s assailants, told the AP minutes before news broke, "the hostages will be the first to go. Some pirates have even suggested rigging the yacht with land mines and explosives so as the whole yacht explodes with the first gunshot.”
This tactical and strategic evolution presents a similarly vicious cycle as a disastrous land raid. Were al-Shabab and U.S. Special Forces to confront each other directly, a battle possessed the energy to escalate operations on both sides. al-Shabab could feel inclined to target U.S. embassies in Africa or the Middle East, while Washington would have no choice but to forcefully respond. However any U.S. reaction would limit itself to tactical strikes, and thus fall woefully short of the comprehensive counterinsurgency that Somalia requires.
Naturally the chorus for more international cooperation and operations has reached a new limit. Joining Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in “deploring” the killings, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon remarked through his spokesman, “He reiterates that piracy off the coast of Somalia is unacceptable and welcomes the ongoing efforts of the international community to stamp it out and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Though Ki-moon makes an effort to single out illegal fishing, this general focus continues to ignore the land roots of piracy. Havens like Haradheere and Hobyo reside in virtually lawless territory, administered only nominally by al-Shabab. Nor is the solution as simple as protecting Somalia’s coast: resolving piracy requires a full-spectrum counterinsurgency on land. Law enforcement achieves maximum results when capping political, economic, and social structures. Conversely, substituting these structures with intermittent law enforcement yields negative feedback.
"This incident is a clear message,” declared Gen. Yusuf Ahmed Khayr, Puntland’s security minister “that it's time the world community quickly steps up to stop these pirate criminal activities. They should be treated mercilessly.”
What Khayr doesn’t mention is how even Puntland and Somaliland, the “stable” parts of Somalia’s Horn, have locked themselves in bitter clan warfare along the SSC. The Somaliland government and army, dominated by Isaaq clan of Hargeisa area, has been fighting the Dhulbahante clan of Puntland for years. A handful of sizable clashes broke out over the past weeks, resulting in hundreds of dead and wounded, while political rhetoric between the two sides has similarly escalated. In addition to denouncing Somaliland’s military occupation of the disputed Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) regions, Puntland also accuses its neighbor of funding, arming and providing safe havens for al-Shabab-allied fighters.
Reports allege that Mohamed Said Atom, Puntland’s leading militant, has hide in Burao under Somaliland’s protection.
"We wish to live in this region peacefully," said Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, himself a Dhulbahante. "We wish that the two stable states of Somalia [Puntland and Somaliland] co-exist in peace and we hoped that a new administration in Somaliland would withdraw its forces from Las Anod. But if the situation is now at a point where our citizens are being massacred and Somaliland wants to seize Buhodle, then Somaliland must take responsibility for initiating this war."
Somaliland equally accuses Puntland of funding al-Shabab cells in its territory, and backing clan encroachment of its territory. Neither territory recognizes Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), going so far as to bar its officials from their territory.
Thus, like Western officials, the two territories’ vows to rid piracy from their coast comes off as irrational without a corresponding strategy on land.
A final risk to be weighed is whether U.S. pressure alters the business relationship between pirates and al-Shabab. Though pirates have no problem acquiring arms, they’re going to need bigger guns and possibly more muscle just to raise their personal level. Matching the 10 of U.S. firepower and technology is impossible, but they can turn themselves up from a 2 to a 4. Maybe a 20% “tax” doesn’t sound so unreasonable now.
Of course al-Shabab could take and keep taking. Pirates should know better, and realize how little pay a private U.S. citizen offers. That leaves the international community to hope they practice better business skills, because America and its allies aren’t prepared for the worst in Somalia.