Any Marine will gladly recount the story of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and the Battle of Derna, and it rightly holds a legendary place in the history of the Marine Corps. Today, the world again faces an increasing pirate threat off the coast of Africa. Somalia and the waters surrounding it have overwhelmingly taken the lead in not only the sheer number of attacks, but also in ransoms paid. This piece relates some of the recent history, and offers solutions for the way ahead militarily in the region.
Al Qaeda in Africa
The Shabaab organization (meaning “The Youth”), was previously the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union, who through late 2006 controlled most of central and southern Somalia. It is currently headquartered in the southern town of Kismayu. One of its former military commanders, Adan Hashi Ayro (EKIA 1 MAY 2008), was reported by both the US Government (USG) and Somali Government (SOMGOV) as the appointed leader of the Somali branch of Al Qaeda in Africa. Ayro had been previously linked to 16 murders in Somalia, including a BBC reporter, and also tied to the failed plot to down an Ethiopian airliner. A Long Wars Journal article from March 2009 by Bill Roggio titled Shabaab leader admits links to Al Qaeda (click here for article) further highlights numerous links between Al Qaeda and the Shabaab organization. Adan Hashi Ayro, along with several other Shabaab commanders and fighters, was reportedly trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan prior to 2001. On 14 SEP 2009, a US Navy (USN) SOF element conducted a helo assault in Somalia on another AQ terrorist, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan-born Al Qaeda bombmaker. Nabhan was wanted by the USG for involvement in the 1998 Dar es Salaam and Nairobi Embassy bombings, and the 2002 attacks in Kenya on an Israeli airliner and seaside hotel frequented by Israelis. Nabhan was killed with multiple Shabaab fighters while traveling south through the Barawe District. Another likely connection between AQ and Shabaab is the large influx of foreign jihadists into Somalia during 2009, with Somali internal security sources estimating a four-fold increase this year. The ties between the two organizations are clearly growing, if not having already culminated in a full strategic alliance this year. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross offers a compelling and detailed article on the Shabaab, its history and connection to Al Qaeda in the Fall 2009 edition of the Middle East Quarterly (click here for article).
Starting with 2007, reported pirate actual or attempted attacks has first nearly quadrupled from 32 to 107
Strategic Options for the Way Ahead
Much of the recent pirate activity in the Indian Ocean is attributed to the area around the southern port city of Kismayu. On 19 OCT 2009, Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Hassan Yacqub announced the group’s successful interdiction of a US military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), reflecting at a minimum an acceptance by the USG and Shabaab of the city’s importance in the counter-terror (CT) fight. While providing no confirmation of the UAV’s destruction, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet (Naval component of US CENTCOM) was cryptic in its retort to Yacqub’s announcement (click here for full article), stating “all UAVs had been successfully recovered”. In the last week the USG has also authorized a recent $5 million of military aid to Mali, and reportedly has reached an agreement to base UAVs in the Seychelles. These actions, combined with ongoing maritime task forces like CTF-151, are a step in the right direction. For the sake of time and space, I will skip the obvious civil & humanitarian issues and support the international community should be providing in Somalia, and provide thoughts strictly on a military approach to the problem set.
1. 1. Maritime patrols and convoy support must continue. The preponderance of warships to support these functions can and should be provided by the international community. A Chinese, Indian, Danish, or Canadian (or any other Coalition nation) warship is just as good of a deterrent as an American warship. Further, it may help to actually improve relations between some of these nations.
2. 2. FID must not only continue, but increase. This should not be in the form of arms and equipment shipments to a failed state, as the US conducted earlier this year to Somalia. Military trainers must come with the arms and equipment, to not only train indigenous forces on their application, but to nurture the Host Nation’s (HN) military establishment, professionalism and CT capability. 3rd Special Forces Group (AFRICOM-aligned), a complement of “soft” Army Special Operations Forces (CA/PSYOP), and a SeAL Team (for port, coastal and maritime offensive and defensive operations) must be put on permanent rotation within AFRICOM under a 3rd SFG command element. The Naval Special Warfare Command would be well served aligning SeAL Team 8 solely to the AFRICOM mission (akin to 3rd SFG) to fully develop and mature cultural and language skills within the assigned Team, and could thus provide an additional command element for rotation in this JSOTF.
3. 3. Direct action operations by our nation’s CT forces must continue. The simple fact is that terrorists are far less effective when they feel they cannot operate with impunity wherever they are. Thinking that at any time they are within the reach of our military is an effective tool in our arsenal, and we must continue to dismantle AQ and Shabaab operations.
4. 4. The USG must begin exploring additional options for looser engagement criteria in international waters; waiting to take the shot when there are already hostages is too complicated and risky to be executed regularly. Max Boot offers the following in a blog for Commentary Magazine, “If the U.S. and its allies took the gloves off and allowed the kind of unfettered pirate-hunting that occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—when pirate vessels could be sunk on sight and captured pirates inevitably executed after a swift trial—piracy would likely disappear as a serious problem”
5. 5. The USG must maintain the lead on IMINT/UAV operations, we own the majority of them and are the SMEs of their tactical employment. The USN has a couple of great platforms still in testing, one being the X-47 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), but currently available platforms are more than suitable for these operations until the X-47 comes online. The Navy’s RQ-4N Global Hawk is fielded in limited numbers, but must be rapidly expanded. Broad Area Maritime Security (BAMS) is an easy way for the USN to not only expand its role in the GWOT, but to also move forward with some TTPs developed by the Army that are highly applicable to a BAMS mission set. I envision entire USN Squadrons of UAVs and UCAVs, similar to the USAF Reconnaissance Squadrons, with the preponderance of these platforms being the MQ-1 Reaper and the MQ-9 Reaper. Since it is wholly impossible to cover the entire Indian Ocean with UAV platforms, it becomes important to combine assets into Hunter/Killer (H/K) teams to allow for maximum coverage. The wide-area MTI capabilities and tremendous endurance of the Global Hawk could allow the platform to cover very large Targeted Areas of Interest, at least 100 sq km per H/K team. While not a significant portion of open-ocean by itself, a 100 sq km TAI developed through timely and accurate intelligence is actually quite large. Suspicious vessels could subsequently be targeted by shorter endurance weaponized platforms like an MQ-1 or MQ-9 under a “persistent stare” methodology. Even without taking "the shot", by utilizing a persistent stare on suspicious vessels, entire pirate networks from ship to shore could be developed and matured to allow a holistic (ground and maritime) operation (remember those HN forces I was advocating in my second bullet?). I don’t have to belabor the point for everyone reading this to understand where I’m going with this. The bottom line is that counter-pirate operations may not be the sexiest function the USN performs, but it is highly relevant in the GWOT (due to Shabaab's international jihadi aspirations and its links to Al Qaeda) and currently under-supported by the USG.
A reported $180 million was paid in ransom during 2008, private security firms reportedly charge $1 million for each successful crossing of the region (20,000 ships on average per year use these shipping lanes), governments across the globe are supporting maritime task forces, and citizens are feeling the pinch by paying higher prices for internationally shipped goods
I fully welcome any comments or feedback to this post.