The pirates’ latest provocation

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard: Somali pirates captured their first U.S.-flagged ship in memory this morning, somewhere between 240 and 400 nautical miles off the coast of that country’s Puntland region. Reports about the nature of the ship are clearly unclear — with some putting the number of crew members-turned-hostages at 20, and others ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

By now, I'm sure you've heard: Somali pirates captured their first U.S.-flagged ship in memory this morning, somewhere between 240 and 400 nautical miles off the coast of that country's Puntland region. Reports about the nature of the ship are clearly unclear -- with some putting the number of crew members-turned-hostages at 20, and others at 21. The cargo is either food aid, commerical goods, or something else. And the vessel was probably going to Kenya. No word on the condition of the crew, or on the ransom that will likely be demanded. The United States is urgently seeking answers about all this.

First things first: it's unlikely that there is an anti-American message here -- just profit seeking. While this hijacking, like the capture of a Saudi tanker late last year, seems more audacious than usual, it's unclear if the attackers even knew the ship carried a U.S. crew.

But yes, things are still really bad, and not just for the United States. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the region, issued a foreboding statement last night that pretty much makes that clear: 

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard: Somali pirates captured their first U.S.-flagged ship in memory this morning, somewhere between 240 and 400 nautical miles off the coast of that country’s Puntland region. Reports about the nature of the ship are clearly unclear — with some putting the number of crew members-turned-hostages at 20, and others at 21. The cargo is either food aid, commerical goods, or something else. And the vessel was probably going to Kenya. No word on the condition of the crew, or on the ransom that will likely be demanded. The United States is urgently seeking answers about all this.

First things first: it’s unlikely that there is an anti-American message here — just profit seeking. While this hijacking, like the capture of a Saudi tanker late last year, seems more audacious than usual, it’s unclear if the attackers even knew the ship carried a U.S. crew.

But yes, things are still really bad, and not just for the United States. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, which patrols the region, issued a foreboding statement last night that pretty much makes that clear: 

The notice also reiterates the fact that despite increased naval presence in the region, ships and aircraft are unlikely to be close enough to provide support to vessels under attack. The scope and magnitude of problem can not be understated."

It might be getting worse, as I noted yesterday. The first few months of this year saw rough seas, a deterrent to would-be hijackers. No longer. As these recent satellites from Ocean Weather show, the seas are now calm — and primed for easy pirate maneuvering. 

The situation on land looks equally perilous. With a new Somali government at last in place, the governing has actually had to begin. It’s been a rough ride so far. Debates over the implimentation of Sharia law and the presence of an African Union peacekeeping force have paralyzed the political system. Many in parliament see foreign troop withdrawal as a precondition for Sharia — though President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Mohammed says the peacekeepers must stay. It’s a harder call than you might think: keeping the peacekeepers alienates Sharif’s main Islamist constituency, which he desperately needs to convince to lay down arms.

All this makes for a mess that no one is sure how to clean up. The Navies are trying to patrol the seas, but admit that the piracy problem beings and ends ashore. Good luck finding safe ground there.

Update: Looks like the American crew fought back. Reports are emerging that the hostages aboard the captured U.S. vessel were able to overtake at least one pirate — maybe more. Military officials have started confirming off the record. Stay tuned for more updates.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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