Hostage Taking Off the Horn

A revealing story was published recently by Spiegel Online that detailed the aborted attempt of an elite group of German GSG-9 police to take back the German container ship, MV Hansa Stavenger, which had been hijacked by Somali pirates.  You can read the lengthy piece of investigative journalism for yourself here.

The ‘long and skinny’ of the piece is that after mustering more than 200 elite force police armed with advanced weapons, speedboats, and helicopters, and teaming with USS Boxer, the plan to rescue the German freighter and its mainly German crew from the pirate sanctuary of Harardere was called off due to fears that it would result in a “blood bath” tantamount to a “suicide mission.”  It was a “Mission Impossible” that was ultimately nipped in the bud by US National Security Advisor, James Jones.  Jones evidently didn’t want Boxer involved in delivering German police into a situation they wouldn’t emerge from.  His decision was supported by officials of the German Federal Police.

The piece caught my eye because I had actually used the exact term “blood bath” on The National in response to a question from CBC reporter Krista Erikson about what might happen if warships were to become more aggressive in rescuing ships that had been pirated.

This was a couple of days after US Navy Seals had dramatically executed three Somali pirates that were holding the captain of the American container ship MV Maersk Alabama, Richard Philips, hostage onboard Alabama’s lifeboat.  Just days before that, a French Special Forces unit had successfully liberated a French yacht, killing a number of pirates in the process.

It seemed like the media had all of a sudden become thirsty for Somali pirate blood, and wanted to know why more of this sort of stuff wasn’t happening.  Why were warships like HMCS Winnipeg so seemingly ineffective in combating Somali piracy?

My answer was that once a vessel has been hijacked by heavily armed pirates, the situation becomes a hostage taking like any other, and any proactive response carries with it the possibility of serious loss of life.  I had in mind the mass execution of a crew, followed by the mass execution of the pirate gang, with the possibility of casualties to the boarding party or Special Forces unit that precipitated the shoot out by mounting an ill-fated rescue attempt.  “It could be a bloodbath out there,” I said to Krista.

The case of Hansa Stavenger reveals plainly just how difficult mounting a successful rescue is even for the most heavily armed and capable forces.  At anchor in Harardere, Hansa Stavenger was under the command of at least 30 pirates armed with their usual weaponry—AK 47s, RPGs, etc.  Half the hostages were held on the bridge, the other half below decks.  All of the ships lights were on, and the pirates kept close watch on the surrounding area.

The scenario that led to the aborted German rescue mission should be taken as the norm when it comes to thinking about the piracy of the Horn.  The dramatic rescue of the captain of Maersk Alabama was an isolated and fortunate case.  The fact will have to be accepted that Somali pirate gangs have developed an extremely effective business model that comes complete with an equally effective security policy.

This business model might more accurately be labeled hostage taking, rather than piracy.  In any event, it is a form of maritime predation that is bound to get worse before it gets better.

For a detailed study of this issue see my “Contemporary Piracy off the Horn of AfricaNexen Papers, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI).