Will U.S. Navy Operation Deter Pirates?

To learn more about what to expect next from pirates, Renee Montagne talks with Nikolas Gvosdev. He teaches national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now we will follow up on the story we mentioned earlier, the rescue of the American ship captain who'd been held by pirates for five days off the east coast of Africa. Somali pirates have reached - have reacted to the news with anger, vowing to retaliate for the deaths of some of their own. Piracy off the coast of the Somalia has meant dozens of ships have been seized and tens of millions in ransom have been paid. To learn more about how this incident might affect future piracy cases we turn now to Nikolas Gvosdev. He teaches national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Good morning.

Professor NIKOLAS GVOSDEV (US Naval War College): Good Morning.

MONTAGNE: Does the U.S. military involvement here, using deadly force and bringing more warships into the area, do you think it will make pirates think twice about attacking another American ship or just make them more violent when and if they do?

Prof. GVOSDEV: Well, let me just preface by saying this is my own personal opinion on this subject: it depends. When we had the French last year, in April and September - two times - used deadly force to rescue French nationals, but that didn't really lead to spike in violence at that time because these were seen as one off events. And the Somali pirates often just change tactics by going after different ships. We've now had the statements coming out of Eyl and the other pirate centers, saying that they want to take revenge and retaliate. But we'll have to see. And it also depends on whether, for the U.S., this is a one-off or not.

If the U.S. did this for a U.S.-flagged ship, but really then returns to a more approach of just simply being there and trying to deter pirate attacks by presence rather than by actively targeting pirate ships, then it may not lead to an escalation. So we're at a stage where it's a little too early to see what the long-term impact is going to be. It could go either way.

MONTAGNE: Now, you mentioned the French. Why are shipping companies themselves not providing more security for their ships and cargo?

Mr. GVOSDEV: Well, if you look at this a crap shoot or a roulette wheel, there are 20,000 ships in the extended area where people think Somali pirates might strike at any given time - you know, fishing vessels all the way to big merchant carriers.

Essentially, I think the statistics are - it's certainly very low - the probability that you might encounter pirates and then that they might successfully take over. So, at this point, shipping companies are saying - do we really want to pay for a lot of extra security when we may not get attacked? Do we want to arm crews that aren't trained and then really risk an accident or serious problem when you have, you know, crews that come from 15 or 20 different countries and don't necessarily communicate well.

International law does not allow merchant ships to be armed. Every country has its own rules and requirements over civilian ships being able to carry weapons, so that if they decided to arm their crews they might find difficulty in docking in certain ports. And the attitude of shipping companies right now is this is the job of governments, it's the job of navies to make sea-lanes safe. It's not the job of private shipping companies to take on a greater burden of security.

So, you have a bit of the buck passing still going on right now, which makes it difficult to have a coordinated effort.

MONTAGNE: And now back to this incident. The U.S. military has custody of one of the pirates involved - the one who gave himself up and survived. What laws apply to him? I mean, how does he get charged or tried or…

Mr. GVOSDEV: Well, piracy is considered a crime against nations, and if it occurs outside of the territorial waters of a country, if it occurs on the high seas, any country can claim jurisdiction. The U.S. has the right, under international law, because it was an attack on a U.S.-flagged vessel and it was an attack on U.S. citizens, to bring this person back to the United States for trial.

In that case, it can either go to New York or to Washington. You could have courts in both jurisdictions that could take over this case. The other preference, I think, and it seems what the Justice Department is leaning towards, is to use this agreement that was reached with Kenya last year that Kenya becomes the country of jurisdiction for trial and incarceration of suspected pirates.

So, right now he's in custody and it's up to the U.S. government to decide where they want to take him for trial.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, we just have a few seconds left here, is piracy in these waters mostly a nuisance or is it something more threatening, really, in terms of international security?

Mr. GVOSDEV: It's been a nuisance for the last decade. But as these attacks have continued, as they've gone greater a field, further away from Somalia, as more ships get seized, and then finally as some people are worrying about, that this begins to set a precedent for groups that may want to seize ships - not for ransom but to create trouble, including for terrorist groups - I think it's a nuisance that is beginning to grow beyond just being a local problem and is starting to involve the security of several major shipping lanes.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. Nikolas Gvosdev.

This is MORNING EDITION.

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