To End Piracy, U.S. Needs To Root Out Somali Bases Maj. Gen. Tom Wilkerson, CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md., talks with Renee Montagne about the problem of piracy. Wilkerson says current anti-piracy tactics are not working, and the U.S. will need to root out the pirates' bases in Somalia.

To End Piracy, U.S. Needs To Root Out Somali Bases

To End Piracy, U.S. Needs To Root Out Somali Bases

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Maj. Gen. Tom Wilkerson, CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md., talks with Renee Montagne about the problem of piracy. Wilkerson says current anti-piracy tactics are not working, and the U.S. will need to root out the pirates' bases in Somalia.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Ari Shapiro.

Pirates are holding an American ship captain hostage in the waters of Somalia. The pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama cargo ship yesterday. Twenty American crew members and containers of food aid were on board. The pirates eventually fled but they took the ship's captain with them in one of the lifeboats. Now that lifeboat is reportedly out of fuel. A U.S. Naval destroyer is on the scene and the Navy has also asked the FBI for help. NPR's Tom Bowman is here to give us an update.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what's the latest news is with the captain.

BOWMAN: Well as far as we know, the captain is still in the lifeboat with four pirates. And really, since this started, the Navy has maintained constant surveillance of that lifeboat with both P3 patrol, aircraft from the navy, and also unmanned drones. So he appears to be okay, he not injured at any way, and again, they're continuing to monitor the situation. And of course the destroyer Bainbridge is now on the scene. It has helicopters on board. So, it could launch those to get near to the lifeboat but we haven't heard anything, any operational details about exactly what the Bainbridge will do now.

SHAPIRO: Well, what are its options? You've got this massive U.S. Naval destroyer, that's teeny lifeboat with a small number of people on it, how, how does that equation work out?

BOWMAN: Well they could just keep surveillance of the lifeboat. The pirates have few options now. I mean, one option is they could move to a mother ship. A lot of these pirates, they tow the smaller boats out to sea, they would then swarm a commercial ship, get aboard, demand ransom and so forth. So they assume there's a mother ship nearby where these pirates could go to. I'm told there're several ships in the area that could potentially be a mother ship, that's one option.

At this point they probably couldn't go back to the cargo ship itself. The Navy probably has sailors on board that cargo ship now or keeping a close watch on it. So we're really in kind of a sensitive position right now, just constant surveillance and making sure that this just ends peacefully.

SHAPIRO: How concerned is the Pentagon about this incident?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, you didn't get a sense yesterday at the Pentagon that they're overtly concerned about it. You didn't get a sense of high level meetings. The president of course was advised of it and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others. They were talking about it, keeping an eye on it, as were other government agencies - State Department, Homeland Security and others. But now that, you know, the crew did not cooperate with the pirates, they actually disabled the ship. Most of the crew is safe. Again, you have this sensitive situation with the captain. You don't get a sense of over concern about this right now. And again, most of these pirate situations have ended peacefully by the payment of ransom.

SHAPIRO: What options does the U.S. and do American allies have in these kinds of situations besides just sort of, as you've described, keeping an eye on developments?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, they don't have a lot - it's a huge swathe of the sea that they're patrolling here and it's difficult to be at the right place at the right time. So for the time being, I guess, they would probably just keep patrolling the waters from the Gulf of Aden to off Somalia, looking for pirates. In some cases they've been able to chase them away, but there are so many ships and small boats out there it's hard to tell who is a pirate and who is not. You don't want to start shooting right away.

And also, you know, there aren't that many incidents. You know, they're spectacular when they happen. There's clearly concern about this one, of course, because it was the first time a U.S. Flag and U.S. crew ship had been taken. So, again there aren't that many great alternatives. Admiral Gortney, the commander of the Fifth Fleet says the best way to deal with this is to create a more stable government in Somalia. But of course, the United States tried that before, back in 1993, going after the warlord Mohamed Aideed…

BOWMAN: And it didn't end well.

SHAPIRO: …a lot of bloodshed in a movie and book called "Black Hawk Dawn."

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks very much Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome Ari.

MONTAGNE: And to talk more about how the U.S. Navy might combat Somali pirates, we've got Major General Tom Wilkerson on the line. He's the chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland. Good morning.

Major General TOM WILKERSON (Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Naval Institute): Good morning, how are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. You know, good just to say again this is a first, right? The taking of this particular American ship.

Major General WILKERSON: It's not only a first for an American ship with an American captain and an American crew; it's also a first for a vessel that is a container ship. And it's much higher in sides, it's faster, and so this is the first time pirates have taken that type of vessel.

MONTAGNE: Well, one of the more interesting things about what happened here was that the - I mean, these sailors - Americans - were unarmed and they were up against pirates with automatic weapons.

Mr. WILKERSON: Well, I'm not sure - I know the pirates were armed and I know the sailors were not. On the other hand, this is a former or a current military sealift command vessel. The American crew has been trained a bit and there were only four pirates, so the crew outnumbered them. And I suspect some of them were aggressive enough that they were able to seize control of the situation without use of weapons.

MONTAGNE: What do you make of the fact that the captain, Richard Phillips, you know, offered to be held hostage in order for his crew to be released by these pirates?

Mr. WILKERSON: Well, I think that was a generous gesture and perhaps one fraught with more than just a little peril for the captain, now that he's sitting on a lifeboat with four desperate pirates. The larger issue, though, and I think Tom Bowman shared it with you all when he was on just a moment ago, is how to cope with these things in the future if they happen to include American citizens.

Our real problem is the size of the area. First, the Navy's combined taskforce clearly has not been able to accomplish its mission. We have three Navy ships there, we have, I guess, in the allies somewhere around 11 and 12 total warships in the area, and that area is four times the size of the state of Texas.

So, patrolling to eliminate the pirates' threat is impossibility, and it's not the Navy's fault.

MONTAGNE: What else could they do, though?

Mr. WILKERSON: Well, that's the key. It is not a Navy problem; it is an American problem, and the American leadership has to decide at some point when they're going to accept that the pirates cannot have a safe haven on land. So long as there's a safe haven - not just in pirates, but look what's happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan - so long as there are safe havens who those who wish to do us or other allies or friends harm, then there is the opportunity for it to continue.

And there's no incentive for them to quit, and so it is in Somalia. The fact is, is a pirate can ransom a Saudi tanker - as they did recently - and then have the temerity to actually call you folks in the media on his cell phone and say, hey, we're back home safe, everything's good and we've got our three million dollars, then it's never going to work right.

MONTAGNE: Although, when you suggest trying to deal with a safe haven on land in Somalia - again, as Tom Bowman and Ari have just spoke about - that brings up some pretty bad memories for the U.S. - "Black Hawk Down" and what happened in the early 1990s when they tried to tackle Somali's militias.

Mr. WILKERSON: "Black Hawk Down" occurred in Mogadishu where we had a sizeable force and had some very real difficulties, and the story is known to all of us. The pirates' haven is not necessarily in that situation. But, you bring up a point that Tom and Ari did bring out: there's no sword that's ever been invented that can't cut both ways.

If you decide to use military force to move them out of their havens, then it's about destruction. And that will involve either boots on the ground or some type of accurate delivery of weapons systems. And either of those has the potential to include in the destruction, civilians.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. Major General Tom Wilkerson is the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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