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US Marines at Right Place, Right Time in Somalia Ship Rescue

On Wednesday, President Obama authorized U.S. Marines to rescue a German-owned ship that had been hijacked by Somali pirates. Within three hours, the Marines had captured nine pirates and freed the crew members, who had been holed up in a safe room.

Perfect storm

The raid does not reflect a change in U.S. policy, says retired naval commander John Patch, a professor at the U.S. Army War College.

“I don’t think there’s anything new at all. This is a resident capability inside the Marine Corps. I think it just happened to be…just a perfect storm against the pirates. Essentially the right folks, the Marine Corps special ops team, was in the right place at the right time. The ships were nearby. It was a relatively clear-cut case of a ship that was relatively easy to get on board,” he says.

He calls it a perfect operation and not an attempt by the U.S. to send a new message that it’s tough on pirates.

“I think that message has been there all along. The U.S. has been involved with the counter-terrorism / anti-piracy task force there since 2008. We send a very strong message every day keeping those sea lanes open in that limited area in the Gulf of Aden. I don’t think there’s any new message for the pirates,” he says.

They wouldn’t listen anyway

“I don’t think the pirates pay a whole lot of attention to any kind of strategic messaging coming from anybody, for that matter. But it’s a cost benefit analysis for them. Is it worth the effort? When this story trickles down, I don’t think it will have any deterrent impact whatsoever on the pirates. They see it (piracy) as still worthwhile,” he says.

Patch says the pirates know they stand to make a lot of money if they can successfully hijack a ship and demand ransom. So, the U.S. action may not necessarily be viewed as a deterrent.

“In fact,” he says, “in this case, with essentially no shots fired and nine or 10 pirates in custody on the Navy ship, with no loss of life or violence against the pirates, you may actually have the opposite effect – ‘Hey, look, we can do this without worrying about dying or getting shot at,’ which is sort of a potential ironic side effect.”

However, he says efforts protect shipping lanes in the Gulf have been very effective.

“The pirates are very clearly avoiding that area because they know they have a low chance of success,” he says.

Take ‘em to court

The U.S. and other countries that capture pirates usually file charges and take the pirates to court.

“Bringing them to trial is to essentially have that precedent out there,” he says, “I think that has definitely improved over the last couple of years. And, in fact, Kenya has been very supportive in bringing some of the pirates to trial.”

In Norfolk, Virginia, a pre-trial hearing for six Somalis accused of piracy continued Friday. The Somalis are accused of attacking the USS Nicholas in April. On Tuesday, a judge dismissed some of the charges against the men, leaving seven others to be considered at the hearing.

“The tough part about it for everybody involved is you’re talking about warships essentially involved in law enforcement operations,” he says, “You’ve got the blunt hammer of military force associated with that fine needle of law enforcement. So it’s a tricky operation.”

Patch says Navy Criminal Investigative Service took care to ensure evidence was properly gathered so a criminal case could be brought against the Somalis captured this week.

“That’s a good thing. That’s a credential law enforcement officer associated with the Navy who has the ability to make sure that the detention procedures are observed correctly, that the quality assurance for handling the evidence is there…. All things that need to be brought to the court and shown to the judge to say these are actually pirates,” he says.

Patch recommends that some type of Coast Guard police force should handle piracy matters.

Why bring them to court at all?

“Moral high ground is an issue for us. We represent the Western world and the high ideals of the United States. So, we’ve got to kind of play by the rules. The pirates don’t have to, but we adhere to them,” he says.

Patch’s comments reflect his own views and not necessarily that of the war college.