Special Operations: Captain Jack's Not All Right


January 27, 2011:  When fifteen South Korean commandos rescued a South Korean merchant ship held by Somali pirates on January 21st, they did so using technology as well as skill. The used jammers to blind the ship's radar and radio. In any event, the commandos were quickly aboard the 11,500 ton tanker, and just as quickly subdued the dozen pirates (killing eight and taking five prisoner. One of the pirates shot and wounded the captain of the ship during the rescue, but the other twenty crewmen were unharmed.

Another bit of technology was more useful for training other commandos, and enlightening the folks back home. Each commando had a wireless vidcam on his helmet, and another on his weapon. This video was streamed back to headquarters in South Korea, as well as the South Korean destroyer the commandos had come from.

A few hours before the South Korean operation, and a thousand kilometers to the west, Malaysian commandos recaptured another ship held by pirates. The Malaysian ship the pirates had seized was quickly cleared of pirates, with three of them wounded and 20 taken prisoner. In both cases, commandoes, of the same nation as the ship captured by pirates, were available for these raids.

Most shipping companies, because they have insurance to cover the cost of ransoming the ship and crew, will not authorize such raids on captured ships. Most navies, especially European ones, prefer not to attempt such rescues, because of the bad publicity arising from any deaths (even of pirates.) But in nations with sailors being held captive, fighting the pirates, and freeing those captives, is big news.

Thus an increasing number of these raids are taking place. French and American commandos have undertaken these operations to free their countrymen, and several ships have been cleared of pirates after the crew barricaded themselves in "safe rooms" after disabling the ships engines. In some of these cases, the pirates have abandoned such ships before marines or commandoes could show up.

Back in Somalia, two pirate gangs holding South Korean sailors, moved their captives and threatened to kill them in revenge for the pirates killed by the South Korea commandos. This was all theatre for the media. The pirates know that escalating the killing is bad for business. If the pirates kill captives, they provide an incentive for foreign troops to come ashore. On the South Korean side, the raid on the hijacked ship was risky, because a lot of deaths among the captive crew would have been bad news back home. But success provides a big morale boost for South Koreans in general, who are somewhat demoralized because of the two North Korean arracks in the last year. South Korean special operations troops are well trained, and the risk of failure was low. The ransom of a South Korean tanker last year, for $9 million, created a furor in South Korea, where many saw this high payment as just encouraging the pirates. Thus the recent commando rescue was very popular.

The growing number of commando attacks on captured ships is partly a reflection of the pirates going farther afield (often to the coast of India) in search of prey, and partly growing anger at the inability to shut the pirates down. The Somali exist solely because no nation is willing to send troops ashore to shut down the Somali coastal towns that serve as bases for the pirates, and provide anchorages for the captured ships. For thousands of years before, this was how piracy was controlled, by finding and destroying ports the pirates operated from. But no one is willing to get involved fighting the Somalis, who are unable to govern themselves, and proved a major headache when occupied by French, British and Italian colonial governments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of the three colonies established in the Somali territory, only Djibouti (run by the French from 1994-1977, and acquired by negotiation more than conquest) is still enjoying self-rule. The rest of Somalia, especially the southern part, has always been lawless and chaotic. Most nations believe it's preferable to pay one percent more (about $5 billion a year for insurance and security) to operate merchant ships near the East African coast, than it is to pacify Somalia.

It's not that Somalis are difficult to defeat, it's just that the Somalis keep fighting. If not against foreigners, than against each other and neighboring countries. In such situations, even commandoes are not the answer.


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