U.S. President Barack Obama added to the growing narrative around a commander-in-chief who has authorized gutsy military strikes to secure the freedom of captive Americans and eliminate the country’s enemies.
On the day Mr. Obama delivered his televised State of the Union address, U.S. special forces carried out a successful rescue operation to free an American and Danish aid worker held captive by pirates for more than three months in Somalia.
The operation was done by the same Navy Seals team that carried out a daring mission inside Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden in May, 2011.
It is not Mr. Obama’s first authorized assault to rescue an American citizen held by Somali pirates. Just months in to his presidency, U.S. Navy snipers, using three shots, killed three of the four pirates who were on a lifeboat and holding hostage the American captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship.
More recently, a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf rescued an Iranian vessel’s 13-man crew that was held by Somali pirates.
But rescuing hostages held inside Somalia by pirates is rare.
And while there have been military assaults by various nations to free their citizens being held at sea, most hostages are eventually released as a result of lengthy negotiations and lots of money.
Two key incidents reveal the danger of a military assault: In February, 2011, Somali pirates killed four Americans when U.S. special forces tried to storm a yacht hijacked by pirates; in April 2009, French special forces freed four hostages, among them a three-year-old boy, but his father was killed. It was reported that he may have been killed accidentally.
Negotiation and ransom remain the most frequent route to freedom.
According to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, there are currently nine vessels and 151 hostages being held by Somali pirates.
Last year, there were 28 hijackings and 470 hostages held by Somali pirates. Fifteen hostages were killed.
A European Union naval force has been patrolling the waters off Somalia and it has had considerable impact, with European Union Naval Force Somalia reporting that the pirates’ success ratio has dropped.
But the driving force behind piracy is the ransom that Somali pirates are chasing. And despite the success of Tuesday’s U.S. special forces operation to free American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Hagen Thisted, studies indicate that Somali pirates are not going to stop trying to take people hostage – be it on land or at sea – using their own daring methods: assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to stop ships.
U.S. think tank One Earth Future studied the trends in ransoms paid to Somali pirates as part of its Oceans Beyond Piracy project, and it believes that from 2005 to 2010, ransoms have increased from an average of $150,000 to $5.4-million.
The biggest ransom collected so far is $9.5-million paid in November, 2010, for the release of South Korean oil tanker Samho Dream. “By the end of 2010, approximately $238-million was paid in ransoms to Somali pirates in that year alone,” the report summary states.
The number of active Somali pirates is difficult to estimate, but the economic intelligence consultancy Geopolicity believes that the number operating off the Somali coast could increase annually by up to 400.
According to Geopolicity’s May, 2011, study, based on an estimate of 1,500 active Somali pirates, each pirate is earning from $33,000 to $79,000 a year. The study says that the best alternative income would bring in $500 a year.