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Diplomacy in Action

Anti-Piracy Efforts

Special Briefing
Thomas Countryman
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Political-Military Affairs
Washington, DC
February 18, 2010


MR. TONER: Good afternoon. It’s been over a year, just over a year, that the United States joined with partners across the international community to establish the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which has honored Secretary Clinton’s call for a 21st century solution to a 17th century crime of pirate attacks in the waters off the Horn of Africa. While piracy remains a serious challenge to maritime safety, the delivery of humanitarian aid, and global commerce, the Contact Group’s concerted effort has made a positive difference contributing toward a declining success rate of pirate attacks from as high as 60 percent in 2007 to less than 25 percent today.

And joining us today for an update is Tom Countryman, who’s the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, who headed the U.S. delegation to the Contact Group’s plenary session in New York just a few weeks back. His bureau has been working hard to build a truly whole-of-government solution to piracy, pulling together experts from several bureaus within the Department, and bringing it to the table with DOD, Coast Guard, other agencies across the U.S. Government, ultimately to build a unique partnership against this shared security challenge with more than 50 countries and international organizations that participate in the Contact Group.

With that, I’ll hand it over to you, Tom, to answer questions.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Thanks, Mark. And thanks to all of you for the opportunity to provide a brief update on counter-piracy efforts and the U.S. Government in general, and specifically the work of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia that met January 28th in New York.

In the year since the Contact Group was first founded, its membership has grown from 24 countries to now 47 countries and a number of international organizations. What binds us together in this voluntary effort under a United Nations umbrella is two things – first, a realization that the root causes of piracy off the coast of Somalia rest in the state of disorder that has characterized Somalia now for 20 years, and that an effective solution to the piracy question will require the efforts to re-stabilize Somalia. And that is the effort that is occurring in another venue led by the United States, the State Department, the Bureau of African Affairs, in cooperation with a number of other countries.

What we seek to do in the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia is to manage the consequences of that disorder, specifically as they relate to piracy and the disruption to trade in the region, as well as the human cost that this imposes both upon the people of Somalia and upon seafarers in the region.

In that regard, I’d stress – well, let me say the second thing that binds us together within the Contact Group is a conviction that joint action, sharing of best experience, coordination of military, business, and legal measures that we can take together offers the best means of dealing with those consequences. In that regard, I’ll stress three general areas where we think there has been not dramatic progress, but steady progress in being able to meet the challenge of piracy in this region.

The first is military. In the past year, the number of nations that are contributing to a maintenance of an international naval force in the Gulf of Aden has risen to above 20. On any given day there are, on average, 17 ships in patrol in the Gulf of Aden creating a recognized transit corridor that provides maximum security for the 30,000 cargo ships that pass through this area every year. What is perhaps more impressive is that the melding of United States, European Union, NATO forces, together with individual contributions by a number of other countries, including Russia and China, has been accomplished with a shared mechanism for coordination and de-confliction, and without the need for there to be a supreme commander in charge of the effort. It is an unprecedented feat in that so many different countries are participating with only a coordination mechanism to maximize their efficiency. And we think it’s a good model not only for the Gulf of Aden and the Somali bases, but also for future such endeavors.

The second area I would mention, and perhaps the most important, is industry efforts. Over the last year, the Contact Group, working closely with the International Maritime Organization, has established and codified best management practices that ships should employ when they’re in this dangerous territory. From the United States Government’s side, the United States Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration have required U.S.-flagged vessels to employ these practices when they are delivering food aid or undertaking other commercial voyages in that region. And we think it’s worked well. Employment of relatively simple means of deterring pirates has proven to be the most important factor, we think, in the declining rate of successful pirate attacks in the region.

We hope to see – and the Contact Group is valuable in this regard – we hope to see other states that are major flag nations require the same kind of best management practices of their commercial ships that operate in the region. It’s the lowest cost and most effective way to deter pirate attacks.

And the third area is legal prosecutions. We strongly believe that as piracy has long been defined as a universal crime, every state has the jurisdiction to prosecute pirates. And we encourage the states affected by piracy, whether it’s an attack on their flag, their property or their citizens, to prosecute pirates. We recognize, in particular, that Kenya has stepped forward and offered itself as a site for the prosecution of suspected pirates. This has been a step of great responsibility, and we respect the Kenyans for taking that step. It makes sense because prosecution in the region has both economic and humanitarian benefits as compared to prosecuting suspected pirates thousands of miles away. And in addition, it makes sense for the Government of Kenya, because the United States and the European Union have contributed significant resources to helping Kenya improve and update its legal, its prosecutorial, and judicial system with long-term benefits for the people of Kenya as well.

These are, broadly speaking, the three main areas where the Contact Group is working and where we think we’re having an effect in deterring pirates from going to sea and reducing their chances of making a successful capture of a vessel and in catching them if they still make the attempt. And with that, I’d be happy to answer any other questions on the topic.


QUESTION: Would you mind – and some of them may have come out in the beginning – would you mind giving us a few numbers to support the notion of declining successful attacks? In other words, apart from that, are attacks, per se, declining, or they’re just not good at it?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: No. In fact, that’s a very important question because it – as in many other human endeavors, success in one area begets a problem in another.


MR. COUNTRYMAN: The success rate for pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden, that body of water between the Somalia and Yemen coastlines, has fallen to nearly zero. There’s been only one successful hijacking in that area since last summer. That’s the area where the international naval vessels are concentrated and where a internationally recognized transit corridor exists. That’s an area of about a million square miles, and the success rate is very important.

What has happened is that the focus of pirate attacks has shifted from the Gulf of Aden south into the Somali Basin, a body of water twice as large as the Gulf of Aden. And the success rate for pirate attacks in that area has gone up, as has the absolute number of attempts in that region. This is one of the challenges that the international military presence is seeking to deal with – can you devote adequate resources in terms of surveillance and in terms of actual presence of a naval vessel to deter piracy in that broader area as well.

QUESTION: Can you give – do you have those two numbers?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Let me see if we --

QUESTION: If this is in a piece of paper --

MR. COUNTRYMAN: -- can dig them up.

QUESTION: -- then it won’t be bothering me with – I mean, I won’t have to --

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Yeah, I – well, we’ll find it and get it to you, Barry, shortly to give you more exact numbers.


QUESTION: Just to follow that – Kirit Radia with ABC News – just following on that a little bit, the development that – from what we’ve seen over the last six to eight months has been the widening of that corridor – a ship being farther out to sea off the Horn and still being attacked by pirates. Can you talk a little bit about the effect that that has and how you plan to counter that? Targeting mother ships, that kind of thing?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Mm-hmm. As I said, the military is seeking to define what are the means by which you can deter piracy in areas further away from the Gulf of Aden. If you’ve got additional ships, you can patrol a larger area, but it is still a huge area – 2 million square miles. We are looking into whether there are additional surveillance assets, whether manned or unmanned, that can, from the air, provide additional warning of potential pirate attacks to ships in the region.

As in every other aspect of the problem, the most cost-effective means of deterring attacks are what ships can do for themselves in terms of having adequate crew to be alert for the early signs of an impending pirate attack, and in terms of being able to take the diversionary measures or the defense measures that cause the pirates to give up and go seek another target instead.

That, in general, is what I would say about it. We’re conscious of the fact that the locus of pirate activity has shifted and we’re trying to deal with it.

QUESTION: What resources are needed if somebody was – wants to patrol an area 2 million square miles while maintaining, you know, control in the shipping corridor that you’ve established? And is that feasible?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I think I’d probably defer you to someone more expert in military measures. It would be too facile just to say if you need to patrol three times as many square miles, you need three times as many ships. And so I won’t make that statement.

QUESTION: But whether or not it’s actually feasible or not, I mean, is that --

MR. COUNTRYMAN: It’s expensive, and that’s why we feel strongly the need to pursue what are the lowest-cost options to deter piracy. And that’s what each individual ship and shipper can do for themselves.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing back on shore in Somalia, specifically if there’s any kind of efforts? We hear that it’s primarily – these pirates aren’t necessarily nefarious; it’s that they’re trying to feed their families, they’re trying to support, you know, their local economy, whatever. What’s the U.S. doing to try and stop that? And then also, in Kenya, have any pirates that have been brought there actually faced prosecution?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: The answer to the second question is yes, a number have been prosecuted and convicted. Some have been prosecuted and set free. We’ll get you the exact numbers to use on that.

In terms of the situation on the ground, again, I would refer you to the Bureau of African Affairs for additional information on what we’re seeking to do politically. But we’re very mindful of some of the motivations that cause young Somali men to go to sea in this desperate effort. The economic situation in Somalia has led to a situation in which people will take these kind of very high-risk efforts, very high-risk criminal activities, in order to feed their family, as you say.

Now, that said, we don’t think that there is a justification for the piracy, first because, as in other forms of criminal activity in this region or in other regions, the people deriving the primary benefit are not the poor Somali fishermen. They are the capitalists who have financed the acquisition of boats and put these young men into the risky position of endangering their own lives in search of some money. That money does not come back primarily to benefit the economy of Somalia. To the organized crime leaders, whether they’re small-scale or large-scale, a young Somalia man is just as disposable as an old leaky boat that’s used for a pirate attack.

Just as much as the Somali fishermen or the Somali farmer or the Somali teacher is a victim of the disorder that has characterized the country for the last 20 years, we would hope to target and to be able to attack the causes of those who are benefitting and perpetuating the disorder, whether they are terrorists or gunrunners or another form of warlord or a pirate organizer.


QUESTION: Just a – I guess we’ve asked you for a few figures. If, when you’re putting this together, you can get us the numbers. I remember last year there was a bit of fanfare when the first ship was – or the first pirates were captured by a NATO ship under this agreement. Can you give us the updated totals on how many have been captured since then by NATO ships and what has happened to those, if there’s a breakdown? What happened to those –

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Yeah, I’m not sure I could break it down by NATO ships. The numbers for 2009 were roughly 706 pirates encountered by ships of this international flotilla.

QUESTION: Can you say that again?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: In 2009, there were more than 700 pirates encountered.

QUESTION: That’s individuals, as opposed to 706 ships, right?



QUESTION: 700 pirates encountered?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Encountered.

QUESTION: What does “encountered” mean?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Let’s break it down.


MR. COUNTRYMAN: In those – of those, more than 400 were disrupted potential attack; that is, either caught in the act or caught close enough to the act that the intervention of one of the warships broke it up. More than 200, almost 300, were turned over for prosecution, primarily to Kenya but to other places as well. We’ll try to put down these numbers in a way that makes sense for you.

QUESTION: This is all – the success, the kill rate, or whatever you want to call it –

MR. COUNTRYMAN: I would not call it the kill rate, but – (laughter).

QUESTION: Well, the success rate.


QUESTION: Tied directly to this quasi-alliance, right? To this cooperative?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Well, to be – to try to be precise, I would say that the declining success rate in pirate attacks is due to ever more effective coordination among this international flotilla. In terms of whether the number of pirates encountered and either they are turned over for prosecution or else, as in many cases, the naval vessel will confiscate their weapons, confiscate the equipment that is designed specifically for boarding another ship, not for fishing, and then give them enough gas to get back to the Somali coastline.

Those numbers have both a demand and a supply factor; that is, they may reflect both discouragement of more pirates coming out from shore as well as the effectiveness of the international flotilla that’s there.


QUESTION: I don’t know if this is necessarily your area, but maybe you could speak to it. Are you considering this whole combating the piracy problem, like, solely a law enforcement and kind of military type problem? Or is there any – you know, given, like, the Administration has been so kind of focusing on smart power, is there any discussion of the kind of poverty or the fact that these pirates are really poor? And you know, it’s mostly a criminal enterprise and that there have been other instances around the world where, when it’s a criminal enterprise, it’s just like let’s, you know, pay them off and –


QUESTION: -- you know, develop some programs where they don’t need to have alternatives.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Sure. As I said at the beginning, what we share among the 50 members of the Contact Group is a conviction that the root causes of piracy lie in the disorder in Somalia, and that that must be addressed. That effort is serious, it’s intensive, it’s extremely difficult, and it is separate from what the Contact Group on Piracy seeks to do in managing the consequences of that disorder.

But as I laid out, this is very much a smart power approach and one that is very much shared by all the other members of the Contact Group that we must bring to bear not only the levers of state power – that is, military and law enforcement – but also the private industry most directly affected so that they can take measures to help themselves, as well as doing what is possible to both inform and help the citizens of Somalia and help to turn some of them away from piracy as a career option.

And I see P.J. so I’ll do one more and then we’ll go.

MR. CROWLEY: Take your time.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Okay, fine.

QUESTION: Is there any consideration for harsher standards for when you can detain these pirates? I mean, the notion that there’s a bunch of Somali fishermen out there who are fishing with AKs and RPG launchers is pretty ridiculous. And my understanding is that the international coalition just – they take the weapons, they toss them in the water, and they let them go, which is what, essentially, you were saying. I mean, is there consideration for detaining them under suspicion of piracy and then – rather than letting potential pirates go free?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: No, it’s a great question and it points to the dilemma that you could understand if you were the captain of an American or a Spanish or a Korean vessel that’s patrolling in these waters: When do you have enough evidence of criminal action or criminal intent to make an arrest, as opposed to simply confiscating weapons? It’s an issue for a cop on the beat in Washington, D.C., as well, and not everyone detained or sent to the precinct ends up getting prosecuted. But it’s a really hard one if you’re a naval captain and not essentially trained for that.

We are seeking both within the U.S. Government and in a cooperative way with other nations to help establish ever clearer guidelines for what the captain of an individual vessel ought to do. Getting to your question more specifically, I’ve heard discussion among international law specialists that there ought to be a move to include the possession of pirate equipment as evidence of intent to commit piracy, in the same way that in other categories of criminal activity – and piracy is, at base, a criminal activity, not a political one – in the same way that possession of certain kind of equipment can be taken by the police as evidence of criminal activity.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example of that, like on the international (inaudible)?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: There’s no need to have ladders and grappling hooks in a fishing vessel.

QUESTION: If we can go back just real quick, I’d asked as part of a larger question about the mother ships. Have you had any success taking many of those out of operation?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: The answer is yes and no. Yes, several have been taken out of operation. No, because it is fairly easy to turn anything into a mother ship. When I talk about 30,000 commercial vessels transiting the area in a year, that doesn't count a number of smaller vessels, whether fishing vessels or dhows doing trade along the coastline. And any of those, even a fairly small ship, can be turned into a mother ship. So it’s a priority, but it’s not one that you will ever get completely ahead of the curve.

QUESTION: Are these – all these pirates, are they acting on their own or are they part of some infamous cartel?

MR. COUNTRYMAN: To the best of our understanding – and I would emphasize that in Somalia it’s very difficult to have the same kind of detailed understanding that we might have about narcotraffickers in another part of the world or about human traffickers in Asia or somewhere else. But to the best of our understanding, there are a number of different criminal associations that are involved in the financing of the pirate gangs and who reap the benefits. So it is not a unified cartel, but a number of criminals who have found this a profitable form of organized crime in which to invest.


QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. COUNTRYMAN: Thanks very much for your time. We will get you the numbers that we promised you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.


PRN: 2010/188

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