It appears that it didn’t take long for the Somali insurgents to live up to a promise of retaliation after three pirates were killed in the successful rescue attempt of a captured U.S. merchant ship captain.
Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey was concluding a trip to Somalia when a mortar attack narrowly missed him and his contingent near a Mogadishu airport. Payne, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, was visiting Somalia in an effort to assist in ending the conflict that has destabilized the government for years. He was unhurt, but 10 people were reportedly injured in the explosions.
“America wants to be a friend,” Payne told a crowd of Somalis at a news conference on Monday. His trip there had been planned before the piracy incident, though it was a subject he discussed with Somali officials.
“If there were no piracy, the U.S. forces would not have intervened,” he said. “I think every country and company has a right to protect itself.” The U.S., under direction of President Obama, certainly took action to protect one its citizens. For five days, Captain Richard Phillips was held captive by pirates who boarded his ship, the Maersk Alabama, which was bound for Mombasa, Kenya, with containers of humanitarian aid.
Rather than jeopardize his crew of 19, Phillips offered to be a hostage and four pirates held him in an enclosed lifeboat, which was soon at the center of a standoff between the pirates’ mother ship and U.S. Navy warships off the perilous coast of Somalia.
While negotiations proceeded, Navy Seals boarded the U.S. Bainbridge and awaited an opportunity to shoot the pirates whenever Phillips’ life was in “imminent danger,” according to orders from President Barack Obama. That opportunity arrived on Easter Sunday, and despite the distance of some 75 feet in the dark, in choppy waters between the bobbing lifeboat and the rolling destroyer, the snipers quickly, and simultaneously, killed the pirates.
“For all three of them to fire those shots at the same time and take those guys out, it was quite a feat,” Don Shipley, a former member of the Seals who now runs a private Seal training school in Chesapeake, Va., told the press. “They showed the patience the sniper has, which is looking through the scope for hours to get that perfect shot.”
The remaining pirate is in custody and deliberations are underway on his status. There was clearly some risk involved, and if they had missed, Phillips’ life would have certainly been in danger. It was the first major international incident in which President Obama had to act expediently and, according to even some of his severest critics, he pulled it off superbly.
Nonetheless, the administration was aware there would probably be blowback, and many were reminded of the catastrophe 16 years ago in Somalia when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 U.S. troops were killed. After expressing the heroism of Phillips and the precision of the Navy Seals, Obama promised a forthright position on piracy in the troubled sea-lanes. “I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region,” Obama said. “And to achieve that goal, we’re going to have
to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.”
No resolution on piracy will be reached without confronting the political chaos on the Somali mainland. And the situation there is complicated by a down-trodden population facing massive unemployment and starvation with few alternatives for its youth but to resort to crime.
And the killing of the pirates will only exacerbate the terrible circumstances in the region.
One group of insurgents eliminated any possible doubt about the intention of the mortars. “We fired on the airport to target the so-called Democratic congressman sent by Obama,” said Sheik Hussein Ali, a spokesman for the Shabab. “Let him go back with the message of our strength and enmity towards the U.S. and its allies. No single group can claim control of Mogadishu, and Al-Shabab will continue its attacks.”