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For Somali Pirates, Killing 4 U.S. Hostages an Abnormal Action

February 22, 2011 at 6:31 PM EDT
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Somali pirates killed four Americans who had been taken hostage aboard their yacht as U.S. forces followed the vessel. Gwen Ifill examines the problem of piracy off the Horn of Africa with Martin Murphy, a visiting fellow at the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College in London.
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GWEN IFILL: We turn now to the killings today of four Americans who were taken hostage by Somali pirates last week. According to the U.S. military, American warships were trailing the hijacked yacht in waters between Yemen and Somalia when they heard gunfire.

U.S. forces boarded the vessel and found the owners, Scott and Jean Adam, and their two passengers, Phyllis Mackay and Bob Riggle. They’d been shot by the pirates.

It was the first time Americans have died in the recent wave of hijackings off Somalia.

In Washington, Secretary of State Clinton condemned the killings.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: This deplorable act by the pirates that stalk vessels in the waters off of Somalia firmly underscores the need for the international community to act more decisively together. We’ve got to have a more effective approach to maintaining security.

GWEN IFILL: For more, we turn to Martin Murphy, a visiting fellow at the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King’s College in London. He’s also written two books about the Horn of Africa.

Welcome.

How unusual was this series of events that we saw play out in — off the coast of Somalia?

MARTIN MURPHY, Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, King’s College: Well, it was extraordinary.

The Somali pirates have generally been peaceable. Their business model says: We do not kill our hostages. So, why this event happened, well, we will find out. But it’s extraordinary to see them killing four people in this, frankly, awful event.

GWEN IFILL: In all the time since we last were following this very closely, which is to say the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, the big ship, how — has this all faded away, had it gone away, or we just stopped paying attention?

MARTIN MURPHY: Well, I think we have stopped paying attention.

I think it’s a sort of share-of-voice issue. When there’s many other issues around the world, Somali piracy just rumbles on pretty consistently. And it’s only the — the high peaks, the Maersk Alabama, the hijack of a very large crew carrier or something like this, something tragic like this, that brings attention back to what is a very serious problem.

GWEN IFILL: But it’s been going on. Quantify how serious it is.

MARTIN MURPHY: Well, we have now got over 700 hostages actually held within Somalia, which is the highest number that’s ever been held.

GWEN IFILL: All from hijackings?

MARTIN MURPHY: All from hijackings, yes.

GWEN IFILL: Oh.

MARTIN MURPHY: And the pirates are now getting multiples in terms of their ransom, multiples of what they used to get. I mean, previously, when this program started, say, back in 2006, 2007, they might be getting $150,000 for a ship. There have been reports of at least one ship going for $9.5 million. So, the amount of money that they’re making is considerable.

GWEN IFILL: Big ships. We’re talking here about a relatively small yacht, a private leisure vessel. Is it unusual for a private leisure vessel to be taken?

MARTIN MURPHY: Well, recently, yes, but, historically, no. When you go back to the early ’90s, yachts were amongst boats that were captured most often.

There were all sorts of stories about yachts being assaulted in the Gulf of Aden — principally in Gulf of Aden, rather than the Indian Ocean. But yachts have always been vulnerable — and, of course, the Chandlers last year, and they were captured…

GWEN IFILL: The British couple.

MARTIN MURPHY: The British couple. They were captured south of the Seychelles.

GWEN IFILL: And held for over 300 days, or something like that.

MARTIN MURPHY: Yes, in very — in very difficult circumstances. But at least they survived.

GWEN IFILL: Is it more difficult, or are you more vulnerable if you’re in a private craft than if you are in one of these big container ships, which, theoretically, could pay for security?

MARTIN MURPHY: Yes.

I mean, if you were in a smaller vessel, if you’re in a slow vessel, if you’re in a poorly maintained vessel, if you’re one with what they call the low freeboards, and you’re low — a limited amount of space between the sea and the top of your vessel, those are all signs of vulnerability.

The large container vessels generally are unaffected. They’re too fast and they’re too big.

GWEN IFILL: So, since we know it’s a problem and we have known it was a problem for some years, and as you point out, it’s continued apace, what have governments been doing or not doing during this period of time to try to curb it?

MARTIN MURPHY: Well, they’ve been taking a number of steps.

Whether they have been addressing the core issue is of course the big question. They have been taking a series of steps, largely at sea. So, we have had a fair amount of naval action. But remember, there’s only 30, only about 30 naval ships operating in an area larger than Western Europe, in terms of its — the geographical size over which these pirates now operate.

And there has been all sorts of attempts to improve the judicial process. There are agreements with Kenya. There are agreements with the Seychelles to take pirates on board. A number of pirates have been taken back to the United States, to Holland and various other countries.

But the epicenter of piracy — and everyone agrees about this — the epicenter of piracy is an area called Puntland, which is in the northeast of Somalia.

GWEN IFILL: You’re getting to the core issue.

MARTIN MURPHY: We’re getting to the core issue.

We need to — I’m afraid it might be unpalatable to say so, and clearly, it’s morally ambiguous, but we need to engage with that area of Puntland much more than we have done in the past. And there are some moves in this direction.

I think that the State Department is recognizing that we cannot put faith in the central Somali government. We have to look at sub-regional solutions.

GWEN IFILL: Are there considerations that private — that travelers should take? Are should they — are there safeguards they can take? Or should they just avoid the region entirely?

MARTIN MURPHY: I suspect they should just avoid the area entirely.

I don’t think — these people took a calculated risk. And that’s fair enough, same as the Chandlers took a calculated risk. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.

The safest course for anyone is to avoid this region. And, as we just talked about, this region has now grown exponentially, I mean, when there was an incident 30 miles off the coast of India over the weekend. I mean, this is the range that these pirates are achieving. They’re going into the Red Sea. They’re approaching the Straits of Hormuz, and they’re going down as far as the Mozambique Channel.

So, this is a very, very large area. I mean, a number of yachtsmen are actually shipping their yachts across this area, i.e., putting them on big ships and taking them off — taking them off again when they get through the Red Sea.

GWEN IFILL: Boy.

Martin Murphy, thank you for bringing us up to date on all this.

MARTIN MURPHY: Pleasure.