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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Fighting the threat from Somalian pirates

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2011 - In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson decided that payments of tribute to the Barbary States in exchange for the safe passage of American shipping vessels had gone far enough. Over the next five years, Jefferson would send ships to the Mediterranean to attack and disrupt the pirates' operations, but it was not until 1815 that American tribute payment to the pirates ended. In the wake of the recent killings of four Americans by Somalian pirates, the time has again come for definitive action against Arabian pirates.

Since 2006, reported incidents of piracy have increased, reaching 445 such criminal acts in 2010. My concern is that with each attack the profits plundered may be used to support terrorist activities against the U.S. and our allies. According to the New York Times, pirates currently hold 50 vessels and more than 800 hostages. While they generally hold captives to receive ransom, recent incidents are becoming increasingly violent.

The Horn of Africa is crucially important, not only to the United States economy, but to the global market, as it serves as a major artery of international shipping. The oil tankers that cruise these waters provide much of the world's energy supply, and we can no longer risk the safety of those shipments. This region of the world is also critical as a potential incubator for the growth of two burgeoning al-Qaida franchises: al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), and Somalia's al-Shabaab group, which has pledged its loyalty to Osama bin Laden. Thus, I am supporting legislation that will protect U.S. economic and security interests off the east coast of Africa.

These legislative concepts shall be collectively referred to as the "Decatur Initiative," named after the famous Naval hero Stephen Decatur, who recaptured the U.S. frigate "Philadelphia" from Mideastern pirates during the Barbary Wars. The options being explored include, but are not limited to, establishment of

  1. a "Pirate Exclusion Zone" that would allow the immediate boarding and/or sinking of any vessel from Somalia not approved and certified for sea by allied forces;
  2. an Expedited Legal Regime permitting trial and detention of pirates captured on the high seas;
  3. blockade of pirate-dominated ports like Hobyo, Somalia;
  4. broad powers and authority to on-scene commanders to attack or arrest pirates once outside Somalia's 12-mile territorial limit, including the sinking of vessels if a local commander deems it warranted.

Other options warrant exploration in an effort to damage the pirates' ability to prey on commercial and private vessels in the Arabian Sea. As member of the Senate Banking Committee, I plan to explore financial links between pirates and the terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and target pirates with financial sanctions in the same way as other terrorist networks. Also, through my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will review U.S. expenditures being used to support stabilizing governments in the region.
In the wake of the recent tragedy in the Arabian Sea, where Americans missionaries were gunned down in cold blood, I am hopeful that many of my colleagues will be willing to join me in taking bold action against the pirates who have been operating in the waters off East Africa. The security of shipping and overall stability of this region is crucial and must be taken seriously as we work to emerge from economic depression.

Mark Kirk, a naval reserve officer, is the junior U.S. senator from Illinois. Kirk plans to visit the Horn of Africa this spring. 

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