When I became supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2009, I was the first naval officer assigned to the post, succeeding 15 generals going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. As one of my friends said, only slightly in jest, “I can see why they finally chose an admiral — they need someone to capture pirates!”
Indeed, while I had plenty of responsibilities — the war in Afghanistan, tense peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, a recent Russian invasion of NATO partner Georgia, and lots of cyber activity — the chance to chase down Somali pirates off the east coast of Africa had my full attention.
Ships were being hijacked at an alarming rate, including the highly publicized capture of the Maersk Alabama, which was made into the film Captain Phillips — named for the merchant skipper who put himself in the grasp of the pirates in exchange for his crew’s freedom. The US Navy rescued Phillips in April 2009, a month before I took command of NATO, but his ordeal was a good example of what merchant ships were going through at the time.
NATO and the European Union sent flotillas of warships to set up transit corridors to protect the merchant ships. I coordinated with the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency in London that regulates commercial transit, bringing the militaries and the shipping companies together to create safety guidelines. Over time, we tried to address the conditions ashore — economic hardship and armed conflict — that were motivating the pirates to conduct such brazen attacks. I gave my team copies of the excellent 2011 book The Pirates of Somalia by Jay Bahadur.
Ultimately, the collective efforts of militaries and the shipping industry led to a dramatic reduction in successful attacks. We stood up Combined Task Force 151, based out of Bahrain, with extraordinary international contribution; today it is under Brazilian leadership. A combination of convoy operations, better individual security on the merchant ships (especially the use of armed security teams), intelligence sharing and aggressive actions ashore to go after pirate concentrations succeeded. The last successful attack in the region was in 2017, and before that it was in 2012, just as I was preparing to leave command of NATO.
Yet while the threat of piracy is greatly reduced from 15 years ago, it is not extinguished, and continued vigilance is warranted. This month, Task Force 51 is conducting an intensive group exercise, named Operation Mare Liberum, to simulate pirate attacks and to practice knitting together the intelligence, satellites, warships and aircraft for collective response. The stated goal is to ensure “the free flow of navigation, develop capacity for regional leadership and reassure the international community.”
While we have not fully defeated global piracy — and as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Tobin Harshaw points out, it has been increasing in West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea — Task Force 151 has been a remarkable success story. What lessons should we take away from it?
First and foremost, this is an international success. Over time, dozens of nations have participated in the operations off the coast of East Africa. I remember one operation where a French commando squad, flown in an Italian helicopter and refueled by a Danish frigate, while aided by US-provided satellite intelligence and a Portuguese long-range maritime patrol aircraft, captured a group of Somali pirates on a large dhow. Even America’s top global rivals — Russia, China and Iran — have helped in operations. Counterpiracy is a team sport.
Second, our efforts also benefited greatly from private-public cooperation. Working with the IMO, which was at the time helmed by a retired Greek admiral, allowed us to interact directly and continuously with the big shipping companies. Today I am a board member of the Onassis shipping company, and I see the industry from the civilian side. The major companies care deeply about the safety and security of their mariners and want to take the right measures to protect them.
Third, counterpiracy efforts have to address root causes. It is an incredibly dangerous act for young Somalis to undertake — they do so because of extreme poverty and lawlessness across much of East Africa. A combination of hard power (going after the pirate bases ashore, which the European Union has done) and soft power (providing more economic opportunities) were key to our success. Piracy is simply a symptom of broader problems.
Finally, an unusual problem requires innovative solutions. We used new approaches, such as better equipment to prevent boarding (including barbed wire on ships’ decks), and strategic communications ashore: We made it widely known that potential pirates understood our determination to capture, kill or incarcerate any perpetrators.
There are many security challenges in the world today, ranging from great-power rivalries to the lingering efforts of terrorists like the Islamic State. But we can take comfort from the example of counterpiracy cooperation in East Africa, and draw some practical lessons learned as well.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Expect the Unexpected in 2023: Cyberattacks and the Next Covid: James Stavridis
• How to Sink the Pirates Plaguing West Africa: Tobin Harshaw
• Shipping’s Oil Era Is Coming to an End: David Fickling
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is the author most recently of “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.”
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