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Misjudgments Led to Hijacking Tragedy

By Ivan Eland
March 8, 2011

Editor’s Note: On Feb. 22, Somali pirates killed four ocean-going, Bible-distributing missionaries after negotiations with U.S. negotiators broke down over their release. U.S. military forces then boarded the missionaries’ yacht, killing two pirates and capturing 13.

The tragedy raised questions about misjudgments on all sides, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland notes in this guest essay:

The killing of four Americans by Somali pirates was tragic. No excuse exists for murder. But at the risk of seeming harsh, I believe there is much contributory negligence to go around.

According to associates, the victims -- afloat bourgeois Christian missionaries and adventure-seekers -- were well aware of the dangers of the waters near the pirate haven of Somalia, which is in the midst of being taken over by radical Islamists. …

Those waters are widely recognized as the most perilous in the world, with more than 800 hostages taken for ransom from more than 50 captured ships.

Yet, despite this major hazard, the boat containing the four victims irresponsibly and unwisely left its protective sailing convoy and strayed out of the sea lanes of the Arabian Sea, which the U.S. government has cautioned against.

A former brother-in-law of one of one of the victims said: “She said to us, ‘If anything happens to us on these travels, just know that we died living our dream.’ They were aware that this kind of thing has risks. But they were living their dream.”

A brother of another victim said his sister had “expressed concern about pirates.” The captain of the sailing yacht often turned off his G.P.S. system, because the pirates have learned to home in on them.

What’s worse, the U.S. and other Western governments, at taxpayer expense, are indirectly supporting such reckless transiting of these unsafe waters, because they are patrolling them with warships. Thus, adventure sailors and commercial shipping may be lulled into a sense of complacency and safety, when such warships have been singularly ineffective in stopping Somali piracy.

The U.S. government should cease implicitly encouraging people to do such monumentally stupid and life-threatening stunts. Even more unbelievably, U.S. government behavior may have contributed to making a bad situation worse.

Two pirates came aboard one of the warships to negotiate for the hostages’ release. In violation of good-faith negotiations, the warship detained the two pirates and radioed the remaining pirates that they should next send pirates who were more serious about negotiation.

After the FBI’s hostage negotiator’s moronic move, the pirates would have had little incentive to get fooled again and send more negotiators or even negotiate further.

They didn’t; they killed the hostages.

This drastic action is unusual for pirates, because, according to those in the shipping industry, they are businessmen — albeit unscrupulous ones — who want to ransom hostages taken for multi-million-dollar payouts; they are not terrorists.

Also, the pirates usually don’t go out of their way to unnecessarily goad the United States and other powers into more aggressive responses. In fact, Somali pirates normally treat hostages well.

Although some uncertainty still exists about why the pirates murdered the passengers, a person who has talked to associates of the pirates said their leader told them that if he did not return from the negotiation, they should kill the captives.

Another possibility is that the murders were revenge for U.S. Navy sharpshooters killing pirates trying to abduct the ship Maersk Alabama in 2009. The Navy rescued the ship’s captain, and another pirate in that incident was subsequently sentenced to a long jail sentence.

The most recent hijacking occurred two days after this sentencing. One pirate said that after the Maersk Alabama incident, any rescue attempts would be met by the murder of hostages: “From now on, anyone who tries to rescue the hostages in our hands will only collect dead bodies. It will never ever happen that hostages are rescued and we are hauled to prison.”

So whichever motive for the pirates’ murder of the Americans holds, U.S. government actions likely contributed to turning abduction into murder. This horrible outcome casts doubt about whether the United States should be using warships to protect stupid adventure-seekers or reckless commercial ships that ply these dangerous waters.

Like U.S. government rescues of people who travel to or live in perilous countries — for example, President Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 to rescue American medical students — such ill-advised military actions should be avoided.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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