"Captain Phillips," Tom Hanks’ latest film, provides a powerful account of the violent toll of piracy off the Horn of Africa.
As moviegoers will see in dramatic fashion, Captain Richard Phillips was rescued in 2009 after being held for days at sea by three Somali pirates who had forcibly boarded his cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama.
Sensing the escalating danger to Phillips, three Navy SEAL snipers, in the dark of night, each took one perfect shot from the nearby USS Bainbridge’s swaying platform, felling all three pirates at once and freeing Phillips.
Sadly, not all piracy attacks have concluded with such a Hollywood ending. In August of this year, a federal district court in Virginia sentenced three Somali pirates to life in prison for the February 2011 abduction and murder of four U.S. mariners off the coast of East Africa.
Besides the obvious human toll, the danger and uncertainty posed by piracy creates a great economic burden, threatening the nearly 20 percent of global trade that passes through the Gulf of Aden each year.
The good news is that, in the years since Captain Phillips’s ordeal, international forces have mobilized and made major strides in combating Somalia-based pirates.
2010 was the Somali pirates’ best year — according to the International Maritime Bureau, there were 445 piracy attacks on merchant vessels around the Horn of Africa, with 53 ships seized and 1,181 crew members captured. That is more than one attack a day.
But through new multinational naval patrols off the Somali coast, including the U.S. Navy, and improved security practices by the shipping industry, piracy incidents in the area hit a five-year low in 2012, and are down further still in 2013.
Of course, the swift and decisive action of the Navy snipers who came to Captain Phillips’s rescue cannot be ignored.
Their precise and lethal fire sent a stark message to young Somalis: Do not be fooled by the million-dollar ransom payments piracy can reap – this deadly game may cost you your life.
Going forward, however, we must remain vigilant — despite recent declines, the threat of piracy is still very real. There are currently 57 seamen being held hostage by Somali pirates today who can attest to that.
There is also a counterterrorism aspect to this fight. Piracy once served as a significant source of income for the Somali-based terrorist organization al Shabaab; Somali pirates would bribe al Shabaab for the use of the country’s ports, which were under al Shabaab’s control.
Al Shabaab seized the global spotlight last month after the horrific attack against civilians in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently held a hearing in which it was explained that al Shabaab’s finances took a welcome hit after the group was squeezed out of Somalia’s ports.
But a diminishing bank account has unfortunately not led to the organization’s demise. Instead, al Shabaab has adapted by pivoting from costly, large-scale attacks against multinational security forces to softer targets with fewer resources and less protection — as we saw at the Kenyan shopping mall.
Both the threat of piracy and al Shabaab remind us of the danger posed by lawless regions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, in which terrorists and criminals are free to organize and plot.
As with our efforts against Somali piracy, the solution to the al Shabaab challenge requires much greater international cooperation across civil and military fronts, as well as the courage displayed by those heroic SEALs — who delivered the type of justice pirates and terrorists deserve.Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.