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by William H. Benson

October 16, 2008

     The battle began on October 3, 1993, when rebel forces in Mogadishu, Somalia, armed with a rocket-propelled grenade, shot down a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, pinning the American crew at the crash site. Those trapped soldiers spent a tense night, surrounded by armed and angry rebels, but the next morning a combined US task force rescued the trapped soldiers.

     During the two days of the Battle of Mogadishu eighteen Americans and one Malaysian soldier were killed. Those twenty-four hours were later re-enacted in the movie “Blackhawk Down.” American forces, led by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and Ranger teams, were there in Somalia with orders to capture officials of Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s rebel militia, for the government had collapsed in 1991.

     However, the Battle of Mogadishu undermined American determination to re-establish law, order, and a functioning government in the east African country of Somalia. Once the American forces withdrew late in 1993, rebel forced plunged Somalia into lawlessness.

     In recent weeks, Somalia is again in the news. Pirates along the coastline have been operating with impunity on the high seas, exploiting Somalia’s lawlessness, attacking ships, taking prisoners, and demanding ransom. An estimated 300 hostages are being held today in the city of Eyl, where several hijacked ships are now docked. Twice this year, French commandos have intervened to rescue citizens taken hostage.

     On Thursday, September 25, the pirates captured a Ukrainian ship, the Faina, which had been heading south to Mombasa, Kenya’s port city, and was loaded with 33 Russian built T-72 tanks, grenade launchers, and a crew of 21. The pirates demanded $35 million in ransom before they would consider returning the men or the booty. The Russian and American navies sent destroyers to Somalia with orders to recapture crew and the weapons, but it is a difficult task, given the extensive coastline.

     “This piracy is starting to draw international attention,” said Abdisaid Muse Ali, a security expert and former Somalia official. “This latest attack was a real shock.” Indeed, these pirate attacks are pushing Somalia’s problems onto the global stage. Ransom payments are expected to top $50 million this year. “Many of these companies have chosen to just pay the ransom versus taking upfront measures to improve security.”

     Somalia lies on the horn of Africa that juts into the Indian Ocean. Above the country is the Gulf of Aden that leads into the Red Sea, then into the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea, and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. This pathway is crucial, for shippers transport much of the petroleum that the oil companies drill in Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait and that is bound for Europe and America, via this waterway.

     Piracy along the African coastline is not a new phenomenon. From the time of the crusades until the early nineteenth century, a span of nearly three centuries, the Barbary pirates in Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli operated along the Mediterranean coast of northern Africa. They commandeered western European ships in the Mediterranean and even conducted raids upon Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian coastal towns in order to capture Christians to sell at the slave markets in Algeria.

     The impact was devastating. Thousands of ships were lost. Over a million Europeans were enslaved. Coastal cities were abandoned. Trade was impaired, and millions were paid for protection and ransom. The Americans shouted, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” Thomas Jefferson, the American President, was a pacifist, but he too was so incensed at the idea of paying blackmail to these pirates that he refused.

     In 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war upon the United States, and Jefferson responded by ordering to the Mediterranean the infant U.S. Navy and the Marines. “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” Jefferson refused to yield, and after four years of hair-raising battles, the Marines forced the Pasha to sign a peace treaty, agreeing to release all prisoners and ships in exchange for an American payment of only $60,000.

     About the situation today in Somalia, U.S. Naval Commander Jane Campbell said that “The long-term solution is going to take international cooperation.” Perhaps, but two centuries ago, Jefferson, acted alone when he sent in the Navy and the Marines.