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NPS Alumnus Recounts Efforts to Defeat Piracy During Latest SGL

Article By: Kenneth A. Stewart

Former Expeditionary Strike Group 2 Commander, retired Rear Adm. Terrence E. McKnight shared his experiences fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden with students at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), June 4.

McKnight’s experiences in the Gulf of Aden are documented in his book, “Pirate Alley,” which catalogues U.S. efforts to defeat piracy and his leadership of the anti-piracy force, Task Force 151, off the Somali coast.  

McKnight, an NPS alumnus, returned to a packed King Auditorium for the latest NPS Secretary of the Navy Guest Lecture, where he recounted his sometimes humorous and often frustrating efforts to defeat Somali pirates.

McKnight contends that East African piracy is largely the result of poor governance in the failed Somali state, and poverty. He described how years of war, tribalism and the absence of either a Somali Navy or Coast Guard opened a window of opportunity for young men off Somalia’s northern coast.

“Why did Jesses James rob banks?” McKnight asked the audience. “Because that’s where the money was,” a student answered.

McKnight confirmed the student’s answer and relayed a series of facts and statistics that point to a heavily traversed shipping corridor in the Gulf of Aden full of expensive vessels laden with valuable goods and little capability to stave off an attack.

“Ninety-five percent of all goods that come to market are transported by sea,” said McKnight. “Thirty thousand vessels travel through the Gulf of Aden each year.”
 Former expeditionary Strike Group 2 Commander, retired Rear Adm. Terrence E. McKnight addresses Naval Postgraduate School students at NPS’ King Auditorium, June 4. McKnight shared his experiences fighting pirates in the Gulf of Aden and discussed his recent book, “Pirate Alley.”

McKnight estimates the cost of piracy in the Gulf of Aden to be between $5.7-6.1 billion per year with much of the piracy enacted by young men with little arms or training.

“Most pirates are 19-20 year-olds in skiffs with small arms, AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades,” said McKnight. “Piracy is a land problem, to defeat it you must solve the governance problem.”

But in the absence of a stable Somali government that is capable of patrolling its own waters, the United Nations, European Union and the U.S. government were forced to take matters into their own hands. But McKnight insists that there is nothing new about U.S. attempts to defeat piracy.  

“The U.S. Navy has been fighting pirates since its very beginning,” said McKnight. “Anyone remember the Barbary pirates?”

McKnight described the frustration that he and allied Navies felt in the beginning of anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast.

“We were like the dog that chases down a car – he catches it, then doesn’t know what to do with it,” quipped McKnight.

McKnight’s humor aside, myriad issues arose during early attempts to quell piracy. Lawyers were tasked with determining the status of pirates, where they were to be prosecuted and if convicted, where they should be jailed.

“We caught pirates, but there were questions about what to do with them once we caught them,” said McKnight.

Despite the legal ambiguities that plagued early piracy efforts, McKnight insists that progress has been made. He points to a 64 percent drop in pirate attacks between 2011 and 2012. McKnight attributes this drop to increased international anti-piracy efforts in the region and several seemingly basic anti-piracy measures including the presence of security teams, lookouts, alarms and safe rooms.

Noting that Somali pirates are generally looking for ransoms, both for ships and mariners, McKnight advocates legislation that will prevent U.S. dollars from being paid to pirates – legislation similar to the prohibition against funding terrorist organizations.  

McKnight retired in 2009, and is currently the vice president of government relations with the Cobham defense firm.

Posted June 7, 2013

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