More catch-and-release in Gulf of Aden

The West remains in a law-enforcement approach to Somalian piracy, with the latest example coming from the British Royal Navy.  They intercepted a skiff with machine guns, RPGs, and grappling hooks in the Gulf of Aden earlier this week.  Their response?  Set them free:

Nearly a dozen pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades, machineguns and grappling hooks have been seized in the Gulf of Aden, after being intercepted by a Royal Navy warship.

Two skiffs had been detected by the radar on board HMS Portland, a Type 23 frigate, which was originally designed for anti-submarine warfare.

Suspecting that they were “not innocent fishing vessels”, the frigate, commanded by Commander Tim Henry, steamed closer to the skiffs and saw that both vessels were filled with weaponry and ammunition. The ship’s Lynx helicopter was sent to hover over the skiffs while teams of Royal Marine and navy personnel in rigid inflatable boats sped towards the craft and disarmed the ten men on board. The Lynx was armed with a machinegun and snipers.

“The skiffs were equipped with extra barrels of fuel, grappling hooks and a cache of weapons that included rocket-propelled grenades, machineguns and ammunition,” navy officials said.

Great!  The Royal Navy then protected shipping lanes by seizing the weapons and the fuel, sinking the boats, and at least arresting the pirates.  Right?  Not exactly:

Because of the rules of engagement, however, the ten pirates had to be set free. “We can only arrest suspected pirates if we catch them in the act or on the point of launching an attack on a vessel,” a Ministry of Defence official said.

The British Navy did seize the weapons and paraphernalia, but sent the pirates back in one of the two skiffs to return to Somalia.  They burned the other skiff and took pictures of it, apparently believing it to be a propaganda coup.

Instead, the pirates got to keep one of their boats, and will now simply replace the weapons before conducting more piracy.  They learned that getting caught on the seas preying on shipping lines has little consequence except the risk of short-term financial loss.  That will provide no deterrent at all, and instead of going back with warnings about burning boats, the pirates are laughing all the way back to Somalia, secure in their lives and their freedom to commit more piracy.

I don’t mean to pick on the British Navy alone. The West as a whole has more or less the same rules of engagement, treating piracy the same as burglary committed on sovereign territory.  Until the West treats it like, well, piracy, our flabby response will encourage many more pirates to take to the seas.

Update: Gulf of Aden. What the heck was I thinking?  I even had two cups of coffee before writing that headline.  [sigh]