Four Americans Dead – What Went Wrong?

Jean and Scott Adams - Owner's of the Quest hi-jacked by pirates

The killing of four Americans at the hands of Somali pirates has certainly brought the issue of piracy into full view of the American public. Until now, there has been a marginal increase in the price of goods due to insurance pay-offs in the form of ransoms. But it is hard to overestimate the effect of the confluence of events leading up to the death of four Americans and a significant shift in American policy. If the Adams had accepted the offer of yachting friends to ship their yacht through the Red Sea to avoid the threatened seas; if they somehow sailed through the Indian Ocean unscathed, or if the hostage negotiation had been successful, the U.S. would not now be considering increased military intervention and potentially attacks on pirate bases in Somalia.

This last factor, the failed hostage negotiation, not only serves as a cautionary tale, but highlights the significant gaps in our understanding of Somali piracy. Although generally outside the purview of this law blog, I spoke with a friend of mine, Dr. Laurie Charlés, who has published a book on hostage negotiation and she has some interesting insight into the dynamics of hostage negotiations.

In the case of the four Americans killed by pirates, a New York Times report raised questions as to the decision to detain the Somali pirate negotiators apparently because the Americans thought the Somalis were not serious. Dr. Charlés first notes that the nature of negotiation is incredibly complex. The nuanced communication practices are impossible to capture in any substantive form by a reporter or journalist writing.  Therefore, it is a bit of arm-chair quarterbacking to criticize this decision.

That said a lack of a cohesive policy on the part of American negotiators may have contributed the failed negotiation. Dr. Charlés notes that the involvement of more than one agency & jurisdiction can lead to problems. In this situation there was undoubtedly more than one negotiator. These negotiators likely agreed on the theory of negotiation but the application of this theory is not always obvious or successful. A lot of these lessons were learned in the 70s and 80s in negotiating with airline hijackers in addition to the negotiations in the Achille Lauro incident. Dr. Charlés notes that in the beginning of the field of hostage negotiation, many hostages died because of in-fighting in real time between different jurisdictional groups with competing ideas on when or if the use of force was appropriate. The biggest and best example is the negotiations with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas which resulted in 76 deaths, including more than 20 children.

What is certain is that additional hostages will be taken by Somali pirates, added to the 700-800 who are estimated to be held by them. The inherently multi-jurisdictional nature of piracy will lead to different negotiators and militaries with different ideas on how and when the use of force is appropriate. In order to avoid future bad outcomes, these competing philosophies will have to be resolved.

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