Exercise Cutlass Express 2013 ended on November 18th, and I realized this was probably a good time to create profiles on the Express exercise series here on America’s Codebook: Africa.
Boarding team members from East African nations return after a visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) exercise of Cutlass Express 2013.
The official release marking the conclusion of this year’s exercise has the following to say about Cutlass Express and the series broadly:
“Cutlass Express is one of four African regional “Express” series exercises facilitated by U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet. The objective of the exercise was to increase regional cooperation, Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)/information sharing, and improve communications and interoperability among participating forces in order to counter piracy and maritime threats.”
The four Express series exercises are Cutlass Express, Obangame Express, Phoenix Express, and Saharan Express. Cutlass Express is conducted every year in the waters off East Africa, primarily the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. The other exercises, also conduct annually, have the same basic objectives, but are conducted in other regions. Obangame Express is conducted in the Gulf of Guinea. Phoenix Express is conducted in the Mediterranean Sea. Saharan Express is conducted in the Atlantic Ocean off North Africa.
Phoenix is the oldest, predating the creation of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008 by three years, at which time it was a US European Command (EUCOM) sponsored exercise. Both Phoenix Express and Saharan Express regularly involve European participants. This is not surprising as illegal immigration from North Africa to Europe is a major issue for the European Union, highlighted last month by the Lampedusa tragedy. Narcotics trafficking has also become a significant concern. Countering illicit trafficking is a major component of all the Express exercises. More detail about the specific exercises can be found on their respective pages.
Today, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar were convicted of murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and piracy by a US court in Norfolk, Virginia. Both men were given 21 consecutive life sentences for their part in the taking of the yacht Quest and the four Americans aboard in February 2011. During the seizure, a distress signal was sent out, to which the US Navy responded. Negotiations to secure the release of the hostages were conducted for four days before an altercation with US forces and reported gunfire aboard the Quest led to a rescue attempt. By the time US Navy personnel boarded the vessel, the Americans had been fatally wounded. Four Somalis were also killed during the operation and the rest were taken into custody. Prior to today’s verdict, eleven other individuals had already been sentenced for their involvement in the seizure of the Quest.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden and the surrounding environs has been a significant threat and is now a relatively well known security issue in the United States. The events surrounding the seizure of the MV Maersk Alabama in 2009, which saw the captain of the ship released after a rescue operation conduct by US Navy SEALs, were even recently turned into a dramatic movie.
Recent reports suggest that subsequent efforts by the US, NATO members, and other nations have, however, led to a significant decline in piracy in the region. NATO began active patrolling of the region in 2008, as part of Operation Allied Protector, which was followed by Operation Ocean Shield in 2009. In 2009, the US also began conducting surveillance operations involving manned and unmanned aircraft operating from the Seychelles, as part of Operations Ocean Look and Trident Reach.