Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Al-Qaeda in Somalia: Naming names

At a barely noticed conference earlier this month in Kampala, Uganda, the African Union's Special Representative for Somali - Wafula Wamunyinyi - is quoted as saying that the presence of al-Qaeda in that country is real, something about which the world, "[S]hould be put on notice."

He claims that individuals have been recruited to the Somali-based group al-Shabaab from nations such as the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan. These foreign fighters, according to Wafula, now number 1200, half of whom he claims are Kenyan.

In the SperoNews report, journalist Martyn Drakard details some of those involved in the command structure of the Somali Islamist group, based on information from the AU Special Representative:

"Wafula listed the foreigners holding important positions within Al Shabaab as Sheikh Mohamed Abu Faid, Saudi born, who is the financier and current 'manager' of the group. The head of security and training operations is Abu Musa Mombasa, who arrived recently from Pakistan to replace Saleh Ali Nabhan who was killed in US military operations. Abu Mansur Al-Amriki, an American, heads the finance and payroll department of the foreign fighters, while Mohamoud Mujajir, a Sudanese, is in charge of the recruitment of suicide bombers, he said. Also on the list is Ahmed Abdi Godanem an Al-Qaeda graduate from Afghanistan, and Abu Suleiman Al-Bandiri, a Somali of Yemeni descent."

There is no doubt that foreign fighters have been aiding al-Shabaab: A senior member of that organization admitted as much back in May, as AFP reported, though Sheikh Hussein Ali Fidow categorized those fighters differently: "Those who say our Muslim brothers are foreigners are wrong. They came to assist their brothers in Somalia."

Brethren of the coast, indeed. The American mentioned above - Abu Mansur Al-Amriki ("the American") - is reported to have been born Omar Hammami and raised as a Baptist in Daphne, Alabama (near Mobile), before taking up an extreme form of Islam and leaving the U.S. to, eventually, end up in Somalia. Saleh Ali Nabhan - the head of training new fighters - was killed in mid-September by US Special Forces (see my earlier post about this here).

The biggest problem in dealing with piracy in the seas off Somalia is addressing what's going on ashore, and identifying those who are aiding in the destabilization of the region is of paramount importance. None of the information here is classified or secret, but it is a telling sign that there is intense intelligence-gathering going on in the region. Knowing the names of these individuals is (if correct) a big part of the proverbial intel iceberg.

Hostages as commodities: It's not just Somalia to be concerned about

There was a lengthy item by Nicholas Schmidle of The New York Times posted a week and a half ago, entitled "The Hostage Business", that's well worth a read. It's about the situation facing those seized by criminals in Nigeria and in it Schmidle quotes the now former inspector-general of the Nigerian National Police, Mike Okiro, as figuring that, "[T]he total amount of ransoms paid in Nigeria between 2006 and 2008 exceeded $100 million."

Assuming Okiro means a two-year period, that's about $50 million annually that has been paid to free hostages. By comparison, most analysts figure Somali gangs gain somewhere in the region of $80 million a year from ransoms (though the Kenyan foreign minister said, a year ago, that the figure could be as high as $150 million).

But even if both the Nigerian and Somalian figures are inflated - which is not unlikely - the point is that while everyone's been worrying about the money being garnered by pirates off the Horn of Africa, their west African brethren having been making similarly massive amounts from the taking of hostages.

Of note in Schmidle's article is the seemingly tempered view that the captors may be taking to their prisoners. Nigerian pirates - and land-based criminals - have had a reputation for ruthlessness and violence that Somali criminals have avoided. The former have been known to main and injure in the past, such as cutting off the ears of mariners. But with the bounties now being paid by firms, these west African criminals appear to have realized what the Somali pirates have long known: A live hostage is far more valuable than a dead one.

And, as the article explains, the money made from ransoms is fueling a mini-economic boom, of sorts, as criminals build homes and buy SUVs. Kind of like in Somalia.

Though many of the kidnappings being discussed in the article occur ashore, the threat that is posed to mariners working in the region is still serious. And unless addressed, we could be looking at two fronts in the battle to combat piracy: East and West Africa.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Somali pirates free crew after seven months in captivity

AFP is reporting that that the Maltese-flagged, Greek-owned vessel MV Ariana has been freed after being hijacked off Somalia over seven months ago. The vessel's crew of 24 Ukrainian mariners - including two women - is reported to be preparing to get underway after a ransom said to amount to $2.5 million was paid to the pirates. One can only imagine what it must have been like for the crew to spend such a long time in the hands of pirates (the vessel was seized on May 2 while en route to Brazil from the Middle East with a cargo of soya beans).

The likelihood that any of the criminals who captured the Ariana will ever be prosecuted is unlikely. The New York Times posted a Reuters item on Thursday about the difficulties surrounding the setting up of an international court to deal with piracy. And though no one will say it, the crux of the matter is that nobody really cares enough to amend any statutes or jurisdiction about criminal acts like piracy and sea robbery into the 21st century. We'll spend millions deploying naval vessels and personnel to the region and fob off the main prosecutorial work of dealing with suspected pirates to places like Kenya, but not establish clear cut, international parameters and practices to effectively convict pirates.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The logisitcal nightmare of prosecuting pirates

In my last post, I talked about the comments of retired US Navy Rear-Admiral Terence McKnight, who was somewhat critical of the way that piracy off the Horn of Africa was being presented. In his talk at the US Navy Museum in Washington last week, McKnight also was quoted in Defence Professionals as saying that prosecuting detained pirate suspects is a "logistical nightmare".

He said that, "Since there is no competent government in the area of operation the pirates have to be transferred to courts that will accept jurisdiction. This requires transportation, jailing for the pirates, the gathering and securing of evidence, security escorts for the pirates and witnesses to testify in the trials, and so on."

There's an interesting piece related to this from the London Times that was posted today, by journalist Tristan McConnell reporting from Mombasa, Kenya. McConnell looks at a court case currently ongoing relating to an attack by suspected pirates on a vessel in late May of this year.

Based on my research, we should not rely on Kenya to be the judicial clearing-house for the successful prosecution of piracy convictions. The Somali system of rule of law must be reinforced, and the international community must fill the gap in the meantime. Dealing with "hostis humani generis" requires a transparent judicial system, and an international admiralty court is one option.

Is the media over-publicizing piracy?

My colleague EagleSpeak recently posted a piece highlighting comments made by retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight, in which he said that the piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden is "over publicized". By this, the former commander of Combined Task Force 151 (the international counterpiracy operation in the region) was referring to the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which thousands of people have been killed and injured and millions more affected by the ongoing fighting, situations that McKnight presumably feels merits more attention from the media and the general public than some Somali pirates harassing passing vessels. (You can read the source of EagleSpeak's post at Defence by clicking here.)

Military commanders, especially retired ones, often make comments critical of how the media has been covering events in war zones - or elsewhere - and McKnight's thoughts are not without some merit. After all, until the Maersk Alabama was attacked earlier this year, many North Americans cared little about the situation off the Horn of Africa (HoA). And quite often the media will glom onto something currently considered "sexy" in the hopes of attracting an audience, only to discard any serious follow-through because they've moved on to the next item of interest. To a degree, it's the ADD nature of news gathering and the audience who consumes the output: One moment it's troop surges or economy and the next it's Tiger Williams late night driving abilities. And, in the face of little real, factual information gleaned from on-the-ground investigation - something which is becoming rarer and rarer - you often end up with superfluous pieces that are merely trying to fill a void. It's something I commented upon earlier this year regarding the hijacking of the Arctic Sea incident in European waters.

But is the scourge of piracy off the HoA being over-hyped by the media? I don't think so. Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are all different situations, each replete with its own history and different levels of instability. My issue with McKnight's comments are that they seem to infer a quantitative differentiation between Somali piracy and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as though the number of casualties or personnel involved automatically make one theater of operations more important than another.

It's not about a body count and it's not about the numbers. Dealing with piracy and dealing with Somalia is about national and international obligations. It's about reminding people, as EagleSpeak rightly points out in his own post, that there are several hundred people currently being held hostage by Somali pirate gangs, people whose lives are at risk. The same can not be said about Iraq or Afghanistan - there are not hundreds of foreigners being held captive in those places by insurgents. In fact, I dare say that if there were so many foreign hostages being in either of those countries, there would be a greater sense of outrage by many people. (And, yes, I know that many citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan are facing dire threats, but I am here focusing on the impact of piracy operations on mariners.)

Dealing with the problem of piracy off the HoA is also fundamentally about dealing with Somalia and the eight million people trying to survive there, people who have been forgotten and written off by most nations for the better part of two decades, to say nothing of the many millions more who live in the surrounding regions. If that's not as worthy of media interest as the plight of the Afghan or Iraqi people, then what else is? An "Octo-Mom"?

And, by the way, I would also mention that McKnight's comments about over-publicizing the issue were not, in fact, widely reported in the media.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Somalia's navy commander tempers his criticisms of international counter-piracy efforts

Just over a week ago, the head of the Republic of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) naval forces was quite critical of the way the international community has been dealing with piracy in the region. As I noted in an earlier post, Admiral Farah Omar Ahmed felt that foreign warships were "pretending" to watch over pirates, while, instead, engaging in illegal fishing themselves, or aiding private vessels doing likewise.

The idea that personnel on warships doing counter-piracy work have the free time to fish is wrong, as I've said before. Nations as diverse as the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Spain, China, Russia, Japan, Iran and India have, among many others, been expending millions upon millions of dollars to dispatch forces to the region to try to stem the tide of pirate attacks. But the international community has also been providing great aid to both the shaky TFG as well as to ordinary Somalis living outside that political entity's control. Which perhaps explains why the admiral chose to recently temper his inflammatory comments.

Talking to reporters in Mogadishu Monday night, Adm. Farah Omar Ahmed is quoted in Newstime Africa as saying that the problem in combating piracy is really one of a lack of communication between his Somali naval forces and those of the international community. “The cooperation between Somali government and the international community to fight piracy is too little, while pirates are stepping up their attacks so this seems that the international campaign against Somali buccaneers will produce nothing,” Admiral Ahmed says in the report.

So apparently the onus, in his opinion, is back on us - the international community - to deal with the problem. His comments also coincide with the decision by the United Nations Security Council to renew for another year the authorization of member States and regional organizations (such as NATO or the European Union) to continue their efforts to fight piracy off the Horn of Africa. Agreed to unanimously by the members of the Security Council, the resolution allows for forces to, "[E]nter the strife-torn country’s territorial waters and 'undertake all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia' provided they have the transitional government’s consent." The last part of the UN statement means that foreign warships are still supposed to make a formal request to the TFG to come closer than 12 nautical miles. Hopefully, Admiral Farah Omar Ahmed will be amenable to any such requests, which are certain to come up in the near future.

Regarding the amount of aid that flows into Somalia from the international community, it may surprise many that even with the country's lawlessness, it is considerable. A couple of weeks ago, the African Development Bank offered up a grant of US$2 million to enhance the public management sector in Somalia, a portion of which is intended to improve the financial/banking elements. And on Monday, the United Nations said it would be seeking $689 million for humanitarian projects intended for 2010. That's right, $689 million. And that's down from this year's request, which is $849 million.

If interested, the official website of the TFG can be accessed by clicking here.

Another mariner killed by pirates off West Africa

The BBC is reporting that another pirate incident in the Gulf of Guinea has ended in the death of a mariner. Details are still thin, but the Panamaian-flagged tankship African Prince was apparently boarded by pirates last week while steaming near Lagos, Nigeria. The pirates took control of the tanker and her crew of 29, but the Ghanaian navy was able to respond to the hijacking. After shadowing the vessel, the Ghanian authorities were able to intercept the African Prince and rescue the crew of Nigerian and Pakistani mariners.

However, all of the pirates managed to escape and one member of the tankship's crew, an unnamed chef, was found dead, having been badly beaten by the boarders. The rest of the crew are helping authorities investigate this incident while heading their vessel back to Nigeria. The African Prince seems to have left Tema, east of Accra, earlier today, under escort from the Nigerian navy. The tankship belongs to the Nigerian National Petroleum Company and is thought to have been transporting some 5000 tonnes of refined oil at the time of the attack.

This murder comes just a week after another seafarer was killed by suspected Nigerian pirates, in similar circumstances: In last week's incident, the tanker Cancale Star was boarded while sailing off Benin (due west of Nigeria and east of Ghana) and, in the course of being aboard, the pirates beat the chief officer so badly that he later died of his injuries. Four other crew were injured, one seriously.

Counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden declared a success: EU Naval commander

Well, here's one way to put a positive spin on the current situation in the seas off the Horn of Africa: Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, operational commander of the European Union's Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) in the region, today told journalists in Kenya that the military efforts to deal with piracy off the Somali coast have been successful. Beneath the headline "Operation to fight piracy a success", Nairobi-based media outlet The Nation has the British Royal Navy officer referring to the fact that there have been no successful hijackings of vessel in the Gulf of Aden since the end of July. The last officially reported seizure in the Gulf was the Turkish-owned cargo ship MV Horizon-1, captured on July 8 and released by Somali pirates on October 5, after a ransom reported to be at least $1.5 million was paid.

RAdm Hudson went on to say that over 50 vessels and 300,000 tonnes of food have been safely escorted through the Gulf by naval forces. Part of the EU NAVFOR's mandate is to protect humanitarian aid shipments intended to help alleviate the situation ashore in Somalia.

While the British commander's perspectives might be technically correct in terms of the decrease in successful pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden/Red Sea waters, it seems a bit early to categorize the broader situation in the region in the same way. Not that the admiral is saying so verbatim in the report, and perhaps some of the blame for this positive spin comes from the writer of the post getting carried away, with an opening line that goes, "The military operation targeting piracy off the Somali coast has been termed a success."

But coming within days of the seizure of the supertanker Maran Centaurus and other recent attacks - successful ones, no less - off the eastern coast of Somalia, it does seem a tad odd to hype the situation in the north while pirate operations have clearly been shifted into the western Indian Ocean. Piracy off Somalia is a bigger problem than just the Gulf of Aden. Anyone remember a certain (premature) "Mission Accomplished" incident?

Monday, November 30, 2009

US-bound supertanker seized by Somali pirates

MV Maran Centaurus
(photo: Joao Quaresma,

In the most audacious attack of the year, Somali pirates have captured the supertanker Marana Centaurus yesterday as it was sailing in the Indian Ocean about 600 nautical miles (800 miles) northeast of the Seychelles. According to the initial EU NAVFOR note posted this afternoon, the Greek-flagged tanker was headed for New Orleans from the Saudi-port of Jiddah, on the Red Sea, at the time of the hijacking. According to the Times Online, the vessel was boarded by nine pirates who overpowered the crew of 28 (15 Filipinos, 9 Greeks, 2 Ukrainians and one Romanian). The tanker's crew were unarmed and there were no security personnel aboard. EU NAVFOR says the supertanker is currently making course towards Somalia, possibly to Haradheere or Hobyo, and is being followed by a Greek warship that happened to be in the region with the European Union counter-piracy operation.

The seizure of the Maran Centaurus and her crew comes one year after another supertanker - the Saudi-owned Sirius Star - was captured by Somali pirates. That earlier incident began on November 15, 2008, as the Sirius Star was in the same general area en route to the U.S. with two million barrels of crude, and wasn't resolved until January 9 of this year, following the payment of a $3 million ransom.

According to and the BBC, the Maran Centaurus was fully laden when boarded yesterday, and also has the capacity to carry two million barrels of crude. Tankers of this size cannot transit the Suez Canal while fully laden, so they must still take the long way around southern Africa to reach markets. The attack yesterday may be the furthest from shore carried out by pirates, who have been increasing their range by using motherships and better intelligence to augment their weaponry and nautical skills.

The captive crew of the supertanker now join more than 250 other individuals currently being held by Somali pirates (and around a dozen vessels). There is currently no word of what the ransom demands are on the part of the pirates. However, it can be expected to be high, likely the highest so far requested.

As I wrote two weeks ago, the financial stakes have already been raised by the paying of a hefty ransom to free the Spanish fishing boat Alakrana, which was released after the pirates received about $3.5 million, a higher sum than was paid to release the supertanker Sirius Star in January. Supply and demand, pirate inflation, whatever you call it, the amounts being paid to Somali pirates keep going up. In that earlier post, I also offered the idea that we would see a $10 million ransom demanded - and paid - before next Spring. Perhaps I should have said before the end of the year?

UPDATE: According to the Louisiana-based site, the tanker was not headed for New Orleans, as earlier reported. Instead, the Maran Centaurus was supposed to deliver its cargo of crude to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), a fuel delivery platform located about 18 miles south of Grand Isle, in the Gulf of Mexico. On a good day, LOOP takes in about ten percent all the petroleum imported into the United States, or a million barrels (US daily imports of petroleum total just shy of 10 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration). That means the crude oil aboard the captured supertanker represents a fifth of daily American imports. The oil has been valued at just over $20 million.

Addendum: The BBC implies that one reason the Maran Centaurus was able to be boarded was she could not steam very fast due to her full load of crude, being only able to make "between 11-15 knots". This is not completely corrrect. The ship's particulars on the website of a broker affiliated with her owners show the top speed of the Maran Centaurus is only 15 knots, so she may have been going as fast as she was able when attacked.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Canadian navy resumes operations off the Horn of Africa

HMCS Fredericton (FFH 337) photo credit: Department of National Defence

As part of Canada's ongoing maritime security commitments to assist forces patrolling the seas off the Horn of Africa (HoA), the frigate HMCS Fredericton is now on station in the Gulf of Aden. The warship arrived in the region a few days ago, following port calls in Israel and Malta, and will be integrated into NATO's Standing Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) on counter-piracy operations, as well as contributing to the multinational Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150), which is focussed on with dealing with counter-terrorism operations in the region.

The arrival of the Fredericton in the Gulf comes almost three months to the day since Canada's last naval contribution to safeguarding the seas off the HoA - HMCS Winnipeg - returned to her home base in Esquimalt (on Vancouver Island) after a seven-month deployment overseas that took that warship's crew into the seas off East Africa and kept them busy dealing with pirates.

Of course based on the information in my previous post, the Winnie's crew may have been focused more on catching fish than actually protecting mariners in the area, and possibly passed on some tips to the Freddie's crew. (That, by the way, is called sarcasm, for the more serious-minded of my readers: In all my years of sailing aboard vessels - both seagoing or freshwater - the only time I have ever seen a crewman toss a line overboard in search of some fish was a couple of times while in port, when loading or discharging was taking some time. Rare indeed is the mariner working on a vessel at sea who has either the time or the inclination to toss a lure overboard as a ship steams. Trolling at 20 knots just doesn't work.)

Regardless, best wishes to the crew of the Fredericton. You can send a note to them by clicking on this link.

Addendum: HMCS Fredericton is deployed on what the Canadian Forces call Operation Saiph. Saiph is the traditional name for a star in the constellation of Orion (the Hunter). It is also an Arabic word for sword, or hilt.

Iran and Somalia blame the international community for helping pirates

Some of you may have heard of the recent report from Somali news outlet in which the head of the Transitional Federal Government's naval forces, Admiral Farah Omar Ahmed, was critical of foreign warships patrolling the seas off his fractured country (see also EagleSpeak's post about this, here). Speaking in Mogadishu on Sunday, Adm. Farah Omar claimed the international community's warships are "pretending" to watch over pirates while, instead, are "mass collecting the Somali sea resources".

The TFG admiral's perspectives are based on an assessment they did of recent activity. He is quoted as saying that "We have been closely following what actually is the so called NATO troops are doing over the Somali waters [sic]." Apparently all those sailors and other personnel embarked in the region are fishing their days away, in lieu of trying to safeguard the seas from pirates, as shown by a net the admiral presented at the press conference, one which the report says "foreign troops were using in catching fish in the Somali water." The admiral went on to urge the international community not to complain about the activities of pirates, but focus instead on doing something about the vessels fishing in the area (though whether he means warships or commercial vessels is unclear).

But while hoping to augment their meager diets on the warships with some local fish, Western coalition forces are also actively engaged in providing logistical assistance to the pirates operating from Somali, at least that's according to a senior Iranian commander. The Fars News Agency reports that Fariborz Qaderpanah, head of Iran's First Naval Zone, is blaming coalition forces for complicity with and assistance to Somali pirate gangs.

Qaderpanah said that pirates have become so skillful thanks, in part, to hi-tech weaponry supplied by the western states. "Why don't the coalition forces, which enjoy super hi-tech equipment, annihilate the buccaneers of the region forever and why do they provide the ground for the continuation of their activities through their suspicious supports?," he asked.

I guess that operating all that super hi-tech equipment is just too much for sailors busy tossing lines and nets over the transom of a warship.

(By the way, for those surprised that there is a 'Somali navy' with an admiral in charge, this is a relatively new entity that was re-established in June of this year. As detailed in a Voice of America report, this is the first government-backed navy in Somalia since the disintegration of the country's armed forces back in 1991, and, if the information in the report is correct, the admiral's first command position since 1982.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

West African pirates kill mariner

MT Cancale Star
(photo: Anthoinette de Jager,

Providing a reminder that piracy is not just a problem off the Horn of Africa comes with the news that pirates boarded a Liberian-flagged, German-operated tanker earlier today. The Cancale Star was attacked by six or seven pirates, according to the tanker's captain, Jarolslavs Semenovics. They boarded the vessel as she was steaming about 18 nautical miles off the coast of Benin, put a gun to the head of a deckhand and gained entry to the ship. They then forced Captain Semenovics to open the ship's safe and emptied it of cash. The attack occurred after nightfall, local time.

At some point during the boarding, the tanker's chief officer was injured by the pirates and later died. Four other crew were also wounded, one seriously. There were 26 crew aboard the tanker at the time of the attack, and some of them managed to grab one of the pirates before the boarders fled in their speedboat. The suspect apparently is from nearby Nigeria, the hub of West Africa piracy, and has been handed over to authorities in Benin.

AFP reports the captain as saying the Cancale Star was carrying crude from Nigeria, but Bloomberg says she was loaded with gasoil from northwest Europe and inbound to the Benin port of Cotonou, where the tanker is now docked. (Gasoil is a European term for No. 2 heating oil and diesel fuel.)

Pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea have a reputation of being much more violent than their Somali brethren, and though overall incidents of piracy in the region are far below the numbers we see off East Africa, this region is still the second worst for attacks on mariners.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The escalation of weaponry off the Horn of Africa

In the wake of yesterday's unsuccessful attack on the Maersk Alabama, I think it's safe to say that the gloves are slowly coming off as mariners seek ways to more effectively deter pirates in the seas off the Horn of Africa. It's likely the container ship's crew had gone into standard counter-piracy mode at the time of the incident, deploying water hoses, locking down access to the quarters and getting on the radio and satellite phone to naval forces, but this time they had the added assets of an embarked security team. This team initially deployed a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) - installed after last April's infamous pirate incident involving the same vessel - in an attempt to deter the attackers, but it would appear that this non-lethal device proved less effective than the guns the team also carried.

Faced with well-trained and armed defenders, the pirates broke off their attack, no doubt leading many to think that guns talk better than fire hoses (or LRADs, an expensive piece of equipment we have yet to see fully live up to its hyped potential warding off pirates). As even The Christian Science Monitor put it in an article published today: "Lesson from foiled pirate attack on Maersk Alabama? Fire back." Or, as US Navy Vice Admiral William Gortney said at the Pentagon yesterday, "A well-placed round from an M-16 is far more effective than that LRAD."

But before we go down the slippery slide to the point that small or long arms are routinely being kept aboard vessels, it's worth taking a deeper look at the the ramifications posed by this escalation of weaponry in the fight against piracy, and I'd like to open up a discussion about some of the issues.

The first concern about some sort of "anti-piracy arms race" is that it would create huge inequities among the very mariners that lethal weapons are supposed to protect. The American crew of the Maersk Alabama was able to rely on the financial resources of their employers, who paid for the security team, the LRAD and the training to deter the pirates in this incident. But this is far from the norm in the modern world of commercial shipping. Most professional seafarers live and work under far harsher conditions, and their expectations that security teams would be made available to safeguard journeys through piracy-prone waters are rarely high. Instead, these mariners must rely on what little training they have received, what little measures thy can take, and a lot of hope. Or innovation, in extreme circumstances: Remember the attack by Somali pirates on the Chinese vessel Zhenhua 4 last December, in which the crew were forced to resort to making Molotov cocktails to repel the boarding? Here's a photo reminder below.

Crewman from Zhenhua 4 prepares Molotov cocktails
during attack by Somali pirates, December 8, 2008 (CCTV)

Additional proof that a two-tiered system is evolving between haves and have-nots in the maritime world can be seen in Spain's decision to allow armed security teams aboard their fishing vessels working the seas off the Horn. FIS (the Fish Information and Services information site) reported on Monday that the Spanish tuna fleet is returning to work the fishery off East Africa with 54 security agents embarking aboard the vessels. These security personnel have been trained by the Ministry of Defence in counter-piracy measures, some of which would presumably include rules of engagement for use of weapons under Spanish and international law, including the legal ramifications.

The second issue relating to arming private vessels is distinct probability that it will actually increase the levels of violence overall, endangering mariners more. As Roger Middleton - an expert on the Horn of Africa and piracy - told The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Baldauf, there is a danger that arms will escalate things, pointing out that, "If pirates approach an unarmed ship, they might shoot to scare. But if they approach a ship and that ship fires back on them, they will shoot to kill."

We certainly saw that with the Maersk Alabama incident yesterday, in which gunfire was exchanged between attackers and defenders. And we're likely to see it again as more private security teams are embarked on vessels in the region. This is not to say that these individuals are mercenaries or trigger-happy maritime vigilantes, far from it. I know many in the private security sector who bring nothing but a high degree of professionalism to their work, most often gained through years in the armed forces. But as a former member of the Spanish Navy now working for a private firm told FIS, "Here [off the Horn of Africa] we are not speaking of a scenario for private security like those that typically occur in Spain, but of a warlike atmosphere. The methods, the means that the pirates use approximate more a zone of conflict than any alercation [sic] that can happen on Spanish soil." He means that one must be ready to use force, including lethal force, to deal with the problem of pirate attacks.

The number of incidents in which Somali pirates have killed mariners is minimal. Notwithstanding this week's death of the captain of the Theresa VIII, I cannot remember a single time boarders have deliberately killed anyone in the seas off the Horn of Africa. Somali pirates have always understood that their hostages are much more valuable alive than dead. And while we don't yet know the details of what happened aboard the Theresa VIII, I'd be willing to guess the master was shot accidentally (and I'd also be willing to bet that whomever did it was severely reprimanded by the pirate gang's leaders).

If attackers think they could be facing crews who are armed, it's almost a given that the pirates will shoot first and ask questions later, and that the focus of ransom requests will shift from the incalculable value of human lives to the book value of a vessel and its cargo.

The third aspect of all this is the abrogation of responsibilities on the part of governments and their military forces. Mariners have every right to expect navies and other assets to protect them, just as urban dwellers have every right to expect the police to do so. This means not only coming to their aid when a ship flounders and sinks but coming to their aid when armed gunmen approach in small boat. And while I am very clear about the scope of the seas we're talking about that pirates roam off the Horn of Africa, having sailed there myself, I am also aware that coordinated efforts to patrol those seas have not been entirely successful in stemming the tide of attacks this year.

The whole idea of having a navy (and other assets) is to safeguard the seas from threats far and wide. They are trained professionals who embody hundreds of years of nautical experience, including dealing with pirates. And while they may not always have been entirely successful combating piracy, many mariners still find comfort in the sight of a gray hull on the horizon or a helicopter overhead. As Roger Middleton told The Monitor, "For the past 200 years, states have been providing security on the seas, and security is better when states do it than when private companies do it...If the British Navy is patrolling an area, they are accountable under British law for their actions. If a private security company is on patrol, there is no guarantee that they will be accountable to anybody."

Seafarers must take every precaution available to them, without a doubt. But this is where we enter the realm that can be analogized by how far one goes in defending your home, for a ship is not just a workplace for a mariner, it is also their home at sea. In some parts of the world it is expected that a homeowner will likely have a gun hidden away somewhere to protect against a burglar or whatnot. But in many more places the deterrence is vigilance, locked doors and windows and, if a criminal tries to enter, a call to the local police, the idea being to rely on trained professionals to wield the weapons, not a nervous civilian. Neither idea is perfect, but this is the root of the argument that professional mariners are dealing with.

If all this sounds like I'm against arming vessels against pirate attacks, that's because I am. At this stage, I could certainly be swayed if rational ideas where offered up that could apply to all mariners, not just North Americans or Europeans, and appreciate any discourse. Seafaring is a global community, and even though I'm here talking about an issue that affects the waters off the Horn of Africa, the ramifications are far wider, affecting tens of thousands of men and women working the seas around the world.

Addendum: Back in late September of last year GCaptain had a post about top ten means of deterring pirate attacks that's well worth a review. But as was posted then and remains - to me - still one of the best means of dealing with things is #10 on the list: Denial of Ransom.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Spanish trawler freed by Somali pirates after hefty ransom paid

After being hijacked by Somali pirates over six weeks, the Spanish tuna boat Alakrana and her 36 crew were set free earlier today. According to one media report, the criminals who seized the vessel on October 2 were paid a ransom of $3.3 million (though The Telegraph says the figure was $3.5 million). In the Associated Press report, the Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was quoted as saying, "The government did what it had to do," adding that, "The important thing is that the sailors will be back with us. The first obligation of a country, of the government of a state, is to save the lives of its countrymen."

Just a week ago, Spain's defence minister was calling on the international community to blockade pirate havens and more forcefully address the money end of piracy (see my previous post here). Now it would appear the Spanish navy stood by as money was paid to release the fishermen. And it also seems that the Spaniards don't have far to look if they are serious about stemming the flow of ransom funds to these criminal gangs, possibly down the proverbial hall.

The issue of double standards is now front and center if the Spanish government really did pay off the pirates who hijacked the Alakrana. For all those other mariners currently being held hostage by Somali gangs - such as North Koreans, Filipinos and others - the issue is now the shifting to government reactions to pirates' demands, where it was previously the domain of the shipping industry.

The idea of paying ransoms to secure the release of captive seafarers has long been considered a cost of doing business by shipowners and management companies, a simple - albeit expensive - means of securing the safe release of those seized by pirates. This is a very delicate issue, but has been tempered in the recent past by the fact that the amounts being paid were not inordinate. A few hundred thousand here, a half million there, these were cost effective ways of dealing with the situations. But once governments get involved in the paying of ransoms that amount to over $3 million, it changes things dramatically.

While I am glad the crew of the Alakrana is now free, I can't help but wonder about what repercussions of this particular incident will be. Will the British government pay off those holding Rachel and Paul Chandler, the couple whose yacht was hijacked by pirates on October 23? Will the North Korean government do likewise for their mariners captured Monday?

When governments pay off criminals for their actions, it sets a dangerous precedent. Some say we should never reward terrorists for what they do. Is this any different? There's a fine line between balancing the lives of hostages and making the problem worse going on here. And, as an aside, paying $3.3 or 3.5 million for a tuna boat also raises the stakes. This is more than was paid to free the supertanker Sirius Star a year ago. At this rate, I'd be willing to bet we'll see a $10 million ransom demanded, and likely paid, before next Spring.

On a related note, it's worth reading today's piece on the London Times site from the head of the British Royal Navy (RN), regarding the plight of the Chandler couple and the inability of RN forces in the area to not rescue the couple. At the end of the article it says that the current ransom demands from the pirates holding the Chandlers now stands at $7 million. Two people, one yacht, seven million dollars.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Ship Mysteries: Figuring out just where the hell you are on the seas (aka the longitude problem)

Thanks to advances in technology, notably the global positioning system (GPS) of satellite navigation, we take it for granted that one can determine - to a reasonable degree - just where in the world you are at any given time, be it on the seas or on land. The GPS system was initially put in place beginning in 1978, though it only became available to non-military users around 1984. It was the brainchild of two American scientists, Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson, who came up with the idea of allowing US naval vessels to communicate with a series of satellites orbiting above the earth in order to pinpoint positions more effectively than had previously been available. (The Russians also developed a similar system, called Glonass.)

The advent of GPS was as important as the internet in making truly universal information available to one and all. In the century prior to GPS, radio beacons and other electronic aids helped navigators in direction finding, but these were crude in comparison to today's tools. One could always use a sextant for celestial navigation, though this piece of equipment is useless if the skies are overcast.

But all of these tools to mariners - as well as other predecessors like the astrolab - have focused on the issue of determining one's longitude on the face of the globe. It’s always been fairly easy to determine latitude, how far north or south you are on the planet: at noon, local time, on any given day of the year, the Sun above Anchorage, Alaska is in a different position than if viewed in Mexico City. The real problem was always figuring out where the hell you were in terms of longitude: at noon in Philadelphia the Sun is in about the same position as if viewed at noon in Denver.

For mariners, this came to a head in 1707 when four Royal Navy ships floundered on the Gilstone Ledges off the Isles of Scilly, killing almost 2000 men. The cause was discovered to be bad navigation techniques, so a few years later a reward of £20,000 was offered to the first person to come up with a dependable means of plotting longitude (the sum was equivalent to £2 million today, or about $3.8 million American).And everyone knew that the only way to ascertain longitude was by standardizing the measurement of time from a fixed point on the planet.Being a British competition, the point decided upon was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.Quite simply, someone had to come up with a dependable clock, which had not existed until this time.

This led to a flurry of activity as individuals came forth with various solutions to the problem, some more bizarre than others. One of my favorites was a macabre operation utilizing a mystical element called the “powder of sympathy”.The theory went something like this: you first convince someone to let themselves be stabbed with a knife. Removing the knife from the wounded victim, you then sprinkled the powder of sympathy on the blade.This would cause the unfortunate subject to feel pain again, in a voodoo-like manner. The proponent of this theory suggested gathering a bunch of dogs, stabbing them with the same knife and placing the animals on British ships. At noon each day in Greenwich, the knife would be plunged into a bowl filled with the powder and the dogs would all yelp in pain, no matter where in the world they were. Thankfully, this idea was rejected by the Board of Longitude (and one can only imagine the reaction of animal lovers were this bizarre idea have proven effective).

As the top minds in Britain and Europe struggled to come up with a solution to finding longitude at sea, it was a lowly carpenter from Yorkshire who would best them all. John Harrison began to tinker with clocks in his spare time and then became obsessed with developing the perfect timepiece for mariners. His eventual result was known as the H4, a silver timepiece the size of a pocket watch that in 1761 became the first dependable chronometer and solved the longitudinal problem once and for all. To this day it still keeps time in a display case at the Royal Observatory. And, at 1300 hours (1:00pm) in Greenwich, an aluminum time ball still drops from the tower above Harrison’s clock, so that any ships moored on the nearby Thames River can set their chronometers.

Thanks to a carpenter from Yorkshire who doggedly set out to solve this mystery - and eventually claim the Board's prize - maritime navigation became easier to do, and the fruits of his work have been passed down to landlubbers poking at their handheld GPS units. It was a clock that solved the problem, a "chronometer" to professional mariners, and every merchant vessel sailing the seas to this day still carries one in the wheelhouse, as well as at least one sextant (just to be safe).

The bulk of this post comes from my first book, "Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of A Ship". For more on John Harrison, visit the National Maritime Museum's site (see here).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The escalation of piracy off the Horn of Africa

This week has seen a number of notable developments related to piracy in the Horn of Africa (HoA) region, with at least six attacks carried out since Monday. Two of those were attempts to seize vessels sailing about a thousand nautical miles from the African coast - the furthest out any such incidents have yet been reported. But there have also been other events in Somalia itself and in Europe which may reveal we are entering a new phase in the the battle between these maritime criminals and those seeking to stem the rising tide of incidents.

Yesterday saw the assassination of a Somali judge known for having sentenced to jail pirates and members of the al-Shabaab Islamist group. Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Aware was shot dead by two masked men in the northern city of Bossaso, likely having incurred the wrath of any number of enemies he had made sitting as a judge in the semi-autonomous Puntland region. (A second lawmaker was also killed yesterday in the region by a gunman.) The need for stronger judicial powers for Somali authorities is vital in dealing with piracy and his killing is clearly an attempt to silence those within Somalia seeking to restore law and order to the country.

Also on Wednesday, the Spanish defence minister announced she would be asking the European Union to have its naval forces enforce a blockade on Somali ports known to be used as pirate havens. Carme Chacon will present this proposal to EU ministers meeting early next week and, if implemented, would mean bringing some of the naval assets in the region closer to shore. This would reduce the presence of warships available to patrol the seas off the HoA, unless additional assets arrive to fill the gap, something that may not necessarily make mariners sailing in the region happy.

The Spanish proposal pushes the battle closer to the pirates' homeports, a containment theory that might lead some to wonder if land-based operations might follow. "Boots on the ground" does not necessarily follow, though, as there is little international consensus on sending troops into Somalia itself in order to reduce the operational capabilities of pirate gangs and their sponsors. Even a naval blockade of Somali ports would require a cautious political approach, for if there is any interruption in the maritime trade that still goes on in and out of those towns, locals could become more incensed about the international community's actions.

Minister Chacon is also quoted by AFP as calling upon the international community to do more to deal with the money-end of pirate operations. She says that the Somali criminals, "[H]ave ties to sophisticated law firms in London," though whether she wants these firms to be shut down or more closely monitored is not explained.

Pirate gangs in Somali are none to happy with the Spaniards right now, as there are two suspects currently being held in Spain and awaiting trial on criminal charges relating to the hijacking of the Spanish fishing boat Alakrana back in early October. The pirates holding the crew of the Alakrana are demanding the release of their brethren - as well as a reported $3 million ransom - altering the previous system in which gangs seized vessels purely for the money. Asking for the release of suspected pirates seized by foreign nations complicates things (as a recent article makes clear).

J. Peter Pham has a lengthy and incisive article posted today at Family Security Matters that details many of the new developments and the potential that the entire situation is getting more complicated, possibly presaging an escalation in the piracy threat off the HoA. His piece makes for sobering reading, as he points out the inability of international naval forces to more effectively work together to stem the tide of attacks this year, and the possibility that Somali pirate gangs may have been using the quiet summer months to consolidate their various operations. In effect, he is saying that the pirates may have developed new operational capabilities while the international community has not. He wraps up his article by wondering just how long the EU can continue to maintain its counter-piracy mission in the region - Operation Atalanta - which costs about $450 million a year to do. And remember the EU Force is not the only one in the region.

The assassination of government officials, pressure to release indicted pirate suspects, better coordination among pirate gangs and wider operational area - combined with increasingly burdensome financial and logistical costs on the international community's part - do not bode well for the months ahead. The onus is now on concerned governments and their military forces to find more effective means to combat piracy in the region, and to do it quickly, because the way we've been trying to deal with pirates hasn't worked.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In advance of Remembrance Day - as we call November 11 here in Canada - I'd like to point out the benefits of donating to the Poppy Fund and highlight an organization working with veterans (just one of many, I might add).

At this time of the year, most Canadians are familiar with the sight of veterans, Royal Canadian Legion personnel and other volunteers making available poppies to wear as a mark of remembrance for those who died in the profession of arms, as well as the countless civilians who also gave their lives aiding in war efforts, and peace making. The genesis of the poppy campaign was a French woman - Mme. Guerin - who convinced the precursor to the Legion back in 1921 to adopt the poppy as a Flower of Remembrance. Since then, those nickels, dimes, quarters and loonies have raised millions of dollars for the benefit of veterans and their families. So while you might think dropping some loose change in the boxes those volunteers tote around may not amount to much, think again. It all adds up, and a little really does go a long way.

And while the Legion's Poppy Fund is there to aid veterans, there's another group I'd to mention: the Canadian Veteran Adventure Foundation. Started in 2006 by retired corporal Christian McEachern, the Calgary-based non-profit organization provides programmes that allow Canadian veterans to spend some time in the great outdoors and, as the CVAF so wonderfully says on its website, "reclaim their lust for life". You can learn more about this group and also donate to help them out via their web site, simply by clicking here.

Naval gun battle between the two Koreas

CBC News reports say that naval vessels from the Republic of Korea (ROK - the southern Korea) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK - the northern nation) engaged in a brief gun battle yesterday, just before noon local time. The South Korean military says that DPRK patrol boats crossed a disputed nautical demarcation line off the west coast of the peninsula, in the Yellow Sea, about 220 kilometres from Inchon. ROK naval forces responded, firing a warning shot, which led the North Koreans to fire back. Apparently, the South Koreans then retaliated with enough force to set at least one of the DPRK vessels on fire, after which the North Koreans retreated back into their own waters. A South Korean broadcaster claims one North Korean officer was killed and three sailors were wounded. The entire firefight is supposed to have lasted just a couple of minutes.

The battle occurred a week before President Obama is due to visit Asia, including a stop in South Korea, and while the South Koreans are still trying to figure out if this was a deliberate provocation on the part of the Communists, there may be another reason behind the incident: AFP says that the North Koreans entered the disputed waters because they were trying to stop Chinese boats illegally working the crab-fishing grounds in the area. No word if any Somali pirates - er, eco-defenders - were involved.

Map below shows the area where the incident occurred, near the island of Daecheong (#2 on the map). Dotted line indicates the Northern Line Limit, the disputed nautical demarcation between the two Koreas.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Monday Ship Mysteries: Tamils and Tigers and Migrants, oh my

Maritime mysteries: They're not just for Halloween anymore, and hopefully you'll find somethings of interest here to start your week.

I begin with the case of the MV Ocean Lady, a freighter that arrived off Canada's west coast last October (the 17th, to be exact), with a group of Tamils aboard her. In the last month we've seen some incidents in which people fleeing Sri Lanka's troubles by sea, on vessels, have ended up trying to get into Canada and Australia, provoking some worry about the real identities of those aboard. Are they legitimate refugees or, more ominously, are there remnants of the infamous Tamil Tigers, the militant group seeking a separate homeland for their people?

When the Ocean Lady was apprehended by Canadian authorities, the vessel was found to have 76 men on board, all Tamil, who were seeking refugee status from the troubles in their island homeland. But how - and why - did these men come to decide on Canada as a place to seek out, having endured what must have been a horrible trip across the Pacific on a small ship?

According to some reports, the ship left India at the beginning of September, departing Mundra as the Princess Easwary around September 8. Mundra is in the northwest corner of India, on the Gulf of Kachchh, not far from the border with Pakistan. That's a long way from Sri Lanka, though it appears to be the last port of call reported for the vessel. Sometime thereafter - if reports are correct - the ship was renamed the Ocean Lady and headed t0 Canada.

Some believe that the Ocean Lady was part of the small fleet of merchant vessels controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the mostly Hindu population who have been fighting for a separate homeland from the Buddhist, Sinhalese majority on Sri Lanka for decades.

Canada has both a positive attitude towards refugees and a strong Tamil community, which would be the most obvious reasons for these individuals to come here. But some believe that Canada may be becoming the last redoubt of those seeking a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the individuals who arrived on the Ocean Lady, it must be said that it seems odd that 76 able-bodied men would show up on Canada's shore, with no women or children accompanying them (as happened when Tamils arrived in Australian waters recently). Certainly they have legitimate issues about what is going on back in Sri Lanka, but their unexpected arrival off the West Coast does little to help their brethren, as it appears to many like a case of a few fleeing while the most deal with the worst. Which leads to the idea that these men are LTTE foot soldiers trying to get out of the country and help rebuild LTTE operations in Canada.

On the other hand why would the LTTE give up a valuable naval asset (the Ocean Lady) for just 76 guys? You could fly these individuals to Canada on a commercial flight for cheaper than the cost of shipping them. With the same end result. Kind of odd, eh?

So that's the first installment of Monday Maritime Mysteries.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some Sunday night updates

I was busy handing out treats on Halloween and only saw a single kid dressed like a pirate, but the spirit of the evening is well represented in a great posting over at Eagle1's blog, in which he relates some great ghost ship tales. Check it out.

There's also a new link on the right to the US Coast Guard's site, with a lot of video, audio, images and other information. Great site, and well worth exploring for anyone interested in the workings of the force.

Somali pirates do a reality check, of sorts

It's being reported that the ransom demand for Rachel and Paul Chandler - the British couple seized by Somali pirates just over a week ago - has dropped considerably. The initial demand of something like US$7 million may have been reduced to £100,000 (about US$165,000), possibly reflecting a better understanding on the part the pirates for the of the financial resources available to the yachters. However, British media outlet The Independent is also reporting that the Chandlers' captors may want to see some of their brethren recently apprehended by European naval forces released as part of the deal.

As should be clear to anyone, the Chandlers are not wealthy and do not have the same sorts of financial backers to pay off the pirates holding them hostage as commercial shippers do. Indeed, holding the couple for an extensive period of time could prove costly for the gang that seized them. These criminal gangs operate on a strictly profit-based model in which a rich payout is expected for all the money and time that goes into taking a prize. A ransom of $165,000 is not high; one could almost call it a recessionary amount, more like what Somali pirates were getting five or six years ago. This may be one reason there appears to be some dissension amongst the pirates holding the couple: It's not hard to imagine someone higher up in the criminal organization asking "Why did you grab these two small fish when there are more valuable targets out there?".

At the same time, a spokesman for the pirates holding the couple expressed a somewhat surreal reasoning for why they kidnapped them in the first place. In a brief transcription posted on The Guardian's website, the conversation went like this:

Caller: "They have been captured by our brothers, who patrol the coast. We have been informed about their presence in the area, where bandits operate. If they do not harm us, we will not harm them, we only need a little amount of seven million dollars."

Recipient of call: "Seven million dollars is a lot of money, isn't it?"

Caller: "No, no, no, NATO operations have had a lot of negative impact here, they have destroyed a lot of equipment belonging to the poor local fishermen. They arrest fishermen and destroy their equipment, in defiance of our local administrations. They illegally transfer the fishermen to their own prisons, and prisons of other foreign countries, so when you consider the damage and all the people affected, we say the amount is not big."

If this weren't so distorted, I'm sure NATO officials would be happy to see how effective their naval operations off the Horn of Africa were having on the pirates themselves. But no mention was made of the European Union's (EU) armada in the region, the two Coalition Task Forces, or the various efforts by nations as diverse as China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, India and even Iran (among many others).

Point is, NATO's counter-piracy operations have not been the only naval operations in the region. And I'm somewhat surprised the pirate spokesman singled out the Treaty when it would have been easier - so to speak - to harangue the EU. (See also today's incident in which Norwegian navy sailors came under fire in the Gulf of Aden and killed two people - reportedly a Somali and Yemeni. Norway is member of NATO, but their warship was working in concert with the EU flotilla.)

But there is a political dimension to this situation that could drive the ransom up. The Independent piece also talks of how all the media attention focused on the Chandlers could have a detrimental effect on their safe release, which is true. Oddly, the less attention paid about them the more likely it is the pirates will give in to a lower ransom. But make no mistake, the couple will only be released if someone ponies up some money. Or someone tries a risky rescue operation - not done lightly after the French fiasco with the yacht Tanit last Spring.

Sitrep update: A French tuna boat is reported to have repelled an attack on Saturday while sailing in the Indian Ocean between Somalia and the Seychelles. It's said that soldiers aboard the French vessel fired off rounds from their weapons and fireworks of some sort.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Somali Marines and the threat to yachters of pirates

Being up to my eyeballs in work and ongoing research on some new projects, I've been unable to comment on recent piracy incidents. Thankfully, my colleague EagleSpeak has been more vigilant in reporting on things. He provided a good roundup of general items on Wednesday (see here) as well as a piece today (here) about the hijacking of the British yacht by Somali pirates last weekend.

That incident has caused a small flurry of media interest, mainly because there are two middle-aged civilians involved. For the umpteenth time, I reiterate that the kidnapping of yachters is another reason to NOT believe the pirate spokesmen's claims that these criminals are trying to defend the overfishing or illegal waste dumping going on off the Horn of Africa (HoA). These people, and the hundreds of other mariners currently be held hostage by pirate gangs, have absolutely nothing to do with those problems.

As an article referenced by Eagle1 says, the British couple is being held in Harardhere, likely by the maritime elements of local warlord Abdi Mohamed Afweyne. These are the seaborne forces known as the 'Somali Marines', who have been the most successful of all Somali pirates. As I found while doing research into piracy in East Africa, they sometimes style themselves the 'Defenders of Somali Territorial Waters', an honorific that belies their criminal behavior. This is the group that has targeted UN-chartered merchant vessels carrying humanitarian aid in the past. They have a highly organized structure, with Abdi Mohamed Afweyne overseeing a marine operation that itself includes a fleet admiral and vice-admiral (who is also head of marine operations and, a few years ago, was known, paradoxically, as 'General Gray ').

Now the question on a lot of people's minds is how serious is the threat of pirates off the HoA to pleasure boaters? In a nutshell: it's not great, unless you provoke things. There's currently no reason to go sailing through the waters of the eastern Indian Ocean; there are plenty of other pleasant seas to explore. You can safely transit the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in convoys. Be informed and aware. And the reality is that pirates are less interested in small pleasure craft than commercial vessels, owing to the potential ransoms involved. But there is always a risk. Always.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Maersk Alabama captain speaks of his experience at the hands of pirates

Associated Press did a video interview with Captain Richard Phillips that was posted yesterday and may be of interest to some. In it, Phillips talks of how important it is to keep pirates from boarding a vessel in the first place, and of how crews have to "put themselves in harm's way" in order to prevent a situation from escalating. "As soon as a pirate gets on the is over," the captain says in the interview, adding, "So we have to everything - and anything - to keep them from getting on the ship."

You can view it by clicking here. (By the way, the blurb below the video about him "contemplating calling it quits with the sea" is a little misleading.)

Global piracy at an all-time high

The International Maritime Bureau's piracy and armed robbery report for the third quarter of 2009 has been released and it's official: There have been more pirate incidents in the first nine months of this year than for all of 2008. From January 1 to September 30, the IMB reports 306 incidents, as compared with 293 for January 1 to December 31, 2008.

As quoted in Reuters, the IMB says there were 324 global attacks if you count incidents reported up to Tuesday (October 20). These include 37 hijackings and 639 people held hostage. In the same period last year there were 194 attacks, 36 hijackings and 631 hostages held by pirates.

There is some good news in the report, though: Attacks committed by Somali pirates over the summer months were down this year. The IMB says there that between June and October, there were 43 reported attacks in the waters off the Horn of Africa (HoA), only 6 of which resulted in a successful hijacking. Last year, there were 57 attacks in the same period, including 23 hijackings.

While some of the reduction in attacks off the HoA can be attributed to the summer monsoon weather, IMB director Pottengal Mukundan tells Reuters that he also believes the presence of naval assets in the region has also been a strong contributing factor. He also mentions the heightened defensive measures being taken by mariners who are, "[N]ot giving way easily," while singling out measures taken by authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland as helping.

But while Somali piracy may be down a bit - and don't count any of them out, yet - Mukundan warns that the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa continues to be a dangerous region, with 21 attacks noted until last Tuesday. More ominously, though, the IMB director points out that these reported attacks probably represent only 35 percent of actual incidents, as many (most) go unreported. So double or triple the numbers when looking at the figures.

As for how to deal with the situation in Somalia, Mukundan has some thoughts expressed in a Voice of America article. Like myself and many others, he feels that the problem must addressed ashore, where pirates operate from. Which is why the IMB director expresses his support for how authorities in Puntland are trying to deal with the criminals, because piracy does not begin on the seas - it begins on land. As Mukundan tells VoA, "This is very important because it is the local community taking responsibility for the local criminals and punishing them under their own laws."

Effective naval security, enhanced civilian anti-piracy measures and more robust legal prosecutions are at least half the solution. Shutting down the money trail is another hefty element. But we're still left with the nagging problem of finding the means to build relationships with the nascent authorities ashore in Somalia, without whom piracy cannot be contained.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Somali pirates increasingly sophisticated: Interpol

AFP had an item the other day about Interpol's 78th general assembly, which wrapped up on Thursday in Singapore. In the piece, the organization's executive director of police services - Jean-Michel Louboutin - commented on Somali piracy, calling it "organised crime" that involves people outside Somalia. The AFP report also talks of how pirates are "being controlled by crime syndicates", and are using sophisticated weapons, as well as tracking devices that have allowed them to extend their reach far out to sea.

Mike Palmer, the Australian inspector of transport security, is also quoted in the item, stating that, "Their weaponry continues to get more sophisticated, their attacks are taking place farther and farther out to sea... as far as 1,200 nautical miles offshore. This dovetails well with an excellent analysis that EagleSpeak provided today, entitled "Somali Pirates: Breaking the 600 mile barrier". And the financial costs of all this is laid out by Palmer, who tells AFP that "Apart from any ransom paid, shipping companies also lost an average of seven million dollars for every hostage-taking, which typically lasts about 70 days."

In some respects, this isn't startling news: The operational capabilities of Somali pirates have become increasingly organized over the course of the last five or six years (though there was an interruption in piracy back in 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union briefly held power over much of the southern parts of the country). The ability to send pirate teams hundreds, or thousands, of miles from their home ports to undertake missions shows the capabilities these criminal outfits possess, plus a degree of seamanship that must be recognized. It's what make combating the problem even more difficult, for there's an awful lot of water to safeguard against the threat of piracy when you factor in the western Indian Ocean. Simply put, the international community does not have the resources to effectively patrol the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, and the pirates know this.

But as the AFP report mentions, there is a growing sense that another way to stem the tide of piracy off the Horn of Africa is to go after the money trail, to shut down the abilities of pirate gangs to move their finances around. This may be one of the most important means of suppressing piracy in that region of the world, for it's clear from my contacts that it's not like there are millions of dollars gleaned from ransoms lying about in Somali banks. Those at the top of the pirate leadership structure appear to be moving some of their money out of Somalia, possibly in order to create a nest-egg, of sorts, for their futures. If we can intercept the money-laundering and make naval patrols more effective, then the only other element missing in addressing piracy off the Horn of Africa is to find a way to bring security ashore.

As Jean-Michel Louboutin says, "It is very important to understand that this is not only a military problem. It's a civil problem and we have to help this country enhance its capacity and to provide technical support." Well said, for it should be remembered that piracy begins ashore. Meanwhile, hitting the pirates in their pockets is a definite asset in dealing with the problem.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Watching your six

When you work on your own - as I often do - your successes are your own, as are your failures. This is something you must accept. But when you work with a team - as I also do - success is a communal effort, though sometimes things can screw up because of one weak link. The erudite Alexander Martin had me chuckling with the following posting from his blog:

French Marines defend fishing trawlers from pirate attacks

AFP is reporting that Marines aboard two French-flagged tuna boats repelled an attack by pirates earlier today. This is the second such incident in three days. According to the report, a squad of 60 French Marines are protecting a fleet of ten tuna boats operating in the Indian Ocean, and today's attack apparently occurred about 500 nautical miles off the Somali coast. The trawlers had recently finished a port call in the Seychelles Islands. Last Saturday, another French tuna boat was attacked north of the Seychelles. In that incident, Marines opened fire and two pirate vessels with 11 pirate suspects were apprehended by the Seychellian coastguard. (AFP also reports that the 11 Somalis and one of their vessels were released on Sunday because of a lack of evidence.)

No doubt these incidents will cause some to continue to rail against the raping of the seas by foreign fishing boats and the impact this is having on the Somali people. But 500 nautical miles off the African coast is a long way from being considered territorial waters or even part of a littoral nation's economic exclusion zone. This is just another incident of piracy; there are no 'eco-warriors' who should be held up as modern-day Robin Hoods here.

Somali piracy on the decline?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak about piracy and maritime crime at the annual conference of the Northwest Corridor Development Corporation (NCDC website here), a Canadian transportation organization that includes members of the shipping industry. (That, and last weekend's Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, kept me offline for a while.) Security issues and the economic impact that criminal activities like piracy cause the transportation sectors were of concern to a number of the participants who attended, especially given the notion that piracy is on the wane in places like the seas off the Horn of Africa (HoA). If this were true, it would be a welcome change in the situation for all parties involved. But I, for one, take a more pessimistic view, or, at least, a more cautious approach.

For instance, there was a report last week by David Axe that said Somali piracy is declining. As posted on the Voice of America and other sites, it quoted British Commodore Steve Chick, the head of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, as saying that piracy is, "[S]ignificantly down compared to last year." (SNMG2 is a counter-piracy operation currently on patrol in the seas off the HoA.) The NATO commander said there was only one vessel captured in the region this summer (July-September), compared to 17 the same time last year. He believes that part of the reason for the decline has been "much better self-protection measures" taken by merchant vessels in the area, such as the use of fire hoses, secured access and barbed wire.

In a related report, Axe writes of how Somali pirates have evolved from small gangs into sophisticated maritime criminal groups, leading mariners to also evolve their defensive measures. As an example, he recalls last December's pirate attack on the Chinese ship Zhenhua 4, in which the crew defended themselves with Molotov cocktails. (FYI: That vessel was not a fishing trawler, but a heavy load carrier. It's open forward deck space aided in the ability of the Chinese crew to fend off the attack.) "These tricks," writes Axe, "[C]ombined with with improved security on land and the presence of some 40 warships in East Africa waters, have turned the tide in the 'global war on piracy.'"

From my perspective, fighting off pirates with Molotov cocktails or ringing a vessel's deckrails with barbed wire hardly constitute a more sophisticated response to dealing with attackers. If anything, they are cruder, more desperate measures borne out of a lack of sufficient resources available to seafarers. (And as to whether security has been improved on land, that certainly cannot refer to the situation in southern Somalia itself, where the summer has seen a wave of fighting, suicide bombings and deteriorating social ills for the people living there.)

But the more important issue is whether self-defense measures by mariners and naval patrols have really "turned the tide" against Somali pirates. It is true that in the summer months just passed attacks were down in the seas off the HoA. However, this is a normal pattern in piracy in the region, owing to the oft-mentioned monsoon winds that make the waters rougher. And, just as Somali pirates have learned when it's best to attack, so, too, have they learned when it's best to stay in port. It's quite likely that after such a profitable period - from last October to this June - pirate gangs realized the pickings were harder over the summer months and opted to play it safe. To believe that a reduction in incidents in this period constitutes a turning point in the situation seems wishful thinking (kind of like awarding someone a medal for intent as opposed to action).

From looking at reports compiled the last few years by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), piracy off the HoA traditionally picks up in October, November and December. So bluntly put, the new pirate season is just beginning.

The role of international naval forces cannot be underestimated when it comes to stemming piracy - they are an invaluable element in safeguarding the seas off the HoA. But keep in mind that earlier this year we saw the largest international armada of warships assembled since the Second World War patrolling those waters, and during that time attacks in the region soared to their highest levels: 144 incidents between January and July, compared with 24 in the same period in 2008 (per IMB stats).

If attacks truly decline by the end of this year, then we can really say that the tide is turning. Until that point, there is much to be done to improve self-protection measures for mariners and make the international naval presence in the region more effective. The real work is just beginning.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Somali pirate gangs gaining in strength

As the monsoon winds abate off the Horn of Africa, the first signs of the new piracy season are appearing with at least four incidents in the Gulf of Aden in just the last ten days. EagleSpeak has posted the most recent International Maritime Bureau (IMB) notes on global piracy incidents which detail nine events around the world in the past week. Included in these is the incident last weekend in which Turkish naval personnel apprehended seven suspected pirates who had attempted to attack a bulker underway in the Gulf of Aden.

According to a press release from the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet Combined Maritime Forces, these most recent incidents bring this year's total number of pirate attacks in the region to 146. Of that number, 28 were successful attacks. (The most recent IMB report on global piracy shows 240 actual or attempted pirate attacks around the world in the first half of this year, more than double the same period in 2008.)

Within the Fifth Fleet's press release are some surprising stats: "Since August 2008, CTF 151 and other cooperating naval forces have disarmed and released 343 pirates, 212 others have been turned over for prosecution, and 11 were killed."

That's a lot of pirates, and it appears to show a robust stature on the part of naval elements in the area. But...

Though one can assume a number of those pirates who've been dealt with are 'repeat offenders', so to speak, even if you take those apprehended - 212 - the sizes of the gangs operating off the Horn of Africa (HoA) are clearly formidable for three reasons:

For one, removing a couple of hundred pirates from the game has not meant an immeasurable decline in piracy in that part of the part; far from it - the attacks are higher than ever the last twelve months. Secondly, the bulk of these apprehensions have occurred in the northern waters (the Gulf of Aden, etc.), while pirates are also active in the western Indian Ocean, south of where CTF 151 and other forces are focused. Finally, it's a given that we're only nabbing a small portion of the criminals operating in the region.

The growth and size of pirate gangs operating off the HoA should be of obvious concern as the new season of activity begins, because they are bigger than ever, reaping larger bounties than ever and holding more hostages than ever (561 in the first half of 2009, according to the IMB, versus 889 in all of 2008). Bluntly put, there are a hell of lot more pirates than we ever thought we'd see in those seas.

At a piracy conference that just wrapped up in Karachi, Pakistan, the scope of the problem caused many attending to voice an opinion I've heard for years: Piracy can never be completely eradicated. The best we can hope for is to contain or reduce it to levels we consider acceptable.

I feel that the next ninth months will be crucial in containing Somali piracy, for we may be nearing an apex. Do I have the answers, the solutions? Not entirely. But a new perspective on the problem is required. Conventional strategies are not working. Merely dispatching more naval assets to the region is not an effective solution, least of all when those forces have released over 300 suspected pirates back into the system. (And, yes, I am aware of the complex legal issues involved in prosecuting suspected pirates that those same forces encounter, and do believe those warships are helping the situation.)

Asymmetric warfare requires asymmetric thinking. And piracy off the Horn is something entirely diffrent than anyone ever expected.

Addendum: Alexander Martin just wrote a lengthy piece about counterinsurgency leadership issues on his blog, War & Women. This Marine Corps officer's thoughts can be applied to the situation off the HoA, where we have naval forces fighting maritime insurgents in a traditional manner. Also I'd recommend reading Dr. Max Manwaring's monograph on how gangs evolve. He's at the US Army War College and his piece can be seenbe cicking here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Merchant captain killed by Somali pirates

In an unusual display of violence, Somali pirates attempting to hijack a freighter today killed the captain when he refused to comply with the attackers' demands. According to Reuters, the Panamanian-flagged freighter was bound for Mogadishu's port when pirates boarded and demanded her master alter course. He refused and was then murdered. The ship - reportedly named the Barwaqo - and its crew was later freed by Somali police and African Union troops (those AMISOM troops being the ones targeted in last week's deadly double suicide bombing by al-Shabaab).

The murder of the Syrian captain is unusual because Somali pirates have, for the most part, always understood that killing hostages - or potential hostages - should be avoided. For one, it's very hard to negotiate a ransom with a dead hostage. For another, killing crews risks ratcheting up the levels of violence that pirates could face: if crews begin arming themselves and taking on the boarders - figuring they've nothing to lose, so to speak - the situation off the HoA could quickly change. I would not be surprised to see some pirate spokesman make a contrite statement.

Regardless, higher ransoms and the killing of a master mariner do not bode well for the coming piracy season off the Horn of Africa.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Talk like a pirate day

Saturday - September 19 - is "International Talk Like A Pirate Day", a faux holiday of sorts during which we're encouraged to say "Arr" and "Ahoy matey" a lot. It's all meant in the spirit(s) of good fun, a means to lighten the mood in bars and marinas while sharing drinks with friends. And while I'm reluctant to rain on anyone's weekend fun, I would point out that some people don't necessarily think it a good thing to be making light of pirates, at least given the modern-day problems going on around the world.

I'm reminded of a mariner I talked to about his run-in with armed pirates a few years back. He was involved in an incident that left him partially deaf in one ear thanks to a Kalashnikov fired off by one of the attackers and, since then, says he can never look at those pirate flags people like to fly in a lighthearted way: The symbolism actually reminds him of a Nazi swastika banner. Indeed, a few folks have told me they think having a day to encourage talking like a pirate is akin to people in the Second World War holding a "Talk Like A Fascist Day".

Well this might be a bit of an extreme attitude and I don't really think we need any type of political correctness involved here. The idea of Saturday's parody holiday is not to glamorize today's maritime criminals, just hoist some pints of ale or tots of rum and relax. But while doing so, it might be fitting to remember all those who endured pirate attacks this year, because it's been a brutal year so far.

According to the International Maritime Bureau's statistics for the first six months of 2009, there were 240 officially reported incidents worldwide - more than double the same period last year. And between January and July, 561 people were held hostage by pirates (there were 889 hostages held for all of 2008, the highest that had ever been reported in the modern era).

Enjoy the drinks ye lads and lasses. Oh, and personally, I'd suggest that if you really want to talk like a pirate, pick up a Somali-language phrasebook.

Footnote: The Somali man accused of taking part in the pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama last April and captured by American forces, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, made an appearance in a Manhattan courthouse on Thursday. As AP reports, Muse appeared before U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska in what amounted to a three-minute hearing. It was decided that further court proceedings against the suspect will be delayed until January 12 of next year.