Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Yemeni suicide bombers being trained in Somalia?

A couple of weeks ago, on March 15, four South Koreans were killed by a suicide bomber as the tourists were visiting the historic Yemeni town of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Speaking to Reuters, an unnamed Yemeni security official claimed the bomber - Abdel Rahman Mehdi al-Aajbari - had been recently trained in Somalia to carry out the attack. The official said that Aajbari had left his home in western Yemen about two months ago.

Meanwhile, The Long War Journal's Jane Novak reports that al-Qaeda has claimed responsiblity for this suicide bombing. Her article, "Yemen's three terror fronts", also details a second, unsuccessful attack in the capital city of Sana'a, carried out three days after Aabjari's deadly bombing. In this incident, South Korean investigators and family of the deceased tourists were targeted as they drove in a convoy of cars by another suicide bomber. Novak writes that al-Qaeda's internet statement says these attacks are part of an effort to "expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula".

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Paying Somalis to stop piracy?

Last week, my colleague EagleSpeak posted word of a British security analyst's view about what might be done to subdue to piracy off Somalia (see also the EU NAVFOR Somalia website quoting from Fairplay). Simon Sole, the CEO of Exclusive Analysis, told the Connecticut Maritime Association-sponsored Shipping 2009 conference that, "[H]e expected Middle Eastern nations – which have been the hardest hit by the pirate scourge – will likely pay the ‘junior’ unit of Somalia’s Islamic Courts to re-subdue the seagoing criminals." The junior unit Sole was referring to is al-Shabaab, the Islamist group that currently controls significant parts of southern Somalia and, according to him, are expected to overrun Mogadishu within months.

I have never met Sole nor come across any of his analyses of piracy in the last three-plus years I've been immersed in investigating the issue, so I was somewhat surprised by his comments. His company website says he "built Exclusive Analysis upon a strong ethos based around accuracy and objectivity", which makes these recent comments all the more odd.

To begin with, Middle Eastern nations have not been the hardest hit by pirates. A glance at the IMB's 2008 piracy report will quickly show that it is European and Asian nations that have been hardest hit. Ships controlled or managed in those regions have been by far the unluckiest victims of pirate attacks, with Germany (41 incidents) leading the pack. They're followed by Singapore (31), Greece (23), Japan, (16) and Great Britain and Norway (tied at 12).

Next, characterizing al-Shabaab as a 'junior' unit of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) is also incorrect, as the former organization has little but scorn for the latter group. As has been made patently clear to me from sources, al-Shabaab has devolved from the ICU, thinking that a new approach must be taken to assure an orthodox form of Islam may come to pass in Somalia. (See also Ryan Mauro's incisive piece on FrontPageMagazine.com about what he calls the African Axis.)

But more critically, I find it hard to believe that MidEast nations would bother to pay al-Shabaab, or anyone else in Somalia, for a number of reasons.

For one, nation states do not, generally speaking, offer monetary incentives to criminals to cease their activities. Doing so would create greater instability by these actions, and no matter what you might think about Iran or Saudi Arabia, they are players in the international community and realize their obligations. If Sole's proposition is correct, why aren't we paying narco-terrorists in South America to stop making cocaine or the Taliban to stop harvesting poppies? We don't because it goes against our national principles.

Secondly, what advantage comes from some MidEast countries paying 'protection money' to Somali pirates? Well, there's really no reason to do so. It's currently cheaper to have the shipping community - owners and insurers - bear the financial responsibilities of pirate attacks. Why shell out, say, $100 million to al-Shabaab when they're currently only netting about a tenth of that from recent incidents?

Thirdly, if these Middle Eastern states do opt to pay al-Shabaab to stop pirating, what 'coverage' applies? Will only vessels from Gulf States be exempt from future attacks? Does that mean vessels flagged in the Gulf or operated from there? What about German or Singaporean ships? The potential to set up a tiered system is great, in which some vessels are allowed free passage whle others are potential targets. But given the libertarian nature of commerical shipping, this becomes a grey area, as a freighter managed by a Dubai-based firm could be flagged in the Marshall Islands and crewed by Sri Lankans. Is it exempt?

Finally, what guarantees are there - really - that al-Shababbb wouldn't just take the money and run? This is a group seeking an extreme form of Islam for Somalia, and which is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. They may want to stamp out piracy when they take power, but are quite happy to receive funding from its avails now. There are no firm and fast rules in place in Somalia, and Mr. Soles should have known this before making his comments last week.

It's vitally important to be 'objective' about these issues, as much as possible. Telling shippers these sort of things isn't right, not without proper background. Perhaps I am missing something here and Soles has more information to expand on this. I welcome hearing from him, as the situation in Somalia is dire.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Somali pirates striking further offshore as NATO flotilla arrives

Warships from the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) are reported to have transited the Suez Canal southbound a few days ago, heading towards the seas off the Horn of Africa. Four vessels from the United States, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain will shortly rendezvous with a Canadian frigate, to take part in Operation Allied Protector and engage in counter-piracy operations. They are expected to be on-station throughout April, after which SNMG1 is slated to head for Southeast Asia for a bit, before the flotilla will return westward and again patrol the seas of East Africa for a short period.

The arrival of the group is welcome news for mariners, as pirate activity in the region is again reaching feverish levels. Yesterday’s ONI Worldwide Threat to Shipping posting makes for some lengthy reading, so much so that I won’t post the entire analysis here. (Follow this link to read it.)

With 34 incidents reported to have occurred in the Indian Ocean-East Africa region in the last month, this amounts to better than one attack a day. In the last week, five commercial vessels have been fired on as pirates attempted to stop the ships. Three others were hijacked, two since last Wednesday alone: The Panamanian-flagged Nipayia was seized on Wednesday while about 450 nautical miles off the coast of southern Somalia, while the Bahamian-flagged chemical tanker Bow-Asir was captured some 250 nautical miles east of Kismaayo. They join the bulk carrier Titan, which was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden on March 19, as prizes the pirates will now hold for ransom.

(A recent AFP report has the Bow-Asir’s Norwegian owners telling the press agency that the tanker and her crew of 27 are heading north according to satellite tracking.)

From looking over these 34 recent incidents, questions must be raised about the effectiveness of the naval presence in the region. The last month shows 11 actual attacks in the Gulf of Aden (a twelfth incident was a false alarm involving the cruise ship Balmoral), there were 2 in the Bab el-Mandeb and 18 in the Indian Ocean proper (the list is rounded out by two reports from anchorages in India). Clearly, pirates are not letting up, even when faced with armed vessels patrolling the seas.

In fact, a more troubling trend is the ability of the pirate gangs to shift their operations further afield into the seas east and southeast of Somalia. As the ONI’s statistics show, vessels are reporting attacks up to 600 nautical miles away from the Somali coast, obviously doing so by means of motherships. This dramatically increases the area in which the threat of an attack against shipping can occur, and might be considered a reflection of the success of last year’s hijacking of the supertanker Sirius Star. These Indian Ocean attacks also point to more effective intelligence-gathering capabilities on the parts of pirate gangs.

The expanse of ocean between Socotra in the north and Madagascar in the south is vast, akin to the entire eastern seaboard of the United States or the Mediterranean Sea. Trying to safeguard it with naval vessels is a difficult proposition, at best. The number of attacks still occurring in the Gulf of Aden – where the bulk of the naval patrols are being carried out – shows how hard it is to contain the threat in a smaller body of water.
A wider net will need to be cast by the international community if it hopes to deal with piracy in the Indian Ocean off East Africa. The addition of SNMG1 may help by releasing some naval elements from northern duties, though with only a month or so of initial counter-piracy operations planned, the NATO flotilla’s real effectiveness may be limited. A three- or four-month deployment on station would probably have been a better idea, but every little bit helps.


Incident note

MV Shanghai Venture

Of the attacks detailed in the latest ONI report, there’s an interesting account of the failed attempt by pirates to seize the supermax bulk carrier Shanghai Venture on March 9. The Hong Kong-flagged bulker was sailing in ballast about 270 nautical miles off the Somali coast when she was attacked during the evening hours. As the ONI comments, nighttime attacks like this are rare, “[B]ut the moon phase was in a waxing gibbous at a near 100% illumination with minimal cloud cover, making night time operations more favorable.” The closest naval warship was apparently about 215 nautical miles away at the time of the attack. The tenaciousness of the attackers is apparent from the report:

“INDIAN OCEAN: Bulk carrier (SHANGHAI VENTURE) fired upon 9 Mar 09 at 1751 UTC while underway in position 08:01N – 058:43E. The duty officer onboard noticed one speed boat approaching from 1.5NM away at a speed of approximately 17kts. The captain alerted the crew who mustered at the bridge and engine room. All watertight doors were closed from the inside. Water pumps were used to refill the ballast tanks at the same time to cause the water to overflow from both sides of the main deck. The vessel increased to maximum speed. The armed pirates started shooting from the port quarter and attempted to board. All lights on the vessel were turned off and evasive maneuvers were conducted. The pirates then attempted to board a second time by shooting at the bridge with machine guns. The vessel conducted evasive maneuvers again and were able to prevent the pirates from boarding. The pirate skiff then stayed back in the stern wave and stopped chasing the vessel, but the crew remained alert during this time. Approximately one hour later, they were aware of the speed boat chasing them again, at 3.5NM away with a speed of 17kts. The pirates attempted to board the vessel for a third time, but the vessel conducted evasive maneuvers as before and managed to escape. The speed boat eventually stopped its pursuit. The speed boat was identified as grey colored and 5-7 meters in length. No crewmembers were injured during the attack, but the bridge window was broken and 91 bullet marks were found, with some bullets passing through the plate.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fox News and Canada's contribution to global security

In the couple of years I've been posting about issues, I've tried to keep a certain emotional distance between what I've written and what I really feel. The idea I follow is to seek out information and present it in as objective a manner as possible, though it may be clouded, at times, by my own perspectives. But a recent discussion on Fox News's Red Eye with host Greg Gutfield leaves me somewhat apoplectic.

Gutfield and his guests made some "observations" in response to a recent comment from Lt.Gen. Leslie Andrew, the commander of Canada's land forces, that after years of toil in Afghanistan in which our soldiers have endured four times the casualty rates of American troops, perhaps our warriors could use a break. Let me repeat: four times the casualty rates of American troops.

“The Canadian military wants to take a breather to do some yoga, paint landscapes, run on the beach in gorgeous white capri pants,” said Gutfeld. "Isn't this the perfect time to invade this ridiculous country?," he then asked panelist Doug Benson, who quipped, "I didn't even know that they were in the war."

For the life of me I cannot understand why Americans vilify Canadians like this. Have you no honour? Jesus, as I write this, my next door neighbour is deployed to Kandahar and there are four more coffins coming home from Afghanistan containing the bodies of soldiers who have died trying to protect to us - all of us here in North America. One is from my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie.

If this is how you treat your friends, God help you.

Friday, March 20, 2009

NATO vessels deploying to the Horn of Africa

As pirates continue to attack vessels off the Horn of Africa, NATO is dispatching the newest incarnation of one of its standing maritime groups - SNMG1 - to the region. Operation Allied Protector will see warships from the United States, Canada, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal take part in counter-piracy patrols. SNMG1 is commanded by the Portuguese Navy's Rear Admiral Pereira de Cunha.

SNMG1 is expected to be on station in the Indian Ocean in April. The European and American elements are currently completing exercises in the western Mediterranean, while the Canadian component - HMCS Winnipeg - is leaving Korea after work ups with the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group a couple of weeks ago.

The impending arrival of SNMG1 coincides with the waning months of the Spring piracy season in the region. Once the summer monsoon winds arrive, the mostly Somali pirates will take a break as the seas get too rough for their small attack boats. So the next few months offer the last opportunities to harvest the bounties awaiting them in the seas off East Africa. But the addition of the NATO flotilla will make those seas even more crowded with naval vessels seeking to combat the pirates and does raise the question, "Who's in charge out there?"

SNMG1 joins a European Union force, the American-led "multinational" task force CTF 151, as well as independently operating warships from Russia, China, India and other nations. At the very least you would think with the overlap of NATO, EU and CTF 151 there would be a more efficient means of deploying vessels within a single chain of command from countries like the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. And though no one would expect Russia or China to place their warships within the NATO or EU operations, why hasn't CTF 151 been able to coalesce into a more productive anti-piracy entity?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Are Somali pirates helping al-Qaeda?

This past week the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency appeared before the Senate Armed Forces committee to provide an assessment of threats facing the United States. Lieutenant General Michael Maples' testimony received notice as he discussed Iran's nuclear capabilities and the various other ongoing threats, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. But within his statements was a small commentary on Somalia that has been overlooked by many, though it's ramifications are potentially far-reaching.

Lt. Gen. Maples touched upon the links between the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab and the more well-known al-Qaeda, stating that, "Recent propaganda from both al-Qaeda and the Somalia-base terrorist group al-Shabaab highlighting their shared ideology suggests a formal merger announcement is forthcoming."

Such an alliance would allow al-Qaeda to gain a more concrete base of operations in East Africa, within the territory that al-Shabaab already controls in the southern part of Somalia. Given that al-Qaeda has already carried a number of succesful terror attacks in the region, including the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the seaborne assaults on the USS Cole and the MT Limburg, the transnational security risks this poses are great.

And since al-Shabaab is believed to receive at least some of its funding from pirate gangs operating within its sphere of control, this increases the reasons we have to both stem the tide of piracy off Somalia and address the land-based security issues.

For anyone who still thinks that Somali pirates are just a rag-tag bunch of opportunists whose continued criminal actions do not pose any real threats to us, perhaps Lt. Gen. Maples' testimony will sway you. It is clear, to this observer, that the lawlessness in the seas off Somalia and the anarchy ashore have the potential to create as grave a risk to our national securities as Afghanistan and the Taliban did. That's why we need to forcefully address it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fighting the US Navy in one's underwear

Many of you may have heard about Sunday's incident in the South China Sea between USNS Impeccable and various Chinese vessel. The US Navy website has info on it here, and there is an expanded look at the legal implications of the event that EagleSpeak has provided here.

I only want to provide two short commentaries on this incident, the first being about the comical actions of the Chinese mariners who interfered with the Americans' operations. As the USN reported, "The Chinese vessels dropped pieces of wood in the water directly in the Impeccable's path," and "Crewmen aboard the Impeccable used fire hoses to spray one of the vessels as a protective measure. The Chinese crewmembers disrobed to their underwear and continued closing to within 25 feet."

Just to make sure no one missed this, the Chinese threw bits of lumber overboard in an attempt to slow the American vessel and then, when faced with high pressure water, opted to strip to their skivvies so as to preserve their...well, I'm not sure what they were thinking, to be honest. And two by fours do not generally pose a risk to navigation, no matter what's been reported.

The second observation is that the Impeccable is part of the Military Sealift Command, and her crew included a lot of civilian mariners who had to deal with this problem. It wasn't piracy they were facing, but it was another example of the man-made threats facing mariners every day.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The passing of maritime pioneer

This week came news that Molly Kool had died on February 25 at her home in Bangor, Maine, a couple of days past her 93rd birthday. She had nothing to do with piracy, but she was a remarkable woman who will be remembered for one very important accomplishment: She was the first woman in North America to hold a Master's ticket.

Molly Kool was born in 1916 in Alma, a small village in the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick. Growing up beside the Bay of Fundy in a seafaring family, she spent her younger years helping out on her father's vessel, a scow that transferred cargoes between larger ships and the shore. Wanting to become her father's first mate, Ms. Kool applied to the Merchant Marine School in Saint John, New Brunswick, but was refused admission. This was, after all, a time when women were not a rarity in the professional seafaring community, they were non-existent.

But Kool persevered and by the time she was 21, in 1937, managed to get her mate's ticket. Two years later she gained her Coastal Master's certification from the Merchant Marine Institute in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and took over from her father as captain of the scow, the Jean K.

Her career as a master wasn't long: In 1944 she met an American man, gave up seafaring to get married and move to Maine. (He eventually died, she remarried and then outlived a second husband.) Still, Molly Kool helped break down innumerable barriers such that women now can be found as masters, chief engineers, mates, bosuns and deckhands on vessels working around the globe. For this, she will be rightly remembered as a pioneer in the seafaring world.

From the few people I've met who knew Molly Kool, I understand she never thought that what she did was extraordinary. She was a mariner with a love of the seas that was superceded only by the love of a man. As the New York Times obituary relates, she kept it simple when she finally got her master's ticket back in 1939, wiring home a terse message: "You can call me captain from now on."

Postscript: Molly Kool was actually the second woman to receive a master's ticket. The first was a woman from the Soviet Union, but I am unable to find any details about her. If anyone has any information on this individual, please contact me.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Pirate economies

Being preoccupied with various affairs has left me unable to post recently, but this does not mean that piracy has in any way ebbed of late. Those of you who follow this site, and others, are no doubt aware that the predation upon mariners continues. Google "piracy" and you'll get a lot of hits. Most hits are about recent incidents, for they're easy to report. More difficult is trying to deal with the "why factor" - why piracy flourishes in parts of the globe.

But there's a piece written by The Financial Times' Robert Wright that offers another glimpse into how piracy has evolved off Somalia, including a look at how the ransom monies are delivered and dispersed and how they debilitate the people who partake of piracy there, whether they be actively engaged in criminal operations or merely the recipients of its trickle-down effects.

Somalis don't partake of piracy because they have a lengthy history of engaging in this criminal activity. They do it because they have no other option. I am in no way condoning their actions - which I find abhorrent - but offering the opinion that in the absence of any other means of making a living, desperate people will turn to desperate measures.

Wright's piece is not without some small errors - for instance, he says that contemporary piracy in that part of the world began "earlier this decade" as the Hawiye clan based in Haradere "tried to deter illegal dumping and fishing". Yet dumping and overfishing was going on in the 1990s, and there are documented reports from agencies such as the UN's Monitoring Group on Somalia which show that pirate gangs were trying to make money from these same activities in recent years.

Yet Wright has reminded us that the economic impact of piracy carried out by Somalis is at the root of the problem. As my investigations have shown, a vast network of organizations have developed within Somalia that profit directly from piracy. We are talking about tens of millions of dollars, possibly the most lucrative industry in that country. For that is what it is, a business venture that offers direct income for participants, and indirect income for ancillary individuals.

In a lawless land like Somalia, there will never be a problem attracting guys to head out in boats and attack mariners. We can harass them, sink their boats, even arrest them, but they'll still keep coming. Why? Because, for them the real question is, "Why not"? What have you got to lose when you've nothing to begin with?