Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Terrorist threat may be growing in Somalia

Various media outlets like MSNBC are carrying an AP report that has a number of informed sources saying there is evidence that Islamist militants are filtering into Somalia from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere in southwest Asia. The head of Africa Command, U.S. general William "Kip" Ward, tells AP that, "There is a level of activity that is troubling, disturbing," adding that, "When you have these vast spaces that are just not governed it provides a haven for support activities, for training to occur."

The number of foreign fighters who may now be in East Africa is thought to total just two or three dozen, but their arrival could herald the start of a new facet in the global war on terror. The idea that Somalia could become the new Afghanistan in East Africa, so to speak, has been discussed for some time. However, as the BBC's Rob Watson wrote last May, there are a number of fundamental differences between the two countries, not the least of which is the opposition that many Somalis have to extremist Islamist groups like al-Shabaab, as well as to foreign fighters arriving there.

Nevertheless, al-Shabaab appears willing to work with outsiders, such as al-Qaeda, in order to further their efforts to gain political control over larger parts of Somalia. If the news that foreign fighters are already in the country are true, this certainly adds another layer of complexity to the threats that Somalia poses to us.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ordinary Somalis turning against pirates?

The Christian Science Monitor and the BBC are reporting that some Somalis have formed vigilante groups to fight back against pirates in the northeastern part of the country. It is claimed that 12 individuals and two boats have been taken by the vigilantes, who are angered by the activities of pirates in their waters. It is possible that the suspects could face the death penalty if convicted by the local authorities.

Actions like this should be a reminder that not every Somali is a pirate or a pirate supporter. Far from it. Pirates have had a dire impact on the people living there, intercepting aid shipments and deflecting international attention from the plight of the ordinary Somalis.

But, more importantly, this should help to put to rest the myth that is making the rounds, the one that says pirates are trying to protect the fishery and the defend the ability of Somalis to make a living from the sea. As I've said before, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing off the Somali coast is an issue, absolutely, as is the dumping of toxic waste. However, the idea that pirates are some sort of Robin Hoods is baseless. With the weaponry they have used in attacks on vessels, these pirates could easily have protected their own fishermen had that really been of interest to the criminals. You don't attack UN World Food Programme-chartered ships if you're protecting your own people. You don't capture families on yachts. And you don't target cruise ships.

None if this has anything to do with "protecting" the Somali people. It is a lie that needs to be refuted, not supported.

Russian navy captures 29 suspected pirates

Well, it must be somewhat crowded aboard the Russian navy destroyer Admiral Panteleyev tonight. AFP reports that the warship's crew captured 29 suspected pirates off the Somali coast earlier today, along with seven Kalashnikovs, a number of handguns and equipment that included satellite navigation devices. No word on what the Russians will do with the suspects, but this is biggest group ever apprehended.

Meanwhile, a Russian tanker was attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden on Monday afternoon. According to the Moscow Times, the crew of NS Commander - 23 Russian nationals - repulsed two attempts by pirates to board their vessel, using fire hoses against automatic weapons and RPGs.

Further south in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles took custody of nine pirates suspected of attacking the cruise liner Melody the other day. They had been apprehended by a Spanish frigate.

Note on the Admiral Panteleyev: The name of the warship is sometimes given as Panteleev or other variations, the discrepancies arising from the translation from Cyrillic to English. The vessel is an anti-submarine destroyer laid down in the early 1990s (Udaloy-class). This class is sometimes mistakenly referred to as frigates, because the class project was designated "frigate bird" by the Soviets.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Armed guards help repel attack on Italian cruise ship

Word is that the Italian liner MSC Melody, with about 1500 passengers and crew aboard, was attacked by pirates earlier today while sailing in the Indian Ocean off east Africa. The vessel's captain told the BBC that liner was sailing about 180 miles north of the Seychelles when a skiff approached with six pirates aboard. They fired, in his words, some 200 rounds at the ship in an attempt to stop her. The Telegraph reports that Israeli security guards hired by the liner's owners apparently opened fire on the pirates and helped repulse the attack. The Melody was on a cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy, at the time of the attack. No one aboard was reportedly hurt in the incident, and the liner is en route to Aqaba, in Jordan, escorted by a Spanish warship.

Meanwhile, a German merchant ship was seized by another group of pirates and, in a third incident, a Yemeni oil tanker was also captured, though two of the attackers were reportedly killed as Yemeni Coast Guard personnel fought with them.

The discussions about putting armed guards aboard vessels has just gotten more serious.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Terrorism and piracy in Somalia

The US Naval Institute blog has a piece from last week pondering the connections between pirates operating in the seas off Somalia and the potential that it is funding extremist groups, something I've talked about before here. The author, Galrahn, talks about recent comments attributed to an al-Qaeda supporter, Sa’id Ali Jabir Al Khathim Al Shihri (aka Abu Sufian al-Azdi), calling upon Somali 'jihadists' to attack foreigners - he calls them crusaders - in the seas off East Africa. (Shihri was incarcerated in Guantanamo for six years before being sent back to Saudi Arabia last year, only to reappear spouting these purported comments.)

Galrahn wonders if the rise in pirate incidents off Somalia last autumn could be tied to the efforts of Somali Islamists - namely al-Shabaab - to hook up with al-Qaeda, efforts which began at about the same time. It's an interesting perspective, though I would offer that most of the pirates who may allied with al-Shabaab operate in the southern part of the country, not within the Gulf of Aden (GoA) region. Most of the folks in Somaliland and Puntland, the two areas in the north that abut the GoA, appear to have little desire to see Islamist rule imposed along the lines of that al-Shabaab espouses. And the upsurge of pirate incidents that came in August and September may also be attributed to the end of the summer monsoon season, a period over the the summer months in which those seas become somewhat rough and see many pirates take a breather from attacking in their small craft.

EagleSpeak has commented a number of times about the influence of weather patterns in the seas of the Horn of Africa on pirate attacks in those waters. And it's certainly true that we see patterns where attacks go down when the weather turns rough. This is one reason we're seeing so much activity off Somalia right now, because the pirates are trying to 'harvest' as much as they can before the monsoon winds begins to blow in a couple of months.

Nevertheless, I still think that we need to be vigilant about the threat of piracy funding extremist groups. Somalia has the potential to become the Afghanistan of Africa, something that few desire to see occur.

Mother of captured pirate suspect asks Obama to free her son

Mareeg.com, a Somali news outlet, has posted a short item about the mother of the boy who was detained by the US Navy as a result of the Maersk Alabama incident. Adar Hassain says she had been searching for her sixteen year-old son the past two weeks and just discovered that he was being sent to New York to face trial. Abdiwali Muse's three fellow pirates were killed by SEAL sharpshooters, ending the hostage-taking of Captain Richard Phillips. Adar says the last she heard from her son was when he was in school in Galk'ayo, in central Somalia, and that she believes he fell under the influence of pirates. She hopes President Obama will either free her son or fly her to New York to hear the case.

Appropriate measures in handling Somali pirates?

Yesterday, the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg (photo above) was involved in an incident in which pirates attacked a Norwegian-flagged tanker, the MV Front Ardenn, in the Gulf of Aden. Faced with pirates in a skiff intent on boarding the tanker, the crew of the Front Ardenn took evasive maneuvers which prevented a boarding, and notified naval forces in the region of the attack. According to AP, a seven hour chase then ensued in which American and Canadian warships and helicopters tried to stop the fleeing speedboat. The Winnipeg, which was escorting a ship carrying food aid through the Gulf, was finally able to apprehend the suspects. Which is where things go wonky.

According to reports, the Canadians were able to do little more than question the would-be pirates and disarm them (though this appears to have consisted of seizing a single RPG round in the skiff, the Somalis having already dumped their weaponry overboard). The pirates were then let free, as Canadian law would not allow the suspects to be prosecuted in this case.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters that, "Those were the appropriate measures under the circumstances," a statement which makes one wonder about just what is the mandate of naval vessels such as the Winnipeg that are on patrol in those waters. At some point prior to the frigate's deployment from Canada, wasn't this very scenario discussed by members of the government, the navy and the office of the military's Judge Advocate General?

This plays into the bigger issue of what will be done to effectively prosecute suspected pirates once nabbed by naval forces. In a number of cases we have seen a reluctance by nations to take the next logical step after capturing suspected maritime criminals by putting them on trial, whether in Kenya or elsewhere. This needs to be addressed, and sooner rather than later. Sending warships to scare off pirates or shoo them away from sea lanes is a weak approach to dealing with the issue. It's like sending police to patrol a crime-ridden neighbourhood but telling them they can't arrest anyone. Even a mall cop may have more power.

If there is anyone in the Canadian judiciary who can comment on this and provide some context about what laws could be applied to pirates, I'd love to hear from you.

On a related note, EagleSpeak provides a lengthy and detailed look (see here) at what may be the last American trial in which piracy was the focus. That was back in 1861 and the jury was unable to agree on a verdict.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Firsthand account of the Maersk Alabama pirate attack

Fred Fry has posted a fascinating email he received that was written by an unnamed member of the crew of the Maersk Alabama, detailing what went on when pirates attacked the container vessel last week and how the crew responded. It also contains some recommendations from the crewman about what can be done to better prepare for pirate attacks. It is a concise and well-written debrief that reflects the professionalism of the Alabama's crew, as well as the level-headed approach they took when faced with a dangerous situation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Somali "pirate" threatens to sue Germany

The ongoing issue of how to effectively prosecute those individuals suspected of having committed piracy on the high seas has had an odd twist added to things. According to EUbusiness.com, a Somali identified as Ali Mohamed A.D. had his lawyer file a lawsuit in Germany on Tuesday for, "what he called his inhumane treatment since being handed over to Kenyan authorities", according to court documents. His lawyer, Oliver Wallasch, is said to be seeking 10,000 Euros ($13,300 US) from the German government for damages incurred after his transfer to Kenya.

Ali Mohamed A.D. was one of nine suspected pirates captured by the German navy after a March 3 incident involving the MV Courier, a freighter owned by a shipping firm based out of Hamburg. As detailed by Speigel Online, the ship was sailing about 57 nautical miles off the Yemeni coast en route from Bremen to the UAE when it was approached by a speedboat. After taking evasive manoeuvres, individuals in the small craft opened fire on the Courier with automatic weapons and a bazooka. Though the attackers failed to stop the ship, they continued their aggressive actions until an American helicopter - responding to the freighter's Mayday - arrived on the scene and the skiff broke off its attack and headed towards Somalia.

As the Spiegel report continues: "The German frigate Rheinland-Pfalz, alarmed by the mayday call, had also sent a helicopter. The German chopper shot two salvos across the bow of the presumed pirates, but the bandits were not impressed. Only when the frigate approached close to their skiff did the Somalis surrender. After being taken into custody, the group's leader told the Germans that he was a human trafficker from Somalia, and that the weapons were for 'self-defense'."

The Somalis were later handed over to Kenyan authorities for prosecution, possibly sparing Germany the problem of how to handle the legal end of things themselves when it comes to piracy. But if they hoped they'd heard the last from the Courier's attackers, this lawsuit proves otherwise.

Ali Mohamed A.D. denies involvement in piracy in his lawsuit, which he bases on the deprivations that may await him in the Kenyan prison system. Jails like the Shimo la Tewa Prison in Mombasa are noted for their harsh conditions, though one has to wonder whether Ali Mohamed A.D. considered the possibility he'd end up in such a place before he set out with weapons to attack a merchant vessel.

His lawyer is likely looking at that the fact the commander of the Rheinland-Pfalz may have overlooked a crucial aspect of a criminal investigation: the securing of evidence necessary to prove the allegations. As Spiegel says about what happend after the Somali suspects were apprehended, "The frigate captain then proceeded to demonstrate that the German navy, though effective at sea, is relatively unversed in the requirements of modern criminal law. The crew was taken into custody, the skiff was searched, and the weapons found in it were seized and then sunk in the ocean - for security reasons, as the captain put it. Since then, the most important pieces of evidence - three bazookas, a Tokarev pistol, a carbine and a machine gun - have been lying on the seafloor of the Gulf of Aden, at an estimated depth of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). The frigate captain's unauthorized disposal of the pirates' weapons has led to bad blood between the German government and the Kenyan judiciary. 'The criticism was repeatedly made that important items used in the crime - in other words, the weapons used - where thrown into the ocean,' read a cable from the German Embassy in Kenya." Oops.

Germany is not the only nation worrying about what to do with pirates once captured, and we've yet to find out what will become of the surviving Somali captor of the Maersk Alabama's captain, Richard Phillips. I hope the U.S. takes a more thorough approach in order to bring the full weight of the law against the suspected pirate. But I can't help but feel that we'll see more of these frivolous lawsuits as more pirates are apprehended.

Addendum: A comrade of Ali Mohamed A.D., one Mohamud Mohamed H., has filed an injunction with the Berlin administrative court aiming to force the German foreign ministry to cover the costs of a public defender in Kenya.

Another American vessel attacked off Somalia

It's being reported that another American merchant vessel has come under attack from pirates off the coast of Somalia. Reuters and PRNewswire, among other outlets, are reporting that the MV Liberty Sun was attacked while sailing to Mombasa, Kenya, according to the ship's owners. Liberty Maritime Corporation says the vessel sustained damage from automatic weapons and RPGs fired by pirates in an unsuccesful attempt to likely seize the ship. None of the crew was injured and the freighter is currently continuing its journey to Mombasa with naval protection.

The Liberty Sun was carrying food aid from Houston to Africa, and had discharged part of her cargo in Port Sudan last week. This is, of course, the second U.S.-flagged ship to face pirates in the region, following last weekend's dramatic incident with the Maersk Alabama. According to the Liberty Maritime website, the bulker's homeport is New York. Photo below is also from the firm's website.


Lest anyone think this marks some sort of concerted efforts on the part of Somali pirates to target U.S. ships specifically, it should be pointed out that four other vessels have been seized in the last two days, none of which were American. According to the AP, the victims are the Greek-managed bulk carrier MV Irene E.M., the Lebanese-owner freighter MV Sea Horse and two Egyptian fishing trawlers. A fifth vessel, the Safmarine Asia, was hit by RPGs and rounds from automatic weapons, but managed to avoid being boarded. The attack on the Irene E.M. took place at night, which is somewhat unusual for the pirates, though there was apparently enough moonlight to aid their efforts.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Maersk Alabama captain freed. Will Somali pirates now treat hostages differently?

It appears to have been a dramatic end to the hostage-taking of the Maersk Alabama's American captain, Richard Phillips, earlier this evening. News reports say that at a little after 7:00pm local time, US Navy snipers fired on the lifeboat containing Phillips and his four captors. Three of the pirates were killed and the fourth was captured, the climax of five days of activity in the seas off East Africa.

The successful efforts to free Phillips would appear to show that American forces acted in a timely and deliberate manner, and hopefully puts a stop to all those armchair critics who were being harsh about the U.S. reaction to the incident. This was a unique case with regard to recent pirate events off the Horn of Africa, and could have turned out much worse had Phillips and his captors been able to seek refuge in Somali waters.

There are some fears that the killing of the three pirates could endanger other hostages by provoking "retaliatory attacks". According to AP, American Vice Adm. Bill Gortney says,"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it." The AP report also quotes two other Somali pirates who talked about the situation. One, Abdullahi Lami, said that, "Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying. We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men." The second, Jamac Habeb, told AP from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl, that, "From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)."

While there is the distinct possibility that these comments do reflect a more dangerous reaction from pirates, I would point out that there was no real change in the activities of Somali gangs last year after French forces acted against elements of these sea robbers. A dead hostage is worthless to the pirates as you can't negotiate a ransom for a corpse. The Somali pirates have always understood this as a key element in their activities. Even last Friday's incident, when French commandos boarded the yacht Tanit and killed two pirates - as well as the skipper - did not seem to cause the same worry that it would ratchet up the reactions from the Somalis. (But then, maybe, the American press has just been hand-wringing a little too much.)

As well, it is important to remember that the term "Somali pirates" should be understood to mean a variety of disparate groups who often do not see eye-to-eye, not some blanket entity that is all-encompassing. These guys fight over the prizes available and value their zones of operation as strongly as street gangs do in urban centers. It's quite likely that some pirates are sitting ashore in Somalia tonight and, rather than pondering the killing of hostages, are thinking their brethren who died tonight were unlucky, or just plain dumb.

Was the U.S. action correct? Absolutely. Will it lead to the deaths of other hostages as a result? I doubt it. And I hope I'm right, given there are well over 200 mariners being held for ransom by Somali pirates tonight.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Maersk Alabama captain tries to escape; French hostage killed

It was a day without complete success in dealing with two hostage incidents involving Somali pirates, one American, the other French.

Undated photo of Maersk Alabama
(from Maersk Lines)

The captain of the Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, attempted to escape from his captors last night. According to reports, Phillips jumped into the sea, possibly in a bid to have nearby American naval personnel pick him up. Unfortunately, the pirates re-captured the captain and continue to hold him. They are said to be asking for $2 million in ransom for his release.

Capt. Richard Phillips
(Reuters/Phillips Family)

Meanwhile, French forces went after the pirates holding five people aboard a yacht that was seized last Saturday by pirates. The Tanit was heading towards the Zanzibar Archipelago, skippered by French couple ChloƩ and Florent Lemacon. Also aboard were the Lemacon's young son and another couple. According to the BBC and Reuters, French officials decided to act after negotiations with the pirate captors broke down yesterday. A rescue team was sent to board the yacht and free the hostages, but in the ensuing engagement Florent Lemacon was killed, along with two of the pirates. Three other pirates were captured. No word on any injury to the others.

Florent Lemacon with family aboard Tanit prior to capture by pirates
(from Lemacon's blog)

While all this was going on, the Norwegian freighter Bow Asir appears to have been released today. It had been held since March 26 (see my earlier note on this here).

It's too early to speculate on what went wrong in the French engagement or to even criticize their actions while there are many other hostages currently being held by pirates. Similarly, some are questioning the manner in which the U.S. is responding to Phillips' situation, even going so far as to label this a failure of the Obama administration. I would say that these views are questionable and being made far too early, and without a full picture of things. Without sounding too harsh, remember that we are talking about one individual being held by armed captors in a lifeboat. There are over 220 other mariners from a variety of nations still in pirate hands today.

As I wrote earlier, there are lots of people offering up analyses and opinions that are often incorrect. (See also EagleSpeak's recent posting that corrects the errors in just one of these sorts of things.) Even the venerable BBC World Service put up an item today with the headline: Piracy off the Horn of Africa: out of control? It's not long, and ends with, "The hijackings are threatening to destabilise one of the world's busiest shipping lanes."

It's vitally important to remain focused and calm and as objective as possible about what's happening on the other side of the globe. That's how any professional mariner would react to a dangerous situation. Journalists, reporters, bloggers and pundits need to try this, too.

And, per that BBC report: Piracy is not out of control off the HoA. Pirates are in complete control and they know exactly what they're doing. Our responses have been, perhaps, out of control and diffused. And the activites of pirates are not 'threatening' to destabilize the seas of East Africa. That happened a decade ago. Today, these pirates have made the threat a reality.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maersk Alabama incident has people thinking about Somalia

As the Maersk Alabama sails to Mombasa and the USS Bainbridge keeps an eye on the pirates holding Captain Richard Phillips in a lifeboat, there is quite a bit of talk online and on air about the incident, and what to do about things. Many of the comments posted on media websites seem to involve a lot of "Let's go get the pirates with our guns" sort of sensibility, a reflection of the frustrations being felt. The number of postings that suggest putting cannons or other heavy weaponry aboard merchant vessels is staggering. But this isn't going to happen and reveals a lack of understanding about civilian mariners' lives at sea and the various national laws that prevent the arming of merchant vessels.

Then there are the comments posted by would-be experts positing their theories on what's caused piracy to become so endemic off the Horn of Africa and how the law could be applied. Many of these 'legal perspectives' are misguided, or just wrong, and a number otherwise smart people seem to be rushing to provide their own perspectives on the situation without understanding the broader picture.

For instance, there have been a number of sources that consider the Maersk Alabama incident to be an indication that piracy off East Africa is escalating. This appears to be based on the fact that it was an American-flagged vessel with American crew that was attacked. I, however, don't see it in that manner. The Alabama fell victim to a continuing threat that has seen five other vessels recently hijacked. An escalation is when pirates attack a new type of vessel - such as a cruise ship, a supertanker or a vessel laden with munitions and weaponry - or when mariners are injured or killed, or when piracy becomes a source of funding for terrorists. Box ships have been attacked before (and probably will be again), but I seriously doubt the pirates who boarded the Alabama knew the crew was American or targeted them purely because of their nationality.

On the positive side of all these discussions is the growing understanding that to effectively deal with piracy in the region, we need to deal with Somalia itself. Paul Reynolds, BBC News website's world affairs correspondent, has written a piece that suggests adopting a 19th Century approach to things, when gunboat diplomacy was a norm. He quotes Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, who said, in 1841, "Taking a wasps' nest...is more effective than catching the wasps one by one." Right now that's what all those naval vessels are doing: swatting at individual wasps, so to speak.

(Reynolds also seems to imply in his piece that what's needed are naval commanders more willing to bend the rules when engaging pirates, much like Commodore Stephen Decatur did when the U.S. was battling Barbary Pirates in 1815. He also states that convoys are currently in use for aid vessels going to Kenya and Somalia, which is not completely correct. A warship shadowing a merchant vessel carrying food aid from Mombasa to Somalia doesn't really qualify as a convoy.)

Over at National Review Online, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey posted a short piece that points out the reluctance of nations to root out the Somali pirate lairs ashore. This is the most effective way to suppress piracy, and has worked over the centuries. However, the likelihood that troops from the U.S. will go ashore in Somalia seems remote, at this stage (to say nothing of forces from Canada, Britain or France). And the African Union troops that have been deployed have proven virtually useless. But without a stabilizing force that is robust in its mandate and accompanied by the suitable political and economic clout to re-build Somalia's vacant infrastructures, the threat of continued violence - both at sea and on land - will continue.

I am, however, not advocating the wholesale invasion of Somalia by foreign troops; it's a far more complex situation than that. Indeed, the most effective stabilizing force would be one that is Somali in origin, not foreign. An excellent look at the domestic situation in Somalia was written last month by Graham Cooke for The Diplomat. Entitled "The Impact of Somali Piracy", it details the perspectives of a number of experts, and looks at the risks created by using force against the Somali pirates, as well as the risks of doing nothing. It also explores the potential threats posed by Islamists in Somalia, and their links to pirate gangs.

If this all seems complicated, it's because it is. But as Chatham House's Roger Middleton is quoted in The Diplomat piece, "[O]ne option the international community does not have is to ignore the problem."

Maersk Alabama update:

Bloomberg is reporting that reinforcements have set out from Somalia to provide some sort of assistance to their pirate brethren who are holding Capt. Phillips hostage. Hope they have enough fuel for the trip there and back, though one has to wonder whether they'll even get close to the scene, what with naval vessels in the area.

Also, Reuters reports that the U.N. special representative for Somalia wants the international community to do more to trace the money trail used by pirates in order to quash their financial backers.

Below is today's update of attacks off Somalia from NATO:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Maersk Alabama crew repels pirates

AP is reporting that the American crew of the container ship Maersk Alabama has regained control of their vessel after an attack by Somali pirates earlier today. Word of this was given to AP by the father of the vessel's second-in-command, who spoke with his son aboard Maersk Alabama via telephone. The report also has an unnamed U.S. official saying that the American crew are holding one of the pirate attackers, while three more fled overboard.

American mariners seized by pirates

A U.S.-flagged container ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked earlier this morning while sailing about 500 kilometres off the coast of Somalia. In a statement from the vessel's owners, Maersk Line Limited, the vessel was said to have been en route to Mombasa from Djibouti at the time of the attack. The crew consists of 20 Americans and the ship's home port is Norfolk, VA.. The seizure of Maersk Alabama is the sixth such incident in less than a week. According to Maersk, the eleven-year-old vessel was carrying 400 containers of food aid, some of which was destined for the UN's World Food Programme.

The BBC's East Africa correspondent, Peter Greste, wonders whether the American hostages will receive the same treatment that Somali pirates have shown previous captives. According to the BBC report, "Somalia is largely under the control of a group with links to al-Qaeda, our correspondent says, and they may choose to make a political point out the situation." And while I beg to differ about the assessment that Somalia is, indeed, largely controlled by Islamists, I do agree that should al-Shabaab become involved in this situation, piracy-for-ransom may not be the outcome of this incident.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

How to Beat the Somali Pirates

EagleSpeak yesterday presented an exceedingly lucid perspective on measures that could be emplaced to deter further attacks by pirates off the Horn of Africa, promulgating the idea of increased use of convoys to protect commercial ships in the region. Some shippers are already doing so, but a greater use of this time-tested process could definitely help alleviate future attacks.

There are many ideas being put forth about how to address the situation in the waters off the Horn of Africa, and before I add my own thoughts to EagleSpeak's opinions, I'd like to comment on a piece posted on the Foreign Affairs website by blogger Elizabeth Dickinson. Entitled "Pirates on a spree", it sums up what a number of people are feeling, especially in light of the hijacking of at least five vessels in the last two days. However, in my estimation she only gets things about half right.

Dickinson wonders,"How are a bunch of former fisherman (sic) defeating the world's navies?", which is wholly incorrect. Somali pirates are by no means defeating navies, for they go out of their way to avoid encounters with warships patrolling the region's seas. Indeed, pirates there are not 'defeating' anyone - they are threatening and attacking mariners in a manner intended to maintain the inflow of money to the various gangs and warlords who control these criminal ventures. Unlike, for instance, terrorist groups, pirates do not wish to defeat or vanquish an enemy; they wish to exploit a resource - ships and seafarers - on an ongoing basis.

Dickinson also brings up what she calls the "grievance theory", the idea that Somalis are "pissed" about over-fishing and the illegal dumping of toxic waste in the Indian Ocean, though she sums this up with the odd sentence, "Don't dump your waste on Somali soil if you don't want to get wasted at sea, apparently." I'm not sure what she means by that, but, regardless, the issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (known as IUU), and the dumping of toxic waste, is nothing new to the seas off Somalia. These activities go back well over a decade and have, at times, been done with the complicity of Somali warlords. You simply can't extract bribes, or "permits", on the one hand and then decry the despoiling that comes from allowing such activities on the other. If Somalis were out patroling their maritime economic zone and protecting fishing vessels - their own and foreign - or detering waste dumpers by reporting their activitiesto the international community, that would be an entirely different matter. But the cloak of environmental protectors sometimes put forth just doesn't fly with me.

However, Dickinson is spot on when she says that Somali pirates are venturing further offshore to avoid naval patrols and are continuing to pirate because there's no other viable, economic option available. But, most importantly, she offers a view I've already taken about the confusion arising from so many nations sending so many vessels into the foray.

To add to EagleSpeak's views, I would suggest that we need a more comprehensive and organized international response to piracy off the Horn of Africa. This is the only situation in current times in which such disparate elements as NATO, the EU, Russia, China and India have shown a willingness to work together to combat a low-level conflict, which is what piracy is. But the command and control structures are overlapping, reducing overall capabilities. It is vital that this be addressed.

And as to the big issue - dealing with the land-based commanders who send pirates out - it is clear that no one wants to send troops into Somalia itself. So, instead, I offer the suggestion that the international community work with the younger generation of Somalis, many of whom live in the West and hold little fondness for their elders, the members of the TFG and other groups that have done little to provide leadership in Somalia.

Two opportunities exist to augment convoys and patrolling warships: A more effective, coordinated multinational leadership and support for the younger generation of Somalis willing to put aside the sins of their fathers. Somalia today is a litmus test of how the international community can address age old problems in a completely modern, 21st century manner. To be sure, commercial shipping is being affected by the plight of piracy, but there are currently no other strategic imperatives there which might diffuse political objectives, such as oil, gas or terrorists. But there is the potential to suppress piracy in the seas off the Horn and support East African security without adding Somalia to the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unaddressed, though, Somalia's criminal elements will prove far more costly to us than any ransom ever paid.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tamil Tigers fight on from the sea

EagleSpeak posted a lengthy piece yesterday about the recent encounter between Sri Lankan navy and those of the Tamil Tigers' sea forces. As the BBC also says, at least four Tamil Sea Tiger vessels out of a group of some ten were destroyed in an engagement at the start of the weekend, with at least 11 Sea Tigers killed by the government forces.

None of this is about piracy, per se, but it is about the continuing use of the seas as a warfront. For the last few months, the Sri Lankan government has been reporting that their assaults on Tamil strongholds in the north of the island nation were proving exceptionally succesful in pushing the Tigers - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - into a position of non-existence. Yet the Tigers seem to be fighting on.

Putting aside, for the moment, political considerations, it's easy to see how a group of people would find ways to defend what they see as their homeland. They are sterotypically waging a g guerrilla war, and the use of the seas is, in this case, a viable option in furthering their goals.

Pushed into a corner, anyone might fight with all they have. And while the LTTE are waging a political campaign, this does beg some questions about what pirates, such as in Somalia, might do should we ever begin to go ashore and deal with their havens in that region.