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.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Suicide bombings in Mogadishu were revenge for recent US raid: Al-Shabaab

The Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for a deadly attack in Mogadishu earlier today that killed at least nine people. Two cars painted to look like UN vehicles made it onto the base where peacekeeping troops from the African Union are quartered, near the airport. One car detonated near a fuel depot, the other nearby. Among those killed was the AU's deputy commander for the mission in Somalia, Major-General Juvenal Niyonguruza, four other officials and the attackers.

A spokesman for al-Shabaab told Reuters that the double suicide bombing was in retaliation for Monday's raid by U.S. special forces, in which suspected al-Qaeda leader Salah Ali Saleh Nabhan was killed. Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage is quoted as saying, "We have got our revenge for our brother Nabhan." He also said that his group believes the "infidel government" and AU peacekeepers are planning to attack al-Shabaab once Ramadan ends. "This is a message to them," said Rage.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM; website here) comprises some 5,000 troops, from Uganda and Burundi, as well support staff. Since being first deployed in February 2007, the force has seen 33 peacekeepers killed in Somalia, not counting today's fatalities. AMISOM is not involved with counter-piracy operations.

Penetrating the main military base of AMISOM within days of vowing revenge for the US-led raid reveals the organizational capabilities of al-Shabaab, as well as the weakness of the peacekeeping force. But it also reveals a degree of frustration that must be felt by the Somali Islamist group's leadership, since the suicide attack targeted fellow Africans, not the Americans they would have preferred to kill. One wonders if some members of the peacekeeping force are angry with both al-Shabaab and the U.S., and whether this week's incidents will cause other nations to avoid committing their troops to AMISOM or other operations.

On a related note, al-Shabaab also confirmed that they continue to hold a French security consultant who was seized in July (a fellow French captive kidnapped at the same time managed to escape late last month). The group announced a modest list of demands in return for which they would release the man: France must withdraw its security advisors from Somalia and cease supporting the "apostate government of Somalia" militarily or politically; the AU's troops are to be removed; mujahideen fighters being held in other countries are to be released; and French warships deployed in counter-piracy operations off Somalia are to pack up and go home.

Sarcasm aside, it is interesting that al-Shabaab put that last demand in their statement. With the new piracy season about to begin, it could be the group is worried that their pirate allies may not be able to operate as successfully as earlier this year, impacting the financial income that the Islamist group garners from piracy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Attack against Somali insurgents was U.S. operation

In an update on yesterday's report about a raid carried out in southern Somalia, various sources such as the BBC and The Associated Press are saying that it was an American-led operation. According to unnamed government sources, the commando-style operation involved forces from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and was carried out in the region of the southern coastal village of Barawe on Monday. Helicopters arriving from a US Navy vessel stationed offshore strafed a vehicle and killed at least two people in it. Two other individuals in the car were captured by the attackers and flown away with the raiders when they departed back into the Indian Ocean. There are no reports of any injuries or deaths to the raiders.

According to the BBC report, the target of the raid was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a suspected senior al-Qaeda commander in East Africa. The Kenyan-born Islamist extremist is believed to have been involved in the 2002 attack on a resort hotel outside Mombasa that killed 15 people and an unsuccessful attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner that had just departed that coastal city's airport. He may also have been involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) that resulted in over 250 deaths.

Nabhan was reported killed in Monday's incident.

Speaking to the BBC, Andre le Sage of the African Centre at the National Defense University in Washington called Nabhan an important figure in al-Qaeda's East African operations, one who may have liaised with senior commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He most certainly was involved with the Somali group al-Shabaab, reportedly helping the group manage its training camps for foreign fighter. And while le Sage says that Nabhan's death will certainly have an impact on al-Qaeda's capabilities in the region, he adds that al-Shabaab itself may be somewhat less affected. Like pirate gangs, the Islamist group may be able to find any number of willing individuals to fill the gap created by Nabhan's demise.

In the wake of the attack, the BBC also reports that some Somalis are worried about the potential that such actions will push local people into supporting extremist groups like al-Shabaab. An anonymous al-Shabaab commander also told the BBC that they would retaliate against American interests, saying, "They will taste the bitterness of our response."

Monday's attack underscores the increasing concern among many nations that the continued growth of Islamic extremist groups within Somalia needs to be more effectively addressed. The endemic lawlessness in Somalia not only allows militia gangs and pirates to operate with near impunity, but also provides the perfect base from which terror cells can organize and train themselves. As the number of foreign fighters has increased in the area and al-Shabaab and its allies consolidate their control over the southern quarter of Somalia - including the fertile Shabelle region - the situation has become much more serious. It is no longer a case of extremists having a mere toehold in the Horn of Africa; they now control an area the size of Holland and Belgium put together.

Previous reports had Somali eyewitnesses describing the raiders as being French military forces. Whether or not French forces were involved in the operation alongside American troops is not known at this time, though both countries maintain elements in the region, both at sea and ashore (in Djibouti).

Photos of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, including retouched versions, from the FBI's wanted list

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sign of pirate ransom demands going up?

MV Irene E.M. (photo: Roberto Smera/Associated Press)

After being held by Somali pirates for five months, reports say that a Greek-owned bulker and her crew of 21 Filipino mariners have finally been set free. The MV Irene E.M. was seized on April 13 while sailing through the Gulf of Aden and then held off the northeastern coast of Somalia as negotiations dragged on to release the vessel and her crew. The capture of the bulk carrier occurred just one day after the dramatic rescue of the Maersk Alabama's captain, Richard Phillips, by US Navy forces. Unfortunately for the Filipino crew of the Irene, no special forces teams were able to effect a rescue mission, so the mariners had to endure a lengthy period as prisoners in conditions that must have been abysmal. (Photo below was released by the pirates in mid-August and comes from the blog Unheard No More!, one of a number of sites that tried to keep the crew's plight in the public eye.)
According to Reuters, the Somali pirate gang that held the Irene netted a ransom of about $2 million, a sum that places this incident in the upper echelons of amounts paid to free a vessel and its crew. By comparison, the captors of the supertanker MT Sirius Star - freed last January after being held by pirates for two months - received a ransom of about $3 million. But the supertanker was a much more valuable target than the Irene in terms of the value of the vessel and its cargo of crude oil (the Sirius Star itself was worth about $150 million and the crude another $100 million).

News that the crew of the Irene is finally free is, of course, most welcome. Yet the hefty ransom that was reportedly paid to the pirates may be an ominous sign that future demands will be higher than previously seen. If a somewhat older bulker like the Irene can garner $2 million for criminal gangs, what of a newer vessel, a container ship or another tanker? Granted there's a bit of supply and demand going on here: Somali pirates have only been holding a handful of vessels these last few months, so they may have asked for more in this case because they had few other prospects (see the Reuters FactBox here for an update on vessels currently believed to be in pirate hands).

On the other hand, we could be seeing initial signals that inflation has seeped into the local pirate economies in the Horn of Africa. About five years ago, the MV Irene would likely have been freed for a far lower sum, perhaps $100-250,000; two years ago, maybe $500-750,000; last year, probably a million dollars, at best. Looking at this particular incident and others from earlier this year, it seems entirely conceivable that we'll see an incident in the near future - before Christmas - in which someone will end up paying $5 million to pirates in order to secure the release of a ship, and its hostages.

The only saving grace in all this is that every economic boom eventually undergoes a "correction", as so many people around the world have witnessed in the last year (September 15 marking the one year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers). At some point, the bubble must burst, and this is as true for Somali pirates as anyone else. One scenario could see so many vessels being held captive in the coming months that their overall bargaining value diminishes for the pirates, though there is a quantitative aspect, too: Even if you have to reduce your demands for a vessel similar to the Irene to just a million dollars, having a few more prizes under your control can still make the economic bottom line pretty profitable.

Still, for the short term things appear rosy for pirates and greed will drive them to resume their seagoing operations off the Horn of Africa and demand ever more exorbitant pay-offs. The worry here is that a shipowner will eventually refuse to accede to those demands and someone will get killed - most likely a seafarer. This in no way condones the paying of ransoms, but is merely a harsh assessment of what may come to pass as pirates resume their operations off East Africa.

Somali militants attacked by foreign troops

Early reports by outlets such as the BBC and New York Times say that a helicopter raid was carried out earlier today against possible members of the al-Shabaab Islamist group in southern Somalia. Witnesses say that two helicopters took part in the attack, which occurred about 250 kilometres south of Mogadishu in territory al-Shabaab largely controls. According to witnesses, the attackers wore uniforms with French insignia and arrived from the direction of a French naval vessel in the Indian Ocean. The raiders targeted a vehicle and killed at least two people, possibly including a senior militant leader. At this time, the French are denying their forces were involved in any actions in Somalia, though one French security adviser remains in the custody of insurgents after being captured in July (a fellow captive managed to recently escape).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

As Somali pirates prepare to resume their attacks, so does the pressure to combat them

In a roundtable discussion with journalists and bloggers last Friday, the head of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) and his chief of staff offered a few insights into some of the problems they're facing in dealing with piracy, as well how how they hope their naval forces can better the situation. US Navy Rear Admiral Scott Sanders and British Royal Navy Captain Keith Blount spoke from aboard the American guided missile cruiser USS Anzio, while on patrol off the Horn of Africa.

Overall, both officers were upbeat and positive about the problems facing the task force, and other naval elements as well. Admiral Sanders, who assumed command of CTF 151 in mid-August, took pains to point out the inter-operational capabilities that his task force has developed with other nations' naval and security forces and also with civilian organizations, especially within the shipping community. This has helped to reduce the ability of pirates to successfully hijack any vessels this year within the International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), a sea lane that runs along the southern coast of Oman and Yemen which is a major transit corridor to and from the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

The reduction of pirate incidents within the IRTC is partially the result of focusing major naval elements within this area, using convoys to move merchant traffic and increasing the level of communication between civilian and military nodes. But it must be said that the overall level of piracy off the Horn of Africa (HoA) has also diminished these last few months because of meteorological conditions. If you will, everyone's been taking a breather because the seas have been rough.

The problem for Adm. Sanders and many others is what will happen in the coming months, when the Somali pirates resume their operations. They are facing a well-developed enemy with years of experience in asymmetrical warfare, against whom we in the international community have been unable to effectively combat. Earlier this year we saw the largest international armada ever assembled since the Second World War patrolling the waters off the HoA, one that comprised dozens of nations intent on containing the plight of piracy. And it failed.

Okay, that may sound harsh in light of achievements like the safe movement of vessels through the IRTC, but the reality is that even with this large international naval presence in the region, pirate attacks in the first quarter of 2009 doubled from the year before.

So it leaves one to wonder how much pressure commanders like those involved in this roundtable are facing off the HoA. After all, your predecessors didn't do a particularly good job earlier this year. To make a crude analogy, the situation with Somali pirates today is kind of like Iraq a couple of years after the last invasion. There are no rule books or precedents that can really be applied - though some historical evidence is available. But dealing with Somali pirates is nothing like addressing Barbary pirates.

It should also be remembered that most people think there's an easy way to deal with the situation: Bring in more warships and show the pirates who's really boss. But this is only part of the solution and no real means to stem the attacks can ever come without a land-based effort to address the root causes that compel young men to attack merchant vessels. And the longer it takes to make some real progress combating piracy off East Africa, the quicker the general populace will grow bored off the issue.

If we continue to see container ships or oil tankers seized in the months ahead, there's a chance the average Westerner will throw up their proverbial hands and lose interest in something that affects all of us. Hopefully forces like CTF 151 can prevent this from happening. Otherwise, the gain that have been made in counter-piracy operations over the last half decade will be muted.

Public opinion is what drives political will, and stemming global piracy requires a lot of interest from people outside the security and transportation communities. So there's a lot of pressure on the military forces of many nations to produce some effective results in this undeclared war against pirates.