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.