Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Somali Pirates Flee Al-Shabaab

News reports indicate that Somali pirates were forced to flee from the coastal community of Haradheere after a weekend attack by al-Shabaab militants. The Voice of America says pirates from Haradheere fled in the wake of news that hundreds of fighters belonging to the Islamist group were approaching the area, taking a number of captured vessels and human hostages north towards the next nearest pirate stronghold, the town of Hobyo. (On the map above, Haradheere is not marked, but is located in the southern corner of Mudug province.)

According to The Guardian, two vehicles with al-Shabaab fighters entered Haradheere Sunday evening, though they are reported to have later left. But the fear of being attacked by the Islamist group was apparently enough of a worry for the pirates to decamp to safer places. A businessman in Haradheere told the media that, "The town is nearly empty after the pirates have left it...It is calm but tense."

The Guardian report also says that among the hostages who were moved by the pirates was the British couple - Rachel and Paul Chandler - who have been held since their yacht was captured last October. The Chandlers are said to have been bundled out of Haradheere in a vehicle. In The Guardian post, a leader from the gang holding the Chandlers claims that al-Shabaab offered his group £1.2m for the couple, though the pirates are demanding £1.6m in ransom.

The attack by al-Shabaab may be part of the group's efforts to consolidate control over more of central Somalia, and to impose their form of justice on criminals like pirates. But another possible motive being mentioned in the VoA report is that revenge may be a factor. Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Association says that pirates recently hijacked a vessel suspected of carrying arms intended for al-Shabaab. Pirates are also reported to have seized several dhows laden with charcoal that had left Somalia bound for the Gulf States. Mwangura says the cargoes were sources of money for al-Shabaab, so the fighters are angry about the loss of revenue (most of the dhows have since been freed, according to the VoA report).

When faced with an armed opposition intent on attacking their shore-based strongholds, Somali pirates would prefer to cut-and-run rather than fight it out. And this recent incident brings to mind the period when the Islamic Courts Union briefly held sway over large parts of southern and central Somalia in 2006, and brought piracy to a near stand-still as a result of their imposition of law and order in the area.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Somali Pirates: Indictments, Threats & Lost

Yesterday saw eleven of those Somalis recently apprehended by the U.S. Navy appearing before a magistrate in a Norfolk, Virginia, courtroom. According to ABC News, the suspects were indicted on charges that include piracy, assault with a dangerous weapon, use of a firearm during a crime of violence and attacks to plunder a vessel. The most serious charge - piracy - carries a mandatory life sentence, while the others have penalties ranging from 10 to 35 years. According to media reports, one of the suspects appeared using crutches with bandages on his head, while another arrived in a wheelchair because one of his legs had been amputated below the knee. The injuries are said to have been the result of alleged battles with the Navy.

Though none of the defendants entered a plea during the 90-minute hearing yesterday, it is being reported that a detention hearing will be held next Wednesday and the actual case against the men could be scheduled before the summer.

The indictments come a day after news was released that a flotilla of pirate vessels attacked an Iranian supertanker in the Gulf of Aden as the vessel was sailing to Egypt from the Kharg Island terminal in the Persian Gulf. The report says that 15 boats took part in the attack, which was thwarted when Iranian naval elements arrived on the scene. Reuters says the supertanker was carrying 300,000 barrels crude oil valued at $150 million at the time of the pirate attack.

The aborted attempt to seize the Iranian vessel follows on reports that Somalis holding the MT Samho Dream have threatened to blow that supertanker up unless the pirates receive a hefty ransom. Someone named Hashi - described as a 'pirate commander' - spoke to Reuters from the Somali town of Hobyo, saying, "We are demanding $20 million to release the large South Korea ship." (The tanker is technically a Marshall Islands vessel, being registered there. She is owned by a Singaporean firm and operated by a South Korean one.)

Blowing the Samho Dream up would be an environmental disaster, but the damage inflicted would be most terribly felt along the Somali coastline and would obviously most affect the fishery in that region. Given the likely reaction of ordinary Somalis to such an event, it's unclear whether the pirates would seriously carry through on the threat and risk turning even more of their people against them. On the other hand, we already know that pirates have been willing to intercept vessel carrying much-needed international aid to Somalia and affect the ability to feed and care for the people living there, so every threat needs to be taken seriously.

Finally, on a somewhat lighter note was the buried news of a group of suspected pirates who got lost while trying to return to Somalia after an unsuccessful hunting trip. As the Reuters report printed in The Vancouver Sun says, the group was heading back towards Hobyo from somewhere near the Seychelles when they ran out of water and food. One of the would-be pirates, Abdulkhadir Jim'ale, says that in the course of their nighttime passage home, they somehow ended up "in a shiny city with lights." Turns out the gang had missed Hobyo - by a long shot - and were in Mombasa, Kenya. The suspected pirates tossed their weapons overboard, beached their boat and disappeared into the city. Jim'ale and four of his colleagues are now back in Somalia, while three others were still missing at the time of the report. This gives you an idea of how porous the coastline and borders of East Africa are. It is also noted that Jim'ale was one of 23 suspected pirates released by the Seychelles last September.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book review: "Seized" by Max Hardberger

While in Mombasa, Kenya, a few years ago, I noticed a decrepit coastal freighter moored at one end of the Kilindini port. Her open cargo deck was empty and there didn't seem to be any crew aboard. The only sign of activity on the freighter was an armed guard with a rifle in his lap who sat on the afterdeck, looking bored as he leafed through a magazine beneath an impromptu awning of bedsheets meant to ward off the midday sun. I was told the vessel had been seized a few weeks earlier by the authorities as a result of a dispute between her owners and a chartering company. After being impounded, the crew were sent home without being paid, the cargo disappeared one night and the ship had not been allowed to move an inch. A couple of locals said the whole situation smelled of greed and corruption. Though rusty, the vessel still had a few years left in her in the East African tramp trade, and was valued at a quarter million dollars to whomever could get the ship back in business. But until the dispute was resolved, the freighter wasn't going anywhere; she would remain under guard in Mombasa and nobody would make a dime from her.

This dark side of the shipping business is at the core of Max Hardberger's new book, "Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures" (Broadway Books, 294 pages, $25.00). The Louisiana native has led a varied life, working as a high school teacher, crop duster, flight instructor, maritime lawyer and writer, as well as working his way up from deckhand to master mariner. But it's the years he has spent working to free vessels that have been seized by corrupt authorities in dodgy places around the world that forms the basis for this book. Sub-titled, "Battling scoundrels and pirates while recovering stolen ships in the world's most troubled waters", the book actually has nothing do with pirates like those who operate from Somalia, but everything with being a maritime repo man.

The start of the book pretty much lays it out when Hardberger writes, "The first time I ever stole a ship out of port was on the sturdy old bulk carrier Naruda, lying at anchor in Cap Haitien Bay, Haiti, at the end of May 1987." From there, he recounts many tales of what it takes to get vessels out from beneath the noses of some clearly dangerous characters. Traveling as far afield as Vladivostok and Port-au-Prince, Hardberger's particular expertise is called into action again and again in a series of daring-dos that read like fictional thrillers, but are true.

One of the strengths of Hardberger's book is his prose, which is lucid, entertaining and dramatic. His descriptions of the waterfronts of various seedy ports and the characters who inhabit them are vivid. "Seized" is replete with insider information that only a professional mariner would know, yet the author explains much in a manner that will keep landlubbers interested. And the stories recounted are varied enough that they never seem to get boring.

At one point Hardberger is hired to get a ship and her crew out of a Honduran port after the vessel was fraudulently seized. To do so, he comes up with a risky plan that entails him climbing aboard one night, taking over from its cowardly captain, rallying her crew to sail into a coming storm and coaxing two armed guards into a lifeboat along the way. And this all happens before its discovered that the freighter's hull has been breached by the storm action and they're sinking. Unable to return to Honduras - where Hardberger and the crew would be arrested - they must push on through force nine winds and heaving Caribbean seas while trying to find a way to seal the crack.

But not everything that Hardberger details involves freeing vessels. He's also been called upon to use his unique maritime knowledge to help move some special cargoes around, such as when a buyer needs 47 Czechoslovak-built crop dusting planes moved from East Germany to Venezuela. This happens just before the two Germanys reunited, when the situation in the communist east was in limbo. Taking advantage of this, a team of pilots that includes Hardberger himself ferries the planes to a North Sea port, packs them in shipping containers and gets them on their way.

It's clear that in many of the cases he describes, Hardberger and his accomplices are breaking local laws to get the job done. But it's doubtful anyone reading will lose any sleep about the locales involved, which normally are some dismal Third World harbor. And the author comes across as being thoughtful about the repercussions of what he's doing, trying to balance being law-abiding while dealing with law-abusers.

It's unfortunate that Hardberger has a bare minimun in the way of a forward and acknowledgments, because he must have worked with many people to get the book published. The role of the editor, for instance, is too often overlooked in helping to craft good books, and it would appear that Hardberger worked with a good one here. Also, the book lacks any maps, which could have helped with the many places Hardberger travels, and it's too bad there are no photos (however, you can see some interesting shots on his website,

But the biggest oversight in this book is the lack of more information about the nefarious business of seizing ships. This obviously goes on in ports all over the globe, yet Hardberger never gives us any broader context, such as the costs to the shipping industry or global economies, an idea how many vessels are seized and freed every year, the worst places this goes on, or whether anything is being done to deal with things. Hardberger also rarely mentions anyone else who does the sort of work he does, but since this is his book about his adventures, I think it's safe to forgive him.

Though the book comes to something of an abrupt end - for reasons readers will probably understand - Hardberger's stories and his skills as a storyteller are such that he could have filled a book with twice as many tales of what it's like to be a maritime repo man. "Seized" is a well-written book of true-life adventure tales set in the underbelly of the shipping industry, a place that most people would prefer to avoid, unless you're Max Hardberger.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Somail Pirates Prepare Their New Public Relations Campaign

There are only a couple of months remaining in the current piracy season off the Horn of Africa, before the seas get rough again and the pirates take a breather ashore. And while the pirate gangs continue to attack and hijack vessels anywhere they can - including closer to India than to Somalia - they also appear to be thinking about how to bolster their image to the world, perhaps in order to use the summer months for another attempt at a media make-over.

The English-language version of Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat today reports that pirates in Puntland are planning a secret meeting shortly in Eyl in order to discuss how to better improve their image and international reputation. One anonymous Somali pirate told the daily's Khaled Mahmoud that, "The world is depicting us as terrorists and a handful of criminals. This is wrong. We have a just case and want to present it. We have no other choice but to press ahead with what we do well, which is hijacking ships."

This is another sign of the organized aspect of Somali pirate groups, of how they methodically plan to use the media and others to re-brand themselves as anything but criminals. It will likely be picked up by individuals willing to overlook the human impact on innocent mariners who are being attacked and captured by pirates. And while there are many issues that drive Somalis to taking such extreme acts as pirating vessels, there must be a broader understanding that under no circumstances can these attacks be condoned in any way. As I wrote last June, pirates operating from Somalia are not 'Robin Hoods', 'eco-warriors' or anything similar.

So when reports trickle out of the region over the summer, with sympathetic portrayals of impoverished fishermen forced to attack vessels in order to simply feed their families, keep a shaker of salt nearby, because you'll need more than a grain's worth to discern the reality.

Also, I'd like to mention that UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has commented on the situation in Somalia. The UN News Centre reports that the Hollywood actress is "deeply troubled by the complete and utter disregard for human life in Somalia," and has appealed, "[T]o those who carry on fighting not to shell and target civilian neighbourhoods."

I mention this not to be trite about her comments, but to point out the ongoing concerns the UN has with the situation in Somalia that Jolie has added her voice to. It's likely that many millions more will read what she has said, more than might follow the reports from the UN and other agencies. If she is able to raise greater awareness of what is going on in the Horn of Africa, it is all for the better.

By comparison, I received an note from a reader in Florida keying me to a piece written by columnist John Nash in Hernando Today (published by the Tampa Tribune), entitled "An answer to piracy off the Horn of Africa." Read it yourself, if you wish, but the gist of his commentary falls into the 'blow 'em out of the water' genre (his words, not mine). It's an ill-informed piece that talks of "sporadic reports" from a region where the U.S. and a few other nations "sometimes" confront pirates. It simplifies not only Somali piracy but also the Second World War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to draw parallels between those latter conflicts and what is currently going on off the Horn of Africa.

The effect of articles like Nash's can be as counter-productive to thinking about piracy as a media campaign from maritime criminals based in Somalia. Let the reader beware.

Somali Pirates Attack Another Naval Vessel

The European Union's Maritime Security Centre - Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) has just released news that a French navy supply vessel, the FS Somme, was attacked by suspected pirates Monday evening (April 19), while sailing about 400 nautical miles off the Somali coast. Six individuals were apprehended by the crew of the Somme after they apparently mistook the supply vessel for a merchant ship. The naval vessel came under fire, which was returned, and then the French chased down both a mothership and two skiffs being used by the suspects. The mothership was destroyed after a short chase, and one of the skiffs was later seized. The six suspects, along with some of their gear and a skiff, are currently being held aboard the Somme. And, as MSCHOA also notes, this is the second time the Somme has been faced pirates and taken action against the attackers: In October of 2009, the supply vessel was involved in another incident and, at that time, captured five pirates and their skiff.

Photos below were released by the French Ministry Of Defense to MSCHOA and show the pirate skiff being taken aboard the Somme. More can be seen by clicking here.

Confusion About New U.S. Counter-Piracy Policy

Last week's decision by the American administration to go after the financial assets acquired by those involved with Somali piracy has led to some confusion about how the government would actually do so and what the wider repercussions of this policy might mean for the commercial shipping industry. The concerns are based on the jurisdictional aspects of U.S. law and just how far the long arm of offices like the Treasury or Justice Departments can be extended. For instance, if monies believed to belong to a suspected pirate are tracked to a bank account in a certain third party nation, can they be seized or frozen? Hard to say, given the opaque nature of international banking. Of course, should some of those assets from suspected criminal activities end up in a financial institution that falls under U.S. regulations, that's a different story.

While the details of how Washington intends to proceed have yet to be clarified, there are already worries about what the ramifications might be for the shipping industry. As AP reports, one of the concerns is whether firms with U.S. interests might be able to pay ransoms to pirate gangs for the release of crew members and vessels taken hostage. Some observers worry that the vagueness in the Executive Order could lead to the prosecution of individuals who pay off pirates in order to free hostages, though the report does quote a Treasury Department official who said they were not interested in actually doing so.

Adam Szubin, the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control with the Department, told AP, "We are targeting only those individuals and entities that freely choose to support acts of piracy or armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, including through the supply of weapons, financing, communication devices, or small boats and other equipment."

So the key words in Szubin's comments would appear to be whether individuals 'freely choose' to support Somali maritime criminals. Few - if any - of those in the shipping world who pay ransoms would say they do so willingly, though there is a tacit understanding that many consider it part of the cost of doing business in piracy-prone waters. The harsh reality is that the millions of dollars that have been remitted to pirate gangs over the years have helped to sustain and grow the business of attacking passing vessels, as those criminal organizations re-invest in their ongoing operations.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Prosecuting Pirates & Going After The Money Trail

A few weeks ago, I wondered what the United States would do in the wake of the apprehension of five suspected pirates by the crew of the frigate USS Nicholas, stating, "We must prosecute these criminals, wherever we can. If it takes bringing them thousands of miles from Somalia to face a judge, then so be it." I wrote that post worrying that suspected pirates would end up being sent home to Somalia, another manifestation of the 'catch and release' scenarios that have been too common in the past few years. Hopefully, this may not be the case.

It is being reported that the five men captured by the Americans may be sent to the U.S. to face criminal proceedings, probably in a federal court in Virginia (this is because the suspects attacked the USS Nicholas, which is homeported in Norfolk, Virginia). As for 16 other individuals currently being held by the US Navy aboard ships off the Horn of Africa, the CNN report says that 10 may be sent to Oman - because they had attacked an Omani-flagged vessel - while the remaining six may also end up in the U.S.

At the same time, other media reports say that Germany is preparing to prosecute 10 suspected pirates who had commandeered the German container ship MV Taipan, before being captured by Dutch marines. Those ten men have been flown to Europe by the Dutch and will be turned over to German authorities shortly.

Meanwhile, it also being reported that U.S. president Barack Obama has authorized the Treasury Department to go after the financial assets of individuals believed to be involved with piracy off Somalia (you can download the press release here). In the press release, the American president says that, "The deterioration of the security situation and the persistence of violence in Somalia, and acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia...constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat." It is also being reported that the Treasury Department has a list of names of individuals whose assets they would freeze.

Taken together, the decisions to prosecute suspected pirates and to go after the money they may have acquired from their operations constitute a positive shift towards applying the rule of law to organized criminal entities preying upon mariners in that part of the world.

And as the various means to deter piracy finally come together, it would appear the criminals involved are aware of the situation, and possibly getting desperate. We've already seen pirates striking every further out to sea, into remote parts of the Indian Ocean. is now reporting that Somali pirates are targeting vessels hired by Somali businessmen, driving up the the price of foodstuffs in that country. Since most shipments into Somalia happen only because 'security money' has been paid to some warlord, it would seem that rival gangs are attacking these vessels, breaking whatever tacit agreement has existed between the groups previously.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Are International Piracy Efforts A Waste Of Money?

The Deputy Prime Minister of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Abdulrahman Adan Ibrahim Ibbi has been reported by the Voice of America to have ridiculed the efforts of the international community to deal with piracy off his country, calling it a "waste of money." Ibbi was speaking at a maritime security conference in Africa, during which he argued that with the proper resources, the TFG could establish an effective coast guard to patrol the seas off their country, or, at least, the waters off those parts of Somalia that the entity has some control over.

The Deputy Prime Minister - who is also the TFG's minister for fisheries and marine resources - had a lot to say about the issue of piracy in his part of the world in the VoA item.

"The international community is paying millions of dollars for its own navy expenses in Somali sea waters. Why don't they pay one percent of that expense to the Somali government to recruit their own coast guard to eradicate this piracy, because we can do it, and we know we can do it and they know we can do it?"

He goes on to say they don't need much money or a big force to do the task. Just some small speedboats that would give the imagined TFG Coast Guard some littoral defence capabilities, as well as sufficient resources to deal with the pirates' bases ashore.

Since we know that their are Somalis with great nautical prowess able to attack vessels thousands of miles from shore and who know how to use weaponry, he's got a point here. It's something I've advocated as recently as a couple of months ago (see here), because the international community will never contain, let alone eradicate, pirates operating from Somalia merely by sending more warships to the region. The only effective solution is for the Somali people to take control of this issue themselves. And here we can see a plea from a senior member of the internationally-recognized TFG asking for assistance to do just so.

The odd thing is that the European Union is preparing to train Somali forces, as the BBC reports here. This is, presumably, to bolster the TFG's military assets as it deals with al-Shabaab, etc. But the piracy problem predates any Islamist insurgency, or whatever you want to call it, in Somalia. So why has there been no support provided to the TFG to enhance its maritime security capabilities?

Perhaps it's because most people consider piracy to be a non-issue, something that only affects a few individuals far, far away. And deploying naval elements to the waters off the Horn of Africa appears to show we're doing "something" with all that expensive hardware.

Yet piracy is something that has global economic, security, political, humanitarian and environmental impacts, in the Somalia theater and elsewhere. And all those warships, aircraft and personnel deployed are a great addition to dealing with things, but far from the overall solution. Indeed, in many cases I would argue that those very naval assets are being used by the global shipping community as a fallback from what those firms should really be doing: Not paying any more ransoms and instead funding the prosecutions of suspected pirates.

Saying to not pay ransoms is very difficult for someone who has spent a lot of time at sea on commercial vessels and has many colleagues who are professional mariners. But the shipping world has fed the maw of the pirate gangs for too long. And while their early intentions were somewhat noble - to protect the lives of mariners being held hostage - it now seems clear that the real goal is to ensure that their vessels and cargoes are freed from pirate captivity. Lax on-board security measures and relying on warships to come to the assistance of their vessels are piss-poor ways to run a business in dangerous waters.

After a decade of paying ever increasing amounts of money to criminal gangs in Somalia, the shipping community has created a Frankenstein they cannot control, or a genie that can't be put back in the bottle. Piracy is first and foremost an economic crime, so by stopping the payments of ransoms would have an impact.

But, of course, it's not likely to happen. The libertarian nature of global shipping could never find a consensus that would allow that. So as I try to be optimistic, what about my second thought about prosecuting the suspected pirates? What about setting up an international fund from shipping sources to allow for witnesses to incidents to travel to whatever locale where a case was being held?

Trust me, it would be a heck of lot less than the ransoms being doled out.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Deadly Business Of Being A War Correspondent & The Fog Of War

Fellow Blogger CDR Salamander has posted a piece about the death of two Reuters journalists in Iraq in July of 2007. This stems from the release today of footage shot by American military personnel involved with the incident, originating on the WikiLeaks site and obtained through the US Freedom Of Information Act. It shows the unfolding of events in a Baghdad suburb on July 12, 2007, in which Iraqi journalists Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen were gunned down by a US helicopter gunship while walking on the street with a group of other individuals. As the footage and dialogue show, the American forces mistook the journalists' equipment for weapons.

Saeed Chmagh (l.) and Namir Noor-Eldeen

Salamander posits that WikiLeaks is trying to make a political statement of some kind and trying to make this a war crime issue, possibly because of the headline that used ('WikiLeaks reveals alleged war crime'). Sal worries that WikiLeaks is, "[T]rying to make a political point by smearing Americans by accusing them of murder when they clearly did not commit murder, which is evil - or they had a idea [sic] encouraged by their own anti-American bias that was too good to check out, which is clueless."

I have great respect for CDR Salamander's perspectives, but in this case I must disagree with what he has written. WikiLeaks did not call this a war crime nor are they trying to smear anyone's reputations. Instead, what they are trying to show is that journalists working in war zones face situations that many of us cannot imagine in trying to report the news.

The 1949 Geneva Convention regulations do spell out legal entitlements for war correspondents. However, since the 1977 adoption of the 'Additional Protocol I', which says that journalists, "'[S]hould be considered as civilians," and protected as such, it is commonly advised that the protections afforded by the Conventions may not apply if the clothing they're wearing too closely resembles that of combat personnel. If you were attached to a military unit in the Second World War, you wore the fatigues of your nation's military. Since the 1960s, though, this has changed considerably. And, in the case of the Reuters men, had they been wearing a uniform of some sort, they might have been even more at risk.

Either way, this is more about the risks that journalists take to cover places like Iraq and the deadly price they pay for doing so rather than any concerted effort to debase the American military. And those risks are understood by most journalists, though they hope the worst will never happen. Having been in a few such places, I know that the vast majority of journalists in dodgy places are professional and understand the risks. (You can always tell the novice by how quickly he drinks and how loud he gets.) As WikiLeaks points out, 139 journalists were killed in Iraq between 2003-2009 while carrying out their professional duties.

If you choose to watch the video below (which can also be accessed via YouTube here), I do warn you that some of the imagery is graphic. And keep in mind that this is far from the complete picture of what occurred in Baghdad in July 2007. The American military was doing the job they had been trained to do (and were asked to do by their commanders, whether you agree or not), and the Iraqi journalists were doing likewise. It is a heart-wrenching look into what is known as the fog of war.

Pirates Capture Largest Vessel Ever: Supertanker Samho Dream

MT Samho Dream

In another audacious attack, suspected Somali pirates seized the supertanker Samho Dream early Sunday morning while she was sailing in the Indian Ocean, some 1500 kilometres southeast of the Gulf of Aden. The VLCC was sailing from Iraq to Louisiana with about 2 million barrels of crude oil in its holds at the time of the attack. The cargo is reportedly valued at around $170 million (US). The VLCC did not have any armed guards aboard her, as she was steaming in waters not normally known to be high risk seas for pirate attacks. (The vessel would have been bound for southern Africa on its journey to the United States, as it is too large to transit the Suez Canal.)

With this incident, pirates have captured the largest vessel ever successfully attacked. The previous record was for the supertanker Sirius Star, which was seized November 15, 2008 and released in early January, 2009, after a ransom of some $3 million was paid to the pirates. The Samho Dream is just slightly larger than the Sirius Star, weighing in at 319,360 DWT and being 333 metres in length (according to Sunday's attack occurs almost a year after the Maersk Alabama incident, the anniversary of which is later this week.

And, in that peculiar way that global shipping works, there are a number of nations with active interests in the vessel: The Samho Dream is flagged in the Marshall Islands, owned by a Singaporean firm, operated by a South Korean company, crewed with mariners from South Korea and the Philippines and carrying cargo owned by American refiners Valero Energy Corp. A South Korean destroyer has reportedly been dispatched to shadow the supertanker as it makes it way towards the Somali coastline.

Last September I mused about the rising tide of ransoms being received by pirate gangs, and wondered if we'd see a $5 million ransom paid before Christmas (2009). I was slightly off in that prediction: The supertanker Maran Centaurus was captured by Somali pirates in mid-November and released on January 19 of this year, and the ransom paid was somewhere between $5.5 and 7 million.

Regardless, if the captors of the Samho Dream manage to get the tanker to Somali waters and begin negotiations for her release, we can expect to see a new record for the ransom requested. Will the pirates be paid? Probably. But should they be paid? That's the hard question. With 24 mariners aboard the supertanker, it is their lives that will hang in the balance as a ransom is discussed and, clearly, their lives are worth whatever it takes to be freed.

However, each time ransoms are paid - and go up and up - they imperil the lives of other mariners who sail those waters. It's why there are reported to be at least 24 vessels currently being held by Somali pirates, with about 358 hostages awaiting freedom from their enforced captivity. The maritime criminals operating in that part of the world are betting on garnering a lot of money, and, so far, they've been wildly successful doing so. At some point, the paying of ever more exorbitant ransoms has to be curtailed, just as the means by which the shipping world and the international community finds better way to stem these attacks.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

US Navy Captures Pirates: Now What?

USS Nicholas (USN photo)

In the wake of today’s gun battle between suspected Somali pirates and the American frigate USS Nicholas, which resulted in the apprehension of five individuals, the question now arises as to what the U.S. government intends to now do. Catch and release does not appear to be an option, not after the frigate sank the would-be pirates’ mothership and skiff, so it would seem the suspects could be facing a tribunal somewhere.

One idea of how the United States will proceed with prosecuting pirates comes from a speech given yesterday by Andrew J. Shapiro, the US State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs. Shapiro was speaking at the American University Law Review Symposium in Washington about how he believes international judiciary can address piracy. Early into his talk, entitled ‘Counter-Piracy Policy: Delivering Judicial Consequences’ (full text available here), Shapiro quotes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment from a year ago – after the Maersk Alabama incident – in which she said, “We may be dealing with a 17th century crime, but we need to bring 21st century solutions to bear.” Given today’s events, one would hope that the Assistant Secretary’s talk would reveal some new ideas about how the international community, including the U.S., can deal with the problem.

Unfortunately, Shapiro’s speech failed to lay out anything particularly new or groundbreaking in terms of American policy vis-à-vis piracy. There are the usual ideas about involving the international community more actively, getting the shipping world to take better precautions and supporting nations like Kenya and the Seychelles as they undertake criminal proceedings against suspected pirates. If this is the best that can be put forth a decade into the 21st century by the world’s most powerful nation, then this observer thinks we’ve got some work to do.

Good intentions and international politics are a dicey mix. In speaking of an international Working Group led by Denmark that is looking at, “[E]nhancing our ability to bring pirates to justice”, Shapiro made the following comments: “The United States is among many countries actively engaged in this group’s effort to enhance our collective ability to prosecute pirates. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, that ability appears to be quite limited.”

Shapiro does offer one idea: Allowing for the possession of piracy-related equipment on, say, a skiff to infer the intent to commit a criminal act. But taking a Devil’s advocate perspective here, this seems a surprising concept. A ladder or Kalashnikov lying in a small boat off the Horn of Africa could definitely be pirate tools, but unless seen by witnesses to have been used in an attack, what court would consider them sufficient evidence to prosecute suspects.

He also makes reference to the oft-repeated problem of dealing with the multi-national nature of international shipping: “…[P]rosecuting pirates can be an incredibly complex proposition in today’s globalized world. The realities of international shipping and global commerce are such that in any given piracy case you could have suspected Somali pirates intercepted and apprehended by a British naval vessel after trying to attack a Liberian-flagged ship, owned by a Canadian company, crewed by Ukrainians, Indians, and Filipinos, with a Russian captain and carrying cargo owned by a Turkish company, en route for delivery to a company in Dubai. And the case could be taking place in a courtroom in yet another country, like Kenya or the Seychelles, which are both currently prosecuting piracy cases. The logistical and diplomatic challenges presented by such a scenario are immense.”

Now just imagine this scenario for a moment: An American-owned jet airliner under contract to an Italian firm is carrying Nigerians to Saudi Arabia. It is crewed by Canadian and Dutch citizens, and has in its holds equipment owned by a German firm. It is hijacked over the Sudan and diverted to Egypt. (Except for the hijacking part of this scenario, this is something that a colleague of mine was involved with.) Would no one deign to prosecute the hijackers? Of course not. The craft is not the issue; the crime is. And with piracy, international law does allow for the apprehension and prosecution of individuals suspected of committing such acts on the high seas (in international waters).

We must prosecute these criminals, wherever we can. If it takes bringing them thousands of miles from Somalia to face a judge, then so be it. Hoping they’ll be dealt with in an East African courtroom is wishful thinking – especially as Kenya has today announced they won’t be accepting anymore suspected pirates in their country. Besides, I – for one – do not believe the Kenyan judiciary is transparent enough to begin with.

The core issue is that thousands of mariners are being predated upon by criminal organizations who are managing to elude effective prosecution because of the fear of bringing the problem to the First World. The double standard that says that maritime piracy is less important than aerial hijackings is misguided and ignores the fact that far more people have been – and will be – the victims of pirates.

Also, a reader queried me about comments made by my colleague Roger Middleton, a British expert on East African issues, who categorized the pirates caught by the US Navy as “unsophisticated”. This may seem at odds with my own views that the pirate organizations operating from Somalia are actually quite sophisticated and that the men attacking passing vessels have considerable nautical skills. But I don’t actually think the perspectives of Middleton and I are that dissimilar: I do think the pirate groups are sophisticated, yet I agree with Middleton that some of those doing the actual attacks may be unsophisticated.

The ability to mount maritime operations up to a thousand miles from shore and the manner by which multi-million-dollar ransoms can be negotiated reveal a degree of organizational expertise that has been built up over the years. Four guys with a skiff, some fuel and AKs can’t just set out from the Horn of Africa and hope to succeed on that level. On the other hand, few – if any – of the operational pirates out there are rocket scientists. What was running through the minds of this particular group when they fired on the USS Nicholas is beyond me, but it is far from the first time that the foot soldiers of an organized criminal entity screwed up. And you can bet that their bosses back in Somalia are mightily pissed at losing five men, a mothership, skiff, weapons and other material in a supremely stupid incident.