Friday, September 10, 2010

An Insider's Description Of The Magellan Star Incident

For those interested in reading more about yesterday's incident, in which US Marines rescued 11 mariners from suspected pirates aboard the MV Magellan Star, USMC Capt. Alexander Martin has posted a detailed account on the USNI Blog (here). It's a fascinating read, taking you through events from first word the freighter had been boarded by attackers through to the after incident activities carried out by naval personnel.

As Martin writes, this was something that went all the way up the food chain for approval - right to U.S. President Barack Obama. And further to what I wrote earlier about the need to rely on skilled professionals to deal with armed intruders on vessels, I'd point out one particular part of Martin's commentary. In talking of how his raiders reacted once aboard the Magellan Star, Martin writes:

"The details of what happened next are important as they highlight the individual actions of 24 highly trained shooters who were put in decision points of the highest moral magnitude: when to shoot, when not to shoot. I can't go into all these details at this time, but the long and short of it was: some of the enemy threw their hands up when rifles were put in their face, some ran and attempted to allude us in the superstructure but were run down and some hesitated but were taken down by less than lethal force, as the situation dictated. The end result was 9 pirates captured in an opposed boarding and 11 crew members rescued."

But read Martin's account; it's rare that we get such an insightful account.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Judicious Use Of Force Against Pirates

Amidst all the hoopla about Christian extremists planning to burn Korans, some may have missed today's news about the boarding by US Marines of a hijacked vessel off the Somali coast.

Two dozen members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Maritime Raid Force boarded the M/V Magellan Star just before dawn this morning (local time). Suspected pirates had taken control of the freighter yesterday; her eleven crew managed to get themselves into a safe room after sending out word of the situation. In response, elements of CTF 151 (the maritime counter-piracy force in the region) were dispatched, including a Turkish frigate and the American warships USS Dubuque and USS Princeton. The Marine raiders aboard the Dubuque then prepared and executed an operation to board the Magellan Star and free the crew.

Nine suspects were apprehended by the members of 15th MEU, in what is the first instance in that region in which American forces have undertaken such an operation with a commercial vessel seized by pirates. No injuries have been reported.

The Force Recon platoon commander ("Blue Collar 6") during this incident is none other than USMC Captain Alexander Martin, whom I have mentioned in a few earlier posts (see here and here, for instance). He posted a short item on the incident today on the USNI Blog, which is worth noting:

"We got word that the pirates wanted to stay on and fight - it was funny b/c when we came alongside and they saw us board and rush the superstructure, you could see the look change in their eyes...they didn't want to play'd be proud of the men today, they represented America with honor. It didn't need to be a bloodless day (for the pirates) but it was..."

Actually, I'd say that the raiders from 15th MEU represented more than just America today. They also represented the larger international community who are trying to work together to deal with maritime criminal acts. And this is important to mariners around the world, because it shows that seafarers are not alone when it comes to being predated upon by pirates.

The boarding of a hijacked vessel by military assets is fraught with dangers, for the raiders, the crew and the pirates. Past incidents have seen such endeavors end badly (such as happened with the yacht Tanit last year). Still, I would argue that today's incident shows that professionals, trained in counter-piracy operations, can do a far more effective job of dealing with these situations than some of the other options floated out there (such as arming mariners or embarking private security assets). The skill sets of teams such the 15th MEU allowed for a successful operation without the loss of any lives - military, civilian or criminal.

Is a permanent, international counter-piracy raiding force, willing to board vessels, take on pirates and risk their own lives to safeguard civilians the way to go? Well, we do it on land all the time. They're called police. It's part of the process of containing and deterring criminal activities. Not the whole solution, but an important element. And, no, raiders like the 15th MEU cannot be everywhere. But the threat they pose to pirates has risen dramatically as a result of today's events.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Business Of Piracy

A piece posted in today's Vancouver Sun by columnist Fazil Mihlar explored "What business executives can learn from pirates". (Mihlar is also a member of The Sun's editorial board and comes from a business background.) In his piece, Mihlar talked about the relationship between employers and employees, and how criminal groups like modern-day pirates have managed to maximize the potential for profits in this relationship. It's not such a bizarre idea - learning from pirates - and Mihlar mentions Peter Leeson's book, "The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates", which also focusses on this subject.

I've spoken several times to business groups about this very topic. It wasn't alway the talk they were expecting, but the points I - and others - have raised come from a purely analytical look at things. These observations have nothing to do with supporting criminal activities in any manner. But when it comes to figuring out how to motivate one's staff in the midst of an economic downturn, maritime pirate gangs (in places like Somalia) have managed quite well.

A crucial aspect of doing so is to provide an economic reward when the prevailing sense is that there are no other options available. Hope where there is despair, if you will. By knowing there is a hunger - real and otherwise - out there, one can capitalize on the desire to make ends meets in individuals, harnessing their physical and mental energies to a greater purpose.

Fundamentally, all it takes is someone to say, "Here's a way to make yourself useful and successful." The desire to do so is inherently part of human society in a variety of applications. It's the basis of numerous late night infomercials and self-help seminars. It's someone else showing you a path and putting an end to all the troubles that ail you.

It is also often misguided in terms of the real goals imagined by those who engender such solutions, but it is nevertheless still very attractive to many, many people around the globe. When you have little or nothing to begin with, the risks of embarking on something that may be criminal in nature are of reduced concern. And the workforce available in those situations becomes very malleable. Of course one could always use some of the techniques used by pirate "managers" to motivate employees on a more positive, non-criminal level.

Risk, profit-sharing, group support - all are nothing new. They've been utilized by those calling themselves capitalists, communists, socialists, fascists and ordinary criminals for years. Understanding the base aspects of human motivations when it comes to piracy is important in figuring out how to combat the problem. It's just one of the elements that causes the issue to exist.

On a related point, I'd like to point readers to a piece called "Mutatis Mutandis" written by Alexander Martin on the U.S. Naval Institute blog back in late July. Some may have seen it, but for those who did not, Martin - an exceptionally perceptive writer currently deployed overseas with the USMC - gives an good precis on how Somali pirates came to be what we know them today. I meant to mention it earlier; apologies to Alex. Read it and you'll understand what the title refers to.