Friday, February 20, 2009

Tamil Tigers attack Colombo

Word just in that the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, came under attack from two Tamil Tiger aircraft around 1600h GMT (1100h ET), and the BBC reports that both aircraft were downed. Both pilots died from the crashes, as well as at least one person on the ground. Some forty are said to have been injured as a result of the attack, which the website TamilNet seems to indicate was aimed at the Sri Lankan Air Force headquarters.

The military campaign that has been waged of late by the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government has severely undermined the military capabilities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and this aerial attack was clearly unexpected. There have been a number of previous aerial attacks the Tigers have launched in the past, but this particular incident is a bit of an embarrassment for the Sri Lankan government, which has appeared to have destoryed all major Tiger bases in the north of the island. Where these two aircraft sortied from is unknown.

This attack comes a day after the Sri Lankan military captured diving equipment and underwater scooters in the northeastern village of Ampalavanpokkanai; the Defence Ministry is quoted by AFP as saying the gear was for use by suicide bombers. And this all comes three weeks after government forces captured a crude submarine and several small surface craft that had been part of the Sea Tiger fleet.

This marks the first effort by the Tigers to strike back at the government in the south. Should the Sea Tigers have any remaining assests hidden somewhere on the island, you can expect they'll follow suit with their own attack on the seas.

The Sea Tiger semi-submersible shown below was captured on January 29. There are a number of other photos on the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence website.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The risks of reporting on criminals, like pirates

Some of you may have heard about today's news from Moscow relating to the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, though it was hardly the lead item anywhere. Politkovskaya was murdered in October of 2006 while investigating corruption in her country, gunned down outside her apartment. She left behind two young children and many unanswered questions about who ordered her death and what she was investigating. A court in Moscow today acquited three men charged in her murder.

Anna Politkovskaya

I mention the case of this brave Russian journalist because it's important for all who write about crime online, who investigate it and who offer up their perspectives to remember that we are dealing with unsavory elements who can be quite forceful in their reactions to our activities.

I think also of the Italian journalist Ilaria Alpi, who was murdered in Somalia in the early 1990s, along with her cameraman, while looking into the issue of toxic waste dumping off Somalia. Or the various Somali journalists killed or threatened in recent years, such as Sahal Abdulle, plus the plight of Kenyan anti-piracy expert Andrew Mwangura.

My point is that reporting on criminal activities, including piracy, is fraught with risks that many who blog about the issues never realize. I doubt most folks who write about piracy-related things have ever been faced with an armed man in a remote part of Southeast Asia, but I have. And I got lucky that night. Anna Politkovskaya didn't.

It's a small reality check about the reality of what we're dealing with here, and the possible consequences. But we cannot cease all our various efforts to continue to publicize the threat posed by criminals such as pirates. It is absolutely vital that the online community keeps this issue in the pubic domain. Do not shirk the responsibilities we face, nor become cowardly against our opponents.

There's a website for Anna Politkovskaya here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Somalia's clan system and piracy

Seth Kaplan, a foreign policy analyst based in the U.S., has written an interesting commentary on the Policy Innovations website that offers some fresh thoughts on how to address piracy, and other criminal activities, emanating from Somalia. In particular, Kaplan suggests that outside powers should consider working with the various clans there that wield real, local power within the country, instead of attempting to emplace some kind of arbitrary form of "national" government upon the Somali people.

As Kaplan writes, "The United Nations, Western governments, and donors have been trying to fix Somalia in a way that is convenient for them—by creating a central government. They are more willing to accept the appearance of a cohesive regime than they are to accept the reality that they are simply backing one faction, which just happens to control the purported government.

"Instead of repeatedly trying to foist a Western style top-down state structure on a deeply decentralized society, the international community should work with Somalia's long-standing traditional institutions to build a bottom-up government."

This is a unique idea, one that holds great potential in addressing the need to stop piracy by enlisting the support of local leaders. It requires, however, a huge leap of faith on the part of the various outside institutions that have been trying to grapple with Somalia's rampant lawlessness for over fifteen years. The failures of the national entity that is currently supposed to govern Somalia - the Transitional Federal Government - are many, yet the TFG remains internationally recognized.

What Kaplan advocates is nothing short of a radical new approach to governing Somalia, one that is based not upon the creation of a federal "democratic structure" but, instead, involves the various regional players in a confederational system. This would, however, mean dealing with some of the more nefarious elements operating in Somalia, such as the warlords who control pirate gangs. And talking to the bad guys is not a popular idea in most capitals.

But after all the efforts expended in Somalia to date, none of which have proven successful, perhaps the time has come to consider trying something new. Unless the outside world can find a way to create law and order for the Somali people in their own land, it matters little how many naval warships patrol the Indian Ocean or how many pirates are captured, for there will always be someone willing to head to sea with a Kalashnikov believing he can make money by pirating.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Three for three: Russian Navy captures Somali pirates

For the third day running, suspected pirates have been apprehended in the waters off the Horn of Africa, this time by personnel from the Russian Navy's cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter The Great, in English). The BBC reports a helicopter from the nuclear-powered warship spotted three small boats in the seas southeast of Socotra, a Yemeni island in the approaches to the Gulf of Aden. A Russian navy spokesman, Igor Dygalo, is quoted as saying that, "It was visually established how weapons were being dumped from the boats into the sea."

Personnel from the cruiser then seized the small boats and took ten suspected pirates into custody. All are reported to be Somali. Also seized were "weapons including grenade launchers and automatic rifles as well as a quantity of a 'narcotic substance'".

(FYI: The Pyotr Veliky is a Kirov-class battlecruiser and the flagship of the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet. Excepting aircraft carriers, these warships are the largest naval assests afloat.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

US Navy captures another 9 pirates as MV Faina finally arrives in Mombasa

US Navy photo from last Wednesday of personnel
from USS Vella Gulf and suspected pirates

A day after capturing seven suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden, naval personnel from the USS Vella Gulf were at it again, coming to the assistance of an Indian vessel that was being attacked. In responding to a distress call from the MV Premdivya, the warship dispatched a helicopter that flew over a small boat the suspects were using to attempt to board the Indian vessel. After firing warning shots, the pirate skiff was stopped and nine aboard where taken into custody by the Americans, who found weapons, including RPGs, in the small boat. According to AP, the suspected pirates were then transferred to the floating brig USNS Lewis And Clark, where they joined the individuals captured yesterday. It is thought that the suspects will all be turned over to Kenyan authorities for prosecution.

Meanwhile, the MV Faina finally arrived in port, docking in the port city of Mombasa just before 4:00pm local time. Kenyan media outlet Daily Nation says that the freighter was received by cheering crowds, some of whom had been waiting since 11:00am for the Faina to dock. It is also reported that the chief of the Kenyan military's defence staff, Gen. Jeremiah Kianga, was unequivocal about the final destination of the hardware abaord the vessel, including those 33 T-72 battle tanks.

“The hardware belongs to Kenya. We tendered for them and bought the best at a good price. It cost us quite a substantial amount of money,” Gen Kianga is quoted as saying. (There's a clip of the general speaking to the media about this on the Daily Nation website linked above.) Including the British-built Vickers Mk3 main battle tanks already in that African nation's arsenal, this means Kenya will now boast a substantial amount of armour for its soldiers.

Photos below are of the arrival and docking of MV Faina (all photos from Reuters)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

US Navy detains 7 suspected pirates, Dutch authorities prepare to prosecute 5 others and Puntland forces raid a pirate haven

Been a busy day around the Horn of Africa.

Word out of the Gulf of Aden this afternoon is that American naval forces apprehended seven suspected pirates in the wake of a botched attempt to board the merchant vessel MV Polaris. Voice of America reports that a team from the USS Vella Gulf, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser assigned to CTF151, managed to intercept the small boat the attackers were in and detain the Somalis aboard. The suspects are to be transferred shortly to the USNS Lewis And Clark; where they will be taken afterward remains unclear. This marks the first instance in which the new combined task force has successfully apprehended suspected pirates.

USS Vela Gulf (USN photo)

Also today, authorities in Rotterdam are preparing to arraign five Somalis that the Dutch navy captured on January 2 after another unsuccessful hijacking attempt by pirates. As the BBC says in its report, the "accused face up to nine years in jail if found guilty. The alleged leader of the group could face a 12-year sentence if convicted." Until their recent arrival in the Netherlands, the suspects had been detained in Bahrain.

Meanwhile in Somalia itself, there are signs that at least some elements of the populace are ready to reassert law and order. According to local media outlet Garowe Online, authorities in the administrative capital of Puntland State, Garowe, carried out the new government's first capital punishment case when they executed a man on Monday. Abdi-Dahir Abdullahi was "convicted of killing two men on Feb. 2, including a well-known pirate." (Puntland is the semi-autonomous northeastern part of Somalia).

Garowe Online also reports that the newly elected president of the Puntland regional administration, Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed "Farole" ordered local police to raid a village - Marero - known to be a haven for pirates and human smugglers. The report says that Puntland forces "stormed the site and a group of suspected pirates fled away on a speedboat", adding that they managed to capture "two speedboats, seven motors that power boats, barrels of fuel, food, ladders and ropes." President Farole is quoted as saying that the raid was a first step in combating criminals operating from the Puntland coast. "My government will fight pirates and human smugglers, and we have a plan to defeat them," President Farole vowed at a press conference after the raid.

Puntland President Farole at Marero with security forces
(Garowe Online photo)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stage two in dealing with Somali pirates

My esteemed colleague EagleSpeak - one of the most astute observers of what's going on in the world of maritime crime - posted a piece about the deployment of an American vessel to the Horn of Africa to participate in the ongoing war against pirates. And, yes, that is what is currently being waged in the waters off East Africa, though no one else is using this definition. But let's get it straight: None of the various nations' warships on station there are engaged in something so quaint as peacekeeping; they are there to bring force to bear against what has been historically called an 'enemy to all mankind' and safeguard the strategic assets of nation states. It has not been declared by anyone, but those nation's who have sent their men and women to the Indian Ocean to suppress piracy are, in fact, battling enemy combatants.

At any rate, EagleSpeak's piece - which comes from the Stars And Stripes website - details how a Military Sealift Command vessel, the USNS Lewis And Clark, has been reconfigured to become a floating prison, capable of holding up to 26 suspected pirates aboard the dry cargo/ammunition ship. The vessel is tasked as a part of CTF 151, the America-led, multinational effort to address piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa.

This is a marked increase in the coalition's anti-piracy operations, for it means that it's not just about warships patrolling the seas with their helicopters and boarding parties, or what a friend of mine likes to call, "boys with toys". This points towards a definitive desire from at least the Americans to apprehend suspects and deliver them to some legal jurisdiction that can prosecute the pirates, quite likely Kenya.

Phase one of addressing piracy is to get protective measures in place, such as naval warships, and make sure they're able to utilize the assets they have. Stage two is to take any suspected pirates to a legitimate court where they can be tried in an open manner, such that their compatriots might thing twice about engaging in criminal activities.

Phase three? Well, that's the hardest one. That requires addressing the root source of the problem. We can patrol the waters, we can arrest the pirates, but that will never stop some young man from deciding to throw his lot in with a gang of maritime criminals unless that individual has other options.

We're close to getting two out of three things done in order to suppress piracy of the Horn of Africa. This should all be considered an improvement on the situation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

MV Faina's cargo destined for...?

The Scottish newspaper the Sunday Herald has a very good, in-depth article about the mysterious end source for the armaments aboard the recently released freighter MV Faina. Do check it out by clicking here.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Muammar Gaddafi defends Somali pirates

Muammar Gaddafi (left) at the opening of the 12th African Union Summit
in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 2, 2009 (Reuters photo)

Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, one of the more interesting political leaders of recent times, has offered his own opinion on the piracy situation that bedevils East Africa. Gaddafi has just assumed the rotating role of chairman of the African Union, an office he will occupy for the next year after succeeding the previous AU chair, Tanzanian president Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete. And, according to the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation, he wasted little time in speaking out about the issue, saying he does not believe the Somalis are committing any crimes.

"It is not a piracy, it is self defence. It is defending the Somalia children's food," Gaddafi is quoted as saying. "It is a response to greedy Western nations, who invade and exploit Somalia's water resources illegally."

While he may be alluding to the very serious issue of illegal fishing and the dumping of waste in the seas off Somalia, none of his comments have any bearing on the actions of pirates who have attacked vessels transiting well into international waters, such as the supertanker Sirius Star, or the hijacking of vessels carrying food aid for Somali civilians. Those attacks are purely acts of maritime criminal and cannot be cloaked in any guise of 'self defence' any more than attacking fishing boats which do not pay money to pirate groups for 'fishing permits' can be considered environmental regulatory actions. For more on this, you can download a PDF of the UN's Monitoring Group for Somalia report from 2006 that details some of the payment schemes. Click here and then select the report from 4 May 2006. (Apologies for a cut-and-paste error I made when I first posted this.)

Gaddafi also went on to say that a priority of his tenure would be to "claim compensation from colonial masters for their crimes and exploitation during the colonial era", though how this relates to piracy is questionable.

But there is a sentiment expressed by some that I saw while in East Africa, that justified piracy as being part of the aftermath of colonialism, even if its growth commenced with the end of the Cold War. However, the time has passed when Africans in places like Somalia can blame the West for all of their problems. Without a doubt we in the First World have a responsibility to help those less fortunate around the globe. But our humanitarian efforts must be matched by leadership, security and law and order from those seeking to make a better society for their own people. By merely blaming the past, you engender a repetitive cycle that is self-destructive in nature. Do not call us in the West the reason that Somali fathers, sons and brothers hold hostage fellow Africans or fellow Muslims. But perhaps Muammar Gaddafi is merely thinking of his own history, being as he is the leader of a land that once boasted Barbary Pirates.

Friday, February 6, 2009

MV Faina update

EagleSpeak has posted a piece about the assistance the US Navy provided the crew of the MV Faina after its release from pirate captivity this week, with a link through to the source at the Navy's official website. I'll make you visit Eagle's site to see it, because he's been on top of this situation better than I have. With muted apologies, I'm just a little swamped with other things right now, folks.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

MV Faina to sail to Mombasa

The MV Faina is preparing to set sail on Friday for the Kenyan port of Mombasa, according to Russian press agency RIA Novosti. It quotes the head of Ukraine's external intelligence service as saying the vessel will be met in Mombasa by Kenya's defence minister and the head of that country's general staff, in order to receive the shipment of weapons currently aboard the Faina. Mykola Malomuzh also said that a U.S. Navy frigate had approached the freighter to help refuel her for the trip south.

Meanwhile, Associated Press reports that American sailors inspected the small boats the pirates used to travel from the Faina to shore, checking to make sure no one tried to take any of the weapons from the freighter's cargo. The report does not say whether the naval personnel allowed the pirates to retain any of their own weapons. A spokesperson for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said the reason for not arresting the Faina's hijackers is due to concerns about the well-being of 147 other mariners still being held captive by other Somali pirates.

Correction: The Voice of America report I mentioned in my last post was slightly incorrect. The Faina was not in the Gulf of Aden, with her pirate captors counting the loot; the vessel was in Haradhere.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ukrainain ship MV Faina and its T-72 tanks finally released

MV Faina (Getty Images photo)

After receiving preliminary word from sources in East Africa this afternoon, it can now be confirmed that the MV Faina has been released after Somali pirates received a reported $3.2 million ransom. The vessel, including a crew of 20 mariners (Ukrainian, Russian and Latvian) and its cargo, which includes 33 T-72 main battle tanks and other weaponry and munitions, is reported by Voice of America to be in the Gulf of Aden, where the pirates are "counting and dividing up the money". The vessel was previously being sequestered in the eastern Somali port of Haradhere, which is on the Indian Ocean, so no word on how it managed to get so far north without any action on the part of the various naval elements that have been watching the Faina up till now.

As I've previously reported, there have been concerns raised about the health of the freighter's crew. I'm sure we'll know more in the next few days as to the veracity of those earlier reports. Meanwhile, the true destination of the Faina's cargo remains a mystery. Were the weapons and munitions truly destined for the Kenyan military or were they intended for rebels in southern Sudan? Kenyan piracy expert Andrew Mwangura, one of the first to report that the cargo was not intended for his homeland's military, may find the answer to this question of particular note, as he remains under a judicial cloud as a result of this incident.

Mwangura told me today that he attended court in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa earlier in the day, part of the ongoing efforts to prosecute him for "making alarming statements to foreign media touching on the security of the country." However, the prosecution witness called today could not provide a copy of warrant for Mwangura's arrest, so the case will next be heard on March 4.

It should be noted that since the United States and Britain have agreed to allow Kenya to prosecute any suspected pirates captured by their forces, the case against Andrew Mwangura bears some importance. As Western democracies, we pride ourselves on the rule of justice, and though it may be flawed at times, I like to believe that we would never judicially pursue an individual just because they spoke their word. Should the case against Andrew Mwangura prove fruitless - as I believe it will - what does that say about the degree of accountability we would expect when suspected maritime criminals come before a Kenyan court? The shadow of Guantanimo may yet cloud this picture.

Somali journalist murdered in Mogadishu

HornAfrik director Said Tahlil Ahmed
(photo: NUSJ)

The BBC has just reported that the head of HornAfrik, an independent media outlet based in Somalia, was shot dead earlier today while heading to a press conference called by the al-Shabab Islamist militia. Said Tahlil Ahmed was killed near the central Bakara Market by masked gunmen, though no one has yet claimed responsibility for the incident.

Al-Shabab had invited local journalists to a briefing at a militia facility near the market, in order to discuss "the situation in the country". A spokesperson for al-Shabab, Sheikh Ali Mohamad Hussein, told the BBC's Somali Service that the group denies any involvement in Tahlil's killing, instead placing the blame for the murder on unnamed enemies seeking to "defame" the Islamist militia that now controls much of the southern part of the country, including the site of the interim parliament, the town of Baidoa.

Somalis carry Tahlil's body after his assassination earlier today
(photo: Ismail Kofi)

Said Tahlil Ahmed is the third senior journalist from HornAfrik to be killed in the last two years. He assumed the position of director of the radio station in 2007, following the death of Ali Iman Sharmake, who was killed by an IED was traveling with his colleague, Sahal Abdulle (who was seriously injured). At least a dozen journalists have been killed in Somalia in the last two years.

I have just received word from my colleague Sahal Abdulle about his friend Tahlil's death. (Abdulle is the former Reuters bureau chief in Mogadishu and recipient of PEN USA's 2007 Freedom to Write Award.) From East Africa, Abdulle tells me that people are in a state of shock about the incident, and that he is particularly concerned about what will become of Tahlil's six children, the youngest of whom is three months old.

He also pointed me to a Washington Post article from November 12, 2007, in which journalist Stephanie McCrummen spoke to both Abdulle and Said Tahlil Ahmed. McCrummen began her piece by saying that, "Since two of his colleagues were assasintated in September, Said Tahlil has come to speak of his own violent death as a near certainty. Being a journalist in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, he has made his peace with God."

Monday, February 2, 2009

A look back at 2008's piracy incidents

With muted apologies for the delay in posting this, here are my thoughts on the year just past as it pertains to piracy. There have been a number of media musings relating to the International Maritime Bureau's recently released report on global piracy in 2008, with some saying it was the worst year ever since the IMB began collecting data back in 1991.

This is both true, and false. The reality is that the devil is in the details of the IMB's report.

The organization reports there were 293 reported incidents in 2008 - 200 actual attacks and 93 attempted ones. This is an 11% increase from 2007 (in which the IMB reported 263 pirate incidents), however it is still below the peak levels from 2003, during which 445 attacks reported occurred. Nevertheless, 293 incidents means that mariners were being predated upon for almost every day of the year.

Yet what is more troubling from the data is the dramatic increase in hostage-takings and the increased use of firearms by pirates. Some 889 individuals were reported to have been held hostage by pirates last year (another 21 mariners are still missing and 11 people were killed). And there were 1011 reported incidents in which pirates used violence in 2008, almost double the figures for 2007, and guns are now the primary weapon of choice for pirates. Of the 293 attacks acknowledged in the IMB report, 139 involved the use of firearms (68 involved knives).

Delving deeper into the IMB's statistics, one will find that that the vast majority of pirate incidents occurs off the Horn of Africa - which is no great discovery. Somali pirates are said to have taken 815 mariners hostage last year, carrying out at least 111 attacks and hijacking 42 vessels. At the time the IMB released its report a few weeks ago, there were still 242 mariners and 13 vessels being held hostage by Somali gangs. In the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea areas, pirate incidents rose to 92 reported attacks in 2008 from a mere 13 the year earlier. Coupled with attacks off the eastern coast of Somalia, this amounts to a whopping 200% increase from 2007's figures for those seas.

As for the rest of the world, the waters off Nigeria remain the second worst, with 40 reported incidents in 2008 (down slightly from 42 in 2007); Indonesian waters saw 28 (down from 43 a year before), and the Singapore Straits saw its figures go to 6 reported incidents from 3 in 2007.

Stepping back from all this data, one can see that global piracy is being condensed into three main areas: the Horn of Africa (Somalia), the Gulf of Guinea (Nigeria) and Indonesia. Each area has rampant corruption, endemic poverty and ineffective political structures willing to address the situations, plus a gaggle of vulnerable merchant vessels plying nearby waters. Piracy feeds on three elements - greed, lawlessness and opportunity - which are clearly evident in these places, in spades.

So what does all this mean for 2009? Well, we are all aware of the increased naval activity off the Horn of Africa, which will only get more intense as Spring comes. The foreign warships on station there is unprecedented: Russia hasn't sent warships to the region on active patrol since the end of the Cold War; China hasn't sent vessels in hundreds of years ; and Japan will shortly be deploying its navy outside the home islands for the first time since World War Two. (To say nothing of the Germans, French, Dutch, South Koreans, Malaysians, Indians, British, American and Canadian presences, among others.)

All that firepower concentrated in one region can only lead to activity of some sort. You simply do not deploy warships without intending that they are seen doing what their crews are trained to do. Somalia is one of the most effective ways the international community can appear to deal with an African problem that has come to affect the rest of the world (unlike, say, Zimbabwe). Unlike in the 1990s, this is a low-intensity conflict in which not a lot of Westerners - or others - will be killed. Somali pirates don't plant IEDs, after all. Deploying personnel to the region is a win-win situation for the countries involved, as it gives their navies the opportunity to stay sharp and reduce the threat of pirate attacks. (This is not meant as a slight, in any manner, against the various deployments. Naval forces are meant to ensure the safety of vessels and the security of nations, and Somali pirates threaten both.)

Meanwhile, Nigeria will fester for another year or so before our attention turns towards its piracy issues. Wait for the price of oil and gas to rise again before anyone really addresses things there. Two expensive operations dealing with African pirates is just a little much for the international community. Somalia first, Nigeria second.

If I were a gambler, I'd bet that global figures will come down in 2009 from last year. Maybe not immensely, but reduced nonetheless. However, I would also anticipate an increase in incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, if only because criminals operating there have seen how successful Somali pirates have become.

And I would add one last very important note: Not all pirate attacks are reported to bodies like the IMB. Those 293 reported incidents? The reality may well be two or three times higher.