Monday, June 29, 2009

NATO extends counter piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa

NATO today announced that it has extended its counter piracy maritime operations in the seas off the Horn of Africa (HoA). The majority of the alliance flotilla that has been on station for the last few months - Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) - exited the region heading north through the Red Sea, where they passed on operational responsibilities to a new group of warships comprising SNMG2.

As the NATO press release states, "The exchange of responsibilities was conducted in the Red Sea to ensure a seamless transition, maintaining the pressure on the pirates. By rotating the Standing Maritime Groups through the region, a powerful NATO presence can be maintained in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa indefinitely, demonstrating the organisation’s resolve to tackle the problem."

According to The Associated Press, SNMG2 is comprised of five warships, one each from the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

The new commander of SNMG2, British Commodore Steve Chick, is quoted in the NATO press release as saying that, "The successes achieved against the pirates over the last few months off the Horn of Africa by SNMG1 have really demonstrated the effectiveness of NATO's standing maritime forces. Along with that of the other maritime forces in the region, the combat power brought to bear by the Group has had a telling effect on pirate activity, and the flexibility with which SNMG1 has taken to the task is a testament to the continued relevance of maritime forces in the modern world."

Commodore Chick's comments put a brave face on what has, really, not been nearly as effective an international anti-piracy operation as it might have been. Though the largest armada of warships from well over a dozen countries were to be found off the HoA in the first half of this year, they were unable to stem the number of pirate attacks in the region. In fact, pirate incidents increased in comparison to previous years.

Of course, without the presence of so many warships the last year, the number of pirate attacks would have likely been even higher, and the continued show of force by SNMG2, and other naval elements, will provide a continuing degree of security assistance to mariners in the region.

But are we - the international community - effectively utilizing our resources to combat the problem at sea? It doesn't on paper seem so: SNMG1, SNMG2, CTF150, CTF 151, EU NAVFOR, the Russians, Chinese, Indians, Iranians and now, probably, other Arab nations...everyone wants to send their ships to the area to get in on the action.

Seems to me that the time has come to establish a truly concerted, focused and organized international naval operational structure to better make use of all these assets. And, yes, talks are going on behind the scenes to try to make this happen. Could we be seeing a UN-led operation in the near future? Possibly, though that comes with a certain degree of historical baggage. But things must change.

In the meantime, there remains a naval presence in the seas off the HoA over the summer months, which is thankful.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dispelling the myth of Somali pirates as 'Robin Hoods'

The Toronto Star posted a piece in yesterday's online edition that continues to perpetuate the wrong idea about those Somalis engaging in attacks on vessels in the seas off the Horn of Africa. It's written by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, well-known Canadian activists for international children's rights and founders of Free The Children, though the article does little to advance the plight facing regular Somalis of any age.

The crux of their piece is the same as has been put forward by numerous others, namely that the actions of Somali pirates can be justified given the dire conditions facing those living ashore and, more importantly, the activities of foreign fishing vessels and illegal waste dumpers.

This is, in a word, bullcrap.

The authors mention one Somali facing trail for piracy in The Netherlands. According to his lawyer, the man, "[I]s a modern-day Robin Hood. Stealing from the ships of rich countries to give to poor families back in war-torn Somalia." Now, 'Robin Hood' certainly implies someone who supposedly steals from the rich to give to the poor, spreading the wealth around, so to speak. Well, Somali pirate gangs haven't exactly been doing that: see, for instance, the report from last week prepared by the BBC's Andrew Harding, about his visit to a pirate village and you'll see little in the way of economic improvement in the community. And if you could ask any Somalian about how they feel when food aid deliveries are disrupted by pirates attacking commercial vessels under charter to groups like the United Nations, I'm sure the response would be less than positive.

The article goes on to label those engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU, to give it the term most commonly used) and waste dumping as also being pirates, stating that, "To the [Somali] fishermen, these ships are the pirates." Later, the Kielburgers add, "The international community needs to start pointing fingers at the other group of pirates — ones that hail from shores closer to our own. There are two groups of pirates off of the Horn of Africa. We need to bring all of them to justice."

The problem I have with pieces like this is that diminishes the violent attacks being perpetrated by Somali pirates, equating them with illegal fishing operations. Let me clear about my position here: Those foreigners engaging in over-fishing or the dumping of toxic waste are not pirates; they are many other things, but they are not pirates.

It seems to me that some are being duped into believing a sort of 'eco-warrior' myth about the pirates, one which appears more and more to be part of a concerted effort by Somali gangs to re-fashion their image and play to the heart-strings of Westerners. And these slow, Summer months - slow for pirates - provide the perfect opportunity for their spokespeople and supporters to push this agenda in the media. After all, if there are fewer violent attacks going on in the region's seas, any tales of Robin Hood-like Somalis will not be offset by the reality of armed men boarding passing vessels and threatening their crews.

As well, if the Somali pirates were really serious about defending their waters against over-fishing and other illegal activities, one would assume they'd be using their formidable firepower and nautical prowess to patrol and secure those self-same seas. But when was the last time you heard of some 'Somali coastguards' scaring off fishing trawlers or working with foreign naval vessels to deal with this issue?

More to the point, the issues of illegal fishing and waste dumping are not something new; these activities began back in the 1990s. Though to read many of the articles that bring this up, they would appear to be recent phenomena. It was a trigger - one of several, in fact - but not the only reason for piracy to explode off the Horn of Africa.

Check out Daniel Howden's piece in last weekend's Sunday Independent, out of South Africa. it's a far more nuanced and detailed look at how one Somali man went from mechanic to fisherman to pirate to prisoner. And though he is clearly angry about over-fishing, the man - Farrah Ismail - says that much of this activity happened well over a decade ago, with the turning point being an attack by Somalis on a Kenyan trawler in 1997.

In Ismail's own words, he has little sympathy for mariners he and others have preyed upon. "I don't give a shit about them...They are like cattle to me, these ships are mine. Why don't you give consideration about the destruction they did to us?" before adding, "Finally, the rest of the world knows that hijacking ships was a punishment from us."

Anger, greed, corruption, lawlessness...these are what have driven men like Ismail to become pirates, not some egalitarian ideals. One does not attack aid vessels while espousing a moral high ground, to say nothing of targeting pleasure boaters or passing tugs.

Earlier today the Dutch freighter MV Marathon was released after being hijacked on May 7. Of its crew of eight Ukrainian seafarers, one was killed when the pirates attacked, while a second was wounded. Is the death of this mariner justified by the actions of other seafarers? I don't believe so.

There are currently at least fourteen vessels and possibly as many as 200 seafarers being held captive by Somali pirates. And while some of the vessels may have been engaged in illegal activities at the time of their capture, most had nothing to do with what's going ashore in Somalia, or off its coastline. (As today's Reuters Factbox reveals, among the captive ships are tugs and barges, a catamaran and a dredging vessel that was sailing some 370 nautical miles off the Somali coast while en route to the Seychelles.)

There are many types of criminals to be found in the seas off the Horn of Africa, but only one group are pirates.

Somali pirates with hostages aboard the French yacht Tanit, seized in early April while sailing off the Horn of Africa. Skipper Florent Lemacon (seated left foreground) was killed in a firefight on April 10, when French commandos stormed the boat. (photo: Ecpad-French Defense Ministry)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

When academics jump on the piracy bandwagon

A lot of folks have been jumping on the piracy bandwagon in recent months, trying to find some way to align whatever they're doing with the criminals working the seas off East Africa. These include journalists, bloggers, academics, analysts, government officials and military personnel, and at times their perspectives are well thought out and incisive. But at other times...

The AFP's Andrew Beatty posted a piece yesterday about an academic at George Mason University (which is outside Washington) that makes me wonder how well-read some academics really are. Beatty's piece, entitled "Pirates were democrats, says scholar", is about an economics professor at the university - Peter Leeson - who has a new book out that looks at, I gather, elements of historical piracy and tries to place them within a modern socio-economic context.

Beatty says that Leeson has "set himself the unenviable task of salvaging the reputations" of pirates, having "found evidence that some 18th century pirates wrote down rules and principles which foreshadowed the U.S. Constitution by decades."

Now with all due and respect to Prof. Leeson, none of this is anything new. The list of people who've discussed these sorts of historical pirate tenets in recent years includes Marcus Rediker, David Cordingly, Colin Woodward, Stephen Talty - among others - and to have 'found evidence' one needs only to read Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, which was first published in 1724, and outlines pirate employment terms in great detail.

But more to the point, there is absolutely no need to salvage any of these criminals' reputations. One can comment on how they incorporated unique aspects of what amount to labor contracts, or even their fair-minded treatment of minorities (such as freed African slaves, Native Americans or mixed blood individuals), but that doesn't mean they were good guys. And to somehow tie a look at historical piracy with what's going on today is misguided. It implies that the Somali pirates may not be that bad.

A gang that decides to share the proceeds of their criminal activities does not make for an entity whose reputation deserves improving. Especially when some of these gangs - in Somalia - are inflicting great harm on their own kinfolk, to say nothing of the innocent mariners affected.

(Lest anyone think my views seem a tad hypocritical - given I've a book about modern day piracy now on sale - let me reminder readers that I spent three years actively working on it, and touched upon it in my last book, Ocean Titans, which came out in 2006. Trust me when I say that when I began work on my current book, there was little interest in the subject outside a small community of concerned individuals. And, yes, I do discuss many of the historical aspects of pirate activities in my book.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Canadian launch party for my new book

For anyone who might be in Toronto this week, I invite you to come out on Wednesday (June 17) from 6-9pm for the Canadian launch party for my book Terror On The Seas. The event will be held at the Brass Taps on College Street (by Dovercourt - you can easily Google the address). Copies of my book will be on sale, I'll be there in person and it should be a lot of fun. Shameless self-promotion is a necessary requirement to any author working today. Hope to see you there.

Thoughts on dealing with Somalia from the International Crisis Group

Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group (ICG) penned an op-ed piece in the Monday issue of The Globe & Mail newspaper titled "When it comes to Somalia, inaction is not an option". It's worth a look, as it is a given that if we're to really deal with piracy off the Horn of Africa (HoA), we have to address the problems plaguing Somalia that allow criminal activities to flourish there.

To most people, piracy in the region is now old news. Attacks are down and international naval forces are preparing to ramp down their presence in the region. The onset of the summer monsoon has a lot to do with the current situation, of course, so until the main piracy season resumes in Autumn - or an unfortunate Western crew is attacked in the interim by the predations still ongoing (albeit reduced) - attention will swing to other issues, in other places.

But as the ICG authors point out in their article, Somalia is on the verge of slipping into a full-blown civil war, something they call potentially "unprecedented, even by Somalia's grim and bloody standards." The recent arrivals of foreign fighters seeking to take part in what is increasingly becoming a jihad in the southern parts of the country adds another layer to the situation, as does the inaction of other nations in coming to terms with things.

Oddly enough, when Somali pirate attacks were making media headlines there was more interest in looking at Somalia itself than there is currently. Without the dramatic attacks on merchant vessels off the HoA, most have again forgotten Somalia and the Somali people.

This is a mistake, a terrible one that will come back to haunt us in the near future. As warships steam home, battles are waging ashore that pose the potential to destabilize the entire region. And out of that instability will arise the prospect of renewed and enlarged pirate activity. The international community has but a few months to address things ashore before our inaction leads to more pirate attacks on the seas.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

War And Women blog

I want to highlight a new blog that I've run across that may be of interest to readers. It has nothing to do with piracy or maritime crime, but reflects the talents of a great raconteur. It's always nice to read engaging material like this. Alexander Martin, a US Marine captain and Naval Academy grad, calls his blog War and Women, and his posts show a nuanced, observant and witty perspective on things, whether about being on patrol in Iraq or the denouement of coming home. It's not easy to write as fluidly as Alex does, so I hope he keeps it up and suggest you check him out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An update on current conditions off East Africa

I recently asked my colleague Andrew Mwangura for his thoughts on what the current piracy situation looks like off East Africa. Here's what he told me:

"Although weather conditions continue to worsen in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Somalia, they are still very favorable for piracy in the western and central Gulf of Aden. Based on weather factors alone, there is a high probability of occurrence for pirate and small boat activity in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea but a relatively slim probability off the east coast of Somalia.

"This is due to the deteriorating weather conditions off the east coast in relation to the current summer monsoon season. Pirates have achieved significant success in recent months and have shown their capability to operate for sustained periods in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and at a considerable distance of 900 Nautical Miles off the coast of Somalia.

"Not all attacks were successful, and considerable caution is always required since the areas around failed hijackings remain at high risk for at least 48 hours after the incident.

"Somali pirates currently are holding fewer ocean-going vessels for ransom than they have shown recent capacity to hold. There is a decreased risk for pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean, but the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea remains a prime operating area for Somali pirates."

Note Mwangura's warning about the risk of additional attacks in the days after an incident. It will be interesting to see - from a purely observational perspective - what happens in the next two to three weeks. If the patterns of pirate activity replicate previous years, we can see a decrease over the summer months. This would allow naval forces to pull out and prepare for the fall season. But...if pirate gangs reduce their operations in order to create the impression of a major decrease in activity, and then resume attacks in July, everything changes.

The key issue in the near future will be whether the pirates have figured out how to overcome the weather obstacles, and whether the global economy rebounds enough that shipping traffic picks up.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Andrew Mwangura, Kenyan anti-piracy advocate: Criticisms and comments

Kennebec Captain has a piece about a recent post on the War Is Boring blog about Andrew Mwangura, the Kenyan anti-piracy advocate. The original posting is from War Is Boring's David Axe, whici is somewhat critical of Mwangura, accusing him of being, "[T]he only man man who can save the world from Somali pirates." Axe goes on to say that, "These days, I'm equally skeptical when Mwangura says he's just a well-connected seafarers' advocate."

Sorry, David, but you're 'equally skeptical' to whom? The Kenyan authorities who persecuted Andrew, something that even you agree was 'clearly wrong'?

Unlike others, I know Andrew personally and have spent a lot of time with him. and I've seen his influence in the East African seafaring community. Spurious online pieces likes yours do nothing to help the situation facing mariners off the northeast cast of Africa. It boggles my mind as to why one would post something like this, attacking someone actually striving to make a difference to the plight facing mariners. Focus here, folks: We are enmeshed in a war against well-financed and highly organized opponents. Attacking the messenger, so to speak, is a mistake. In fact, they actually play into the hands of pirates who seek to discredit those opposed to them.

If I sound like I'm being overtly harsh to Mr. Axe, or 0thers, I apologize. But only mutely. Anyone weighing in on this issue needs to understand that the stakes are high. Very high. Amateurish perspectives based on wandering around Mombasa do not add to things.

I'll be posting some thoughts on the situation off the Horn of Africa shortly, provided by a number of informed sources.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

65 years on: D-Day and Canada

Juno Beach, June 6, 1944
(Canadian War Museum)

A few years ago I was outbound from Le Havre on a box ship, bound for Montréal, when I realized I was sailing past where the greatest naval armada in history had once lain. I was thinking of this today, which leads me to a short post of gratitude to all those who have remembered the veterans from many nations who took part in the D-Day landings sixty-five years ago, but with a particular note to those Canadians who were there, and those Canadians who still remember. Over 14,000 Canadian troops landed on D-Day, while some 450 landed by parachute or glider; over 10,000 Royal Canadian Navy personnel were involved. Of the five designated landing beaches, the Americans landed on Utah and Omaha, the British on Gold and Sword, while we were tasked with taking Juno, in the middle. And by the end of the first day, it was the Canadians who had made the biggest gains inland.

Sometimes Canadians have to remind others - and ourselves - of our military history and warrior spirit. Rather like when some disparage Canada today while forgetting the role our military is playing - at great cost - in Afghanistan.

But forget my grumblings and take a moment to remember how our country and its men and women of various cultures and backgrounds came together. And never forget the sacrifice of everyone involved.

Friday, June 5, 2009

An in-depth look at how a ransom was delivered to Somali pirates

The BBC's Rob Walker yesterday posted a lengthy article (see it here) about what went on behind-the-scenes when a Danish-owned general cargo ship, the MV CEC Future, was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden last November. Before the vessel was released in mid-January of this year, there were lengthy negotiations between the ship's owners back in Denmark and the pirate captors in northern Somalia. The vessel itself was being kept off the coast near the pirate haven of Eyl, with her captive crew of 13 mariners.

Walker traveled to Hargeisa, in the breakaway region of Somaliland, to meet with the man who was the lead negotiator for the pirates, Ali Mohamed Ali. Mr. Ali had apparently spent 29 years living in the United States before returning to Somalia. He tells Walker that he became involved with the pirates in order to, "learn more about how they operate and then explain it to the world," something that the British journalist finds difficult to believe was Mr. Ali's only motivation.

Walker also describes the chaos that ensued once the ransom was delivered and everyone from pirates to local Eyl shopkeepers and businessmen demanded their cut of the take. But for many, the most fascinating part of his report is the video footage provided by a unnamed private security firm hired to deliver the ransom (reportedly between $1-2 million). You can see quite clearly how a small plane overflies the CEC Future and then drops a water-tight canister into the seas just off the hijacked vessel, which is soon retrieved by the pirates and taken aboard their prize.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Canada: Suing terrorists okay; prosecuting pirates...?

The federal government in these parts is proposing a law that would allow Canadian victims of terrorist attacks to sue any foreign governments that had a hand in such incidents. If passed, the law would be retroactive to 1985, in order to allow the families of the Air India disaster to participate, victims of the most horrific terror attack committed against Canadians. Part of the impetus for this proposed legislation comes from the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT), among whose members are the victims of the 9/11 attacks (their website can be seen here, though it's still somewhat minimal).

Now lest all this sound unique, it should be remembered that the U.S. enacted similar legislation back in 1996, and by last year courts there had awarded over $19 billion against a variety of states (though only about two per cent has been collected, according to The Globe & Mail's report on all this.)

Still, the idea of enacting legislation to sue the sponsors of terrorist actions seems a little misplaced. While I have great sympathy for the victims of terror attacks, I must ask two harsh questions: Is it really feasible to be compensated for your loss financially and, more to the point, is this a deterrent? On the former, can one really expect to ever see representatives of al-Qaeda or the Taliban in a Canadian court? And on the latter point, laws should be enacted primarily to reduce or eliminate whatever threat exists to the public security.

As the Vancouver Sun's Don Martin has written, much of this current idea strikes one as part of an effort to deflect from the broader domestic economic problems. But from this perspective, I also wonder why the powers that be can come up with an idea to address the plight of terror victims - years, even decades, after this became an issue - but can't figure out how to deal with suspected pirates by Canadian naval forces off the Horn of Africa.

Of course, Canada isn't the only nation grappling with the legal issues involved when it comes to (mostly) Somali pirates. The international community is, in effect, dumping captured pirates on Kenya or Somalia, and hoping they'll deal with the individuals involved. This is, in my opinion, wrong.

The Kenyan judicial system leaves much to be desired, (as my colleague Andrew Mwangura call well attest). It is neither impartial nor free of corruption. As for Somalia, well let's just say the least said the better. Again, in my opinion an internationally-recognized admiralty court would be be the best option to prosecute pirates. Whether in London - which has a lengthy historical precedence in this matter - or The Hague or Mombasa or, even, New York, this would be a distinct improvement on relying on Third World nations to deal with an issue which is, quite frankly, affecting the First World.

My point is that if we can create laws to deal with terrorists, why not change or amend or improve those that deal with pirates? What are we scared of? Worst case scenario: A Somali guy ends up before a Canadian - or other - judge and is acquitted. So we send him home. And he knows, and will relate to others, that we did not look on him or his ilk well.

Once we realize that piracy is an issue of global note, there are only three ways to address it, each one more difficult than its predecessor : We've done the first by sending naval warships to show a presence. The second stage is to show we'll effectively prosecute those carrying attacks. And the third, most difficult aspect is to deal with things ashore, where they begin.

Laws can be changed. And should, if necessary. Otherwise, use the full extent of existing statutes and quit pussy-footing around.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A look life aboard a warship chasing pirates

Dan Lett, a journalist with the Winnipeg Free Press, has been writing a number of interesting pieces from aboard the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg, which is currently on patrol off the Horn of Africa (HoA). Yesterday he posted a lengthy one that gives you some perspectives on what the crew of the warship is going through on their mission there. (You can read it by clicking here.)

I especially liked the way he talked about every day being a Monday when you're at sea. The routines required to keep a vessel - naval or civilian - operating smoothly are often overlooked. But there's a definite effect that these have on anti-piracy measures, particularly with professional mariners.

When a cargo ship is transiting the pirate-infested waters of the HoA, they're often in the middle of journey, when fatigue can be taking its toll on the crew. And with current crewing levels, there's the added burden of having to do a number of tasks while working and still hoping to catch some sleep when off duty. People wonder why pirates can get close to a vessel, but it's not a wonder when you remember the crews of targeted ships are often tired. Adrenalin only goes so far and one can only maintain a clear head for so long. The issue of crewing levels on merchant ships in waters like the HoA needs to be addressed.

And speaking of fatigue, I'd like to thank those who tuned in to my weekend appearance on the radio show Coast To Coast AM, with host Ian Punnett. It was more than worth it to stay up all night and engage in an interesting chat with Ian, and with those callers who got through. But, man, I am still bagged.