Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Memories

For those of you who still stumble upon this site, you may be wondering where I've been and why I've posted so little of late. The main reason is I've been occupied working on the new season of a television series about historic tank battles which is called, appropriately, Greatest Tank Battles. (The series website can be seen here, and the show begins its second season in Canada and its first season in the U.S. in January. It's also airing overseas.) The secondary reason is I've been trying to unwind this holiday season. But rest assured I'm not going to stop my work commenting on maritime security.

It has been my pleasure to spend the last few months interviewing veterans from the Second World War, former members of armoured units who fought for the Allies and their opponents; Canadians, Americans and Germans. These are gentlemen in their 80s and 90s who endured situations few today can comprehend, even those who have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's easy to forget the sacrifices that were made by another generation, even those who were fighting for "the enemy". Battle is so often not about politics, but about the guys close to you. The bond between comrades (not in the "Soviet" form) is unique, and the bond between tankers is perhaps even closer than their other combat arms brethren.

To hear the stories of tankers has, as I said, been a pleasure. But to hear the experiences of those involved in the December 1943 battle for the Italian town of Ortona has been eye-opening. as an upcoming episode of the Greatest Tank Battles will recount, this was one of the most intense battles the Canadians would fight in the Second World War, leading to more casualties than were incurred in the D-Day landings.

From December 20 to 28, 1943, Canadians tanks and infantry would take on elite German paratroopers for control of the Adriatic port. You can read more about it here and here. But amidst all the fighting, the Canadians managed to arrange a Christmas dinner, in a church on the outskirts of Ortona. It was one of the most amazing moments to occur at this Yuletide time while conflict was going on, and is pictured below.

Remember those in harm's way at this time of the year, those far from home and family, be they warriors or mariners. Peace unto all.

Ortona, December 25, 1943

Monday, November 15, 2010

British Couple Released By Pirates At Last

After over a year in captivity, British yachters Rachel and Paul Chandler were finally released by their Somali pirate captors yesterday. In a video posted on the BBC site, they appear thin, but in good spirits. In a comment given to the BBC's Andrew Harding, Rachel said one of the worst things about their ordeal was being separated from her husband, an unusual tactic that pirates do not normally employ with captives.

Xan Rice of The Guardian provides a closer look at what may have gone on behind the scenes to secure the couple's release (see it here). It includes the possibility that some of the ransom money may have come from part of British government assistance provided to the Somali government.

Though denied by a spokesman for British prime minister Gordon Brown, one would have to wonder about things based on what happened to the Chandlers after being let free. Instead of being allowed to go free - as every other captive has - the couple were, instead, flown to Mogadishu. There they were driven by African Union forces in an armoured vehicle to meet with Somali government officials for a photo op. Not the usual way these things work out.

It should also be noted that the same spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon did not call the Chandlers' captors pirates. Instead he called them terrorists.

Regardless, it is good to see the ordeal of these hostages finally ended.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pirates Get The Largest Ransom For The Largest Ship Ever Seized

According to media reports, Somali pirate gangs have managed to secure a record ransom of $9.5 million (US) for the release of the largest vessel ever seized. The MT Samho Dream was captured last April off the Horn of Africa while sailing about 1500 kilometers southeast of the Gulf Aden, while en route from Iraq to the United States with a load of crude oil valued at around $170 million. Her crew of 24 are said to be in good condition after spending seven months in captivity, though the supertanker has yet to leave for open sea.

When the Samho Dream was seized back in the early hours of 4 April, her capture immediately raised the bar in terms of how big the prizes are that pirates are going after. Yet since the ship and her crew were taken, there has been precious little reported about this situation.

Writing the day after this immense vessel was hijacked (see here), I wondered if she would garner the largest ransom ever seen. And, unfortunately, I've been proven right. I wish I'd been wrong.

There appears to be a change happening within pirate cartels in Somalia, another metastasis of their various criminal enterprises. Some are garnering huge payouts - meaning we will see the $10 million barrier broken next year, unless the situation drastically changes. But others are feeling the pinch of reduced returns on their investments, leading them to more frustration, and actions such as the sinking of vessels deemed of insufficient value (see here). As well, there is the pressure coming the main Islamist insurgents in Somalia.

Regardless, the situation with piracy off the Horn of Africa is currently morphing, evolving. But is anyone noticing?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: Pirate State By Peter Eichstaedt

There's a new book out that provides insights into the rise of piracy in places like Somalia and Nigeria that is worth looking at. I recently reviewed it for The Globe & Mail in Canada, and here's what I wrote:

"Paradise - for pirates that is"

When it comes to describing Somalia, one of the few words you would expect a sane person to use would be ‘paradise’. But a few years ago, in Kenya’s port city of Mombasa, that was exactly how one man remembered for me the Somalia of the 1970s: as an economically vibrant, politically stable and culturally inviting country. Today it is better known as one of the most lawlessness places on the planet, fraught with warlords, famine, religious extremists, and, of course, pirates.

How Somalia got to this point and how piracy has come to flourish in the seas off the Horn of Africa are what drives American journalist Peter Eichstaedt’s new book, Pirate State: Inside Somalia’s Terrorism At Sea. A former senior editor with Uganda Radio Network, the author knows East Africa well (his previous book looked at child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army). In this work, he introduces us to pirates, gunmen, security officials and others trying to cope with the situation, going beyond the headlines, and the hyperbole, to investigate the root causes of piracy off Somalia, while also examining the broader implications that the situation poses to the world.

As Eichstaedt shows, the spectacular growth of piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa can be traced back to Somalia’s descent into anarchy that began almost two decades ago. In the years that followed, a variety of elements capitalized on the country’s chaos. Local warlords carved out clan-based fiefdoms on land, while foreign vessels appeared offshore to illegally harvest fish and dump toxic waste into the same seas.

The rape of the ocean by foreigners was one reason some Somalis began attacking vessels in the 1990s, and it continues to be used as a justification for piracy today. While Eichstaedt acknowledges this as a motivating factor, he also goes to lengths to dispel its lingering rationalization. The notion that today’s pirates are just simple fishermen forced to pillage ships because of foreign exploiters falls apart as the author reveals how organized the situation has become today. For behind those young men hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean lie criminal gangs tied to Somali warlords and politicians, entities intent on illegally generating tens of millions of dollars from the sea each year. In the words of a Somali negotiator for pirate gangs, “Angry fishermen [are] not the reason and cause of piracy. It is a purely selfish business.”

One of the book’s strongest sections comes when Eichstaedt travels to the sprawling Dadaab Refuge Camp in northeastern Kenya to see how those displaced by the fighting in Somalia feel about the situation in their homeland. These snapshots of refugee life reveal an overwhelming sense of despondency about the state of their nation, a place most fear returning. Many of these exiled Somalis also voice contrasting views about the international community’s responsibilities: some blame it for creating – or even fostering – the current situation, while others feel outsiders are the only solution to end the lawlessness.

The desire to reach a more hopeful, peaceful place – like America – resound within Dadaab. So, too, does a fear of how Somalia is being torn apart even further by extremist groups. The same chaos that allowed pirates to flourish has also given rise to Islamist insurgents, some of whom have ties to al-Qaeda. Eichstaedt traces the growth of the largest such group, al-Shabaab, meeting with a former fighter and raising the potential of Somalia becoming a new Afghanistan.

At times the book seems rushed, condensing some of the author’s experiences into just a few pages or paragraphs. And he omits to speak personally with any of the victims of pirate incidents, relying on media reports instead. But Eichstaedt more than compensates for these moments of brevity by introducing us to those affected by Somalia’s anarchy and those perpetuating it. As he makes abundantly clear in his book, Somalia is today a paradise only for pirates, warlords, criminal gangs and extremists.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Another Counter-Piracy Resource

For those who may be interested in analyses of maritime piracy from a shipping perspective, the UK-based Shipping Guides Ltd (website here) is worth a look. On their site, they have a page that takes data from the ICC's International Maritime Bureau and gathers it into maps and charts. You have to pay for the info, though the cost is cheap (20 British pounds). There's a link now over to the right if you're interested.

Monday, October 25, 2010

One Year in Pirate Captivity

When it comes to being taken captive by pirates, especially those who operate off the Horn of Africa, the standard (hopeful) vision is that mariners hijacked will be freed within a few months, possibly even weeks. That is, ransoms will be negotiated by the various parties involved in an expeditious manner, as shipowners and operators do not want to see their vessels, crews and cargoes creating a strong hit on the business side of things.

It's harsh, but true, that piracy today operates - for the most part - just as it always has: As a commercial crime in which criminals gain money through illegal activities and reputable entities consider it part of doing business in the seafaring realm.

But what happens if you do not have the money of a shipping firm, ship management firm or other nautical-oriented endeavor behind you in such a situation? Well, consider - again - the case of the British couple who were kidnapped a year ago while sailing their yacht from the Seychelles towards Tanzania.

Rachel and Paul Chandler were kidnapped on October 23, 2009, and have just passed their one year anniversary in the hands of Somali pirates who seized them. As recent reported, their captors are renewing demands that the couple will not be released until a "full ransom" is paid. Those same captors have also reportedly received nearly $500,000 that was collected by family, friends and supporters of the Chandlers.

Why has there not been more action on the part of the British government to secure their release? Certainly no government wants to get into the business of paying criminals for their illegal actions. Yet there is a degree of duplicity going on here, inasmuch as these same governments allow corporations, and perhaps individuals, who operate from their territories to do just that.

A numbered company based out of a mail drop in any country can transfer funds to criminal gangs in Somalia to secure the release of professional mariners. A nation can even send its military to free hostages. Seems easy to find a half million dollars from some government account that could quietly end this couple's trauma.

After a year in captivity, it would seem something's not being dealt with properly here. We're talking pocket change compared, say, to the amount of money that will be spent repairing HMS Astute after it ran aground last week.

For more on the Chandlers, there is a site set up to support them,

Rachel Chandler with a Somali doctor, January 28, 2019 (AFP photo)

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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who Are The Real Pirates In Somalia? Not Academics

The first part of the title of this commentary is taken from a piece posted by Dr. Alexander Mezyaev yesterday in which he wades into the issue of piracy off the Horn of Africa (HoA). The entire piece can be seen on the Aduunyo website by clicking here. Aduunyo is a site which aims to promote a positive Somali image.

Mezyaev's piece was picked up by Ecoterra and included in their most recent update on the status of vessels and crews seized off Somalia, the Gulf of Aden (GoA) and in the Indian Ocean. It's likely to get picked up by other media groups, too, because it offers the perspective that those Somalis attacking vessels in the region are not really pirates. They are, in his opinion, victims of foreign aggression who are being persecuted (my word) by the international community.

As the "Head, Chair of the International Law, Governance Academy (Kazan')", I would hope Dr. Mezyaev would be well-versed in the details of maritime law, and has perhaps spent some time in the field talking to those who have been affected by maritime crime off the HoA and, just possibly, some of those who commit these acts. However, I seriously doubt he's ever left his office.

Like many others, Mezyaev seems to have fallen in love with the idea that those guys ranging around the seas off Somalia in small craft armed with Kalashnikovs are merely trying to protect their sovereign rights to the natural resources lying beneath the ocean. And these misguided perspectives need to be met head-on with facts.

Let's set this up: Are foreigners illegally fishing off Somalia and dumping waste in those waters? Yes. It's been going on for a decade and a half.

However, IUU activities (that's illegal, unreported and unregulated) are not confined to the waters off Somalia, not by a large margin. It happens in many places, but for some reason only with Somalia is it used as an excuse to justify attacking passing vessels.

Dr. Mezyaev opines that what's going on off Somalia does not constitute piracy and that "The Somali pirates are a myth floated by the global media to divert attention from the international criminal activity taking place in the territorial waters and on the marine shelf of Somalia".

But Mezyaev makes things worse when he writes, "Considering the specific navigational situation in the region, it would be a reasonable view that the ships attacked by pirates (his word) off Somalia's coast actually invaded the Somali territorial waters".

These analyses would be, of course, be news to those mariners attacked well beyond Somalia's nautical borders. Or those pleasure boaters sailing quietly off the coast who were hijacked and held for ransom.

The issue is only partially about the activities of foreigners in the seas off Somalia. In the larger sense it is fundamentally about the activities of criminals preying upon on mariners. And the growth of large-scale organized criminal activity that has found a way to package their business in a manner that is attractive to certain individuals.

To sit in an office an opine on the the situation from a theoretical level strikes someone like myself - who has been there and investigated this topic firsthand for years - as just plain callous. The real pirates are the guys attacking innocent mariners just going about their daily business. There is absolutely no justification for their actions. And I would gladly debate Dr. Mezyaev on this topic, should the opportunity arise.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Piracy Charges Thrown Dismissed In Virginia

A judge in Norfolk, Virginia, yesterday dismissed piracy charges against six Somalis accused of attacking the USS Ashland last April (see my earlier post about the early stages of this incident here). As the Voice Of America reports, the reason appears to be because the men did not actually board or take control of the warship, which is what U.S. statutes define as being acts of piracy. For those who might be angered by this decision, it is important to remember a couple of things.

One is that vigilante justice - "hanging them from the yardarm", so to speak - is not the way to deal with piracy in the 21st century. Maritime criminals like pirates operate outside the rule of law. We cannot stoop to their level. The system of beliefs that supports law and order goes far beyond the confines of a Virginian courtroom. It is international, transcending borders and cultures. It's what separates the thugs and bad guys from most of the rest of us. And if we don't like the existing laws, then we can try to change them.

In the meantime, we have to work with we're given. And for the six Somalis in a Virginia prison, there are still a number of legal issues to be dealt with. I recommend checking out EagleSpeak's take on things (see here ). He's an American attorney and retired US Navy officer, after all. These guys aren't going to be chewing khat again anytime soon. I hope.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summertime shenanigans, or dodos and dollars

Like a certain flightless bird, yours truly has been unable to fly away while the summer passes. Instead, I've been otherwise occupied, but am now able to, again, spread my wings a bit. (And for those who might be concerned, this is not a harbinger of summer's end. My goodness, we've weeks to go, so just enjoy things, okay?)

But I have been enjoying the ability to find time to read some books long overdue and listen to some interesting conversations on radio and online. The Midrats gang have continued their great looks at various topics, so to anyone not familiar with their online show, check out its site here.

Up here in these northern parts, summer is traditionally the time when anyone and everyone who can heads out of town (myself, of course, excepted). As a result, we Canadians fall prey to the annual phase of 'summer journalism', in which the media finds itself fending fewer experienced resources to cover the news of the day. I'm sure it happens elsewhere, whereupon we're subjected to in-depth looks at the caloric content of smoothies, the relative merits of wearing a helmet while riding a bike or insights on sunscreen prevention. All filler in other times, but - somehow - front page news in July.

Governments are not unaware of the languid nature of media reporting in the summertime, often trying to slip an official item pass us during this time, in the hope no one will notice. And quite often we don't, at least not enough to do anything measurable.

But a month ago the Canadian government floated - no pun intended - a proposal to replace our navy's aged supply vessels in just such a manner. The Navy, and its allies, rely on two Canadian-built vessels, HMCS Preserver and Protecteur, commissioned in 1969-70 to resupply their vessels at sea. If they were working commercial vessels, they'd be considered rustbuckets. But naval supply ships don't bear near the stresses that commercial vessels face, so their lives can extend. Still, these two ships are well passed their primes in terms of their nautical status, to say nothing of being effectively ancient to the Canadian Armed Forces. The issue is that after forty years these ships clearly need to be replaced.

HMCS Preserver off New York (DND photo)

The problem from this observer's perspective is the amount of money that is intended to be spent to replace the two supply vessels, the way it is intended to spent and, of course, the manner in which the whole idea was rolled out.

As reported in The Globe & Mail newspaper a couple of weeks ago, the government feels it must replace them because, according to an internal briefing note, "These vessels are single-hulled, which violates most international environmental standards." Therefore $2.6 billion (Canadian) needs to be spent building new supply vessels, here in Canadian shipyards.

$2.6 billion to replace Preserver and Protecteur is a lot of money. Think about it. Over a billion dollars a pop. And though we've perhaps become inured to military expenditures, this is just wrong on so many levels.

First off, this is not a new problem. We've known for years these vessels had a finite lifespan. You shouldn't wait the deadlines on until international protocols come into play to do something. And you shouldn't reveal a multi-billion dollar expenditure in the summer, when government is in recess.

(In fact, this very issue came up four years ago, at about the same time of the year. I wrote about it in a former blog, when the Canadian government thought the price tag would be $15 billion. You can read my earlier - and very similar - thoughts by clicking here.)

Secondly, as I've pointed out before, a billion dollars for a supply ship seems a bit extreme. Why so much? Because they're to be built in Canada from scratch. Bespoke naval vessels that will employ Canadian shipyard workers and bolster the economy. why don't we build the planes for our air force, the tanks for our armoured corps or the submarines for our navy here in Canada? Because it's expensive. And others have done the expensive start up business, so it's often easier to buy "off the rack". (Our fighters and supply planes come from the USA, our main battle tanks from Germany and our subs from Britain.)

Here's an idea that will likely go nowhere beyond here: Instead of a political move to provide some shipbuilding jobs in a country which hasn't been a major shipbuilder for decades, why not bolster the maritime refurbishment industry - already doing okay - by purchasing a couple of vessels from an Asian shipyard and retrofitting them in Canada. The navy would get new vessels faster and the skills acquired in fitting them out could become known to our allies. And if someone brings up the "security" concern (that we must build these vessels in our own shipyards to avoid foreign eyes knowing what we're up to), well they've never seen how much a vessel can change in a re-fit.

Ah, but perhaps I'm thinking too much like Autumn. But there are lessons to be learned.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Somalia's troubles extend landward

While the piracy problems plaguing the coasts of Somalia are, by now, well known, there has been little attention paid to the regional expansion of land-based strife caused by the internal situation in that country. Some may have noted the attacks carried out in Uganda last weekend, though the news of the deaths and injuries that occurred were mostly overlooked.

Yet the instability within Somalia that allows piracy to flourish on the seas also creates not only the potential for greater regional conflict, but, now, the actuality of it. The suicide bombings in Kampala mark another downward step in the fighting that is pitting East Africans against East Africans. Political, cultural and religious differences are being inflamed on land. The worry from those I speak to is that those same divisive elements may be transferred to the nautical theater in the coming months. The suicide attacks in Uganda were reportedly carried out in reprisal of that country's support of the TFG in Somalia. But it should be noted that most Western nations also support the TFG, and an attack on our naval forces would receive considerably more publicity.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Halifax International Fleet Review

It doesn't happen very often, but Queen Elizabeth spent Tuesday reviewing an assembly of international warships gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Meant as part of the celebrations to mark the centennial of our navy, the International Fleet Review included warships from Canada, the United Kingdom, United States, Denmark, Germany, Brazil, France and the Netherlands. Among the international vessels moored in the harbour were the carriers HMS Ark Royal and USS Wasp; the frigates USS Robert G. Bradley, USS Boone, HMS Sutherland, France's La Ventose and Brazil's Independencia; the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Gettysburg, US Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba and the Danish warship HDMS Absalon (which has participated in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa).

I wasn't able to watch the event live, as I spent the day with a Canadian veteran of the Second World War's Italian campaign while he recounted the battles of the Liri Valley. But all the pomp and ceremony can be seen in the video coverage of the review on the CBC site, by clicking here (it runs over three hours in duration). The official website for the Review is here.

Now if they could just return the name to RCN.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Memories Of Vietnam

Most of what you'll encounter on this site deals with piracy and maritime security, but I've spent decades traversing the globe as a journalist, filmmaker and gadfly, exploring all manner of things. In the course of those travels, I've been honoured to meet a number of people with whom I've kept in touch over the years, something that isn't always easy. Today I received word from one of those individuals that his father has died after a long battle with cancer. This colleague - he wasn't really a close friend - is Vietnamese-Canadian, born here after his parents fled their homeland during the Boat People exodus. His family came from just outside Hué, and his dad was a major in the ARVN who saw, I'm told, a lot of action. I only met the man once, many years ago, and was surprised at how little animosity he bore the foes he once battled, even though they were his own people.

In this man's honour, I present a few images from my time spent in Vietnam almost a decade ago. I was in Quang Tri Province at the time, filming a documentary around sites like Khe Sanh, the Rockpile, A Luoi , the A Shau Valley, Dong Ha, Ben Hai and Vinh Moc. Unbeknownst at the time, I was driving past his youthful stomping grounds each day, as I went back and forth to my hotel in Hué. I have never forgotten the beauty of a peaceful Vietnam nor its diverse peoples, or the unique way they dealt with a 10,000 day war. Which is different from other nations, such as Canada, from which about 30,000 left to fight in Vietnam, including a brother-in-law.

But I'd rather remember this man's homeland berefit of conflict. May he rest in peace.

On the ferry over the Perfume River

Kids near Khe Sanh (note old dog tags worn on left)

Wartime detritus salvaged by locals near Khe Sanh

UXO clearance on the Ben Hai River

Monument at the Truong Son National Cemetary

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

World Cup Weirdness

The most popular sporting event on the planet is currently unfolding in South Africa: the World Cup of football (or soccer to some). As billions of people around the globe follow the teams playing, the impact of trying to watch has led to some dire results.

As EagleSpeak noted earlier, some football fans in Somalia were executed on the weekend by Islamist militants for the crime of tuning in to catch a game. As reported by The Telegraph's Aislinn Laing, supporters of Hizbul Islam stormed a house near Mogadishu where a group had gathered to watch last Saturday's Nigeria-Argentina match. Ten people were arrested by the militants, and two others were killed. The Islamist militants feel that watching sporting events - like the World Cup - contravenes their interpretation of what is acceptable social behavior in those parts of Somalia under their control.

Today also saw the North Korean team facing off against the event's number one ranked team, Brazil (North Korea is the lowest ranked in the tournament). To their credit, the North Koreans - er, Korea DPRers - managed to score a late game goal against the favored Brazilians, who nevertheless took the match by a score of 2-1.

As the game played out, diplomats met at the United Nations in New York to discuss the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, which resulted in the death of 46 sailors. As AFP reports, the North Korean ambassador to the UN asked that his countrymen be allowed to conduct their own investigation, including visiting the site of the sinking. He also warned that the Hermit Kingdom might take "military action" should the world body censure his nation over the sinking. Should the Security Council take action against North Korea, the ambassador said that, "follow-up measures will be carried out by our military forces...I [will] lose my job."

Not sure what he meant by the last quip, but, then again, one doesn't want to piss off the Dear Leader back in Pyongyang in any way. And I'm sure the ambassador isn't going to be Tweeting anyone like a few people in South Africa have: "Dear Leader does not know I'm not at work."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Assessing The Number Of Pirates Operating Off Somalia

As the current piracy season off the Horn of Africa winds itself down - thanks to the coming monsoon season - we're beginning to get our first assessments of how things have changed in the last year. Reuters correspondent Peter Apps writes (here) that NATO and EU forces say they, "[A]re combating [pirates] more effectively." Unfortunately, those same sources say that many more pirates are plying the seas off the HoA than ever before.

The outgoing commander of the EU's antipiracy mission in the region (Operation ATALANTA), British Royal Navy Rear Admiral Peter Hudson, told a briefing in the UK late last week that, "We would say there has been a threefold increase in the number of pirates since 2009," referring to those operating off the HoA and adding, "I would say we are being more effective but against an increased level of threat."

Assessing the number of pirates working those seas is always problematic, inasmuch as no one is able to keep a tally of each and every individual embarking on a career as a maritime criminal. But while investigating piracy in the region a few years ago, the best guesstimates of total strength of Somali pirates I could discern from speaking with informed sources was that it was in the range of about a thousand individuals actively engaged in operations. Now, using RAdm Hudson's assessment as a marker, this observer would postulate there are now potentially at least 3000 pirates operating in those seas.

One might think that maybe the numbers are lower, and that the pirates are just busier in their activities. But having greatly expanded their scope of operations into the wider parts of the western Indian Ocean, while maintaining abilities to strike in inshore waters and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden, implies an increased manpower base for the pirate gangs.

Additionally, there has not been a noticeable decrease in piracy emanating from parts of Somalia under the control of Islamist groups (such as al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam). As the Reuters report points out, the takeover of the Somali port of Haradheere in May did not result in the release of any of the hijacked vessels being held nearby. The report also notes there has been, "[A]n increase in attacks launched from Islamist-controlled areas of the Somali coast." (The report's sources take pains to say that, "[W]ithout any land-based operations they simply could not tell if the Islamists were directly involved with piracy." But deeds speak volumes.

The fact that numbers of pirates are going up should not be a surprise to anyone familair with the region, as it is a criminal businerss endeavor that attracts opportunists, in a place with few other options. With at least 17 vessels currently being held - and some 357 hostages being held - the issue needs some new energy in order to stem the tide.

A decade ago there were maybe a hundred guys running around the seas off the HoA intent on attacking vessels. Now there may be 3000. And ten years ago there were but a handful of mariners being held hostage by criminals; now there are over 350.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A More Detailed Look At The Law Of The Sea And The Gaza Flotilla Incident

As discussions and comments about the Gaza Flotilla Incident continue, the legal issues involved have been bandied around in ways that, at times, leave much to be desired. Advocates on both sides have tried to invoke elements of international law to bolster their opinions, to the consternation of some well-informed, objective observers.

In response to things, I recommend reading a piece in today's issue of The Globe & Mail written by Ed Morgan, a professor of international law at the University of Toronto (viewable by clicking here). In it, Prof. Morgan outlines the various laws and regulations about the Law of the Sea and rules of engagement pertaining to naval warfare.

"Reactions to the Israeli seizure of the Gaza-bound flotilla have shared two traits," Morgan writes, "They have virtually all invoked international law, and they have virtually all been marked more by their rhetorical excess than their knowledge of international law."

Morgan goes on to write, "Accordingly, the accusation of piracy is inapt, since under both customary law and Article 101 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea that applies only to acts done for private gain. Israel's acts must be analyzed in terms of the law of naval warfare."

He then goes on the detail what constitutes a blockade and the laws regulating force at sea.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gaza Flotilla Incident & Piracy Assertions

In response to a number of queries, I'm finally able to find time to comment on the recent incident off the Israeli coast involving the flotilla of vessels trying to reach Gaza. Specifically, I'd like to point out that under international law, the actions of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) do not constitute an act of piracy. (See Article 101 the UN Convention On The Law Of The Sea, here.) As EagleSpeak's notes, here, the key part of the Article's wording defines an act of piracy as being one committed for private ends, not one committed by governmental personnel.

That is, the IDF was not intent on seizing the flotilla vessels in order to ransom them, hold the crews hostage, etc. Compare, for example, the actions of international naval forces in the seas off the Horn of Africa, in which vessels have been stopped and boarded in international waters. Sometimes those vessels are seized (and sunk), at other times they are left to continue on their way. Either way, no international laws are being broken either off Somalia or in the eastern Mediterranean. It is important to remember the true definition of acts of piracy and not allow certain individuals to use the terminology to describe this rather bizarre incident.

What is slightly more odd about how events unfolded is the manner with which the IDF decided to carry out the boardings. As others have commented (such as Information Dissemination's lengthy posts, here), the IDF actions seem somewhat stupid in light of previous incidents in which security personnel have engaged in vessel boardings. Putting some commandos on a freighter held by pirates is one thing: A good commander knows the pirates and their hostages will likely be contained within a specific area and there is likely to be ample space on the vessel to effect a safe boarding. But dropping personnel via helicopter onto a heavily populated passenger vessel, at night, no less, virtually invites a confrontation, especially when the passengers aboard said ship are expecting something and are knowingly antagonistic to the idea of being boarded.

In the "what were they thinking?" mode, Information Dissemination posted the following cartoon, which comes from the Center for a New American Security blog (here):

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When Is It Time To Pay A Pirate's Ransom?

As anyone who has looked at maritime piracy will know, it is a criminal endeavor that is all about money, especially the money to be garnered by holding crews, vessels and cargoes for ransom. And, as an economic criminal activity, if no one pays the pirates they will eventually move on to some other more profitable things. This is a bit of a simplification, but not far off the general mark, and it is one of the reasons that I have felt that those in the shipping industry should not pay ransoms (as well as taking more effective preventive measures to safeguard their personnel).

At present, though, it remains a difficult proposition to take because ransoms are being paid and if you've ever sailed with mariners through piracy-prone waters, as I have, this view means you are potentially relegating those you know to being incarcerated by criminals in dire circumstances.

In a worst case scenario situation, they'll hopefully only be held for a few weeks or months. But then there is the ongoing case of Rachel and Paul Chandler. The British yachters have been held by Somali pirates since last October 22, spending over seven months in captivity. The couple have made another plea through the media to have the British government help them, and one has to wonder whether something can't be done to free them.

The case of the Chandlers raises all kinds of questions about how we should deal with pirates. For instance, there is the fact that these two older British sailors have been held for seven months with little chance their family or friends can pony up a hefty ransom to free them. So maybe the British government should intercede and repatriate the couple. Maybe a campaign to raise awareness of their plight would help force the British government to do something. But, then again, wouldn't that just play into the pirates' hands, and embolden them to attack more yachters?

Maybe some of those naval forces in the region could swoop in and rescue the couple, doing what Jack Bauer does on 24 each hour. But some might remember the French response to their citizens captured by Somali pirates a year ago (see here), which ended with the master of the yacht Le Tanit killed.

This is a difficult and unique case, and I have no complete solutions. But it's the first time in a while that I have actually thought that maybe the ransom should be paid to free the Chandlers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Royal Thoughts On Thailand

We're winding up the Victoria Day long weekend here in Canada, the unofficial start to summer shenanigans named in honour Queen Victoria, which has led to some thoughts about another royal, Thailand's King Bhumibol.

The most recent events that have rocked that southeast Asian maritime nation have been notable for missing one important element: Any commentary or guidance from Thailand's royal leader. To critique the Thai royal family within that nation - or elsewhere - is a delicate proposition, one that might land you in jail there should your comments be construed in certain terms by local officials.

The absence of the king during this recent crisis has finally been commented upon by William Stevenson in The Toronto Star. Stevenson - author of A Man Called Intrepid - is a former advisor to the Thai king, and his thoughts are worth checking out, by clicking here.

PS: Regarding the holiday described above, I should note that Canadians will take any excuse for a day off work, even an archaic celebration of a long-dead, foreign monarch whose is supposed to have uttered, "We are not amused." As a nation noted for its comedians, we can be take great amusement in drinking beer and blowing things up to honour someone. It's kind of like a long-running, annual wake. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reactions As Accused Somali Pirate Pleads Guilty In US Court

Over a year after he was apprehended by US forces in the Indian Ocean, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse yesterday pled guilty in a New York court to charges relating to the attack on the box ship Maersk Alabama. This marks the first time in over a century and a half that the U.S. has prosecuted a piracy case in its legal system. Muse will be sentenced in October and prosecutors are expected to seek a prison term of at least 27 years. The lone survivor of the pirate gang that boarded the vessel, Muse is reported to have told the court - through an interpreter - that, "What we did was wrong. I am very, very sorry for the harm we did. The reason for this is the problems in Somalia."

In the wake of Muse's admission of guilt, one Somali source told the BBC that he has "serious concerns" about the case, and about whether foreign nations have the jurisdictional authority to try suspected pirates in their courts. Jamaal Cumar is described in the BBC report as "a US-based Somali official", though his actual capacity is not spelled out and there are few other online references to Cumar acting on behalf of the Somali government.

Cumar tells the BBC that, "he had been trying to work out why the US would have any authority to try Muse's case and those of several other suspects in custody in the US." He is quoted as saying, "The Somali government's position has always been that we questioned the jurisdiction of this case. We felt that it was an exercise in extrajudicial practice of the law and we asked the US to return those pirates back to Somalia."

What makes Mr. Cumar's media appearance odd is that he clearly has his priorities skewed. He fails to grasp the ability under both national and international laws for sovereign nations such as the United States to prosecute those accused of engaging in pirate attacks on vessels at sea, which are legally defined as incidents that happen outside the jurisdiction of littoral nations. The attack on the Maersk Alabama occurred in international waters, meaning that those involved (like Muse) have no protection from Somali laws, whatever those may be.

As well, one might think that Cumar would be more concerned about the plight of other Somalis accused of piracy. As EagleSpeak noted yesterday, a court in Yemen condemned six Somalis to death for their actions in seizing an oil tanker in April of last year (around the time the Maersk Alabama was attacked). There appears to be no media outcry from any Somali officials about that case, least of all from Mr. Cumar. As someone opposed to the death penalty for crimes like piracy, I would prefer the Yemeni officials were to do what the Americans will likely do, and incarcerate the pirates for lengthy terms. Though I would safely bet that Muse will fare much better in a US prison.

One other reaction about Muse's case comes from his mother: As reported in The Washington Post, Adar Abdirahman Hassan told the Associated Press from her home in central Somalia that she was pleading with President Barack Obama for leniency to her son. She felt that he had been "duped" into becoming involved with the attack by "adult friends" and thought that the he had pled guilty because Muse was afraid he would be sentenced to death in the US for his actions.

"Please, please President Obama," Hassan says, "Please, American people, please release my son and grant him citizenship to help us."

Friday, May 7, 2010

Russia Reacts To Piracy By Releasing Some, Prosecuting Others

Somewhat interesting couple of events unfolded today regarding the manner with which Russia has opted to deal with suspected events of piracy.

In the case of the tanker Moscow University, which was boarded by a band pirates in the Indian Ocean last Wednesday, a rescue operation was mounted the next day by elements of the Russian Navy operating from the warship Marshal Shaposhnikov. This resulted in the release of the tanker's crew and the capture of the boarders - and the death of one suspected pirate. Afterward, though, the Russians opted to release the captured suspects. As quoted in a BBC report, this was because of "imperfections" in international law. As EagleSpeak has noted from another site, the suspected pirates were apparently "put in an inflatable boat" and sent on their way by the Russians, since, in the words of one Russian defence official, they felt that, "Why should we feed some pirates?"

Nevertheless, on the same day the Russians also sentenced the first person to be convicted on piracy charges in that nation in some time. This related to the incident last summer when the freighter Arctic Sea went missing off Europe, an event which concerned a lot of folks. A court in Moscow today sentenced Andrei Lunev, originally said to be from Tallinn, Estonia, on charges of piracy. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Lunev and one other of the eight crew members charged over the incident admitted their guilt over the incident this past week. He is said to have struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid a lengthier jail term.

It's odd to see that the Russians are willing to prosecute those involved with the Arctic Sea incident, but not the Moscow University attack. With the latter case, it seems clear-cut that the individuals who boarded the tanker were intent on criminal actions. Being presumably armed and aboard a ship without the express permission of its master clearly violates some protocols. So why the double standard?

Many questions still remain unanswered about the Arctic Sea incident. According to the BBC report, some of the accused claim they were "set up" and had rescued the vessel, not hijacked it. And an unnamed Russian journalist who helped break the initial story is said to have fled Russia, "saying he had been warned to leave after suggesting [the ship] may have been carrying a secret consignment of weapons."

An odd set of events that leaves this observer scratching his head.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Centennial of the Canadian Navy

Tuesday, May 4 is an important milestone for the Canadian Navy, marking its official centennial. It was on this date in 1910 that the Naval Service Act was enacted into law and Canada began to assume an active military role on the waters that are such a defining part of our nation’s character. It’s often forgotten that Canada has the longest coastline of any nation on the planet, and except for Alberta and Saskatchewan, every province and territory here touches upon salt water. In the hundred years since a domestic maritime force was created, the navy has undergone great changes in carrying out its duties, so it’s worth remembering some of its history.

The first attempt at founding a Canadian Navy happened in 1881, when a stream-powered vessel, HMS Charybdis, was purchased from the British. But any hopes this would foster the creation of an effective force were short-lived, and the Charybdis soon fell into disrepair. By 1910, though, enough political momentum had developed and the nascent Naval Service of Canada was founded in May of 1910, though there was no fleet to speak of. The first warship to be commissioned into the Naval Service was the cruiser HMCS Rainbow, entering Canadian service on August 4, 1910 after serving with Britain’s Royal Navy since 1893. The fleet was added to less than a month later, when another former RN cruiser, HMCS Niobe, joined the navy on September 16.

HMCS Rainbow

It wasn’t until 1911 that King George V granted permission for the prefix “Royal” to be added to the service’s name, begetting the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) moniker that would remain until 1968, when the three branches of the navy, army and air force were amalgamated into the Canadian Armed Forces. Today’s navy is properly called Maritime Command, to the enduring annoyance of many. However, all Canadian naval vessels still retain the HMCS prefix.

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, the Royal Canadian Navy was still under-funded, poorly equipped and struggling. Rainbow was based on the west coast of Canada, operating out of Esquimalt, British Columbia, while Niobe was based on the opposite coast in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Niobe actually spent the early part of the war on patrol off the eastern seaboard of the United States, part of the British fleet enforcing a blockade of ports like New York from German shipping. In August of 1914, Canada also acquired two American-built CC-class submarines in a strange manner: The subs had been built in Seattle for Chile’s navy, but the deal fell through. So the provincial premier of British Columbia brokered a deal to purchase them, and they were eventually commissioned into the RCN.

CC-1 and CC-2

Throughout the First World War and the post-war period, the RCN remained the junior service in Canada, failing to attract the public support that ground troops had acquired fighting in France and Belgium. (Canada’s aerial forces would not be officially constituted as the Royal Canadian Air Force until 1924.) But with the onset of the Second World War and the need for Canada’s growing economic base to support the allied war efforts abroad, the RCN experienced a phenomenal growth. When war was declared by Canada on September 10, 1939, the RCN consisted of just 13 vessels (6 destroyers, 4 minesweepers and 3 auxiliaries) and about 3500 personnel in both regular and reserve roles. By war’s end, the fleet would grow to becoming the third largest navy on the planet after the U.S. and Great Britain, with the RCN then boasting 434 commissioned vessels and some 100,000 uniformed personnel.

The years after World War Two saw a dramatic reduction in the size of the RCN, but the navy also saw the addition of aircraft carriers into the fleet (five carriers would eventually fly the Canadian naval ensign, perhaps most famously HMCS Bonaventure). And the RCN actively participated in the Korean War as part of United Nations’ efforts.

The Cold War period saw the RCN’s role adapt to fit with international demands through NATO and other alliances, including the loss of aircraft carriers and a greater reliance on anti-submarine operations. Also, the White Ensign which had been flown since 1911 (shown at the top left of this post) was replaced by the current naval jack in 1965 (shown at the top right). And while the fleet aged, plans were made to build a new class of warships – the Canadian Patrol Frigates – that would form the backbone of the navy. The first, HMCS Halifax, was commissioned into service in June of 1992.

Since the Halifax entered service, the Canadian Navy has participated in the war on terror, numerous humanitarian missions and, of course, counter-piracy operations. In honour of the century of service that members of the Navy have provided to Canada, the government has just announced the re-introduction of the executive curl, a part of the rank insignia that had been dropped when the Canadian Forces were unified in 1968.

To all those men and women who have served in the Navy over the years, and to those who continue to do so today, let fair winds, a following sea and a healthy toast be the order of the day, and may the memories of comrades past never be forgotten. Ready Aye Ready to one and all.

For more on the centennial, check out the Canadian Department of National Defence's website, which can be viewed by clicking here.

UPDATE: The navy's centennial anniversary was sadly marred by the news of the first Canadian sailor to die in Afghanistan. Petty Officer 2nd Class Douglas Blake was a member of the Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic, based in Shearwater, Nova Scotia, who had been deployed to Afghanistan last month as an explosive ordnance disposal operator. On Monday afternoon (Kandahar-time), PO2 Blake and his team had been called out to dispose of an IED in the Panjwaii District. After successfully disposing of the device, they were returning on foot to their vehicles when a second bomb exploded, killing Blake. He is the 143rd member of the Canadian Forces to die in Afghanistan and leaves a wife and two young boys.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Somali Islamic Insurgents & Piracy

With the news that the Islamic militants Hizbul Islam overran the Somali coastal town of Haradheere on the weekend, the pirates who had previously been using the port as a base of operations have fled northward, taking their belongings, supporters and even their hostages with them. But now that Hizbul Islam is reportedly in control of Haradheere, there appears to be some confusion about the group itself, and whether they mean to use the port for pirating operations.

For instance, yesterday's New York Times had a piece that wondered, "whether rebels with connections to Al Qaeda will now have a pipeline to tens of millions of dollars - and a new ability to threaten global trade." Unfortunately, the article is incorrect in tying Hizbul Islam to al-Qaeda. Though Hizbul Islam has invited Osama bin Laden and foreign fighters to come to Somalia to aid the insurgent group in its efforts to gain control of the country, and though the group's leader is believed to have ties to al-Qaeda, this particular Islamist organization is not thought by many experts to be linked with al-Qaeda. It is, in fact, Somalia's other main Islamist insurgent group - al-Shabaab - that has aligned itself with al-Qaeda. (For more on the two groups, see Bill Roggio's post at The Long War Journal from last month, by clicking here.)

Some of the confusion may stem from Shabbab's brief entry into Haradheere a week ago, which first caused the local pirates to pack up and leave. But the two Islamist groups are currently not closely allied and have not been working together for some time, and it would appear that Hizbul Islam's capture of the port was part of their efforts to consolidate territory over their rivals.

As well, the idea that the capture of Haradheere may signal a new piracy campaign on Hizbul Islam's part overlooks the fact that they could have engaged in active operations at any time in the past year had they been so inclined. The reality is that these Somali Islamist groups are more interested in their land-based operations than they are in any maritime criminal activities. It is believe that the insurgents receive some funding from piracy operations and rely on vessels to smuggle arms, supplies and other goods in and out of the parts of Somalia they control. As some reports have pointed out, the battle for Haradheere may have been partially the result of a failure on the pirates' part to send some of their profits to the Islamists. That is, the pirate gangs didn't want to pay protection money to either al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam (though the pirates are known to accept protection money from some vessels operating in the seas off the Horn of Africa). So in a tit-for-tat response for not giving up a cut of the takes, the pirates of Haradheere found themselves being run out of town by better armed and organized adversaries.

The ideological foundations of groups like Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab mean that if they engage in widespread piracy operations, they risk undermining their core supporters and any other Somalis who might be favorable to the Islamists. This is not to say these groups will completely refrain from engaging in piracy, just to point out they have other, more important issues to deal with ashore. For the time being, piracy does not appear to a priority for the Islamist insurgents.

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.