Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Accused in Maersk Alabama incident accused of additional acts

Late this afternoon came news that Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, the Somali involved with the attack on the Maersk Alabama last April, is now accused of having taken part of in two additional hijackings of vessels off the Horn of Africa's coast. The AP report says that federal prosecutors allege Muse was involved in boarding one vessel in March and another in April. The names of the vessels were not made public, however the allegations are that when the pirates boarded the first ship, Muse threatened to kill the crew with, "what appeared to be an improvised explosive device." After taking control, Muse and the others are alleged to have then used the vessel to successfully hijack the second ship, which is reported to still be in the hands of Somali pirates.

Though The New York Times post is headlined "NY Prosecutors File More Charges in Piracy Case", this appears to not be quite correct: As Crain's New York Business explains (via another AP report), while Muse is alleged to have participated in these earlier incidents, the indictment filed in Manhattan today does not actually add any additional charges to the original ones the Somali has already plead not guilty to. Instead, his alleged participation in these other incidents has been added to one of the ten counts Muse is currently facing, namely the charge of conspiracy to seize a ship by force.

There appear to be two reasons for today's actions on the part of US federal prosecutors: One is to establish that Muse had been involved in previous acts of piracy, establishing a pattern of criminal behavior that goes beyond just the Maersk Alabama incident. And the second reason seems to be in order to establish the suspect's age, as Muse is reported to have told one of the first two crews that he was 24 years-old. When Muse was first arraigned in New York last April, his defense lawyers said he was just 15 and should therefore be tried as a juvenile, while prosecutors said the man was at least 18.

Some might wonder why it is taking so long to begin Muse's actual court case, even though it's not uncommon for it to take years before a suspect finally stands before a judge and jury. In this particular case, today's news reveals that the investigators and prosecutors involved have clearly been doing a lot of work, the kind of diligent collaborative work that goes on quietly behind the scenes. Putting together all the elements to effectively prosecute a case of modern-day piracy in an American courthouse is, in itself, very difficult. Acquiring sufficient evidence for the same judicial system from other acts of suspected piracy that may have occurred out in the Indian Ocean is even harder.

But it's a sign that some people are keeping tabs on what's happening out there, in the hope that suspected pirates can be eventually brought to justice. And though it may sound boring, the acquisition of forensic evidence is a vital part of combating acts of maritime crime like piracy. The formal use of due process and transparency of legal actions are parts of what define nations seeking to deal with criminal activities wherever they may occur.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Switzerland deals with pirates

As odd as it may seem, a Swiss-flagged bulker, the MV Turicum, was reported to have had a run-in with pirates off the Somali coast last week and managed to avoid being boarded.

I say "odd" only because few would expect that land-locked Switzerland would have any sea-going vessels under its flag. But according to the news report, "24 Swiss ships crossed the Gulf of Aden" last year, without incident. It also says that the Swiss merchant fleet currently comprises 35 vessels.

For what it's worth, my grandfather was a member of an esteemed poker club in Northern Ontario many years ago. They lightly dubbed themselves "The Swiss Navy", thinking there was no such thing as an ocean-going aspect of that country. But such is the global nature of shipping that they were wrong, and no one is immune to the threat of pirates, not even venerable Switzerland.

MV Turicum (photo credit: Actionjackson at

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Paying Pirate Tributes: The cost of doing business in the shipping world

There was an interesting discussion on Sunday evening about piracy on the BlogRadio site's Midrat's show worth checking out (you can be hear it on the site's archive by clicking here). Part of the show talked about why piracy is not a more important issue to many people, and it's an important discussion.

As co-host Galrahn so succinctly put it, one reason for the lack of broad interest about the threats posed by pirates is because these maritime criminals engage - for the most part - in "non-lethal" actions. That is, you don't see mariners being killed on a weekly basis by pirates, while we hear of continuing casualties in places like Afghanistan (where six soldiers were reported killed today: Three Americans, two French and one British).

Assessing the severity of a political issue by merely looking at body counts is inherently wrong and overlooks the long-term implications that come from taking a reactive stance, as opposed to a pro-active one. And it should be apparent that waiting until enough mariners die at the hands of pirates is a silly way to formulate a cohesive, transnational strategy to deal with the problem.

But, then again, reacting to a problem is a far more common human trait than preparing for the worst. As was recently shown in the wake of the actions of Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the so-called 'Christmas bomber' of a Detroit-bound airliner), it seems far easier to set up procedures to virtually strip-search passengers with expensive technology than to enhance the assets already in place to screen and prevent someone like him from ever boarding an airplane. But many feel things are somehow safer when there are pre-boarding scanners rushed into place at air terminals in Toronto or Chicago rather than the unseen work of human intelligence gatherers in Lagos or Sana'a. Out of sight is out of mind.

Piracy is nothing new. We've seen the modern-day version of this maritime crime increasing off the Horn of Africa for well over a decade, but our reactions have been, for the most part, relatively recent and only partially thought through. Our resources are limited and confined in terms of what they can really do. In just one example of the lack of attention being paid to the problem, the Toronto Star newspaper recently highlighted the problems the crew of the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg faced on their counter-piracy deployment last year, which included lack of equipment and even enough uniforms to properly carry out their mission. Catch and release, convoys, barbed wire - these are rudimentary and crude responses to an international problem and need to be addressed. Quickly.

But there's plenty of blame to go around here beyond the way nations and their security forces have acted (or reacted). The commercial shipping industry bears an immense responsibility for allowing piracy to flourish in recent years, having been so willing to ignore the threat and pay ransoms when necessary. The libertarian nature of global shipping has fostered a climate in which mariners are pawns whose lives are to be gambled with when it comes to piracy. A colleague in the shipping industry recently put it to me this way: "Shipping is one of the few industries which have not yet fully recognized the value of persons as related to materials/assets." This individual went on to bemoan the way some shipping firms will essentially gamble with the lives of mariners, refusing to take out proper insurance or provide suitable anti-piracy training to their crews.

There are currently over 200 people being held against their wills by Somali pirates (see the most recent Reuters list of vessels seized by clicking here). By my reckoning, this is the largest number of foreigners being held in captivity in any single country on the planet. They should not be forgotten. And they should never have fallen prey to maritime criminals. The cost of doing business in the shipping world can no longer include enriching pirate gangs.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Holidays are over, but piracy never ends

After a few weeks away from the blogosphere, I begin the new year - and the new decade - slowly getting back into things. Not that I've been ignoring what's been going on, merely recharging the batteries, so to speak.

I'd like to first highlight a new online radio show of probable interest to those who read my posts, that debuted last weekend. It's called Midrats and it airs on Blog Talk Radio, Sunday's from 5-6pm Eastern Time (2200-2300 GMT). The focus is naval and maritime issues and it's hosted by three Americans well-versed about what's going on out there on the seas today that should be of concern to anyone of any nation: CDR Salamander, Galrahn (of Information Dissemination) and EagleSpeak. Check it out next weekend, participate - they take calls from anywhere - and listen to the archived shows.

Activity off the Horn of Africa in the last week that has been of some concern to many. The seizure of the pure car carrier (PCC) MV Asian Glory last Friday by Somali pirates is another notable event, given the high freeboard of the vessel. PCCs have been considered among the least likely to be boarded by pirates (not attacked - boarded), because of the high sides they present. Yet the British-flagged Asian Glory was still captured while sailing in the middle of the western Indian Ocean.

Of course no one though a supertanker could be taken either. Point is, the pirates in that region have developed capabilities that allow them to strike at any targets available. Anyone. High freeboard or bulk size are no impediments for these maritime criminals

The BBC is reporting that a Pakistani fishing vessel has been released by Somali pirates, a vessel that may have been used as a mother ship to hijack the Asian Glory. According to the BBC, "[T]his is one of the first known instances of one vessel being hijacked and then used to hijack another."

This is patently wrong. Somali pirates have been using captured vessels to attack other ships for years. While working on my book I met a mariners who had been held by Somali pirates as far back in 2005 who saw their vessels turned into mother ships to successfully seize another merchant vessel.

Point is, this is nothing new. But we're entering a phase in which Somali piracy is becoming boring to the general public and those journalists now covering it are, often, ill-informed about the situation. 2010 will be a crucible year for nations to get their shit together about this (pardon my language). The media is already forgetting what's occurred the last half decade, and they're supposed to be the ones keeping us informed. All the more reason to check out sources like Midrats if you're really interested in the issues.

Or keep your eye on here. Happy New Year.