Friday, February 12, 2010

Talking about piracy on BlogTalkRadio, Sunday, February 14 at 5pm ET

For those who might be interested, I will joining the hosts of this Sunday's Midrats show that can be heard on BlogTalkRadio from 5-6pm Eastern time. Along with fellow guest Kevin Doherty - a former Marine and US Special Agent who now runs Nexus Consulting - we will be discussing some of the latest trends and developments related to the world of piracy on the high seas.

With yesterday's release of the Taiwanese fishing vessel Win Far 161 - and the ongoing mystery as to whether any of its crew died while in captivity - part of our discussion will look at some of the issues revolving around foreign fishing off the Horn of Africa, as well as the plight of those taken captive by pirates in the region. (There are currently over 160 individuals being held hostage in that part of the world, often in abysmal conditions. For instance, it has recently been reported that a British woman, yachter Rachel Chandler, narrowly escaped being raped by a pirate captor the other day.)

You're welcome to listen in, post comments in the show's chat room and even call in to make your thoughts known on air. And while I know it's a busy day with a lot going on - what with Valentine's Day, the start of the lunar New Year, the Daytona 500 and the Winter Olympics - I invite everyone to catch the show live, or listen to it on the Midrats' archives. You can jump to the show's website by clicking on the link below, and I look forward to discussion.

Listen to Midrats on Blog Talk Radio

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Some new thoughts on how to combat piracy off Somalia

As February begins, things remain relatively quiet in the seas off the Horn of Africa (HoA) in terms of piracy. Attacks are still occurring, such as the successful hijacking of a North Korean freighter earlier today - which occurred one day after another vessel was released - but the effect of the winter monsoon off East Africa is giving everyone a brief respite before things heat up again next month. This provides a perfect opportunity to take a deeper look at some potential means of stemming the scourge of maritime crime that has been causing so many problems in that region of the world. And there's a lot to talk about.

I have a couple of new ideas to put forth about all this, but, before I get to those, I'd like to highlight some other thoughts that came from a recent gathering held last December at Harvard's Kennedy School. Some two dozen analysts, diplomats, scholars, military personnel and other experts came together under the auspices of the World Peace Foundation (website here) as the Cambridge Coalition to Combat Piracy. It's unfortunate there has been little public notice of this gathering, as they put together an interesting policy brief summarizing their collective ideas. You can download it as a PDF via the WPF website by clicking on "Policy Briefs". (And, for the record, I was not part of this event, though several colleagues were, including Canadian government security and justice analyst Patrick Lennox and Andrew Mwangura from the East African Seafarer's Assistance Programme.)

What the Cambridge Coalition came up with are a series of 38 recommendations dealing with everything from how to discourage pirates on land, to shutting down the money trail, making ships harder to capture and strengthening the legal responses to dealing with this maritime criminal activity. To those who have followed this blog, read my book or are otherwise well-informed about modern-day piracy, many of the recommendations will be obvious.

One of the most interesting ideas put forth is the idea of establishing a regional African judicial center to prosecute suspected pirates. Though I've mused in the past about setting up an admiralty court in someplace like London or The Hague, I now realize that this could prove counter-productive. As the Cambridge Coalition suggests, setting up a "piracy court" in somewhere like Somaliland or Djibouti would be stronger. It could be an African court, with African legal personnel dealing with African suspects. Doing so would alleviate the negative impact among the Somali people that can arise when suspects are removed to Europe or America for prosecution, leading some locals to say that that Westerners - or former colonizers - are imposing their will with a harsh manner.

Piracy can never be eradicated, contained or effectively suppressed without dealing with the root causes ashore that attract individuals to head out to sea to attack passing vessels. And while the international community cannot solve all of Somalia's problems with a quick stroke, I do believe there are a couple of other options that the Cambridge Coalition did not address, which have not been brought up elsewhere, to my knowledge.
First, I suggest that the international community declare a moratorium on all foreign fishing within 200 nautical miles of the Somali coast (that is, their Exclusive Economic Zone - EEZ). This would allow Somali fishermen who claim to have turned to piracy because of the foreign fishers to be allowed to work in safety. And it would undermine any of the claims being put forth that Somali pirate gangs are somehow "defending" their own people.

It would also mean that any Somali who really did want to just fish - not pirate - could do so without impediment. It's an opportunity in a place where few exist, so why not try it? And though such an action will cause some economic problems for a variety of foreign nations working the seas off Somalia, that's too bad. A higher price for tuna in European or Asian markets, for instance, is a small price to pay. Besides, Western nations - such as Canada - have enforced their own closed fisheries in the recent past when so required.

To enforce this concept, I suggest that the international community divert some its resources away from blue water naval patrols to littoral operations in aid of the Somali people. For less than the cost of the deployment of a single warship, several inshore/offshore patrol craft could be made available to the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG). (And, by the way, we should stop calling that entity "transitional". Either it's the recognized government or it isn't. After so many years, the so-called TFG is anything but transitory.)

Patrol craft could operate - with Somali officials aboard - to enforce the no-fishing ban, as well as deterring illegal waste dumping. It would also provide training to the Somalis about international regulations and practices so that could then take over operations at a later date. International forces have been doing this for decades, in places as diverse as Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, so why not Somalia? And there are numerous American and British personnel with experience guarding coasts in the Persian Gulf, to say nothing of all the CG elements already trained in these practices in numerous other nations.

Neither of the ideas I'm putting forth will conclusively see the end of piracy off the HoA, but they are put forth as a potential means of aiding the Somali people in their own battles against criminal gangs. To date, our actions at sea have ignored the causes ashore, which is a big mistake. And the idea that we're clouded by past experiences in Somalia needs to be put aside. Politically speaking - and with respect to those who were involved - "Black Hawk Down" (for Americans) or "Belet Huen" (for Canadians) were parts of operations that should not have been forsaken. We are still picking up the pieces from our cowardly actions, and hoping that merchant sailors don't pay the price. Literally.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Al-Shabaab's intentions to expand their operations beyond Somalia

As I wrote in my last post, the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab has now partnered with a smaller rebel group, the Ras Kamboni Brigade. Bill Roggio at Long War Journal has been following the situation in Somalia for some time and has posted the English-language text of the merger of the two groups that was announced last Friday via the internet. As the announcement states, the two groups are now to be known as "Al Shabaab Mujahideen Movement", with a focus on continuing, "[T]he fight against enemies of Allah and to seek the establishment of an Islamic government," presumably in Somalia.

Though the group's press release doesn't deal with Shabaab's intention to cement their allegiance to al-Qaeda, it does allude to a broader campaign. Near the end of statement, the two groups (Shabaab and Ras Kamboni) agreed, "To counter the international crusaders' war against Muslims and to combine the jihad of the Horn of Africa with the international jihad."

In case anyone's interested, this is a clear indication that a relatively small group of Somalis, aided by foreign assistance, mean to expand their until now localized campaign into something broader. And the implications of this for both the international community as well as the Somali people are serious. If Shabaab's fighters carry through with their threat, Somalia is no longer about about famine, lawlessness and piracy.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Al-Shabaab confirms alignment with al-Qaeda: The Implications

The BBC is reporting that the Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab has finally confirmed what many had long suspected, that is that the Islamist fighters are aligning their local efforts with al-Qaeda's broader campaign of "international jihad". As well, the report says that Shabaab has forged an alliance with the Ras Kamboni Brigade, another Islamist group based in the southernmost part of Somalia, close by the border with Kenya. The Kimboni Brigade had previously been allied with Shabaab's main rival, Hizbul Islam, so these mergers change things a bit in the Horn of Africa, and we should be concerned.


Well, first off, this observer believes there will be a decrease in traditional piracy based out of ports in the southern part of Somalia, that is from Mogadishu to the Kenyan border (the land controlled by the Islamists). This hasn't been the main staging area for most attacks of late, and if Shabaab and its allies are serious about their intents of imposing their views of Koranic law (and why should we doubt that?), then it follows they will curtail further operations against shipping for the time being, if only to do what they say they aspire to. That's good, right?

Not really. It also opens up the potential for further external funding from al-Qaeda sources. Instead of looking to ransoms from hijacked ships (a small amount to begin with), Shabaab could see funding for its operations come from a more stable source - al-Qaeda supporters around the world. As Iraq and Afghanistan continue to fall off the international community's radar, the need for Qaeda to continue their misguided campaign create some sort of trans-national, extremist caliphate may push them into a new theater of operations. A southern front, if you will, one that happens to be in a venue in which many supporters can be found in Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and even Kenya. So there may be more money and supporters available to bolster Shabaab.

Secondly, this public call of intents may very well increase the possibility that foreign fighters will add to the numbers already believed to be in Somalia today. It is not inconceivable that someone in Pakistan's Northwest Province is not today telling impressionable young men that they should take the fight against the infidels to a new place. Glibly, it's like , "Go south, young man, to a place you can make a better impact." Watch as fighters leave the tumult of the Middle East and Central Asia for the easier pickings of jihad in East Africa.

Finally, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if you put a bunch of avowed al-Qaeda fans close to one of the most important sea lanes for global commerce, something bad may happen. We know what al-Qaeda is capable of, on at least four continents. And the only place they have effected large-scale maritime operations to date has been in the seas off the Horn of Africa (viz USS Cole and MV Limburg). If pirates can attack a supertanker or cruise ship for money, why couldn't suicide bombers do the same, albeit with a different goal.

And what does all this have to with piracy? It's simple: The international community has been struggling badly for years to deal with maritime criminals attacking shipping opportunistically. Are we prepared for, say, three skiffs laden with explosives aiming for a box ship in the Gulf of Aden or a supertanker near the Seychelles, piloted by individuals with no intent on boarding and hijacking?

I don't think we are.

The inadequacies of dealing with "conventional" piracy are serious. The shipping community, the international naval community and the nations of the world are hiding themselves in the sand about this. I hate to be the pessimist here, and will offer up some ideas shortly, but I worry that something bad's about to happen.