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Countering Somali Piracy By Involving The Private Sector
April 30, 2009
The piracy off the Somali coast took on aspects of a tragicomedy this past week. As I reported last week, The Philippines-flagged chemical tanker MV Stolt Strength, which was carrying a cargo of phosphoric acid when it was seized by Somali pirates in early November 2008 as it sailed through the Gulf of Aden, was finally freed on April 20th, after protracted negotiations and, reportedly, the payment of over $2 million in ransom. Unfortunately for Captain Abelardo Pacheco and his hapless crew, the negotiators from Sagana Shipping in Manila, unlike those for some of European shipping firms I am familiar with, did not insist on the captors ensuring that the vessel was properly supplied with fuel and provisions before paying them off. As a result, the Stolt Strength’s jubilant crew set off from the pirate of haven of Eyl, in the northeastern Puntland region, only to find themselves dead in the water and drifting back towards the Somali coast.
When I spoke with the Captain Pacheco via satellite telephone two days after his liberation, the poor man was despondent as he described his crew’s fears of being captured by another pirate gang – a very real prospect given that the boat was well within the high-risk zone of 200 nautical miles off the Somali coast and its owners had already shown themselves willing to pay a princely ransom for the vessel. While the master set his hopes in the owners’ promise that a tugboat was en route with fuel from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, I subsequently learned that no rescue vessel was ever dispatched because no commercial vessel was willing to venture out to the Stolt Strength’s position and risk itself being hijacked as the Italian tugboat MV Buccaneer was just two weeks earlier. In addition to the threat of piracy, the danger was that if the Stolt Strength continued to drift, it would eventually run aground and, because of its cargo, explode, spewing toxins all along the coastline.
Fortunately, an unprecedented collaborative effort came to the rescued the Stolt Strength. A German warship participating in the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) anti-piracy Operation Atalanta stopped by to give the stranded boat’s crew emergency water, food, and medical treatment before moving on to another mission. Last Saturday, a U.S. Navy vessel came alongside and delivered bunkered fuel. Later that evening, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigate Huangshan began escorting the Stolt Strength to the Omani port of Salalah (the Huangshan, China’ most latest-model frigate, along with the Type 051B Luhai-class destroyer Shenzhen, the country’s largest surface combatant, recently arrived off the coast of Somalia under the command of Rear Admiral Yao Zhilou to relieve the three-ship flotilla dispatched whose deployment I analyzed here last month).
While all concerned are, undoubtedly, relieved that the episode ended without further tragedy, ironically the success also underscored the fact that such an effort – involving as it did the coordination of vessels from three different countries operating as part of three different task forces – are not just complex, but they are simply not sustainable over the long term. After all, with the bill for EU NAVFOR alone expected to total over $300 million this year, how long will the naval powers of the world tie their assets down in and, in these hard economic times, spend their increasingly scarce resources on the troubled waters off the Horn of Africa? As a report by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute has noted:
If Somali piracy is going to be combated using solely sea-based tactics it will require a critical mass of warships and their air assets to maintain a constant presence in the region. It is possible that the largest and most diverse unplanned gathering of warships in recent history that is ongoing in [the Gulf of Aden] will constitute such a critical mass. However, it would be wishful thinking to expect this sort of a presence to continue for any prolonged period given the cost of modern naval deployments. [The Gulf of Aden] is a large body of water, and warships are not a long-term cost effective method of providing commercial vessels with protection from Somali piracy.
In combination, the establishment last year of a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) in the Gulf of Aden as a more secure transit corridor for merchant vessels and the presence of almost fifty warships in the area has improved the situation in that body of water. However, as I noted at the beginning of the month, far from being cowed by the presence of the unprecedented armada assembled against them, “the pirates have simply shifted their operations to areas which they know are not being patrolled, with strikes increasing taking place on the high seas of the western Indian Ocean” – as the repelled attack late last Saturday night on the Italian-owned, Liberian-registered cruise ship MS MSC Melody some 175 nautical miles north of the Seychelles and 430 nautical miles east of the Somali coast illustrates. Hence, what is needed is a pragmatic solution that not only deals with the economic, political, and security challenges caused by the expanded activities of Somali pirates, but whose costs can be contained within acceptable limits and whose long-term operation is sustainable by those with the greatest immediate stake in its success, regional and local actors.
Some have suggested that if robust military action is not sustainable, perhaps a solution might be found in the private sector, pointing to the happy ending of last weekend’s incident involving the MSC Melody. The Melody – a 26-year-old cruise ship owned by the same company which, under a different name, operated the ill-fated MS Achille Lauro when it was hijacked in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists who murdered wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer and threw his body overboard – was en route from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy, with 991 passengers and 536 crew members when it was came under automatic weapons fire from six assailants in a small skiff who attempted to affix a ladder to the side of the boat. A few passengers threw deck chairs at the attackers before being hustled inside. A team of Israeli security officers, hired by the cruise liner, then returned fire while the crew directed fire hoses at the pirates, who eventually gave up and left the scene. While part of the Melody was damaged during the attack, no one onboard was hurt during the incident which marks the first time that a non-military vessel used firepower to turn back an assault by pirates. Subsequently, the Spanish naval refueling ship SPS Marques de la Ensenada arrived on the scene to escort the cruise ship through the Gulf of Aden.
While I agree that the private sector is a crucial to resolving the piracy threat, it will not be by putting armed security teams on commercial vessels. In contrast, there is a pusillanimous school of thought which frets that armed guards will inevitably lead to an escalation in violence ignores both the fact that the pirates are already engaged in armed violence and the evidence for the observation made by in a Congressional Research Service report released last week that notes:
One of the unique characteristics of Somali piracy has been the taking of hostages for ransom. In this sense, piracy off Somalia can be viewed as a form of maritime kidnapping. Unlike pirate attacks in [the] Straits of Malacca or Nigeria, where ships are boarded either to take the vessels or its contents, pirates off the Horn of Africa routinely take the target vessel’s crew hostage in return of ransom payments.
On the other side of the spectrum there are those who advocate putting armed security personnel on most, if not every, commercial vessel transiting through pirate-infested waters off East Africa. While the plans, like the one put forward by ThreatsWatch commentator Steve Schippert which called for the placement of a 4-6-man team armed with automatic rifles, grenades, night scopes, and night vision goggles aboard, seem straightforward enough in the abstract, they actually betray an simplistic notion of the world divorced from realities on the ground (and the seas). Even if multiple legal and political obstacles could be overcome – a process which would, inevitably, take considerable time – there remain not insignificant practical hurdles. For one thing, given that approximately 20,000 ships pass through this area each year, there are simply not enough qualified operators to place aboard all these vessels. For another, good private security teams – the only ones anyone would presumably want to engage – do not come cheaply. Given that the shipping industry is already operating on a thin margin given the global economic downturn – the Wall Street Journal reported at the beginning of April that the day rate for a shipping vessel had dropped to about $20,000 from $180,000 just one year ago – any additional costs would push some firms out of business altogether. So, as I told the Associated Press last Sunday, while employing armed security may make sense for vessels like the MSC Melody with nearly 1,000 paying passengers on board, the numbers do not add up for most cargo shipping.
What, then, might private security firms do? Quite a lot, as it turns out, precisely because private security companies are sophisticated enterprises which offer much more than the stereotyped “mercenary” image that their mention all-too-often conjures up. There are at least four major areas where the private sector could have a significant impact:
First, private security firms with tactical expertise can provide merchant marine crews with professional training in any of a number of measures which commercial vessels can take to make themselves less vulnerable to pirate attacks. These include non-lethal means which the crew can deploy when an assault occurs as they are underway, including the use of high-power fire hoses not only to frustrate boarders, but also to sink pirate skiffs; magnetic acoustic devices (MADs) and long-range audio devices (LRADs, also commonly known as “sonic cannons”) to warn off and, if that fails, to disorient potential attackers; electrical fences to prevent boarding of boats altogether or to block off access to the critical bridge and engineering areas; the design of “safe rooms” where the crew of a besieged vessel can take refuge until help arrives from one of the naval task forces; and tactical maneuvers to evade capture once attacks begin.
Second, other firms that specialize in intelligence and security offer an array of services which commercial shippers might avail themselves of to their benefit. While those manning the merchant vessels of reputable shipping lines are generally well-trained in maritime operations, many lack the experience with operations security (OPSEC) that their naval counterparts have. Given that it is increasingly clear that the piracy gangs are employing spies at various ports to pass along information on prospective targets as well as monitoring ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communications, ship owners would benefit from thorough OPSEC assessments conducted by professionals which would identify changes needed in current countermeasures as well as suggest additional steps. To cite just one example, this week the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) published security guidelines for sporting vessels transiting near the Gulf of Aden, Yemeni or Somali waters, and the northwest Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk has announced that it is undertaking a review of its internal piracy policy in the light of the hijacking earlier this month of the MV Maersk Alabama, the cargo ship owned by its American subsidiary, Maersk Line.
Third, security experts can also assist governments and, more specifically, port authorities in the region to implement their obligations under the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, an amendment to the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention which came in to force in 2004 and carries specific obligations for governments, shipping companies, shipboard personnel, and port/facility personnel to “detect security threats and take preventative measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities used in international trade.”Some countries in East Africa, like Kenya, which established the Kenya Maritime Authority in 2004 to coordinate maritime affairs, including compliance with the ISPS, have made efforts in this regard. This is particularly important given the fact that the Indian Oceanport of Mombasa is not just Kenya’s second-largest city, but it is vital artery connecting Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Tanzania, South Sudan, and parts of Somalia to the rest of the world. However, just like merchant mariners, port officials in Mombasa and other ports could use assistance with conducting assessments of the vulnerabilities of their facilities, reviewing and updating their security plans, and carrying out active measures to counter threats.
Fourth, private firms are a critical component in what I outlined in this column space two months ago as the only sustainable response to the scourge of Somali piracy, the stand-up of effective coastal patrols along the Horn of Africa’s littorals. While I have repeatedly argued that the problem of Somali lawlessness at sea will only be definitively resolved when the international community summons up the political will to adequately address the underlying pathology of Somali statelessness onshore, the truth is such a process is literally a generational undertaking. That does not mean that, fatalistically, nothing should be done; rather, what needs to be acknowledged is that while the broader project needs to be attended to, it cannot be expected to pay immediate dividends in terms of improved security along the Somali coastline. What can, however, both immediately lessen the current threat to merchant shipping in the region and contribute to ameliorating the security situation in support of building governance capabilities in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic is the establishment of coast guards along the littoral. The idea is one which was commended by no less a figure than United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month when he advised the Security Council that:
In the interests of a durable solution to piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia, it is important that local coast guards in the region, where possible, are assisted in ways that will enable them to constructively play a role in anti-piracy efforts conducted off the coast of Somalia and the surrounding region. As part of a long-term strategy to promote the closure of pirates’ shore bases and effectively monitor the coastline, I therefore recommend that Member States consider strengthening the capacity of the coast guards both in Somalia and the region.
Coastal patrol forces would not only be more sustainable from the fiscal point of view, but, precisely because they would concentrate on the littorals, have a more manageable area of responsibility than the naval forces which are currently sailing all over the western Indian Ocean. Moreover – albeit with a boost from part of the $78 million dollars that the European Union pledged at a donors’ conference last week in Brussels for African Union and Somali security forces as well as the $40 million that the Obama administration has requested from Congress by way of 2009 supplemental funding for Somali security sector reform – a coast guard is within the reach of states in the region as well as the embattled Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia and other effective authorities in the country, including the governments of the as-yet internationally-unrecognized Republic of Somaliland and the Puntland autonomous region. The key, as my colleague Dr. Martin Murphy noted in a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments paper published last week, is to not get hung up on questions of the end state of what was once the Somali Democratic Republic:
A more attractive course of action would find the United States assembling an effective international coalition that is willing to deal with Somali sub-state entities in order to reach a more immediate solution even though this might mean deferring agreement on a unitary state to a later date. Crucial to any negotiations with such sub-state entities as Puntland and non-Islamic clan alliances in the south will be a clear commitment to curb piracy in return for U.S. and allied political and economic support.
To achieve maximum local support – vital if a sense of local responsibility is to be engendered and, ultimately, local intelligence to be obtained – the coast guard must not be viewed as purely an anti-piracy measure. Given, as I noted in a lengthy Planet Money segment last week with NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt, how embedded the piracy is in economies of certain districts in Somalia, any coastal security force must provide some positive benefits to those communities if it is to have any chance at weaning them away from their dependence on criminal enterprises, much less greater success. This means designing a force capable of undertaking some classic coast guard functions like protecting natural resources (even if, as I noted last week, the “Robin Hood” argument for piracy is something of a red herring) and maritime rescue. It also requires local anchorage for the patrol vessels and, where possible, employing local citizens. Along the Somali littorals, as the coast guard units expand their areas of operation, they simultaneously expand the geographic spheres of security and, ultimately, of governance by legitimate authorities. As the latter grow stronger, one can foresee them assuming greater responsibility for the trial of pirates, thus reinforcing the message that there is no impunity for the marauders. There are indications that this type of local empowerment has great potential: just this week, the BBC reported that an ad hoc local militia composed of fed-up citizens from the fishing communities of Alula and Bargaal at the very tip of the Horn of Africa rose up and seized a dozen pirates and three boats (another boat got away), whom they plan to hand over to Somali authorities.
In addition to involving local communities in the establishment and operation of a coast guard, the various units of the force must achieve relatively significant degree of integration. As I reported here two months ago, the nine countries in the region have already signed the Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden (the “Djibouti Code of Conduct”) to facilitate regional coordination. What these states lacked were not only the material resources – now forthcoming – to recruit, train, and equip more robust coastal security forces, but the knowledge and experience to actually do so. This is precisely where properly qualified and licensed private firms, working with both donor states and local partners, can provide not only invaluable expertise, but also “good offices” to help bridge the various interests of the multiple governmental, corporate, and other stakeholders.
Last week the International Maritime Bureau reported that, notwithstanding the increased naval presence, the Gulf of Aden and eastern coast of Somalia saw 10 times the number of attacks on merchant shipping during the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2008 (61 attacks compared to six incidents). And, given that the first months of the year are not the most favorable meteorologically for forays in the skiffs used by the brigands, one can only imagine that the year ahead will be another record year for piracy. Thus the United States and other members of the international community need to get behind a concerted effort to promote durable solutions to the challenges to global order and security emanating from the Horn of Africa. Such a push needs to summon “all hands on deck,” including those experienced hands found among private security firms.
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. J. Peter Pham has testified before the U.S.Congress. Feedback:firstname.lastname@example.org.