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Battling Blackbeard's Disciples

CAPTAIN COLIN DARCH was piloting the tugboat Svitzer Korsakov just off Somalia’s Cape Guardafui—the very tip of the Horn of Africa—on February 1, 2008, when he heard a crew member shout. Looking to starboard, he saw a 20-foot skiff powered by an outboard motor buzzing alongside the tug, carrying five armed men. Darch spun the tug to port and back, dodging the pirates until a second boat appeared carrying more of them. Trapped, the skipper shut off his engine to await their hostile boarding.

He then endured 48 days of captivity on his vessel, staked out by a U.S. Navy warship, subsisting on goat, camel’s milk, and flatbread until international security firm Control Risks talked the Somali pirates’ $2.5 million ransom demand down to $678,000. Except for being struck once on the back of the head by an impatient pirate, Darch’s interaction with them was “mostly amicable,” he told Roger Middleton of British think tank Chatham House, who recounted the incident in his report Piracy in Somalia: Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local Wars.

These modern-day Blackbeards did not have any political or terrorist agenda. Says Darch: “[T]hey just needed the money.”

Whatever the motivation, experts warn that large-scale piracy is back to stay despite efforts to discourage it. An unprecedented, multinational naval crackdown on piracy in the Gulf of Aden, for example, has made some headway, but for the most part, it has simply displaced activity to other locations.

Globally, the first six months of 2010 saw 196 reported pirate attacks, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB). The figure is smaller than the 240 during the first half of 2009, which saw a total of 406, but still 50 percent more than the first six months for each of the years from 2005 through 2008. Given that the threat does not seem likely to abate, shippers are exploring various options for addressing the risk.

Pirates Adjust Course

Piracy exploded in 2007 and 2008 as a litany of factors combined, including physical ingredients, such as shipping lanes that funnel into the narrow gulf between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and more recent phenomenon, such as an abundance of weapons, and the lack of law and order in the countries on either side of the Gulf, which provides pirates with sanctuary at home.

Somalia, which borders the western edge of the Gulf of Aden, has been without a stable central government since 1991 and in civil war since 2006. Today, the country is divided into four regions Somaliland in the northwest and Puntland in the northeast, both of which have declared autonomy; a central region controlled by an internationally backed federal government; and a southern region controlled by the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen militia, or al Shabaab, the al Qaeda ally that claimed responsibility for bombings in Kampala, Uganda, July 11 that killed at least 76 people as they watched the World Cup final.

The path to piracy in Somalia is believed to have its roots in economic need as opposed to simple greed. Two factors—foreign fishing and illegal dumping—have combined to deplete the country’s coastal fish stocks. The problem gave rise to armed maritime militias—who, calling themselves “coastguards,” originally pursued suspected fish poachers and boarded their vessels to collect “fines.”

Even if the practice arose from “righteous anger,” said Martin N. Murphy, author of Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World, speaking at The Heritage Foundation, “now we’re well beyond that.”

As noted, attempts to reduce piracy in one region simply seem to displace the problem. From 2005 to 2007, according to the IMB, for example, there were 76 incidents off Somalia’s east coast compared to 33 during the same period in the Gulf of Aden. In 2008, attacks on Somalia’s east coast dropped to 19. That year there were 92 reported in the Gulf of Aden, with pirates drawn to the shipping lanes that link Europe and the East via the Suez Canal, because of larger ships and larger ransoms.

With 2008’s surge in attacks in the gulf came Operation Atalanta, the European Union-led naval effort to interdict piracy. Amid increasing attacks despite EU involvement, the U.S. Navy established the multinational Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 in January 2009 to carry out the mission of patrolling the Gulf’s Marine Security Patrol Area (MSPA), a roughly 150 mile-long, 25-mile-wide corridor stretching along the northern edge of the gulf, in which shippers traversing the gulf are urged to remain.

Despite the effort—including the dramatic rescue of kidnapped MV Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips in 2009 (more on this ahead)—the pirates persisted, carrying out 116 reported attacks in the Gulf that year and 80 off Somalia’s eastern coast.

Numbers for the first half of 2010 indicate that the multinational effort has again simply displaced the threat, according to Peter Chalk, a maritime security expert with RAND Corp. While only 33 attacks were reported in the Gulf of Aden, 51 were reported east of Somalia, already exceeding 2009’s total. And shippers in the Red Sea reported the first pirate attacks in years—14 so far—and all at the hands of Somalis, according to the IMB.

The trend, Chalk tells Security Management, is having an effect on insurance premiums for shippers navigating near the Seychelles Islands in the Western Indian Ocean, which have increased 30 to 50 percent. “Any vessel seeking to transit the Indian Ocean will have to presume that the waters they’re navigating are now pirate prone,” he says.

Naval Assistance

Ship crews are provided a proven rule of thumb for pirate attacks: once they spot a skiff closing, they have as little as 15 minutes before pirates are going to be at the hatch to the ship’s bridge. That means that pirates can successfully hijack a merchant ship with a warship as little as two miles away. And given that the naval forces patrol 1.1 million square miles of sea surrounding the Horn, for example, having a warship within two miles is a rare occurrence.

Naval rescues do occur, though not necessarily in time to prevent pirates from boarding a vessel. That was the case in April 2009, when the Maersk Alabama was attacked by pirates and a hostage standoff ensued.

Phillips exchanged himself for crew members and was being held by the pirate crew when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers on the USS Bainbridge simultaneously shot and killed three of Phillips’ four captors; the fourth, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was captured and pleaded guilty in May in U.S. federal court to charges of hijacking, kidnapping, and hostage taking, and faces up to 34 years in jail at his scheduled sentencing in October. The Phillips case was a rare one of “in extremis” hostage rescue.

A Call to Arms

That initial Maersk Alabama incident precipitated a new U.S. Coast Guard policy, which stated that adding armed guards on U.S.-flagged vessels traversing high-risk areas was an acceptable option. Seven months later, the Maersk Alabama was attacked again. Guards on board the ship wielding firearms shot at the attacking pirates while additional guards hit them with long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), repelling the attack.

Should other ships carry armed guards? Yes, says Ariel Siegelman, an Israeli special forces veteran and reservist who is president of U.S.-based security firm The Draco Group, which provides both consulting and armed guards for shipping lines. They serve not only as a defense but as a deterrent. Knowing that U.S. flagged vessels have this new policy of using armed guards, pirates will now think twice about attacking them, Siegelman says.

Others worry that not all armed guards will have the same skill as the guards who defended the Maersk Alabama and that they may cause more harm than they prevent. Andrew Palmer, CEO of British shipping resilience consultancy Idarat Marine, notes that while private security contractors (PSCs) who provide the guards employ some former naval commandos, such as U.S. Navy SEALs, most of the personnel they place on ships are former infantrymen unfamiliar with sailing vessels. Therefore, shipping companies and captains fear a “bloodbath” should a firefight erupt between armed PSCs and pirates holding a crew hostage, says Palmer.

There is the further concern that a PSC would fire on and injure or kill a legitimate fisherman, mistaking him for a pirate because fishermen in the region also carry AK-47s, in their case for self-defense. Such an incident could result in a manslaughter or murder charge, and a civil suit against the shipper, Palmer notes. Tanker operators carrying flammable cargo or hazardous cargo also fear that an environmental disaster could result from the intentional or accidental discharge of a gun.

Added to that is the cost of armed guards and the fact that many countries’ laws prohibit ships bearing arms from entering port.

Other Private Responses

Shipping trade groups, working with assistance from naval authorities, have compiled Best Management Practices 3 (BMP3), which are consensus-based best practices that shippers can adopt and implement. These practices are built around the risk-averse strategy of “deter-detect-delay.”

Risk assessment. The first recommendation is to conduct a risk assessment to serve as the basis for developing a tailored security program. Among the critical metrics for assessing risk per vessel is freeboard—the distance from the waterline to the deck—and the ship’s maximum cruising speed. Also important are sea conditions and levels of pirate activity along the route. The paramount concern is crew safety.

Procedures. To ensure early warning of pirate attacks, the recommended best practices procedures call for a simple measure largely abandoned as shipping companies stripped down to skeleton crews: around-the-clock watches to detect craft closing with the ship.

In addition, to avoid being vulnerable to attack, crews are urged to maintain a speed of at least 15 knots (17 mph). While typical pirate skiffs with 48 horsepower engines can reach about 25 knots (29 mph), the recommended speed makes it effectively impossible for pirates to close in on a ship and scale its hull.

Technology. Beyond keeping a watchful eye on the water and maintaining speed, ships today are adopting many nonlethal security measures. The most obvious is to reroute to safer waters, but that’s not always an option. When dangerous waters must be traversed, deterrent measures include everything from decoys to high-tech options.

With regard to decoys, the recommendation is to use “well-constructed dummies placed at strategic locations around the vessel,” which “can give the impression of greater numbers of people on watch,” according to BMP3.

Physical barriers include LRADs, which emit a painful noise, and rail-mounted water cannons, which Palmer of Idarat says can be effective “if properly deployed and operated.” Stakeholders note that water cannons should not require manual operation, a critical shortcoming of most LRAD units. “Somebody’s got to operate [the LRAD], and they’re just a target,” Palmer says. At least one ship crewman has been wounded by pirate gunfire while operating an LRAD.

The best practices also recommend installation of barriers at a ship’s deck railing, such as concertina wire and even electrified fencing extending outward from the vessel, such as that manufactured by Dutch vendor Secure-Marine.

Palmer notes, however, that pirates are adapting to these defenses with equipment of their own. For example, two new standard pieces of equipment in pirate skiffs include blankets to throw over concertina wire and insulated metal poles to short out electrified barriers.

For that reason, he says, perhaps the two most critical security elements for merchant ships in the region are bulletproof glass protecting the bridge and establishment of a secure cabin—often called a citadel—where the crew can retire safely to avoid injury or capture by pirates. When the German flagged MV Taipan was boarded by pirates April 4, the 13-member crew disabled the ship’s engine, then issued a distress call and retired to the ships citadel, where they waited for help to arrive. The Dutch frigate HNLMS Tromp responded, and the sailors captured 10 pirates. The crew was unharmed.

Another advance is technology that allows the ship to be controlled not only from a properly equipped citadel but also remotely via satellite. With such capabilities, entire crews could in theory wait in safety as their ships steam on to safe port, likely abandoned by their opportunistic attackers.

Siegelman says that his company’s technical consultants are increasingly being engaged not only by shippers looking to fortify existing vessels but also by lines buying new ships that want these and other features built-in. One popular request, Siegelman says, also included in the sector best practices: CCTV and thermal imaging capabilities, not only for early detection of threats, but for remote monitoring of pirate activity on board from within a citadel.

But many shippers are unwilling to spend the money those measures would cost. In fact, most shippers are still accepting the risk of attack—which is estimated to be only about 1 percent even in the Gulf of Aden—rather than incur the cost of implementing security, Siegelman says.

For example, the MV Sirius Star, a 1,000-foot-long oil tanker estimated to be worth about $50 million, was hijacked while carrying approximately $100 million worth of oil. Its owners ended up paying hijackers a ransom of $3 million after seven weeks of negotiations, an amount possibly seen as an acceptable risk for shippers dealing with nine-figure shipments.

Chalk said that some shipping companies have entered into agreements with their insurers under which their premiums for trips through high-risk areas are cut if they implement measures recommended by established security consultancies, while Douglas Keighley, spokesman for Lloyd’s Market Association, tells Security Management that “Each of the Lloyd’s market underwriters looks at the individual risk on its own merits and if measures are in place that could avert a hijacking, then these will be considered when premiums are assessed.”

Terror Nexus?

The relative impunity with which pirates have operated in the Horn of Africa region and the prevalence of radical Islamic militarism in the area, from al Shabaab in Somalia to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, beg the question of whether any nexus exists, or could develop, between pirates and terrorists. Most experts agree the answer is no.

While the Barbary Pirates of North Africa found justification for their activity in the Koran, today’s radical Salafists view Somali pirates—almost all of whom are Muslim—as thieves deserving death. One report indicated payment to al Shabaab from one pirate group, but al Shabaab later threatened to attack pirate bases over the capture of the Sirius Star because it is owned by Saudi Aramco, the state owned oil company of Saudi Arabia, a Muslim monarchy. Experts further note that pirates have everything to lose from working with terrorists—from their profits to safe sanctuary from military strikes against their home bases.

While no one thinks terrorists are collaborating with pirates, another question is whether terrorists may have learned from the pirates’ successes, which have exposed how vulnerable commercial shipping is to hijacking. AQAP has threatened attacks on ships in the region in hopes of paralyzing global trade. “But to do that is very difficult,” Chalk explained, adding that they would require help from experienced mariners, such as Somalis, who do not want to provide it.


Bringing pirates to justice is almost as difficult as fighting them on the high seas. One conundrum is that it’s hard to prove they are pirates if they have not already boarded a vessel to attack it. Since even legitimate fisherman in the region arm themselves, as noted earlier, when naval patrols board a pirate skiff, its occupants can generally claim to be honest fishermen themselves.

If pirates are caught in the act, they still may not ultimately face prosecution, not because of the letter of the law but because of political issues and humanitarian considerations. The crime of piracy is a matter of universal jurisdiction under international law, meaning that any country whose interests were attacked can apprehend and try the suspected perpetrators, as the United States did with Muse.

But third-party navies that apprehend suspected pirates off the Somalian coast have generally chosen not to prosecute and not to turn the pirates over to the Somali government due to the political and social conditions in that country. In Somalia, central government entities operate brutally inhumane prisons, and sectarian groups like the Islamic Courts Union or al Shabaab would summarily execute suspected pirates. The result: most captured pirates were simply transported to shore and released, at least 638 since the multinational naval campaign started in August 2008, according to the region’s Combined Maritime Forces.

That’s changing, however. In an effort to address the problem, the United Nations developed a solution starting in May 2009: an international court in Mombasa, Kenya, which borders Somalia. The court is funded with $5 million from the UN and contributions from Australia, Canada, and the EU, among others.

The operation was established from the ground up, requiring restoration of an old jail and training of magistrates and attorneys. Evidence for prosecution may include forensic materials collected after attacks by law enforcement entities, including Interpol and the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

The new judicial system has allowed international authorities to retain custody of at least 478 suspected pirates, according to the Combined Maritime Forces. The court has convicted 60, and acquitted 26, with 120 in trial and 94 awaiting their day in court. The outcome of another 178 cases was either unknown or yet to be determined, authorities say.

Here to Stay

Piracy remains a concern in other well-known hotspots around the world. And that threat will grow, experts warn, as criminal opportunists and corrupt government officials observe the profitability of activity off the Horn of Africa.  The collaborative enforcement efforts of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia tempered the piracy that surged in the Malacca Strait nearly a decade ago, but the threat persists. While only two attacks occurred in the Strait in 2009, 31 occurred in waters around Indonesia and Malaysia, and a total of 26 occurred in the region during the first half of the year, according to the IMB.

Palmer sees the greatest emerging piracy threat to the north in the South China Sea, which saw 13 attacks in 2009 and another 15 in the first half of 2010. In addition to abundant shipping traffic, the body of water boasts countless small islands offering harbor and concealment, which he called “The best piracy environment in the world.” He added that the sea is “surrounded by corrupt states, with government agents prepared to assist pirates.”

Chalk sees similar ingredients on the opposite side of Africa in a familiar hotspot for crime, corruption, and insurgency: the Gulf of Guinea, bounded by states including Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. Nigerian waters saw a surge in piracy in 2007 and 2008, with at least 40 attacks each year. More recently, however, the area has quieted, with 28 attacks last year and an average of only one a month during the first half of 2010.

The threat will persist off Somalia as well, experts say, because there are no simple solutions to the conditions that support it. “Everywhere piracy has occurred, it’s driven by local conditions and concerns; ergo, any solution must take account of those local conditions and concerns,” author Murphy said in a presentation at The Heritage Foundation.

Nearly two decades after the United Nations’ ill-fated military intervention in Somalia, civil war persists. In the relatively peaceful regions to the north where piracy thrives—Somaliland and more so Puntland—piracy enjoys popular support among both the public and political leaders. Formal international development and stabilization work in the country is limited primarily to United Nations’ World Food Program, and while the U.S. State Department plays an active role in the counterpiracy mission via the UN Security Council, it has no formal diplomatic presence in the country.

Elimination of Somali pirates’ profit motive through the simplest means—denying them ransoms—is highly unlikely, experts agree. Shippers want their vessels and cargos returned and their crews safety assured. Chalk says shippers have accepted both piracy and potential payment of ransoms as a “cost of doing business.” And Donald notes that, “No conscientious shipping operator can say, ‘I’m not going to pay ransoms’…so the ransoms are going to continue being paid.”

The exception may be American firms, which have not yet ponied up ransoms. In April, President Barack Obama issued an executive order adding Somalis involved in ongoing violence there—including piracy—to the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated and Blocked Persons list. An individual’s placement on the list forbids Americans and U.S. organizations from financial activity with them and, some believe, could preclude payment of ransoms. If so, that could place hostages “in a very dangerous situation,” Palmer says. “[W]ithout hope of a ransom, the Somalis see no point in providing food and water to hostages at their own expense,” he notes. “Business is business.”

But Palmer views the struggle against piracy as more than a matter of business or traditional maritime security. “We’re fighting a war, quite frankly,” he says. “People are dying and large sums of money are being spent. It’s an ongoing situation and one that I don’t think is going to end any time soon.”

Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.