November 25, 2008: Russia is planning
to send more warships to the Somali coast, along with some commandos and a
particularly Russian style of counter-piracy operations. In other words, the
Russians plan to go old school on the Somali pirates, and use force to rescue
ships currently held, and act ruthlessly against real or suspected pirates it
encounters at sea.
This could cause diplomatic problems
with the other nations providing warships for counter-piracy operations off the
Somali coast. That's because the current ships have, so far, followed a policy
of not attempting rescue operations (lest captive sailors get hurt) and not
firing on pirates unless fired on first. Russia believes this approach only
encourages the pirates.
Russia is planning on bringing along
commandoes from Spetsgruppa Vympel. These are hostage rescue experts, formed
two decades ago as a spinoff from the original Russian army Spetsnaz commandos.
This came about when various organizations in the Soviet government decided
that they could use a few Spetsnaz type troops for their own special needs.
Thus in the 1970s and 80s there appeared Spetsnaz clones called Spetsgruppa.
The most use of these was Spetsgruppa Alfa (Special Group A), which was
established in 1974 to do the same peacetime work as the U.S. Delta Force or
British SAS. In other words; anti-terrorist assignments or special raids. It
was Spetsgruppa Alfa that was sent to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1980 to make sure
the troublesome Afghan president Amin and his family were eliminated from the
scene (killed.) Survivors (members of the presidential palace staff) of the
Spetsgruppa Alfa assault reported that the Spetsnaz troopers systematically
hunted down and killed their targets with a minimum of fuss. Very professional.
The surviving Afghans were suitably impressed. Spetsgruppa Alfa now belongs to
the FSB (successor to the KGB) and number about 300 men (and a few women.) At
the same time Spetsgruppa Alfa was established, another section of the KGB
organized Spetsgruppa Vympel. This group was trained to perform wartime
assassination and kidnapping jobs for the KGB. The FSB also inherited
Spetsgruppa Vympel, which is a little smaller than Spetsgruppa Alpha and is
used mainly for hostage rescue.
Meanwhile, piracy has been a growing
problem off the Somali coast for over a decade. The problem now is that there
are hundreds of experienced pirates. And these guys have worked out a system
that is very lucrative, and not very risky. For most of the past decade, the
pirates preyed on foreign fishing boats and the small, often sail powered,
cargo boats the move close (within a hundred kilometers) of the shore. During
that time, the pirates developed contacts with businessmen in the Persian Gulf
who could be used to negotiate (for a percentage) the ransoms with insurance
companies and shipping firms. The pirates also mastered the skills needed to
put a grappling hook on the railing, 30-40 feet above the water, of a large
ship. Doing this at night, and then scrambling aboard, is more dangerous if the
ship has lookouts, who can alert sailors trained to deploy high pressure fire
hoses against the borders.
Few big ships carry any weapons, and
most have small crews (12-30 sailors). Attacking at night finds most of the
crew asleep. Rarely do these ships have any armed security. Ships can post
additional lookouts when in areas believed to have pirates. Once pirates
(speedboats full of armed men) are spotted, ships can increase speed (a large
ship running at full speed, about 40+ kilometers an hour, can outrun most of
the current speed boats the pirates have), and have fire hoses ready to be used
to repel boarders. The pirates will fire their AK-47 assault rifles and RPG
grenade launchers, but the sailors handling the fire hoses will stand back so
the gunmen cannot get a direct shot.
Since the pirates take good care of
their captives, the anti-piracy efforts cannot risk a high body count, lest
they be accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes or simply bad behavior.
The pirates have access to hundreds of sea going fishing boats, which can
pretend to fish by day, and sneak up on merchant ships at night. The pirates
often operate in teams, with one or more fishing boats acting as lookouts, and
alerting another boat that a large, apparently unguarded, ship is headed their
way. The pirate captain can do a simple calculation to arrange meeting the
oncoming merchant vessel in the middle of the night. These fishing boats can
carry inflatable boats with large outboard engines. Each of these can carry
four or five pirates, their weapons and the grappling hook projectors needed to
get the pirates onto the deck of a large ship. These big ships are very
automated, and at night the only people on duty will be on the bridge. This is
where the pirates go, to seize control of the ship. The rest of the crew is
then rounded up. The pirates force the captain to take the ship to an anchorage
near some Somali fishing village. There, more gunmen will board, and stand
guard over crew and ship until the ransom is paid. Sometimes, part of the crew
will be sent ashore, and kept captive there. The captive sailors are basically
human shields for the pirates, to afford some protection from commando attacks.
There has always been the option of a
military operation to capture the seaside towns and villages the pirates
operate from. But this would include sinking hundreds of fishing boats and speedboats.
Hundreds of civilians would be killed or injured. Unless the coastal areas were
occupied (or until local Somalis could maintain law and order), the pirates
would soon be back in business. Pacifying Somalia is an unpopular prospect.
Given the opprobrium heaped on the U.S. for doing something about Iraq, no one
wants to be on the receiving end of that criticism for pacifying Somalia. The
world also knows, from over a century of experience, that the Somalis are
violent, persistent and unreliable. That's a combination that has made it
impossible for the Somalis to even govern themselves. In the past, what is now
Somalia has been ruled, by local and foreign rulers, through the use of violent
methods that are no longer politically acceptable. But now the world is caught
between accepting a "piracy tax" imposed by the Somalis, or going in
and pacifying the unruly country and its multitude of bandits, warlords and
The piracy "tax" is basically
a security surcharge on maritime freight movements. It pays for higher
insurance premiums (which in turn pay for the pirate ransoms), danger bonuses
for crews and the additional expense of all those warships off the Somali
coast. Most consumers would hardly notice this surcharge, as it would increase
sea freight charges by less than a percent. Already, many ships are going round
the southern tip of Africa, and avoiding Somalia and the Suez canal altogether.
Ships would still be taken. Indeed, about a third of the ships seized this year
had taken precautions, but the pirates still got them. Warships could attempt
an embargo of Somalia, not allowing seagoing ships in or our without a warship
escort. Suspicious seagoing ships, and even speedboats, could be sunk in port.
That would still produce some videos (real or staged, it doesn't matter) of
dead civilians, but probably not so many that the anti-piracy force would be
indicted as war criminals.
This sort of bad publicity does not
bother the Russians as much as it does other European nations and the United
States. Russia got lots of bad press for its brutal, but effective,
counter-terror operations in Chechnya. Same with last Augusts invasion of
Georgia, which was basically a punitive operation, mainly intended to
intimidate the Georgian government. That worked too, despite lots of hostile
rhetoric from the U.S. and European nations. If the Russians go old school on
the Somali pirates, it will probably work. The Somalis are vicious and clever,
but not stupid. Somalis and Russians speak the same language of violence, and
the Russians carry a bigger stick. The world will complain, then enjoy the
benefits of a piracy free Somali coast.