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Civilian Gun Ships Off Somalia
by James Dunnigan
April 11, 2012

To get around laws in many ports that forbid weapons aboard merchant ships, security companies operating off the Somali coast have equipped small ships to serve as floating arsenals. The security guards board, in port, the merchant ships they are guarding, then meet up with the gun ship in international waters so the guards can get their weapons and ammo. The process is reversed when the merchant ships approach their destinations or leave pirate infested waters (and put the armed guards off onto the gun ship). Maritime lawyers fret that there are no proper laws to regulate these floating armories, or that if there are applicable laws everyone is not following them. It's also feared that some enterprising lawyers will seek to represent the families of pirates shot by these armed guards. Off the Somali coast everyone is looking for a big payday.

In the last three years more and more merchant ships, despite the high expense, have hired armed guards when travelling near the "Pirate Coast" of Somalia. It began when France put detachments of troops on tuna boats operating in the Indian Ocean and Belgium then supplied detachments of soldiers for Belgian ships that must move near the Somali coast. These armed guards are not cheap, with detachments costing up to $200,000 a week. There are now over a dozen private security companies offering such services. What makes the armed guards so attractive is the fact that no ship carrying them has ever been captured by pirates. That may eventually change, but for the moment the pirates avoid ships carrying armed guards and seek less well-defended prey.

Most Western nations have small merchant marine fleets operating under the national flag. It's more common for shipping companies in the West to use "flags of convenience" (like Liberia and Panama) to evade laws mandating who can be hired for the crew and what they must be paid (in addition to other restrictions). Shipping companies using flags of convenience generally do not allow firearms on board, lest they be used by mutineers. There are a few mutinies each year, usually over pay or working conditions. But even if there are weapons on board you would have to train members of the crew how to use them. Moreover, the pirates often rely on stealth, sneaking up on a ship at night while the target vessel is far off the Somali coast.

The piracy has been a growing problem off the Somali coast for over a decade. The problem now is that there are thousands 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 that 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, 10-12 meters (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.

Big ships 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 generally 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 or simply two speedboats towed behind it. 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.


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