Sea Transportation: Armed And Dangerous

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March 26, 2010: For the first time, private security guards killed a Somali pirate during an attempt to capture a merchant ship off the Somali coast. The Arab owned ship Almezaan was carrying cargo to Mogadishu when a speedboat, with four armed men, tried to board. The Almezaan's guards had fired warning shots, and the pirate boat turned away. But then the pirates came back shooting, and the security guards, standing on a much more stable firing platform, returned fire, hitting the pirate boat several times. There were no injuries on the Almezaan. When the pirates were initially spotted, a call was put out to the international anti-piracy patrol, and a nearby Spanish warship rushed to the scene. The Spanish frigate launched its helicopter, which spotted the fleeing pirates. The Spanish eventually caught up with the pirates, arresting three and finding the body of another on the speedboat. The Spanish also seized a mother ship the speedboat was operating from, arresting two more pirates. Both pirate vessels were sunk. The Almezaan, bringing cargo from the UAE, continued on to Mogadishu.

This is not the first time pirates have died on the job. Dozens are believed to have been killed from falls (while boarding large ships via ropes and grappling hooks, or crude ladders) or drowning (many speedboats have flipped over or been swamped because of  the wake of large ships, or simply because of poor boat handling.) American and French commandoes have killed over a dozen pirates (at least) and some have been killed (often by accident) by the warships that patrol the coast. But this is the first time security guards on board a merchant ship have been the cause of death.

For the last year, despite the high expense, more shipping companies have been putting armed guards on merchant ships passing near the "Pirate Coast" of Somalia. France has put detachments of troops on tuna boats operating in the Indian Ocean, and Belgium has offered to supply detachments of soldiers for Belgian ships that must move near the Somali coast. This was expensive, with an eight man detachment costing $162,000 a week. Some merchant ships, including American ones, have already arranged to carry armed guards while travelling near where Somali pirates may operate.

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, 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 boarders.

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.

Now that the pirates have demonstrated their ability to operate far (over 700 kilometers) from shore, it's no longer possible to just use naval patrols and convoy escorts. This works in the Gulf of Aden, but father off the Somali coast, there is simply too much area to patrol. With ocean going mother ships, the pirates can operate anywhere in the region. Between the Gulf of Aden, and the Straits of Malacca to the east (between Singapore and Indonesia), you have a third of the worlds shipping. All are now at risk. Convoys for all these ships would require more warships (over a hundred) than can be obtained.

The anti-piracy patrol has responded with a policy of going after the mother ships. An increased number of maritime patrol aircraft and UAVs (stationed in Djibouti) can often spot pirate mother ships heading out to sea. So far this year, over twenty of these mother ships have been found and sunk (their crews are either put on trial, or simply put on a Somali beach). The pirates have become more careful to make their mother ships look like fishing ships.

The only other option involves a military operation to capture the seaside towns and villages the pirates operate from. 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 pirates.

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 out 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.

On the plus side, illegal fishing in Somali waters has diminished, because of the pirate threat. Suez canal traffic in the Gulf of Aden more frequently uses convoys, and travels along the 1,500 kilometers long route, guarded by warships, through pirate territory. There would still be enough ship captains stupid or impatient enough to make the "Aden Run" alone, and get caught by the pirates. There is also the southern Somali coast (from Mogadishu down into Kenyan waters), where foreign aid ships, and those hired by Somali merchants, deliver food and consumer goods. For a long time, the pirates would leave these vessels alone. But no more. The Somali merchants usually have one or more local warlord as a patron, and the security guards on the Almezaan may have been Somalis, with orders from their warlord boss to kill any pirates who get too close.

The UN, and the heads of major world navies, continue to agitate for a large peacekeeping force to go in. The UN because of the growing casualties among its aid staff inside Somalia, and the admirals because of the toll of keeping nearly a hundred of warships and patrol aircraft stationed off Somalia in the endless anti-piracy patrol. Eventually, public opinion might lean towards pacification, rather than the endless anti-pirate patrol. Eventually, maybe. But for now the piracy is definitely there, and will grow larger if nothing decisive is done. Which is what has already been happening, and may continue to happen.

 

 


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