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Update on Somali Piracy

October 7, 2011


At the moment, Somalia is known for three things: dysfunction, starvation, and piracy. The world has basically ignored Somalia’s internal dysfunction, struggled to deal with its famine, and has only taken half-measures to deal with its pirates. All three of these problems are related and each can trace its roots to the fact that Somalia is a failed state. Of the three, however, piracy seems to get the most attention. It has been a growing problem and no clear way forward has emerged. “To combat Somali pirates,” writes David Nakamura, “the U.S. Navy has relied on warships, snipers and SEAL teams. Now, it is turning to the heavy artillery: Internet gamers.” [“Navy calling on gamers to help with security,” Washington Post, 15 May 2011] Since previous approaches haven’t worked, the Office of Naval Research decided it would try the power of massively multiplayer online wargaming to see it if could find an affordable approach that will work. The game, named MMOWGLI (the acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet), was to have begun in May. Due to overwhelming interest, however, ONR decided to postpone its launch. [“ONR Delays Online Wargame Due to Surge in Interest from Public,” Office of Naval Research Press Release, 19 May 2011] A quick Internet search didn’t turn up anything that indicated that the game had actually launched yet, but the idea is intriguing. Nakamura explains:

“The project is a video game for policy wonks. It aims to replicate a traditional military strategy session on an exponentially larger scale, bringing together a diverse mix of government and outside experts that would be impossible even in the largest Pentagon conference room. Through virtual simulation and social media tools made popular on Twitter and Facebook, players will work together to respond to a series of make-believe geopolitical scenarios set off when private ships are hijacked off Somalia’s coast.”

Of course, ships aren’t just being hijacked off Somalia’s coast. Somali pirates are venturing more than a thousand miles out to sea. That is what makes at-sea policing so difficult. It’s a big ocean and pirates use small ships to carry out their nefarious business. That makes them hard to locate and stop. Lawrence Schuette, ONR’s innovation chief, told Nakamura that the military is a fairly closed community and often finds itself holding discussions among likeminded people. “We live in an echo chamber,” he said. “The challenge is, you always want to have an audience that’s diverse in background, diverse in thinking. It’s those intersections where you see creativity occurring. The advantage of online crowd-sourcing is obvious: You have many more intersections and many more diverse backgrounds.” On the downside, not all voices are equally informed, serious, or creative. And since the players are self-selecting to participate, chances are the vast majority of them are also likeminded. Nevertheless, Nakamura reports that back in May over 7,000 participants had already signed up to participate. The game will be hosted at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Schuette told Nakamura that his expectations are low. Nakamura explains:

“Schuette said his office is more interested in building technology that can be used for research across military platforms than it is in generating groundbreaking anti-piracy policy. But piracy experts welcomed the exercise as a much-needed thought experiment. ‘It is such a complex issue that has to do with local dynamics on the ground, governance, financial flows,’ said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘There is no single way to approach piracy in that area.’ MMOWGLI lacks the high-tech graphics of commercial video games. Video clips and storyboards will prompt players to envision scenarios. For example: ‘Three pirate ships are holding the world hostage. Chinese-U.S. relations are strained to the limit and both countries have naval ships in the area. Humanitarian aid for rig workers is blocked. The world is blaming the U.S. for plundering African resources.’ Players are then confronted with two boxes — innovate and defend — asking which new resources could ‘turn the tide’ and what risks might result.”

Nakamura concludes that even if the ONR/NPS team gets the technology correct, “moderating the debate against online bullies and sifting through thousands of comments can be nearly impossible.” Moving from the virtual to the real world, a top Chinese general has his own views about the strategy that needs to be pursued against the pirates. He believes that “the international community needs to attack pirate leaders on land and not just their ships.” [“Attack pirate bosses on land, Chinese general says,” by Phil Stewart, Reuters, 19 May 2011] Stewart continues:

“‘For counter-piracy campaigns to be effective, we should probably move beyond the ocean and crash their bases on the land,’ said General Chen Bingde, the chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army. China is among the countries fighting increasingly aggressive Somali pirates, who are making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from seizing merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden and increasingly in the Indian Ocean. Earlier this year, a U.S. Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Mark Fox, said he believed some of the pre-emptive techniques used to battle terrorism should be used to combat pirates, particularly the aggressive approach to tracking terrorist financing. Chen appeared to be favoring an even more aggressive approach. ‘It is important that we target not only the operators, those on the small ships or crafts conducting the hijacking activities, but also the figureheads,’ Chen said. ‘The ransoms, the captured materials and money flow somewhere else. The pirates (on ships) … get only a small part of that.'”

Although the international community has been reluctant to undertake a land campaign against the pirates, Chen is correct that the best way to eliminate them is when they are in their nest. The pirates are based out of an area that is tiny compared to the vast open stretches of ocean in which they operate. Eliminate their leaders, confiscate their money, and destroy their ships and the problem becomes dramatically smaller. Robert J. Bowman, editor of SupplyChainBrain, agrees that much more aggressive actions need to be taken against the pirates. [“Time to Take a Harder Line Against Maritime Piracy,” SupplyChainBrain, 1 August 2011] He writes:

“There’s been a notable shift in the world’s attitude toward maritime piracy in recent months. Consider some recent developments. China’s Cosco Shipping and Sweden’s Wallenius Lines both announced that they were manning their vessels with armed guards to protect against pirates. Cosco, which was also throwing in bulletproof vests for its crew, said the move was necessary because its ships are too small and slow to fend off an attack through preventive measures. Wallenius said its guards will be equipped with precision sniper rifles. Meanwhile, the Russian navy is reported to have taken punitive action against pirates, including the alleged on-the-spot execution of Somali marauders on at least one occasion. (There’s also a video that has been circulating on the internet for about a year, which purports to show Russian commandos handcuffing Somali pirates to their own vessel, then blowing it up.) Notwithstanding the protections offered by international navies, the shipping industry is adopting a much more aggressive stance to the problem.”

Bowman reports that arming vessels and crew members is a course of last resort. He explains:

“It wasn’t supposed to come to this. Initially, both the International Maritime Organization and International Chamber of Commerce urged shipowners not to fight fire with fire. Having weapons on board, they said, would endanger crews, raise questions of liability and lead to a tit-for-tat escalation of violence. They recommended that ships transiting high-risk areas such as the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Somali coast adopt defensive measures such as plywood and razor-wire barriers, horns and water sprays, and simply outrunning the pirates’ vessels. In addition, they counseled ships’ masters to stay within protected transit corridors, even if that meant lengthening travel time.”

As television psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw might ask, “How’s that working for ya?” According to Bowman, less lethal measures haven’t worked very well. Piracy keeps getting worse. That is why a new course of action is being recommended. Bowman continues:

“The latest statistics on international piracy show just how well that strategy has worked. It has been a record year for pirate activity, with 266 attacks in the first half of 2011, 60 percent of them carried out by Somali pirates. That compares with 196 incidents in the same period of 2010. Ransom demands, which once were in the neighborhood of $1m to $2m, now average more than $5m and can run as high as $30m.”

In addition to the losses paid in ransoms and the risk to crew members, Bowman reports that “maritime piracy costs are ranging from $3.5bn to nearly $8bn a year. … As of the middle of 2011, Somali pirates were reported to be holding 26 vessels and more than 518 crew members for ransom, while another seven vessels and 200 people were being held elsewhere in the world.” In addition, a number of people, including pleasure boaters, have been killed by the pirates. Bowman notes that the piracy began shortly after Somalia’s civil war left the country in ruins. It was a desperate measure by desperate people during desperate times. That has all changed. He explains:

“There are indications that maritime piracy today is being fueled by international terrorist organizations and drug cartels, according to Lew Knopp, chief executive officer of Templar Titan, Inc., a private security firm founded in 2001. The success of the attacks off the Somali coast has likely encouraged pirates elsewhere in the world, including Indonesia, Malaysia and even Venezuela. Once motivated by political and social grievances, many of today’s pirates are in it for the money. Knopp relates his frustration over being unable to convince the IMO, IMB and private insurance companies that tougher measures against the pirates were called for. ‘Two years ago, I went to them and said this epidemic was not going to change,’ he says. ‘They said to me, “Oh, you Yankees – you just want to shoot and ask questions later.” They chastised me.’ Knopp’s views are now being borne out, in the form of ever-increasing numbers of attacks the world over. What’s more, the pirates are much better equipped than ever. They have motherships from which to launch strikes far out at sea, as well as huge caches of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, acquired from places like Yemen and the black market in Mogadishu. So much for the IMO’s fears of escalation; it’s already happened.”

Knopp told Bowman that not a single vessel carrying armed security teams on board has ever been successfully boarded or experienced any loss of life. While that is encouraging news, Bowman points out that “the price of that option isn’t cheap.” In a highly competitive business with low profit margins, it’s an option that most carriers haven’t been eager to pursue. However, when compared to the fuel savings, crew safety, and ransom costs, Bowman says the savings “far exceeds anything the owner would ever pay for security.” Bowman concludes:

“One big problem stands in the way of a global solution to maritime piracy: national laws. Many countries forbid the entry into their territorial waters of commercial ships carrying individuals with automatic weapons, even for defensive purposes. Italy, for one, is said to be close to passing a law that permits armed security teams, but others continue their strict bans. That state of affairs must change if piracy is ever to be brought under control. Knopp believes that will happen, as the U.S. and other nations join to combat this latest threat to free trade and global commerce. Within a couple of years or so, he expects to see the formation of an international body to address the problem, and put a stop to the latest wave of piracy once and for all. (Not the IMO, Knopp says: ‘They shouldn’t have any regulatory role.’) In the meantime, shipowners need to protect themselves from a growing crisis. Even if a small percentage of vessels the world over is menaced by piracy, the costs are immense. Getting product to market shouldn’t be a life-threatening enterprise. It’s time for the shipping community to fight back with more than plywood and razor wire.”

Apparently the shipping industry is listening to voices like Bowman’s. “The global shipping industry (represented by the Round Table of international shipping associations) has called for the establishment of a United Nations force of armed military guards to tackle the piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean, which it says is spiraling out of control.” [“Global Shipping Industry Calls for U.N. Armed Force Against Somali Pirates,” Maritime Executive, 19 September 2011] The article continues:

“In a hard-hitting letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), BIMCO, INTERTANKO and INTERCARGO demand a ‘bold new strategy’ to curb rising levels of piracy which have resulted in the Indian Ocean resembling ‘the wild west.’ The letter states: ‘It is now abundantly clear to shipping companies that the current situation, whereby control of the Indian Ocean has been ceded to pirates, requires a bold new strategy. To be candid, the current approach is not working.’ Regretting the increasing necessity for shipping companies to employ private armed guards to protect crew and ships, the letter continues: ‘It seems inevitable that lawlessness ashore in Somalia will continue to breed lawlessness at sea.'”

Round Table members indicate that they recognize that the piracy problem really begins with the lawlessness found in Somalia, but they don’t recommend military action ashore. They encourage UN efforts to help the Somali people to restore a functional government, “but are concerned that these efforts “may take years, if not decades, to have a meaningful impact on piracy.” The article continues:

“Asking the UN to bring the concept of a U.N. force of armed military guards to the attention of its Security Council, the letter says: ‘The shipping industry believes that the situation can only be reversed with a bold approach that targets the problem in manageable pieces. We believe that an important element in this approach would be the establishment of a U.N. Force of Armed Military Guards that can be deployed in small numbers on board merchant ships. This would be an innovative force in terms of UN peacekeeping activity but it would do much to stabilize the situation, to restrict the growth of unregulated, privately contracted armed security personnel and to allow those U.N. Member States lacking maritime forces – including those in the region most immediately affected – to make a meaningful contribution in the area of counter-piracy.'”

The shipping industry undoubtedly wants a UN armed guard because they believe it would be cheaper than each carrier having to train and deploy its own security team. Even so, the armed security team option remains a bandage covering a festering wound. If the shipping industry really wants to tackle the piracy problem, they should encourage the UN to sanction the African Union to conduct military operations to wipe out the pirates’ shore bases and promise to help support Somalia’s population in return.

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