Eyes of the Fleet

Eyes of the Fleet

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Somali Pirates: Exploiting Cracks in International Relations

Another piece in the NY Times about how the Somali "Pirates Outmaneuver Warships Off Somalia", which is only partially true.

The pirates have an advantage of not revealing themselves until they strike and are able to hide among the normal fishing and other traffic. The few warships assigned to cover a massive amount of ocean are easily spotted by pirates, and, I assume, there movements are reported by spotters to pirates who have radios and GPS systems.

The pirates further have an advantage in that international law no longer allows them, once captured, to be strung up from a yardarm as a lesson to other pirates. Instead, as is the case with the 23 pirates being held on an Indian warship, they are a burden on the warship and its crew as they try to determine what to do with the Somalis. See here:
With no instructions from the Indian government, naval officers on board the ship INS Mysore are confused about what to do with the 23 pirates and their dhow apprehended in the Gulf of Aden while repulsing an attack on an Ethiopian merchant vessel.

"Since Saturday afternoon, the 12 Somali and 11 Yemeni pirates are in custody on board INS Mysore and they are being fed with rations meant for sailors," Navy officials said here on Monday.

"We have not received any instructions yet from the defence ministry or the external affairs ministry on what needs to be done with the pirates," they said

The piquant situation that INS Mysore finds itself in has been compounded as the Rules of Engagement issued to the warship before it set sail to Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy patrol duties is unclear on the course of action if it did seize a pirate vessel and sea brigands, officials said.

However, officials claimed that frantic efforts were in progress in both ministries to get a foreign port to accept the bandits for trial in their courts and were optimistic of finding a solution by Tuesday.

The only other option available to INS Mysore is to abandon its anti-piracy patrols and return to an Indian port to hand over the pirates to local authorities for trying them.
The fact that Somalia has no real government merely adds to the confusion - and frustration.

By the way - surprised to find Yemenis listed among the pirates? Get over it. Piracy is making enough money that it is drawing area thugs like flies drawn to a honey pot.

And don't be shocked that the pirates are adopting new tactics, including swarming attacks by multiple boats, as they figure out how to counter the limited defenses mounted on merchant ships. With a 20 or 30 boat swarm of RPG and automatic weapon laden pirates, an armed security team would have to be pretty large to avoid being overwhelmed. Neither should pirate expansion to areas outside the Gulf of Aden be a surprise. They are inside the NATO/EU OODA loop.

Safety lies in a old fashioned pirate fighting techniques, such as a good escort/accompaniment system.
NATO/EU and French ships (Update: and the Russians) have set up such a plan, but many shipping companies don't want to be delayed waiting for a convoy to form and rely, instead, on the knowledge that the pirates are only grabbing a small percentage of all the ships that flow through the risk areas and further seem to be moving up the shipping scale from the small freighters and fishing boats they used to nab to bigger, more high profile ships like tankers and cruise ships. The pirates, to borrow a phrase attributed to the bank robber Willie Sutton, know "that's where the money is." To some ship owners, the risks are relatively low and they have overhead to meet. You might note that the crews of the captured ships are rarely natives of European countries - the ship owners have gone for low cost labor from the Philippines, India and Pakistan to crew their ships. Their real investment is in the hull and the time value of the use of the ship.

The pirate business model is pretty simple. They maintain a low overhead operation. Weapons and people come cheap in Somalia and Yemen. They use inexpensive fishing boats that blend in with the local fishermen. They reportedly use captured vessels as "mother ships." GPS equipment and some phones, even sat phones are not expensive. If your lose a boatload of pirates, a boat or even a mother ship, everything can cheaply and easily be replaced. Unlike the old time pirates like Blackbeard, the pirate leaders are not out on the small boats risking their lives and investments with the pirate crews. Update: A look at the way they maintain initiative in ransom negotiations here:
"All the initiative has been held by pirates during the negotiations. The pirates have a system for bargaining, and we've been moving accordingly. They released a few ships before Eid al-Adha; however, they later hijacked a few other ships. That's to say, they don't want to empty a pool in which they have around 30 or 40 ships," Marangoz was quoted as saying by Anatolia.

"We know that there were examples in which pirates didn't release the ships after receiving money from companies as advanced payment. That's why we conduct bargaining while taking these possibilities into consideration. Experience also shows that bargaining with pirates takes approximately one-and-a-half or two months. We've been approaching the end of this process. Our sole goal is rescuing our crew safe and sound," Marangoz added.
Operating out of a state with no local law enforcement, and where palms are easily greased if there were, means low risk on the shore side to both the boat crews and their masters, many of whom seem to live outside Somalia anyway. Cash payments of ransom keep the leaders off the international financial radar and reporting system. Somalia's reputation as a hornet's nest is keeping foreign powers offshore and away from the pirates, recent rumblings about seeking authority to go ashore with military force aside.

Is any nation standing up and volunteering to lead the charge? Does any nation, other than the U.S., have the capacity to put a major military force ashore in Somalia and sustain it through a nation building process? Does the U.S. have a vital national interest at stake in Somalia? I have a round of "Nopes" for you. Feel free to disagree.

Now is the time to start thinking about other weak or failing states with sea access where the U.S.'s national interests might be affected. Nigeria, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico come to mind.

What steps should we be taking?

UPDATE: Time magazine suggests fixing Somalia. A "Marshall Plan for Somalia?"

Good luck with that.

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