Pirate vs. Private Security


By Jody Ray Bennett

ISN Security Watch
April 14, 2010

In the early morning of 23 March, the MV Almezaan cargo vessel was en route to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. As the sun broke over the Horn of Africa, seven Somali nationals boarded three small vessels - two skiffs that would accompany a larger boat - and headed toward the MV Almezaan from the coast of Somalia. According to news reports, as the seven men approached the 2,000-ton vessel, they noticed the ship's Panamanian flag hoisted in the wind. As the three boats moved in closer, they also saw that it was being guarded by private security forces.

According to the Public Affairs Office of the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFOR), the Somali fleet engaged the MV Almezaan first, although no details of the attack were given in the press release. The report goes on to say that the private security guards "returned fire, successfully repelling the first attack, but [as] the pirates continued to pursue, [a] second attack was repelled and the pirates fled the area."

The Spanish naval warship, ESPS Navarra, "was dispatched by the Force Commander, Rear Admiral Giovanni Gumiero of the Italian Navy, and raced to the scene of the incident, [...] launched [a] helicopter, and quickly locat[ed] the MV Almezaan and the pirates' boats."

As a team from the Navarra drew closer to the scene, a second team was deployed to intercept the skiffs that had already been punctured with "numerous bullet impacts." The Spanish Defense Ministry later said that the team from the Navarra found "numerous [...] bullet casings as well as arms and munitions of different caliber" aboard the Somali vessels. After six Somali men were detained, a seventh man was found dead, his body riddled with small caliber ammunition.

While this was the third time the MV Almezaan had been attacked by Somalis - and not the first interception by the Navarra - the incident that morning marked the first time armed private security guards have used lethal force and killed a Somali engaged in piracy activities.

The private security company on board, along with the nationalities of the armed guards, remains unknown.

The shot heard ‘round the seas'

The incident has reignited the debate surrounding the role of armed personnel on maritime vessels to defend ships against hijackers.

While some in the private security industry claim this latest incident is evidence of the effective use of armed security personnel aboard cargo vessels, it has also caused others to maintain that "the main job of hired guns is toavoid a deadly escalation in the first place."

"Right now, the schism [in the industry] seems to be a cost/benefit issue, between paying ransom and offering effective resistance, with ransom winning out. Putting armed guards on vessels impedes the modus operandi of paying ransom," Jim Werbaneth, a political science instructor at the American Military University told ISN Security Watch.

"In addition, there are questions of escalation; if pirates feel that currently soft targets are harder to take, then they would be more willing to kill in order to seize them. A major hazard too is armed guards could misidentify an innocent civilian boat as a pirate and attack it pre-emptively, or misconstrue fishermen as pirates and mistake ordinary fishing as an attack with tragic results."

He continued, stating that, "One potential advantage is that with especially with high-value or sensitive cargoes, the benefits of preventing a seizure in the first place could prove greater than paying ransom later. Then too, regardless of the value of the ship or the cargo, the proliferation of lethal force among merchant ships could be a deterrent to future attacks, especially by casual or less well-armed pirates. Finally, armed merchant ships, lead responsibly could help take some of the burden from over-stretched navies."

According to the International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates attacked 217 vessels last year, hijacking 47 ships and kidnapping 867 crewmembers. However, there were "twice as many attacks in 2009 compared with [2008]." One report notes that this figure demonstrates that "pirates' success rate [have] increased only marginally," a further indication that "non-lethal methods of repelling pirates are working."

Regardless of these figures, the incident has caused private security companies to quickly manufacture and advertise for anti-pirate protection.

"Ironically, hiring armed guards for a boat is easy. What's difficult is hiring seasoned, experienced professionals at a competitive price who will ensure the securityof not only the boat, its crew and cargo, but also the parent company's corporate reputation as well," David Rider, representative with UK-based Neptune Maritime Security told ISN Security Watch.

"Too many of the firms currently offering their services to the maritime community come from land-based disciplines. And too few of them understand International Maritime Law. The tough decision any CEO has to take is in making the right choice, not the easy one.
"No one wants another ‘Blackwater' on their books," Rider said, referring to the infamous private military company now known as 'Xe,' "and no one wants to see their share price affected by something like that. The only way to avoid that is by ensuring that the team you deploy is one you can trust in every situation," Rider explained.

The steady rise in pirate attacks is fueling the demand for increased security on cargo and other maritime vessels. And with approximately 20,000 ships travelling through the Gulf of Aden each year, private companies are eager to provide shipping and cargo companies with both lethal and non-lethal innovations.

Anti-piracy innovations include the installation of Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD), an eardrum-piercing, sonic audio weapon that sends high frequency squeals in the direction of oncoming threats - typically used by domestic police forces to control riots, but has since been used in Iraq to ward off insurgent threats to the US military.

More recently, a German company has developed what it calls an Automatic Pirate Defense System, a camera and sensor equipped technology that can sound an alarm when small vessels approach within 500 meters of a large ship. Any closer and the system automatically sounds a silent alarm and blasts high powered streams of water into oncoming targets, potentially deterring skiffs off course or knocking bodies into the surrounding waters, rendering potential hijackers ineffective.
To arm or not to arm

While some maintain that armed guards balance the power relations between oncoming pirates wielding automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, others disagree.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor notes: "Unlike pirates in the Strait of Malacca, who often kill the shipping crews and offload the goods at any number of container ports in Malaysia or Indonesia, the pirates of Somalia don't have the option of taking ships for the goods aboard. That's because there are no ports in Somalia - other than the government-controlled ports of Berbera and Mogadishu - where pirates can offload large shipping containers. So the only things of value to the Somali pirates are the crews and the ships themselves."

Recent legal reports call into question the legality of armed guards on maritime vessels, but ultimately conclude that the answer relies on who authorizes the use of force. When the BBC reported on the MV Almezaan case, Stephen Askins, a lawyer with international shipping law firm Ince and Co, stated: "Most industry bodies and ship-owners are against [armed private guards], but no ship with an armed guard has been hijacked, so there are those - particularly those who have had hijacked ships - who think they are necessary."
Neptune Maritime agrees:

"All of our intelligence sources suggest that the situation in the Gulf of Aden will deteriorate further and the level of violence used in attacks will only escalate. Armed response should always be an absolute last resort in any situation, particularly one at sea, but to lack a credible threat in the face of overwhelming violence is, frankly, irresponsible," Rider told ISN Security Watch.

"Given the massive amounts of money involved, one wonders how long it will be before a shipping company is sued for not providing adequate protection for its clients?"

"Why has this situation has been allowed to develop? Why is there no credible, international legal threat to deter pirates? Why are pirates released without charge more often than not, free to continue [attacks]? [While we should not] forget that ultimately, a man died whilst in the act of committing an extremely violent crime, why in the 21st century does the world allow such important cargo to travel unguarded?" Rider asked.

The EU NAVFOR press release was sprinkled with comments praising the private guard aboard the ship for making a "great shot," and "well done [to] the man that pulled the trigger - About time!"

To these comments, Commander John Harbour, the official Spokesperson for EU NAVFOR -European Union Naval Force Somalia, replied:

"Let us not forget that a man has lost his life even if he did bring it upon himself by carrying out a criminal act using a lethal weapon and put others in danger by doing so. We would rather bring these criminals before a judge and will do so whenever possible.
"This death of a pirate is not the first and will, sadly, not be the last. It is hoped that other young men in Somalia will not risk their lives for the sake of enriching the businessmen who control them without taking any risks themselves."