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GNOSIS 4/2008
The network of the pirates of the third millennium

The areas of political-military instability, the facility of arms procurement – also at high potential – the large number of ships laden with goods of all kinds that transit along routes with no alternatives, fuels a phenomenon that since Roman times periodically recurs: piracy. Ships seized; ship owners who pay millions of euro in ransom money; private security companies that offer to escort the ships; war ships that join forces to keep open the routes and intervene in case of attacks. Guido Olimpio explains who they are, how they function, how much they make and how they recycle the money – the pirates of the third millennium. The author investigates also the possible ties with fringe groups of Islamic terrorism and attempts to individuate adequate responses of counteraction, both at a military and legal level.

In the years following the War of Independence, the Americans, hunting for new markets, must face the problems of an insidious reality: the Berber pirates leaving from the North African coast are endangering maritime traffic with their incursions. At the beginning, the United States seek to negotiate, offering money to keep them at bay. In other words, they prefer to pay the exaction money. But it does not work. The United States Navy is forced to intervene several times and also has to organize amphibian operations. In 1805, it is the Marines who disembark to conquer the Port of Derna, in Tripolitania. A name that will enter the anthem of the prestigious Corp. The ‘game’ will close in the following years with the expeditions of 1815 (American) and of 1830 (French). A political intervention applied in 1832, in the Far East, with the mission of the frigate, “Potomac”, to punish the local pirates.
Less than two hundred years later, history is repeated much more to the south. Along the coast of Somalia, at the mouth of the Red Sea, off the coast of Aden. The challenge to the commercial traffic comes from the local pirates, children of the clans, half-fisherman and half-militiaman. A phenomenon that assumed disquieting proportions. For three reasons. The number of the boardings; the difficulty in finding a response – military or legal – the possible linkages between the bandits and terrorism.
The scenario narrated by the incomparable Frederick Forsyth, in his book “The Devil’s Alternative” – a super tanker seized by dangerous extremists – and the analyses of another great writer, William Langewiesche, author of “Terror of the Sea”, put the spot light, much in advance, on the dangers we are running today: describing how guerrillas “at low technology” – after all, the essentials are just a fast boat and some machine guns – can become an expensive nuisance. It is along these routes that we will try to navigate to explain what is happening in Somalia and what could follow, putting together the information from official sources, the reports of research institutes and the news that reaches us daily from those troubled waters.

The numbers

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), in a first dossier diffused in September, revealed how, on a global scale, piracy had grown by 10%. In 2007, 269 attacks were verified, compared to the 239 of 2006, a clear turnabout with respect to what has been registered from 2003. According to the IMB, based in Malaysia, the increase is ascribable to what has occurred in Nigeria and Somalia.
During the period between January-November, 2008, 94 ships were attacked in Somalia waters (according to other sources, 120), of these, 38 were captured. By the 23rd November, 17 ships were still in the hands of the bandits. According to the study, the pirates have become even more violent: of the 300 sailors taken in hostage, five were killed and three are missing. Firearms were employed in at least 72 episodes, with an increase of 36% compared to 2006. Alarm also in Gabon where, in a couple of events, large bands have carried out attacks, being bold enough to go on land and rob a number of banks.
In Asia, the Indonesian coasts are one of the most difficult situations, with at least 43 attacks, while the picture has improved in Bangladesh, with only 15 attacks (compared to the 47 in the previous year).If we return our focus on Somalia and consider the recent months, the trend is serious. And, apart from the numbers, the great attention on the Gulf of Aden is due to its high strategic value. Every year, an average of 20 thousand ships and circa 3.4 million barrels of petroleum (representing a conservative estimate of circa 4% of the world supply) pass through this important waterway.
With regard to the illicit earnings, the evaluation varies widely: it goes from 30 million dollars to 150 (this information has been given by the Kenyan Authorities).
An imprecise figure. It is difficult to establish the real sum paid-out by the ship-owners to regain their ships: the pirates will accept 500 thousand, but normally the average oscillates between 1-2 million dollars and 5 million. In these months, it has been preferable to pay up to save cargos which are worth 10 times more and to avoid loss of sailors’ lives.
The repetition of these incursions has, however, contributed to a rise in the insurance payments, not only for the cargos, but also to cover the sailors.
Figures – realized with approximate calculations – reveal that the cost of the insurance coverage for a merchant ship that transits the Gulf of Aden has gone from 900 dollars to 9,000 dollars, which means a total of more than 160 million dollars per year. At the end of October, the unions and the British companies concluded an agreement that provides for double- pay for the personnel during the period of transit in the area, recognized as “war zone”. A corridor that runs parallel to an imaginary line that goes from the Cape Guardafui (North of Somalia) to the East, the extreme point of the Island of Socotra.
After the seizing of the Saudi super tanker “Sirius Star”, an enormous ship of over 300 thousand tons, a second shock-wave was produced. Certain shipping companies decided to avoid the Suez Canal, choosing to
circumnavigate Africa. The first to take the step were the executives of the Danish Moller Maersk, one of largest companies in the world (it possesses 50 super-tankers), while the Norwegian Frontline and the Intertank have
not excluded the possibility of doing the same.
The decision entails a lengthening of the trip from 12 to 15 days, with a supplementary cost of 20-30 thousand Euros per day for each super-tanker. The societies have explained that the measure will regard only the slower tankers and those with low sides – as the tanker is when fully loaded – while the other merchant ships will follow the traditional route. If the crisis continues, it is clear that there will be a strong impact for Egypt, which draws resources from the tolls of the ships that use the Suez Canal. At the present moment, the petroleum traffic along the Canal represents only 17% of the entire volume and only medium-sized ships use it. But the Egyptian Authorities have in programme a project to be finished by the end of 2009, which should permit the transit of larger ships and this would mean 64% of the petroleum traffic.
The alarm in Cairo is also tied to a contraction of the maritime movements, due to the economic crisis. In October, revenue was equal to 467.5 million dollars against the 504.5 million of August, with a recorded passage of 1,993 ships. The experts have also tried to evaluate the global impact of the piracy phenomenon on the economy. Once again the numbers fly up and down and, therefore, the data is relative: from 1 to 14 billion, according to those who think it a chronic situation or, instead, an absolute emergency.
Also the humanitarian consequences are heavy. Often, the pirates target the ships that transport aid for the Somali population. The Country, for years ravaged by the civil war, with an Authority that is only a fašade has desperate need of the ONU assistance to feed something like 2.4 million human beings. And within the year, according to sources of the UN Building in New York, the number of assisted is destined to rise to 3.6 million. If this lifeline is interrupted, there will be no hope for these anguished people.
The pirates – emboldened with success and relative impunity – after having attacked the merchant ships loaded with provision, have broadened the “catch” to cargos of minerals, wood, chemical substances and raw materials. Somali ships have been spared and also those transporting goods directly to the local merchants of the Mogadishu market: a fact of immunity that feeds the suspicions of collusion and relations between the pirates and the Authorities.
In three already renowned cases – the pirates ran into rather special cargos. On the 21st August, they seized the 42,500 ton Iranian ship “Deyanat” coming from China directed towards Rotterdam. Aboard, according to the cargo declaration, were industrial materials. But other sources – including certain pirates – spoke of arms (en route to Eritrea?) and even poisons, the inhalation of which would have caused victims among the plunderers. Rumours, perhaps, fed by the fact that the shipping company, Irisl, was on the list of societies suspected of transferring prohibited technology. A version harshly criticized by Teheran, which had strongly urged the Western powers to move to end marine banditry. On the 10th October, the “Deyanat” was able to continue her voyage, probably after the payment of the ransom.
Even more resounding is the case of the “Faina”, a Ukrainian merchant ship captured on the 25th September, while she was heading for the Kenyan port of Mombassa. In the holds, there were 33 armoured tanks T-72, 150 rocket launchers RPG 7, anti-aircraft batteries, guns and circa 14 thousand bullets. Officially, the consignment of arms was destined for Kenya, but after a few days, the pirates themselves disclosed the deception. The tanks and rockets were bought by the autonomous Government of South Sudan, an entity struck by UNO embargo. The particularity of the cargo had two immediate consequences. The pirates, in asking for the ransom money had tried play hard, demanding as a first condition, 35 million dollars. They then went down to 20, then 8, to 5, and still lower to 3. In the last week of November, the negotiations were still in course.
After the “Faina”, it was then the turn of the “Sirius”, taken by surprise not close to the coast, but at 800 kilometres away. It seems that the raiders had used, as mother ship, a towboat captured on a previous occasion. The entire ‘blitz’ lasted – according to the pirates – just 16 minutes.

The new Tortuga

Until five years ago, the merchant ships that crossed each other along the 3,025 kilometres of Somali coast could be safe by remaining at a distance of 50 sea miles. Today, they are no longer safe at even 200 or, as we have seen, at 800 kilometres. A sign of how piracy has advanced not only numerically, but also geographically. Somalia is an ideal place for those who wish to act illegally. Since 1991, it has had no Government that has had total control of the territory. It does not have adequate security forces and is broken by rivalries, and loyalties to the clans. If one adds to a catastrophic humanitarian situation and the strong conflict between the transition authorities and the Islamic militants, it is understandable how illegality has fertile ground. It is not a coincidence that in the brief reign which saw the fundamentalists in the Courts of power, piracy underwent a diminution. The Fundamentalists wanted an iron control and tolerated no deviations. Now that they are of the opposition, being pursued by the repeated American incursions, they are ready to join with, or distance themselves from the criminals, according to the interests of the moment.
The number of pirates, according to the most accredited reports indicate, are at least, 1,000 (other speak of double the number). Figures, however, that must be taken with caution, inasmuch as these could be “full time” – they do this and nothing else – or “part-time”, mixing legitimate activities with the banditry, such as fishing. The successes obtained in the attacks have, undoubtedly, pushed dozens of people to join the criminal formations. Not only the maritime environment sustains this, but it is admitted also by the same inhabitants of the coast. Intelligence sources have individuated at least four nuclei: the “Volunteers of the National Coast Guard” at Kisimayo, the “Somali Marines” at Eyl and Harar Dheere, a group in Puntland and another in the area of Markeh. Certain formations – as a special UNO representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah has reported – enjoy the support of the “provisory” Authorities and of those of Punt land.
A high Mauritanian official sustained, in a press conference, that part of the plunder money had been employed to finance the political activities of the “President” Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad. This last has the support of his clan – Darod – and of the Majeerteen, which, according to concordant information, constitute the major part of the pirates. Accusations that extend also to the “President” of Puntland, Muse: his nephew was arrested with a case full of dollars, probably the result of a ransom.
Only recently, under international pressure, have the Puntland Authorities adopted some measures – such as the creation of a court – to contain the phenomenon.
It needs comparatively little to start a piracy activity. A band needs: two or three fast boats; a GPS system (cost 125 dollars); twenty well-armed men (machine guns, RPG, probably Sam 7 anti-aircraft); possibly a radar (1,875 dollars) and collaboration with men on the land. The sentries (several
dozens) are the people who have the task of keeping guard on the captured ship. In the first phases of this crisis the pirates left the ports – Eyl, Hobyo, Harar, Bosaso – and left them in pursuit of the merchant ships, concentrating on those with the lower sides. But with time – as the “Faina” case demonstrates – they have extended their greedy hook, intercepting where possible.
Certain of them like to present themselves as eco-warriors who conduct a fight against foreign off-shore fishing boats that come to plunder the Somali fishing reserves, and against those who dump toxic waste in the seabed. According to this version the boardings are similar to police operations. Some can show a type of “official card”, having been trained, in the past, thanks to an international assistance programme. A role which has made way for a more profitable one, of a bandit.
Without wanting to concede any justification to the pirates, it is, however, necessary to recognize that the illegal fishing, to the detriment of Somalia, is an established fact, with 800 boats that, every year, throw their nets in these waters. The issue over the dangerous waste material is no different.
To strike off-coast, the pirates are served by mother-ships. Normally, fishing boats, yachts, towboats and a pair of units – the “Athena” and the “Burun”, of which the IMB diffused the photographs – from which the motorboats are unhooked to attempt the attacks. The mother-ships move in the area of Bab el Mandeb in search of prey and, when they discover it, they act very rapidly. NATO sources have calculated that between the sighting and the attack, just 15 minutes elapse. This explains how difficult it is to forestall an incursion, if one is not near to the merchant ship or a helicopter is not present – a rather efficient guardian angel in these situations. On the 24th October, in a report, the U.S Navy Intelligence Office gave an analysis on 21 incidents verified in the previous weeks. These are the key points:
- all the ships were attacked by day, in the only case of a night attack, the moon was at 94% luminosity;
- the average velocity of the ships attacked was 14 knots, just a few knots more would, perhaps, have avoided the worst;
- the cargos with low sides were the preferred targets of the pirates;
- the attacks were concentrated in an area encompassed between the following coordinates: 46 degrees longitude East, 38 minutes East and 50 degrees longitude West, 32 minutes East, and this means - that there are ideal conditions of sea, wind, currents and position of departure for the pirates.
To block the merchant ships, the pirates execute rapid manoeuvres, threaten the use of firearms, on some occasions, the pirates have opened fire with anti-tank rockets (RPG type) – all demonstrations of force to intimidate the crews. Once aboard, the pirates can ask for reinforcements to keep the sailors at bay and face possible repressive actions. Therefore, they force the Captain to set course for the small ports that constitute the Tortuga of the Indian Ocean. The British BBC Television had the possibility of visiting the port of Eyl and documented how the life in this village of fishermen has profoundly changed.
The inhabitants have organized themselves to support this particular “industry” that has brought them relative affluence. There are those who work as sentries to guard the many ships and the hundreds of hostages. There are those, alternatively, who manage the logistics, preparing food for the prisoners. A spokesman is not lacking who, on several occasions, has granted interviews. Only a few individuals – the trusted – maintain contact with mediators. It is their job to conduct the negotiations for the ransom. The Shipping Companies are forced to pay in cash. The criminals are organized with little banknote counting machines and small devices that can identify authentic or forged money. On certain occasions, it seems that the negotiators have used the important market of Dubai. Money changers and trusted men of the pirates receive the negotiated sum guaranteeing their clients that the “spoils” are safe.
Everything can be done long-distance, using a satellite telephone and the tribal connections, more important than a political affiliation. Abdi Garad, a pirate, presenting himself as the leader of an active crew off the coast of Puntland, gave an interesting account. “We live, thanks to the money of the ransoms. I have a house, two all-terrain vehicles, three cell phones, a satellite telephone and a laptop computer”. Thanks to the money he cashed, he has been able to marry two more women. And some residents of Garowe have admitted that due to this sudden affluence, the number of sumptuous banquets and marriages has grown.
“For us it’s only a question of business”, added Garad, “we consider it in the same way that others consider their work. I have sailed the Ocean a long time, not to fish, but to follow the cargos that enter our territorial waters and which no-one controls, apart from us. We defend our waters from foreigners who dump their toxic waste and plunder our resources. One day they will have to pay us for this”.
Also the merchants of the zone are happy. They guarantee supplies for the incursions and are paid when the ransom arrives.
Journalistic reportages appearing in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times described scenarios that seemed to have been taken from old films on Black Beard and Henry Morgan. When the pirates receive the ransom money, they return to land and, one can say, open a “counter” – a table, a cash box full of money – in front of which long queues of people form. A pirate of Bosaso explained the sharing out in this way: 20% to the bosses, 20% for the financing of the operation, 30% to the crews and 20% to the local authorities. So much money makes everyone happy: the prostitutes of the local brothels, those who sell fuel, those who build. In an area of Bosaso, called the “New”, beautiful houses are sprouting up like mushrooms, which contrast with the surrounding poverty.
Dollars, however, can “walk”. In the sense that they have been reinvested to purchase khat – a very popular drug in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen, but also in Europe – wood, precious stones, arms and transport of clandestine migrants (hundreds of them drown every year). Other resources have fuelled the traffic of wood carbon, known as “black gold”. Produced in Somalia, it is exported to the Arab Emirates and other Gulf Countries, where there is a growing demand.
It is more difficult to establish whether a portion of the ransom money finished in possession of the Islamist Shabab movement, active in Somalia. There are numerous pointers in this direction and it is probable that the militants exact a sort of revolutionary tax. In other cases there have been clashes, resolved by gunfire. Undoubtedly, a slice of the “cake” reaches the war lords, in order to obtain their protection or, at least, neutrality.
The relations of interests or tactics with the militiamen open the chapter on arms. The pirates, compared to their Caribbean ancestors, are not constricted to arm their vessels with canons. However, they must be able to instil fear. The Somali theatre, together with that of the Yemenite offer good availability of armaments. The boats of assault are equipped with machine guns of Russian and Chinese make, often alongside the inevitable RPG, constructed to stop armoured vehicles and transformed, at these latitudes, into modern colubrine (an antique piece of artillery of the 16th and 17th Century). Weapons of death that constitute the modest arsenal of the bandits deployed for the protection of the ports.
Intelligence information warns of the possible presence of portable anti-aircraft systems, of the Sam 7 type. A couple was used in 2002 – fortunately, without success – against an Israeli passenger jet at Mombasa: a failed attack by a Quaedist cell which has been operating for 10 years on the Kenya-Somalia Axis.
As far as individual arms are concerned, the pirates do not have much choice – the Kalashnikov in all its versions – Russian, Chinese, Ukrainian and “fake”.
Finally, it is worth remembering that the criminals seem to be trying to improve their Intelligence. It is impossible to establish how much truth there is in this, but some have claimed to have spies in the principal ports – in particularly, Dubai – who inform them of the cargos of the ships headed for the Gulf of Aden.

photo Ansa

The Fleets

Until the summer of 2008, the international reply to the piracy phenomenon was of scarce order. Many Countries were committed to oppose it in combination with the fight against terrorism. Important efforts were made that were burdened with problems of funds, lack of iron will, and too many other serious preoccupations. Today, the naval systems and appliances are called to operate in many areas (from Lebanon to the Gulf) with a consequent absorption of resources.
The Italian Navy was among the first to participate in the missions against the pirate/terrorist binomial. First in the Oman waters, therefore, in Africa. To remain with recent events, the campaign of maritime surveillance “Medal 08” is significant, which brought the seagoing patrol vehicle “Commander Borsini” and the support supply ship, “Etna” into the Gulf of Aden. The two units operated from January, 2008 until the summer, 2008 collaborating with other Western Navies. They did not limit themselves to just showing the flag, they acted: on the 22nd of April, for example, the “Borsini” thwarted an attack against the tanker “Neverland”.
In the last six months, in conjunction with the increase of the incursions, we have witnessed a proliferation of initiatives that have swept from the United States to the NATO, passing to the European Union and the unilateral interventions. There was and is the wish to act, but, at times, it seems there has been a lack of real coordination and also the desire to go all the way. To substantiate: in the first phase the Navies preferred to limit itself to escort only and not become involved in any preventive action. Also because the Sea Forces are not very large. Furthermore, since the enemy is not a fleet, but a handful of small boats, rapid reactions would be needed. Some observers, precisely because of the proliferation of interventions, had hoped for the presence of a Navy Command, but this entails that the protagonists belonging to the different deployments (example, the Russians or the Indians) accept outside supervision.
Since 2001, the Task Force 150 acts at an international level. It responds to the American Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and is composed of the following Countries: Denmark, France. Germany, Pakistan, Great Britain and the United States. In the past, Australia, Italy, Holland, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and Turkey adhered. The command is on a rotation system and the area covered is considerably large, insomuch as it comprises the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea and the western part of the Indian Ocean. Approximately 15 ships are at the disposal of the Task Force. A fair number – they have thwarted 12 boarding attempts – but is still held to be below the needs. The facts confirm it. During the “Faina” crisis, notwithstanding the notable deployment and maximum attention, the pirates were able to release certain ships, capture others and receive ransom money. The most resounding blow, that which led to the seizing of the Saudi super tanker.
With the increase of the attacks, some Countries have decided to intensify, autonomously, (or in parallel to the existing structures) the capacity of the intervention. The French, in particular, have employed their military apparatus – six ships – which dispose of an important support base at Gibuti. And, at the diplomatic level, they guided the attempts which led to the Resolution 1816 of the United Nations, which permits the pursuit of the pirates also in Somali waters. In April, special French Units launched a raid – with the use of helicopters and, perhaps, with American Predators – to capture a band of sea raiders responsible for the taking of hostages. An operation was repeated in September by the Hubert Command (Navy) to free two French citizens captured together with their yacht. According to rumour, in the first blitz, the military used the abandoned track of the Berbers in the north of Somaliland. An advanced position ideal to sustain an incursion of that type. On the 23rd October, they neutralized two high-speed crafts, confiscated arms and arrested nine pirates, to then consign them to the Somali Authorities of Puntland.
After France, Spain made a move, interested in the protection of its fishing boats – often objective of aggressions. Madrid sent a reconnoitre P3 Orion, followed by a transport Hercules, with about ninety men, comprising technicians, crew and elements of the Special Forces. On 28th October, the P3 foiled an assault on an oil tanker leaving three smoke screens near the crafts. The incident was at 210 kilometres north of the Somali coast.
In the same zone also the Danish and Dutch took active part – each making available one ship – and the Royal Navy with two Units. On one occasion, British sailors killed a number of pirates and arrested others.
In addition to patrolling, the combined forces have contributed to the creation of a security corridor that cuts the Gulf of Aden, a stretch of water where the surveillance will be more intense. It is the “Maritime Security Patrol Area” (MSPA), activated on the initiative of the Command of the Task Force 150. An area that will be monitored with major attention by air-naval vehicles with the help of other contingents. At the end of September, the European Union – under the French Presidency – constituted a “coordination cell” to manage a new expedition entrusted to ten Countries, which will contribute with means and financial support. Among these will participate: France, Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Lithuania, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Sweden. The Command is based at Northwood (Great Britain) with the start of the mission in December. The utilization of 4 to 6 ships supported by air vehicles is probable. A spokesman has explained the operative model: The Unit will escort a convey of ships leaving the Gulf of Aden and, subsequently, will escort those that are proceeding in the opposite direction. A procedure that evidently entails delays: the merchant ships may be forced to wait 24 to 48 hours. The EU action follows under the umbrella of the NATO. In October, answering an appeal from the UNO and of the international humanitarian associations, the Atlantic Alliance made the “Mediterranean Standing Naval Force 2” (SNFM-2) available, the Task Force, usually aligned in the Mediterranean, is composed of 7 Units representing the United States (with “The Sullivans”), Turkey (“Gocova”), Greece (“Themistokles”), Great Britain (“Cumberland”), Germany (“Rhon” and “Karlsruhe”) and Italy (“Durand De La Penne”). And it is an Italian Admiral, Giovanni Gumbiero, who guides the Flotilla which has the primary task: to escort, upon request, the merchant ships of the World Food Programme that carry aid to Somalia. Moreover, a series of activities in collaboration with the Gulf Navies is foreseen. It is difficult to believe that they will be sufficient and, besides, this disposition has a time limit (December) and must be renewed. In any case, the 27th October, three Units – among which the “Durand De La Penne” concluded the first escort mission, which will probably be extended also to the oil tankers of four large companies which have requested the Atlantic protection. The “Cumberland” was, instead, protagonist of a ‘search and destroy’ intervention. Military measures that the NATO wants to render more targeted, realizing – in the words of the Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer – “a sophisticated Intelligence network”. An objective that is achievable by the adoption of the “Maritime Situation Awareness”: a programme that will give the possibility of monitoring what happens in the Ocean, of sharing data between the Units involved and the coastal Authorities and, of following the movements of the indicated ships. A similar system to this is already active in the Mediterranean and coordinated by the Nisida Command (Naples).
In the wake of the Western Countries, and because of preoccupation of the economic consequences, other States have been spurred to activity. The Arab League and the Countries of the Persian Gulf started consultations to coordinate the undertakings. Malaysia sent three ships (at the end of October, only the “Mahawangsa” remained). South Korea and Japan offered their willingness to participate in the activities of policing. The Indian commitment is significant, pressed by its shipping companies to protect their embarked fellow-countrymen. Thus the modern frigate “Tabar” became the protagonist of a controversial case. The Indian Command – in November – announced the sinking of a mother-ship, surprised during an assault. But subsequently, it was discovered that, in reality, it concerned a Thai fishing trawler that was about to be boarded by pirates: 14 missing. The story came out because a rescued sailor recounted his version. New Delhi replied, sustaining that shots were fired at the frigate from the trawler. An incident accompanied by criticism from the Indian Navy towards the West, judging it to be too soft with regard to the criminals. Not less interesting, but for different reasons, is the Russian reaction. Moscow, after the seizing of the “Faina”, detached one of its ships from the Baltic Fleet, the frigate “Neutrashimy”. According to some observers, Russia seized the occasion to return to a region where, once, it possessed important support bases. An analysis reinforced by the possible reopening of a fixed presence in a Yemen port. Contacts that go in this direction are already underway between Sanaa and Moscow. Without hiding their ambitions, Sergei Mironov, President of the Senate and very close to the Kremlin, underlined that the Yemenite ports will serve not only as a normal port of call, but will have a strategic function. Interests cultivated not only by Russia.
The criss-crossing of so many ships – more than 30 at the end of October, according to official sources – which fly the flags of the European Union, the NATO, the United States, of India and of how many others that have decided to be present, lends itself to a double interpretation. The first is that we have moved to re-establish legality. The second is that the noble cause offers the opportunity to preside over a region that will act as a link-up between the markets of Asia, the petroleum routes and a sought-after continent: Africa. A further signal of the great interest comes from the anti-piracy initiatives to the survey also along the West African coasts with European and American Units. Some observers have spoken of a re-edition, in a maritime key, of the Great Game: the opposition between the Russians and the British for the control of Central Asia, beginning from middle of the 19th Century.

The counter-measures

The American Vice-Admiral, Bill Gortney (Fifth Fleet) and the British Commodore, Keith Winstanley hypothesized that the shipping companies provide directly for the security of their own merchant ships, entrusting to passive counter-measures and armed guards. An idea, to boot, not uncommon.
In the November of 1999, Puntland concludes an agreement with the Society, Hart Security that provides for the training of 70 men, who must represent a sort of Coast Guard. A lookout is purchased, while the arms are purchased on the local market. The financing of the operation is assigned to the tax on the fishing. But everything closes in 2002 when the Hart withdraws because Puntland does not maintain its commitments. A sub-contract – in 2000 – it is initialled by the PIDC, but once again, the outcome is not comforting. Between 2002 and 2005, the Somali Canadian Coast Guard is called to intervene in Puntland. However, doubts arise when three members are arrested for piracy in Thailand. In 2005, the baton passes to the Saudi Arabians of the Al Habibi, who are not able to start the work due to the situation on the ground. In November of that year the interim Government signs a contract for 50 million dollars with the American Top Cat, which promises “rapid solutions”. But the agreement is blocked by the State Department, which sees something suspicious in the Company. In May, 2008, the French Secopex appears. A great announcement with the roll of drums for a contract of 200 million dollars, finalized to maritime protection. A project which, however, clashes with lack of funds. The last, and with a name to defend, those of the Blackwater, the society which had become well-known in Iraq, and put under indictment for methods used. In an attempt to recycle itself in a new market, the Company offered to operate in the Gulf of Aden, deploying the “McArthur”, an oceanographic ship readapted for security missions. It can host a good number of contractors – more than 30 – disposes of a flight desk for two helicopters “OH 6 Little Bird” and three dinghies. The President of the Blackwater, ex-commando, Erik Prince, maintained that a dozen shipping companies were to have contacted him to evaluate the possibility of an agreement. The “McArthur” would
concentrate its action in the Gulf of Aden, being escort to convoys of merchant ships. A maritime readjustment of its already employed techniques – not without controversy – in the difficult Iraqi theatre.

photo Ansa

Other societies imitating the Israeli companies, furnished ex-members of a special anti-terrorist police team and members of other special forces, aligned as guards aboard the oil tankers, cruise liners and merchant ships. It seems that many Nepali Ghurkhas have found work in this sector. Also “Vympel” veterans have come to the fore: ex- commandos of the Special Forces that once operated for the KGB.
But the on-board guards are seen with preoccupation by many ship-owner companies. First of all, because there is the risk that an armed conflict could put the crew and the cargo in danger. In the second place, there is the necessity of overcoming the objections of many port authorities which do not permit mooring to merchant ships with armed men aboard. Finally, there is the added expense: from 20 thousand to 50 thousand dollars per day.
The passive defence is, perhaps, more feasible. On certain units particularly powerful acoustic systems have been installed, able to assail the aggressors with sound waves. In at least two cases – in 2005 and 2008 – they were able to neutralize the pirates. On the first occasion, the Captain of the “Seaborne Spirit”, notwithstanding the bandits had fired a rocket with an RPG, manoeuvred and centred the pirate craft with acoustic rays. This year, instead, it was a team of the English society, APMSS, embarked on an oil tanker, to put the assailants to flight. The weapon is composed of a kind of megaphone connected to an MP3 reader: at 1000 meters, it is already effective, at 100-200 meters; the effects are painful and can result in a loss of hearing. The Company offers squads of three men who, for 20 thousand euros “rental” charge, remain aboard for the time necessary for the transit through the dangerous waters.
The Iranians, after the seizing of the “Deyanat”, stretched barbed wire along the sides of their ships. Other Captains have resorted to hydrants, even if this could expose the sailors to enemy fire.
Among the societies that have snatched contracts, Hollow-point, (Mississippi) specialized in conducting ransom negotiations; the Drum Cussac, (registered an increase of 50%); the Hart, (guards on board); the Olive Group, (security) and the Eos, (systems of passive protection).
Naval experts have pointed out how the modern military ships are, at time, too sophisticated for anti-piracy tasks. Missiles serve very little against swift motorboats and are, what is more, expensive. Perhaps it would be better – they add – to use smaller units, equipped with a small canon and a number of machine-guns. And, yielding to certain past suggestions, they theorized – and we point out that it concerns pure theory – the installation of pieces of “artillery” aboard the merchant ships. A memory of the armed cargos used during the 1st and 2nd World Wars.
More practicable, perhaps, is the hypothesis of resorting to the Q boat. Ships that appear to be civilian, but, in reality, hide well-armed sailors able to knock the pirates out of combat. It was this that, in February, 1832, Commodore John Downes did to inflict a heavy defeat on the pirates of Quallah Battoo, Sumatra. He camouflaged the “Potomac” as a Danish ship and took, by surprise, the blockhouses of the pirates responsible for the massacre that had happened a year previously on the “Friendship”.
But all these kind of undertakings – except situations of emergency – require a legal and diplomatic coverage. “Once, we would have wiped them out of the sea with cannon balls. Today, we tend to be more civilized, politically correct...”, observed Captain Douglas Hard, who teaches maritime law at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy of King Point, (New York).
A statement that keeps account of the problems of the law and remembers how far back are those days when the sentence was “to be hanged from the highest yardarm”. What is to be done when you have a pirate in your hands? Where does one try him? Once again, the responses have been random. A French Admiral has suggested declaring the presence of arms on board ships that transit the Gulf of Aden, illegal. Those who are caught with arms aboard can be arrested: this would permit preventive interventions against sham fishermen. In European environments the possibility has been discussed of creating a special Section at the International Court of Aja.
The UNO, in strict coordination with the NATO Countries, is working to pass a new Resolution that fixes the legal limits and underlines the powers of intervention. The Indians have shown that the Convention of 1838 furnishes sufficient legal coverage. The Danes, after having been able to capture a group of pirates, released them because no-one wanted to take the trial upon himself. The French reply is mixed. In one case they transferred 6 criminals to France, where they underwent trial. On a second occasion – in October – they “passed” pirates to the Executive of Puntland, notwithstanding there was suspicion of collusion. Considerable shadows which the Authorities and certain clans have tried to dispel with many promises and some initiatives. An Indian merchant ship, for example, was liberated on the 21st October, after a furious battle between militiamen and pirates. Three days later, Puntland announced the constitution of a Special Court that would judge the 23 pirates, according to the Islamic Law.
The hesitant steps of the Somali have encourage the British Transport Department to study a proposal that authorizes the Royal Navy to “board, confiscate the ships and arrest the pirates” to then turn them over to Mogadishu. On the basis of the new orders, the sailors of her Majesty can use force to neutralize the pirate vessels and sink them. It might seem a foregone outcome, and yet it is not, insofar as the “rule of the sea” does not permit the destruction of the boats.
With a provocation used to emphasize the problems that must be overcome, a high British official stated: “If we transferred the pirates to London, we would run the risk of having to meet their request for political asylum, since they come from a war zone”. Doubts also held by the American Admiral, Mark Fitzgerald, on which depends the NATO task force. Speaking frankly, the military underlined the major problems for those who are called to operate: the geographic extent of the theatre, which impedes presence everywhere; the difficult classification as to who is a pirate, since often, he becomes one, only at the moment in which he attacks another ship. Without precise rules of engagement the units can dissuade or move to give aid, while it is evident that for preventive controls major forces are required. And it is not coincidence that the Admiral, letting it be understood what his preference was, asserted that, probably, it would be more practical to limit themselves to the work of escort, thereby avoiding insidious legal mines. Prudence emerged also in reference to the possibility of decreeing a naval block of Somalia, a measure solicited by the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, an association that represents 76% of the oil tanker fleet.

The Terror

The Gulf of Aden is not only infested with pirates. In the past, the two most serious episodes of maritime terrorism were verified in this stretch of sea. On the 12th of October, 2002, a Qaedist suicide attacker launched himself with a small boat against the American war ship “Cole” (17 dead, 39 wounded). New attacks two years later – 6th October – on the oil tanker, “Limburg” of the coast of Makalla. The security services and the various Navy commands are constantly on guard for the subversive danger. And now, a link-up between the pirates and the affiliates of Osama is feared: a pact that can mature for two reasons.
First: it is economically advantageous to the two parts, given the size of the ransom obtained.
Second: a terrorist act can happen because the opportunity exists: and the sea offers it. It can be arduous to hijack a plane or attack an airport; on the contrary, it is very possible to attack a merchant ship or a cruise liner.
These are the classic “soft” targets and experience teaches us that the terrorists throw the lance where there is no shield. Or else, the extremists themselves could also adopt the tactic of the Q boat by utilizing an old tramp ship, pretending to be victims of an assault and asking for help. When the military ship comes close, an explosion is provoked. A danger that is considered concrete. During the controls in the waters of the Persian Gulf, the NATO Units keep at a safe distance, sending helicopters in reconnoitre, entrusting the inspection to armed teams that reach the cargo with two fast dinghies. One draws close and the second remains in support. Risks that have induced the embarkation of Special Forces (San Marco, Comsubin for Italy) and the ideal armament to stop a bomb-boat.
A simulation already tried in the Intelligence ambit hypothesized that an armed commando takes over an oil tanker; they block it in one of the maritime “funnels” (Hormuz, Malacca, and Aden) and launch a challenge that has multiple implications. Who negotiates with the criminals? They can do it separately or all together; the ship owners; the Country on the coast that is nearest to the ongoing drama; the Governments of the crews involved; the owners of the cargoes. Political protagonists with the right to speak, to whom are added the military responsibilities, in case – as happens in Somalia – international flotillas are involved. And, therefore, to adhere to the example the Task Force 150, the NATO, the EU cell, the UNO and Russia.
The simulations can be compared to what the extremists threaten. In April, Yemenite militants called for the re-launching of the fight at sea, in particular, in the Gulf of Aden. “It is a strategic necessity”, they claim. And the Somali Islamists, upon the announcement of the NATO mobilization, declared war against any persons who “intend to colonize Somalia and spread Christianity, on the excuse of the fight against piracy”. Threats followed by tension with the pirates after the capture of the “Sirius”: the militants had not appreciated the seizing of a ship belonging to a Moslem Country.
But the very case of the super tanker seems to confirm the fears of those who are frightened of subversive surprises. New episodes of what could become an asymmetric war, with a few small boats able to fool the great fleets.
It is sufficient to keep in mind the following points;
- Somalia has demonstrated, in the past, how the Qaedists have been able to infiltrate the local crisis. They have been present for more than 10 years. They have coasts; they recruit; they make propaganda, (classic and on the Internet);
- the lack of a central Authority at Mogadishu affords very inviting spaces to the extremists; it opens new horizons for those who wish to act illegally, to impede repressive action;- in Yemen, the Jihadist groups continue to multiply and look beyond their boundaries, in particularly, Saudi Arabia. Their vocation is that of creating damage (oil field supplies, plants, transport) with international repercussions. The Red Sea is full of targets; - in the Region there is a tradition of maritime terrorism as the attacks on the “Cole” and the “Limburg”;- the pirates can resolve logistic problems (departure bases, boats, coverage) of the subversives.


The challenge of piracy does not regard one State in particular, but is an international problem. An affirmation, nevertheless, with which not everyone agrees. In the United States, stances which have redimensioned the danger have been taken; others consider what has happened as a “chronic” situation and still others, as a further sign of “world disorder” to which we must become accustomed.
If a unanimous solution is really sought, then a common line, without small or medium interests, is needed. The limits of intervention being fixed, the word passes to the military. The flotilla needs a centre of control and command that can best exploit the available Forces. An intervention that cannot succeed without the support of the Intelligence. The chaotic situation in Somalia, from this aspect, could be an advantage. The divisions, the multiplicity of groups and the jagged political picture are all hooks on which the Intelligence could latch, in order to extract information concerning the pirates. It is not enough to seize this or that bogus fishing boat and catch a gang. It is necessary to block the mechanism that allows the bandits to cash the ransom. It is necessary to discover the ‘cashiers’, to neutralize the economic support, to find out how the money is reinvested. Tasks for the 007’s, not for the sailors. And for the success of this mission, the collaboration of the ship-owner companies is necessary. To accept negotiations with bandits, with the consequent payment of a ransom, constitutes an encouragement to the commission of criminal acts. A situation which we have already experienced for the hostages in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is clear that if we ask for firmness, we must give security to those who trade by sea. A purpose which is not achieved by neutralizing little “nuisance” boats, which are unimportant compared to a modern unit. Many experts warn that the core is on terra ferma. It is probable that in the face of armed war ships, the pirates will only become more cautious, but – as we have seen – will not give up their “work”. For this the strategists insist: without the dismantling of the Tortugas, there will never be victory over the piracy.
A correct indication that clashes with the problems of the present and the ghosts of the past. A land intervention is possible, always agreed that it is limited to ‘hit and run’ flash incursions (the American and French have done it), resorting to units of helicopter-transported commandos. Or else, using – as a risky choice – the clans, protagonists of a “secret war”. An extension of the conflict that is already fought in the shadows, against the Shabab Islamists.
The Western Governments, having borne in mind what happened during mission “Restore Hope”, can afford, perhaps, to carry out flash operations, but certainly not embark on expeditions which look too much like and “invasion”. An alternative – if ever practicable – is that of giving a hand to the Somali Authorities and of “convincing” the clans involved in the trafficking to give it up. It is not said that it would work. They would, naturally, ask for something in exchange and the fear of getting into a “tight corner” is deeply rooted. In recent years, it has been seen how the control of an emergency – for example, that of illegal immigration – becomes an instrument of pressure if not of real blackmail towards us. Today, as in 1991, there is an humanitarian emergency, which could help to weaken certain resistance, however, it does not appear sufficient to favour hazardous ventures. The impression is that we are satisfied to keep the incursions under control, with medium-term solutions. So, therefore, measured steps. And the sea, which is too vast to keep under total surveillance, suddenly appears cramped.