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African piracy — a modern-day scourge
Razor-sharp concertina wire makes boarding by would-be pirates a difficult and dangerous prospect.
Special to the Wilson County NewsJanuary 2, 2013 3,147 views 1 comment
Former Wilson County News Editor Martin Kufus shares his experience of providing security for a ship off the coast of Africa in this two-part series.
INDIAN OCEAN -- The dark-blue Indian Ocean was restless northwest of Madagascar. Endless whitecaps churned out to the horizon in all directions. The waves could hide from view the approach of motorboats too small for early detection by our ship’s radar.
The 340-foot cargo vessel pushed along at a steady 12 nautical miles per hour (almost 14 mph). It slowly rolled back and forth, 5 to 10 degrees off level, in the restless ocean.
“Jefe, this is ‘Beetlejuice,’” I radioed. “Comms check.”
Releasing the Motorola’s transmit button, I waited for my team leader (call sign El Jefe: the boss) to reply from his tiny cabin one deck below. It was 9 a.m., the start of my three-hour daywatch in our security team’s 24-hour coverage. Day 60 on the ship.
My duty station was outdoors on the navigation/bridge deck. Typically, I spent a few minutes on the port (left side) “wing”; then, I walked to the rear of the deck and stood by the sand-bag firing positions, watching the horizon astern; then, moved to the starboard wing.
The doorway to the wheelhouse was a few paces away. Inside the ship’s automated command center the duty officer, Eric, a 30-something Filipino, attended to his navigational and record-keeping tasks. Below me, on the main deck, a few of the crewmen performed their morning work.
The professional seamen were from the West African countries of Ghana and Sierra Leone. They wore white or orange coveralls and steel-toed boots. They paid little attention to the coils of rusted but razor-sharp concertina wire that stretched almost fully bow to stern along the port and starboard handrails. One of the guys -- either Joel or Mohammed, I couldn’t tell which under his hard hat -- looked up in my direction. I nodded and waved. He grinned and waved back.
I glanced at my digital wristwatch. The date was “10-31,” Halloween back in America -- goblins, ghouls, trick-or-treat. Out here in the internationally declared “High Risk Area” (HRA), there are real bogeymen.
They are skinny, desperate thugs with Soviet/Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic rifles, PKM machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. They live aboard crowded “mother ships” adrift in the shipping lanes or hiding around small islands, avoiding naval frigates and coastal-patrol boats, waiting to ambush undefended merchant vessels and hijack them for multimillion-dollar ransoms. Their attack skiffs, 20- to 25-foot motorboats, carry narrow ladders with hooks on the top for boarding cargo vessels -- like ours. The skiffs usually carry three to six pirates apiece.
“Beetlejuice, I hear you loud and clear,” the team leader (TL) radioed back after a few seconds. He was an ex-policeman from Del Rio, Texas, and a former homeland-security contractor.
“Hear you lima-charlie,” I replied, concluding the communications check. “Beetlejuice -- out.”
I did not come up with that radio call-sign for myself; rather, some comedian in the Operations Department at security contractor Espada Services in San Antonio apparently had spent too much time as a child watching silly movies like the dark comedy, “Beetlejuice.” It could have been worse, though. At least I hadn’t been christened “The Rookie” or “NUG” (new, useless guy).
A cut-throat business
A few days earlier, we had left the harbor at Mombasa, Kenya, after waiting there weeks to unload cargo. As we sailed away from the busy port in early afternoon, our four-man security team was “standing tall,” conspicuously posted (minus firearms) on the ship’s superstructure. Jefe wanted the Mombasa harbor spies to see us and phone or email Somalia with the sighting: This ship had security guards.
A confident, visible presence is a deterrent.
Months before I departed San Antonio on this 60-day (minimum) operational job, I had done some journalistic research into the embarked maritime-security field. There are at least 200 maritime-security (“marsec”) companies worldwide. The competition for international shipping-industry clients is fierce. More than half of the marsec companies are British.
Depending on whose figures you believe, fewer than half of the hundreds of merchant ships making the thousands of transits each year in and around the Indian Ocean employ armed security guards. It is from this undefended majority of vessels the Somali pirates want to take their prey. Some of these merchant ships, however, are so big the skiff-borne pirates cannot intimidate the captain and crew with bullets or RPGs, nor can they climb high enough to scramble aboard -- the colossal RORO (“roll-on, roll-off”) vehicle-transport ships come to mind.
Pirate recruits reportedly receive training at secret camps in Somalia. However, they are not military personnel steeled to the possibility of combat casualties; neither are they jihadists, co-religionists who are willing to die in order to kill infidels (as is the case with Al Shabaab, the African spinoff of Al Qaeda). Generally speaking, Somali pirates -- some, reportedly, as young as 13 -- are unwilling to get shot to earn a paycheck.
Marsec statistics show that no merchant ship in the HRA ever has been hijacked that had privately contracted, armed security personnel aboard -- a fact grudgingly acknowledged by UN, European Union (EU), and NATO officials.
The odds probably were 90 percent that I would not even see pirates on this job. But, the evil would be out there, nonetheless.
We test-fired our weapons off the poop deck during our first afternoon on the ship. Yellow balloons drifting in the big propeller’s wake were our targets. Some of the crewmen watched, fascinated, from two decks above. I squeezed off 16 rounds altogether and adjusted the rifle’s sights for a range of 300 meters.
No ‘Jack Sparrow’
The brutal business of Somali piracy initially was confined to the waters around the Horn of Africa. To be fair, it should be noted that foreigners helped create this scourge.
“The collapse of the Somali state in 1991 and the ensuing civil war meant that there were no official authorities to maintain the country’s sovereignty. Foreign vessels exploited the power vacuum by fishing illegally and by dumping toxic waste along the Somali coastline,” stated the book Coping With Capture, published in 2012 by the Danish Maritime Officers. “The original Somali pirates were groups of armed locals who ventured out to intercept and lay claim to the cargo (and other valuables) belonging to the foreign vessels. The groups adopted official-sounding names, such as National Volunteer Coast Guard, and used their self-proclaimed authority to hail and capture foreign vessels, which were often cargo ships unconnected with illegal fishing” in Somalia’s territorial waters.
“The pirates viewed themselves as patriots reclaiming some of the profit that had been stolen by the foreigners from the Somali people,” the hostage-survival handbook said.
Successful piracy off the Horn paid much better than fishing. The criminal enterprise flourished.
Further, a few years ago the Somali-piracy confederation took the quantum leap of hijacking fishing trawlers and dhows, sometimes keeping crews as hostage labor, and converting the stolen vessels to floating operational bases. These mother ships and their skiffs -- the official term for an operational unit is “Pirate Attack Group” -- began to range widely into the southern Red Sea (an area also worked by pirates from the Sudan, Yemen, and Eritrea), Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and Mozambique Channel, and across the Indian Ocean.
In 2011 -- not a peak year, either -- Somali pirates hijacked 28 merchant vessels in 237 attacks, according to maritime-industry statistics. Ransoms for the ships and multinational crews totaled at least $135 million. By 2011’s end, pirate gangs reportedly held a total of 1,026 hostages, a few of whom had been in captivity for more than two years. Try as they may, the world’s anti-piracy coalition naval forces cannot be everywhere, although since 2007, they have achieved some notable successes.
Meanwhile, Hollywood portrays fictional pirates of old as interesting, if not charming, rogues -- like actor Johnny Depp’s “Captain Jack Sparrow” in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Present-day pirates bear no resemblance to this likable scoundrel and deserve no bleeding-heart sympathy. Their documented mistreatment of hostage mariners -- most of whom are from countries like the Philippines, India, Kenya, and Thailand -- is harsh at best and lethal at worst.
Rarely are American or British seamen involved, though, so this awful situation has received little news coverage in the United States. One exception was the 2009 hijack of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, a container ship sailing to Mombasa. The outcome was highly atypical for HRA hijacks: Navy SEAL snipers killed the pirates holding the ship’s captain at gunpoint aboard an enclosed, motorized lifeboat and freed the mariner. (Soon to be a Tom Hanks movie.)
Pirate captivity aboard ship or on land in Somalia typically lasts months. Malnutrition, dehydration, and humiliation are among the least of the survival challenges faced by merchant mariners -- who are not military men trained at least minimally for a worst-case POW scenario.
And if pirate leaders’ long-distance ransom negotiations with ships’ owners and maritime-insurance corporations bog down, the on-site guards can become downright sadistic toward their helpless captives -- especially if the pirates have run out of their slightly narcotic chew, the African weed khat.
Some ex-hostages are so psychologically -- if not physically -- traumatized, they never can return to the sea. (My July 25 online article, “Survival as a Pirate Hostage,” describes the abuse. It is archived in the “News” section of the authoritative, British marsec website, OCEANUSLive.org.)
Read Part II of this series in the Jan. 9 issue of the Wilson County News.
Floresville-area writer Martin Kufus is a consultant to security contractor Espada Services, www.espadaservices.com and the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio. Kufus was the news editor and senior reporter at the Wilson County News from 1997 to 2002. Before that, the ex-paratrooper worked as the assistant editor of Soldier of Fortune magazine (1995-97) in Boulder, Colo.
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