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African piracy - a modern-day scourge, part 2
The French frigate, Dupleix, rests at berth in a south Indian Ocean port. The vessel is part of the European Union’s anti-piracy force.
Wilson County NewsJanuary 9, 2013 2,952 views Post a comment
In this second article in a two-part series, former Wilson County News Editor Martin Kufus shares his experience of providing security for a ship off the east coast of Africa. In Part I, Kufus introduced the team leader, radio call sign “Jefe,” and some background about the rise of piracy by Somalis, following the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. Modern-day pirates, Kufus wrote, are nothing akin to “Jack Sparrow,” the lovable rogue of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame.
Before I took this temporary job of guarding a cargo ship against Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean, there were no faces or names -- just maritime statistics. Now, it was personal for me.
Ibrahim, Mohammed, Mohamed, Joel, Obah, Eric, Felix, Pierre, “Chef” the cook, the Captain, the ship’s six other officers and seamen -- all were our security team’s responsibility. We ate the same food (Chef’s menu featured lots and lots of white rice), lived in the same little single-occupant rooms in the accommodations area, and participated in the same emergency drills as the crew. English is the official, required language of the international shipping industry, so we conversed. Our team became part of the crew -- up to a point.
Many merchant mariners in the High Risk Area (HRA) nowadays insist on sailing with security personnel, Jefe told me. Several of the crewmen told me they felt better having armed guards aboard.
One of the “ABs” (able-bodied seaman) said he had been on another ship about three years ago, in transit to Egypt from Malaysia, and watched a hijack: In the Gulf of Aden, his cargo ship joined a convoy being formed under escort by two naval vessels, one in front and one in the rear. Motorboats suddenly appeared, he recalled, and sped in between the big ships. The naval forces could not react fast enough. The pirates boarded a merchant ship in the middle of the formation.
“Once they’re on board, it’s too late,” said the AB, from Sierra Leone. Hostages at gunpoint trumped warships on station.
The international anti-piracy coalition, of which the U.S. Navy is a member, has gotten much better at intercepting Pirate Attack Groups. I saw some of this international naval muscle during our various transits: the German frigate Sachsen, the French frigate Dupleix, and the Indian frigate Delhi.
Over my dead body
According to marsec (maritime security) reports, a frigate confronting a suspected pirate vessel typically puts assault boats into the water with marines and/or specially trained sailors who board the vessel and make arrests, if necessary -- all under the intimidating cover of the warship’s main gun.
Still, the navies of the world do not have enough ships -- do not have the budgets -- to be everywhere the Somali pirates might pop up. So, the maritime industry has had to overcome its dislike of firearms aboard merchant ships. The result: No merchant ship with armed guards ever has been hijacked by Somali pirates.
Over my dead body -- literally --and those of my teammates would this ship and crew become a 2012 hijack statistic. It would not be a soft target for capture by khat-chewing thugs from the failed state that brought us “Black Hawk Down.”
A battle rifle, its curved magazine holding 30 rounds of ammunition, hung comfortably from my left shoulder. While I was on duty, the weapon never left my side (a habit drilled into my head half a lifetime ago in U.S. Army Ranger school). My OD-green tactical vest carried more ammunition, a scabbard knife, bandage and tourniquet, and ocean-survival gear. My German-made Kevlar helmet sat nearby. Our team’s medical trauma bag was parked in a corner of the wheelhouse, along with extra ammunition.
If I spotted incoming attack skiffs, all I had to do was push the radio’s emergency button and then say “pirates” three times -- not “Beetlejuice” (my radio tag) -- and Jefe and team members Fernando and Karu (ex-infantrymen from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, respectively) would join me in less than a minute. It didn’t matter if one of us guys, maybe just awakened in his sleep cycle, showed up in boxer shorts and flip-flop sandals as long as he had his rifle, ammunition, and radio, Jefe said.
Merchant ships vulnerable to pirate hijack nowadays have below-deck refuges called “safe rooms” or “citadels.”
Depending on the ship’s pirate-attack plan, alarms sound and crewmen assemble in the citadel -- often, proximate with the engine room -- and wait for the officers to join them. The captain and duty officer (probably, by now, wearing Kevlar helmets and body armor) would radio distress calls to High Risk Area (HRA) naval-security centers, put the ship on “auto pilot,” and evacuate the wheelhouse. Or, they might stay at the helm, putting the ship in a zigzag maneuver, which, although slower than a straight-line course, would generate large wakes to impede pirates’ boarding attempts.
If the officers and crewmen locked themselves in the citadel, alternate controls there would thwart the pirates, who would make a beeline for the wheelhouse but typically do not know how to pilot a big ship. When the steel door of the citadel bangs shut, it is not unlocked until the pirates are gone -- or is blown open by pirates’ explosives, if naval rescue is delayed.
During my first daywatch in our first transit, the Captain called a wheelhouse meeting for the crew.
In Philippine-accented English, he read a checklist of worst-case actions to be taken just before pirates boarded the ship. At some point, he said, the security team would join the crew in the citadel. I discreetly shook my head “no.” The Captain couldn’t see me, but some of the dozen crewmen noticed. In a few minutes, El Jefe tactfully corrected the error.
“We won’t be joining you in the citadel,” he told the wheelhouse gathering. “Our job is to protect the crew” -- he pointed at all of the men, for effect -- “then the ship, and next, its cargo. My team will fight to the death.”
Jefe turned to the Captain. “Do not slow down, Sir. Do not be intimidated by the pirates -- even if they shoot at the wheelhouse.
“Do not stop the ship,” the team leader concluded. The Captain nodded. He understood the plan. So did the crew.
Rules of engagement
A marsec team in the HRA cannot just open fire on an incoming boat that looks suspicious. There are maritime laws and rules of engagement; certain actions have been taken first. Marsec is not a job for the trigger-happy or impatient.
Throughout the region, legitimate fishermen use skiffs with large outboard motors. Fishermen also pack Kalashnikov rifles -- to protect their own boats against pirates. Fishermen might steer their skiff toward a merchant ship -- to try to make the large vessel change course and not run over unseen fishing nets or lines ahead.
Fishermen, however, do not carry RPG-7s, belt-fed machine guns, and long ladders or climbing poles. They also do not “swarm” a cargo ship with several motorboats. (News-service photographs of pirates, their weapons, and some hostages accompany my June 28 online article, “Ransoms or no ransoms? U.K. Parliament debates a core issue of Somali piracy,” archived at Tactical-Life.com.)
A lookout, whether crewman or security guard, typically will see an incoming skiff at a range of several miles. (There never has been a confirmed, nighttime attack in the HRA. Nonetheless, many ships run with only navigational lights on at night, keeping windows and external doors cloaked.) The ship’s X- or S-band radar might already have detected the small boat and its wake farther out than that; an aluminum hull would reflect radar waves better than wood or fiberglass.
By the time the skiff is about 500 yards away, observers will have binoculars trained on it, looking for telltale ladders and multiple weapons. The marsec team can try to “wave away” the suspicious boat. If that doesn’t work, the team’s leader or designated sharpshooter fires warning shots to the left or right of the boat. Of course, if the skiff’s occupants open fire at the ship at any time, restraint ceases.
El Jefe was on two Espada jobs in which shots were fired. Both occurred in 2011.
In one incident, the team was guarding a bulk-carrier vessel in the Arabian Sea near Oman. A single skiff with up to a half-dozen pirates carrying AK-47 or AKMS rifles attempted to intercept the big ship, which was hauling grain or fertilizer. In the other incident, the team was guarding a hazardous-material carrier coming from Oman. Two skiffs with rifle-armed pirates approached the ship “in the middle of the Indian Ocean,” he said.
In both incidents, warning shots chased away the pirates, Jefe recalled, but “it was kinda at the point [that] if they didn’t turn around, we’d start putting rounds into the skiffs.”
On this job, however, the team leader did not have to fire any warning shots. My ammunition expenditure held at 16 rounds (in test fire of my rifle). The pirates did not come around our ship; they were somewhere else in the High Risk Area.
That our transits in the southern Indian Ocean were uneventful, security-wise, was just fine with the captain and crew. And if they were happy, so were we.
I just don’t want to eat any white rice again for a while.
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.
Part I of this article, published in the Jan. 2 Wilson County News, stated the Kalashnikov (AK) rifles and the PKM machine guns used by Somali pirates “fire the same” ammunition. Although the diameter of the bullets is the same, rated at 7.62 millimeters (mm), the weapons use different-sized cartridges. The rifle cartridges are 39 mm in length, while the machine-gun cartridges are 54 mm in length. The longer cartridge provides a more powerful round that gives the PKM a longer range than the AK rifle.
The caption for one of the photos in Part I of this story referenced two mannequins standing “guard duty.” The photo shows actual ship’s crewmen placing concertina wire to discourage pirates.
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