Edited 12/20/2014 to update website link.
Each day there seems to be new reports of piracy near the coast of Somalia. The pirates have learned over time that a hostile takeover of an unwitting crew and cargo is big business. With each successful attack, they get their prize – ransom.
In the past, smaller cargo and fishing vessels transiting isolated shipping lanes along the coast were easy targets by pirates concealed by a variety of unprotected inlets. Criminal organizations behind piracy attacks continued filling their coffers with ransom payments. As commercial shippers sought safer passage, they began transiting further from the dangerous waters known for attacks. The pirates looking for their prey now began traveling further out to sea for the hunt. By doing so, they found bigger, more lucrative vessels…and unprotected targets of opportunity.
The International Maritime Bureau reports a, “dramatic increase in attacks of piracy for the first nine months of 2008.” The heightened number of piracy incidents is attributed to instability in the region, particularly the hazardous waters of the Gulf of Aden and the East coast of Somalia. The region faces continual political disorder with no indicator that anyone in power will challenge organized crime groups attacking vessels in the region. Incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia are directly proportional to the political environment.
During the summer of 2006, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) came to power in Somalia. Immediately afterward, the UIC announced they would punish those engaged in piracy according to Sharia law.
For a time the incidents ceased, until pirates struck the United Arab Emirates cargo ship, MV Veesham I. A small boat with six pirates boarded and took control of the cargo ship shortly after leaving port. Initially the pirates demanded a $1 million ransom; negotiations lowered the amount to $150,000. The UIC in response, set to sea in small boats, recaptured the vessel and rescued the crew after a gun battle with the pirates.
The UIC withstood the challenge to their authority. Unfortunately, the success was short-lived. One month later, Ethiopian forces entered Somalia gaining political control of the country. They pushed the UIC out of power. With the UIC gone, the organized gangs of pirates no longer feared governmental retribution for their offshore attacks. Offshore piracy assaults continued again.
Rules of Engagement
Recently, I was asked a variety of questions related to the “Rules of Engagement” for the protection of cargo vessels transiting piracy-prone areas. Discussions with a variety of law enforcement and security professionals indicated they had the same questions. Given that, here’s an attempt to clarify the options available for commercial shippers transiting the area. The answers below apply to U.S. mariners sailing under a Merchant Mariners’ Document (MMD) or USCG License.
Question: It seems that pirates have no difficulty these days jumping onto a cargo ship; can the crew shoot back at them?
Generally, that’s a bad idea. If the crew were to engage in an at-sea firefight, the pirate is more agile and difficult to hit. If a crew starts shooting, it is likely the pirates will make a choice: leave or shoot back.
As I describe in my book, “Terrorism and the Maritime Transportation System” the weapon of choice for pirates are AK-47 assault rifles and Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPG). If attacked by an RPG, the ship becomes vulnerable to fire and no sailor wants to face such a calamity at sea. If a ship burns, there’s nowhere to go. When combating a fire, the ship must stop otherwise the prevailing wind caused by forward motion of the vessel feeds the fire, making matters worse. The Captain generally has two choices: risk catastrophic damage to the vessel, risk crew safety and stop, or, protect the ship and stop. A minimal crew with no security protection stands little chance of successfully fighting a fire and out maneuvering a smaller, faster boat armed with weapons. The ship will always stop and the pirates know that.
Question: Is the crew allowed to carry firearms in a cargo ship?
Title 46 of United States Code applies to U.S. Merchant Mariners. There is no provision within the code allowing crew to carry firearms. In fact, mariners are subject to standing regulations defined by the Master of the vessel. Typically, prohibitions include drugs, alcohol and weapons being brought aboard the vessel. Violations can result in punitive measures, including a charge of misconduct resulting in suspension or revocation of their license or document as noted in 46 U.S. Code § 7703, “Bases for suspension or revocation. “
Additionally, the regulation pertaining to Personnel Action against mariners is included in 46 Code of Federal Regulations 5.27:
“Misconduct is human behavior which violates some formal, duly established rule. Such rules are found in, among other places, statutes, regulations, the common law, the general maritime law, a ship’s regulation or order, or shipping articles and similar sources. It is an act which is forbidden or a failure to do that which is required.”
That’s the long answer. The short answer is: No.
Question: I understand that if the pirate attack happens within territorial waters, the ship captain cannot take matters on his own hands but depends on the navy of the country guarding that coast. Is this correct?
One of the reasons that piracy is so rampant near the coast of Somalia, Nigeria and the Gulf of Aden is that there are few security resources available to protect a vessel. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) established a Maritime Security Patrol Area with the intent of discouraging attacks against vessels transiting the area. There are few resources available with a large body of water. I remember many U.S. Coast Guard patrols when we were searching for survivors from a marine casualty, drug smugglers or migrant traffickers. There were times when we knew of a last location or intelligence may have provided an intended track line for smugglers. Many times, we were successful; other times not. A body of water seems very large when searching for a small boat.
In August of this year, the USS Peleliu received a distress from the Singaporean cargo ship, Gem of Kilakarai. The naval ship was outfitted with a contingent of U.S. Marine helicopters from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The Marines launched two aircraft and chased the pirates away. While the Navy and Marine Corps did an excellent job, it’s important to note that the piracy attempt was only 10-miles from the ship. The favorable results came from quick notification and the close location.
Another issue deals with territorial waters. The U.S. or other allied vessels will not engage unless fired upon, or given specific permission to conduct law enforcement missions within their waters. Just as the U.S respects our own territorial boundaries, we must respect those of other nations. For those incidents occurring within territorial waters, there are many times no resources to help.
Question: What are the rules of engagement for private cargo ships?
Given that the crews of cargo ships are exempt from carrying weapons according to U.S. law, the remaining options are to use non-lethal force or hire private security. Crews can use a variety of sonic guns, water cannons, etc. These have some value but still, the pirates can often out maneuver a larger vessel and attempt to climb aboard in a place outside the range/bearing of the gun. Personally, I would consider coating a portion of the decks where a pirate would likely climb aboard with a thick, biodegradable coating of lard. Once someone slips and falls in that mess, they can be an easy target to take them down. The other option of course is to hire private security protection. Remembering the points I made earlier about RPG’s and fire at sea, private security professionals must consider specific tactical options.
When pirates attack, it impacts the global economy. Ships are detained or stolen, crews are injured and sometimes killed and cargoes are lost. With each incident, maritime shipping firms are faced with cargo losses and the payout of high ransoms. Sometimes attacks are not reported attempting to prevent maritime insurers from raising already expensive premiums. In the end, confidence of safe global shipping is in jeopardy.
Pirates making millions each year continue to buy weapons and new communications technologies to build upon their organized crime network. As these networks grow, their logistical and internal intelligence capability increases. Over time, there are more loyal to the network than those seeking to prevent attacks. The same methodology continues much like organized drug and alien smuggling operations have for years. Terrorist organizations operate the same way. According to a Washington DC-based think tank, they say there is no link between piracy and terrorism. I disagree; but that’s ok. We need to look at each problem from every direction and sometimes collaboratively seek viable options. Piracy is seriously impacting the global economy in a negative way.
Perhaps the rules of engagement should be revisited.