Counter-Piracy Pioneer Talks West African Challenges
By Martin Edwin Andersen, Editor in Chief, Piracy Daily
Like that of Captain Richard Phillips, the name of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral (Ret.) Terence E. “Terry” McKnight is famously synonymous with the importance of combating piracy and other international maritime crime. The pioneering U.S. Commander of Task Force 151 off the coast of Somalia, the author of the book Pirate Alley took some time from his busy schedule to meet with Piracy Daily at the Army and Navy Club in downtown Washington. There he held forth on the challenges now faced off West Africa; questions about the questionable wisdom of rolling back U.S. government maritime security expenditures, as well as the problems posed to private sector solutions by the use of so-called “floating armories” and by other counter-piracy responses. Here is part of that discussion:
Andersen: This latest reported kidnapping has brought maritime piracy back to the front pages, perhaps because they are American citizens. Do you think the situation today in West Africa has become significantly worse, or do you think this current interest is more the result of greater press coverage of a long-time problem?
McKnight: I think the answer is that it was something that was going to happen. I think it was only a matter of time before they went after Americans—kidnapping has been going on there for years and years and years.
I don’t think piracy will ever reach the magnitude again as it had in Somalia in 2008 through 2012. It was just an anomaly to the system. But the problem is that, whenever you have money you can have piracy, and as long as ships go to sea, you are going to have piracy.
I think these guys were targeted, they said that they were Americans; Americans are going to tend to pay the ransom, so they went after them. You know, it is overused but it was ‘the perfect storm’ because they went after them and said, “Okay, let’s go get them.”
The other problem is that, while in the Gulf of Aden we have the naval presence there, there has been virtually no naval presence in West Africa. Do you need a task force down there? No, I don’t think you need a task force, but if you just have ships come through there, if you show the flag—whether it is the Dutch flag, or the U.S. flag, something—show that there is interest of these navies, that you want to protect the free flow of trade around the world. If these pirates see these people out there, maybe they will think twice before they go out.
Andersen: Do you think that the U.S. Coast Guard has a specific, more important role than they have had in the Gulf of Aden because of the nature of the littoral states of West Africa?
McKnight: I have always said that really this is a Coast Guard mission, because (counter) piracy is a law enforcement mission. The problem is, if you think the U.S. Navy is struggling with resources and assets right now, the U.S. Coast Guard is really struggling. So it would be ideal to have the Coast Guard over there; they understand boardings, they understand the law of the sea, but they just don’t have the assets to be over there.
Andersen: That brings us to the question of private maritime security companies (PMSCs). We’ve seen a certain reluctance, particularly on the part of the Nigerians, to let foreign companies in. You have noted the importance of PMSCs in the Gulf of Aden. What do you think should be their role in West Africa?
McKnight: When you look at the triangle of the navies, the commercial (sector) and the private security companies all working together—(the latter) face so many requirements from host countries that keep them from going in there.
When I was out doing counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden in 2009, this was one of the problems. A lot of people were saying “I can do this, I can do this.” But then you would ask, “Okay, where do you load the security teams?” And in 2009, you couldn’t have an armed security team come through the Suez Canal. Now they have relaxed that a little bit, but you still cannot bring an armed security team into a Saudi port, so you have to go and off-load them someplace else. So there has to be security barges (floating armories) out there floating around with these armed security teams. So having one in Nigeria, if they can’t come in to resupply or offload, that’s a problem.
I think it has to be part of the discussion with host countries. …
Andersen: Earlier this week, Interpol, the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime came out with a report about what really has been going on behind the scenes in the Gulf of Aden. Given your central role at the time, was this information basically available to our intelligence communities and other ways, or is what is now reported significantly different than what was known at that point and, if so, what would those differences be?
McKnight: I think what is now in the open press was basically kept the secret, or classified, realm. We had a pretty good understanding, and the Office of Naval Intelligence … had a pretty good understanding who the pirate lords were, how they were operating, where the funds were going, who is getting the funds. So I think we always had a pretty good handle, but what was going on and how it was all being worked—we didn’t have the assets or the desire to go ashore and go after these different clan leaders.
Everyone wants to know how do you stop piracy. Well one of the ways is paying ransoms with U.S. funds, because that is all that they want. They don’t want euros, or dinars, or anything like that. They want U.S. dollars. So if we stop the flow of U.S. dollars, we can basically slow down piracy. …
We pretty much know where the payments are going, its just having the assets to go after on a world scale to stop it.
Andersen: We’ve talked before about the problem and need for analysis of culture in combating piracy—the anthropological view of what the adversary is all about and how to stop him. Looking at the situation in West Africa, it would seem to me that, with the different peoples of that region, this would be all the more important. Do you think that right now U.S. and other navy forces that may become involved have the structure in place needed to get and analyze that information in a timely fashion?
McKnight: I think the quick answer to that is, “no.” The learning curve that we have had, whether it is in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and now Nigeria, it is understanding the cultures of how these people operate. In Iraq and Afghanistan we said, “Okay, let’s try to set up a functionally stable government. We did it in the United States, why can’t these people do it now?” Understanding the societies and how they work … in Afghanistan, like a lot of Middle Eastern countries, have clan-based societies, not a central government. They don’t understand (the concept of) central government, they don’t have roads—you know, “all roads lead to Kabul,” or wherever. That’s foreign to them and building that infrastructure is very hard. We need to have a base of officers and enlisted people who have an understanding of every region. We stood up AFRICOM and hopefully they have some foreign area experts who understand that region and will be able to provide support people who go in there.
Andersen: Floating armories have become a real issue, putting countries that are otherwise allies into dispute as to what the possibilities are and how they should be regulated. For example, the situation in India with the SEAMAN GUARD OHIO—what’s your thoughts on that?
McKnight: This is something that the world communities have got to get a handle on. We know we want to stop piracy. We know we don’t have enough naval ships out there to protect all the fleets—so we have these armed security teams. So, how do we now implement them? If we have all these restrictions, then they can’t do it. We’ve seen the success story that, since 2009 and the arrival of these security teams, there has not been a ship hijacked yet that has had an armed security team. So it is a success story. So (we need to) take that success and figure out how do we organize these teams so that the host country has some say in it and also, that we protect the crew that man the ships.
Andersen: In the case of the SG OHIO there seems to be quite a bit of xenophobia or ultranationalism on the part of a lot of the commentators in India. Does that surprise you?
McKnight: No, none whatsoever. I think if you had piracy in the Caribbean you’d see the same thing from the United States. … It like the [Thomas L. Friedman] book, The World is Flat; how can we allow all this trade—95 percent of what we buy in the store comes across the sea—so how do we allow this free flow of commerce across the sea and also protect how it is floated across the sea, from piracy or from terrorist organizations.
Andersen: AdvanFort International is the company that created this Offshore Support Vessel (OSV) concept as a way of getting away from using floating armories. Yet, they have to defend themselves from the accusation that the SG OHIO is a floating armory. …
McKnight: I think we have to look at each company and how they regulate (themselves). If it is an armory that floating out there: how is it regulated, how is it protected? Are we following the law of the sea and other regulations, with an appreciation of the host countries out there. Whether through the contact groups or whatever, everybody has to get together and (determine) the way it should be operated. Just like when you drive your car in the state of Virginia, there are different regulations than when you drive in the state of Maryland—but there are also universal laws that everybody has to obey. …
I think (AdvanFort) was obeying the general understanding of the law.
Andersen: Ironically, at the time the SG OHIO crew and guards were detained, the movie “Captain Phillips” was debuting in theatres around the United States. You’ve seen the movie now twice. What did you think?
McKnight: I think it is a great movie. It is very intense. I think it is about the 65/70 percent solution. When I saw the premier the producer stood up and said: “Look, we’re not here to write history; it’s a movie.” I think it does a great job showing the U.S. Navy in action. It is very entertaining. I really enjoyed the ‘pirates’—I mean, they really, really were very good and they looked the part. Having first-hand experience of being up close and personal to a pirate from Somalia, these guys portrayed Somali pirates very well.
Andersen: Oftentimes there are those in Hollywood who like to present their work as a civic education tool. How do you think ‘Captain Phillips’ played in that way and what more do you think might be needed now that the focus is on West Africa and other places.
McKnight: Everyone needs to understand that piracy is a problem on the high seas. It is going to continue to because there is going to be more trade and it is going to continue to grow. Piracy is not just the Johnny Depp-type of piracy; there is real action out there at sea, and the sad part about it is that the defense budgets in all the major maritime powers are going down, while world trade is going up and will continue to go up.
There has to be an understanding that world is not safer and if we want to continue—whether in hot spots (like) the Gulf of Aden or off Nigeria—we have to make sure we have the navies out there showing some form of presence to keep our mariners safe and the free flow of trade going across the world.
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