Piracy Threats as Seen Through the Eyes of the Beholder

By MarEx 2013-07-22 16:23:00

By Andrew Moulder, Former ONI Analyst

Special to Piracy Daily

As the threat posed by maritime piracy continues in several parts of the world, there is a growing debate among different governments, private sector analysts, non-governmental organization advocates and others about how bad the situation truly is; where and to whom it is the most challenging, what more needs to be done, and how much the private security industry actually benefits from this type of reporting.

Like the famous phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” different people find the same threats to be of varying degrees of worry. Yet the bottom line is that piracy’s frequency and growing transnational criminal reach, the people it hurts, and the impact on the trade and commerce that they prey upon means that professional analyses remaining holding the key to a common response.

One key area where various beholders cross their swords of opinion can be found the chat rooms and professional groups sustained on the Internet, be they by maritime professional organizations, or social sites like Linkedin.

Having been a counter-piracy analyst for the Department of Defense for more than six years, and now in my work for a private maritime security company (PMSC), many of the seemingly conflictive threat analyses make sense given the various perches from where they are written.

For example, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and other commercial reporting organizations do an excellent job at receiving reports directly from the vessels themselves and ensuring they are reported as soon as possible. Many government and non-government agencies alike look to these reports as great sources of information due to the intimate means of communication they have with the mariners out at sea.

However, sometimes looking at just the stats that they compose for their quarterly and yearly reports can be misleading without context. Many incidents go unreported due to some vessel owners not wanting to publicize that one of their own had an incident involving pirates. Other times, the vessel may be a local fishing trawler close to shore that is not even registered and when pirates hijack it with the intent of using it as a mother ship, no one is there to report it—or even realize that it is missing—until it is used by pirates to capture an even-larger vessel. Since the IMB can only report what they receive, you won’t find those numbers in their reporting.

On the other hand, many incidents reported are not always related to piracy. Many fishermen still like to navigate those waters in and around the Somali coast and often times will approach a passing vessel to protect their nets or may even tail the vessel for a time in the hopes of catching any potential fish left behind from the wake. These fishermen may also carry firearms with them as a means of protection which can often be misinterpreted by transiting vessels nearby. The IMB does a good job of acknowledging many of the reports as only suspicious approaches when no pirate related equipment was observed, but often times there may not be enough sufficient evidence to support either way.

Government organizations such as NAVCENT and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) can usually provide additional insight to each incident by using various sources of analysis and can give more accurate statistical data. But just like the IMB and other commercial organizations, the lack of reporting can still make providing accurate information very difficult.

Many in the shipping industry believe that some PMSCs use this type of statistical data to their advantage by providing their own analysis to support the need for their services. Obviously, PMSCs benefit from this type of reporting; it would be naive to think otherwise. But even back in 2009 and 2010, when Somali piracy was at its worst, less than one percent of vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden were attacked. Those are extremely low odds of a vessel getting hijacked, but the perception was always much higher because no one ever reports a safe transit. As a result, companies, and especially insurers, now just do not want to take that chance, even with the number of hijackings off the Horn of Africa down to practically zero. However, it needs to be noted that it is not the PMSCs that are telling them they need armed guards embarked on their vessels; rather, it is the insurers or the charterers.

That one often-repeated statement—"No vessel with armed security has ever been hijacked by Somali pirates"—has become the biggest advertisement/marketing tool you could ever have for the PMSC community (not to mention the fact that it is free) is all that really matters in their eyes.

Plus, the decision to hire a PMSC is made before they ever contact one, and it should be noted that any intelligence reports they read that influences their initial decision likely did not come from a PMSC. The bottom line: A company’s CSO whose only inputs come from a PMSC vendor telling him/her that s/he needs to embark armed security on her/his vessel probably is not a very prosperous CSO anyway.

As the senior threat analyst for the AdvanFort Company, I compose a pre-transit risk assessment for each one of our client vessels, tailored to their exact route in order to include all factors ... weather (monsoon seasons), lunar phase for night transits, historical analysis of previous attacks in the vicinity of their route over the past 30 to 60 days, as well as historical data of attacks along that route in previous years.

If I assess a minimal threat during a transit, it is my job to inform them of that. But I also put at their disposal all the resources and knowledge that I can for them to use. And if they feel that the next time around they won't need armed security for that same transit based on the information I have provided them, then that is the decision they can make with confidence. 

Critics of the PMSC community are right that many companies put out these reports to show off their "intelligence skills" when really they are just using basic summaries of recent attacks; this is true in both West and East Africa. Reading through several different ones, one finds that they all look basically the same.

In putting out AdvanFort’s weekly report that I’ve gleaned from various sources— including ONI and the IMB—I work overtime to ensure that the final product cannot be seen as merely meant to scare or advertise, but rather to inform. In fact, most of the time I tend to downplay most of the so-called attacks that have occurred recently; basically trying to apply my skills as an intelligence analyst to our corporate and other friends and colleagues, but on a much smaller scale, of course. 

As the senior analyst at AdvanFort's Threat Analysis Center, Andrew Moulder, a former armed crime/piracy analyst for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), heads the company's research department.