Picking Off Prominent Picaroons

By MarEx 2012-06-27 16:46:32

Rewarding mutineers could be the best way to capture their leaders.

By Timothy Coleman & Brittany Minder

Escalating maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa and throughout the world’s vital shipping lanes and strategic chokepoints is a modern-day plague with an elusive framework. Failed states and lawless regions around the world, like Somalia, serve as breeding grounds for illicit and illegitimate industries. Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that ungoverned ocean space perpetuates and compounds incidents of piracy and exacerbates the challenges facing maritime security efforts.

Despite the difficult circumstances, there has been intensified international effort to thwart piracy over the past few years. Global navies have increased deployments and beefed up patrols in high-priority, high-risk areas. In January the International Maritime Bureau reported that the total number of recorded piracy incidents had decreased slightly from 445 in 2010 to 439 in 2011. The reality, though, is that a 1.3 percent decline in incident rate, especially given the increased outlay of resources, certainly isn’t substantial or noteworthy.

A significant event took place recently, however, that will spur the international community to make substantive inroads with counter-piracy efforts. This development hopefully lays the groundwork for a new mechanism to combat modern-day piracy that will likely create a more holistic framework for global maritime security.

Captured: Mohamed Garad
On April 12, AfricaReview reported that one of the world’s most wanted pirates, the infamous Mohamed Garad, was captured by Iranian commandos in the Sea of Oman. Andrew Mwangura, Coordinator of the East African Seafarers Association, observed, “To experts and those who knew Garad, he was like Carlos the Jackal in the crime world and Dedan Kimathi to the British colonialists, mysterious and never easy to capture.” A former British soldier, the elusive Garad had been on the run for decades, finding a safe haven for his piracy operations in Somalia.

Garad’s arrest is welcome news, but it’s just a start. It wouldn't be surprising if a new leader emerged in his place from the organization he left behind. A down-but-not-out organization seems a more likely scenario than a snake that’s been decapitated. Nevertheless, even with one major player temporarily sidelined, the need to enhance counter-piracy efforts is more urgent than ever.

For over 60 years the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization has been leading the discussion on safety and security within the global shipping industry. In its recent 34-page report, “High-Level Action Plan of the Organization and Priorities for the 2012-2013 Biennium,” there are only 15 mentions of the term “piracy.” Given the nature and economic cost of international piracy, the focus of the report is disappointing, especially when it urges the international community to “promulgate information on prevention and suppression [of piracy]” and to “assist developing countries in their introduction and implementation of effective measures against piracy.” While building a consensus and policy structure is useful, it shouldn't take the form of platitudinous aspirations, nor 60 plus years to arrive.

This critique of the international community is not meant to downplay the concrete actions that have been taken by individual nations willing to expend resources to interdict and deter. An individual assault on this international problem, however, is costly and wholly ineffectual.

An Evolving Threat
While it is impossible to guarantee the safety of all the world’s shipping lanes, deploying naval assets is a good first start. Massive resources, though, are being expended to find a grain of sand in an ocean of oceans. In many instances, it is happenstance that naval assets are in the right place at the right time and close enough to respond to a ship’s distress call. As piracy operations grow more sophisticated and these groups continue to adopt new tactics and technology, the strategy of using finite naval assets to combat the problem is a losing proposition.

These shortcomings were evidenced just two days after Garad’s capture when Reuters reported that “Somali pirates have acquired sophisticated weaponry, including mines and shoulder-held missile launchers from Libya, and are likely to use them in bolder attacks on shipping.”  With such weaponry landing in the lap of malignant organizations, it is not a leap to imagine a scenario in which pirates could threaten or actually deploy recently acquired naval mines such that even a naval vessel’s countermeasures could be blunted.

Having the technical proficiency and skills to use these devices is only one part of the equation. If the mines accidentally go off aboard a pirate-commandeered oil tanker, the implications stretch beyond the loss of life. Given the threat of a massive oil spill, pirates have a new deterrence mechanism against interdicting naval forces. Whether the threat is real and genuine quickly becomes moot since prudent naval captains are unlikely to dismiss it.

As the Reuters article notes, with 2.5 million square miles of target-rich ocean off the Gulf of Aden alone, piracy pays handsomely. Opportunities for a payday abound for any motivated group of individuals with a few AK-47s and a boat that outruns a lumbering shipping vessel. Ultimately, the global economy bears the brunt of such attacks as piracy is costs an estimated $7 to $12 billion in terms of ransom payments and higher shipping expenses.  As such, the economic and monetary incentive for piracy is patently clear.

Rewards for Justice
As the flipside to this equation, an economic offensive has been initiated in the U.S. Since 1984, the country has leveraged the worldwide Rewards for Justice program to capture over 70 priority terrorists while doling out nearly $100 million in reward payments. Given the huge cost assumed by countries deploying naval assets to monitor and patrol elevated piracy threat zones, plus the monetary losses incurred by insurance companies and the shipping industry at large, it would seem logical to create an international fund to bring the most wanted and elusive pirates to justice. This program, however, appears to be going largely underutilized.

Like any complex international problem that grows with each new solution, piracy has proved to be increasingly invasive, like a cockroach withstanding the tests of time and evolving into the technological era. The nature of the species has not changed, however. Within it, the propensity to devolve and revert back to its roots and evil penchants remains. The directed solutions of naval and international combatance using technological means may prove to be ineffectual and a Bermuda Triangle-esque money vacuum.

Yet just as the nature of pirates has helped them thrive and survive, so too can it be used against them. The idea is to use the prospect of massive financial gain as an incentive for mutiny and the resultant capture of the pirate leader. Though targeting leaders may not destroy a pirate organization, it will upend its current path, possibly causing it to adopt a less experienced leader likely to make mistakes culminating in its demise. 

As the U.S.’s Rewards for Justice program attests, offering a monetary reward for the capture of high-value targets is an efficient and cost-effective means to address one aspect of the larger problem. A rewards program plays at the core of pirate-hood: harvesting money and means in a lawless inversion of virtue, an international language of “pay to mutiny” of sorts. A huge payday, likely larger than any they would reap otherwise and with little external risk, could draw on the very motives that attract people to piracy in the first place. Let the nature of the beast betray its mission. – MarEx 

Timothy W. Coleman is the co-founder of two security-focused technology startup firms. He currently serves as Director of Communications at the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization. Brittany Minder is a Public & External Affairs Associate at the Center.