Piracy... Why Are We Avoiding the 800lb Gorilla in the Room?

By MarEx 2012-12-18 14:14:00

By: Corey D. Ranslem

Although pirates have been plying the world’s oceans since the early days of shipping, modern day piracy is much more than the long-told tale of old when a pirate ship pulls alongside another vessel, enabling a few one-legged pirates with eye patches to swing onboard in an effort to pilfer money or goods.  Today, piracy is better understood as a growing and violent international crime that jeopardizes the shared economic security of all nations.  And pirates are better understood as members of organized criminal gangs with international backing through rogue states, organized crime groups, and terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda – criminal elements with proven interests in harming America and the world’s security. 

There are other differences as well.  Many pirate ships today still manage to sneak up on victim ships that did not see them coming, but they do it armed with RPGs and AK-47s.  Today, they not only steal goods, but they hold the crew, contents, and vessel ransom for millions of dollars (the last ransom paid to pirates was estimated to be close to $12 million USD).  The most active area for piracy is a region of operation extending from East Africa to India and south past the Seychelles Islands including the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean (an area of operation almost as large as the continental U.S).  While pirates still conduct random boardings, they also target ships for the best possible financial return – such as a Ukrainian ship captured with a cargo of weapons and Soviet-era tanks bound for south Sudan.   

Our interconnected global economy is built on the ability to safely and efficiently transport goods and products around the world – the loss of that capability endangers the economic welfare of all countries.   Worldwide shipping and economic experts believe that piracy is now costing the world economy at least $12 billion per year (greater than the GDP of more than 66 countries).  But the true cost could far exceed that estimate.  When pirates captured a Saudi supertanker loaded with two million barrels of crude oil, the value of oil went up a whole dollar in a few hours.  Although a large proportion of the world’s petroleum passes through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, some companies have ordered oil tankers to sail the entire way around Africa to avoid the risk, despite the increased cost and time.  Other shipping companies sail through risky areas, but do not report hijackings and ransoms paid for reputational and insurance rate purposes.  As this problem continues to grow, so too will the harm to the world’s shared economic security. 

In addition to economic security, piracy across the globe endangers national security at home. Today, it is not uncommon to find pirates with a political agenda and ties to terrorist groups.  Facing frozen funding across the globe, Islamic terrorists (including various al Qaeda affiliates) have concluded piracy provides a strong funding stream as well as the ability to impede global transport routes of many goods and products – particularly the supply of oil and gas.  Not only have attacks been made on U.S. vessels, such as the USS Cole and the Maersk Alabama, but al Qaeda continues to attempt acts of terrorism here at home – such as the Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest flight headed for Detroit in 2009, thwarted by passengers tackling the terrorist before he detonated the bomb inside his clothes.  Planning of this attack was linked to al Qaeda affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen.  Other pirates have formed organized crime syndicates and found backing by rogue states – other entities which pose grave danger to our national security.

Conferences, trade-shows, and piracy-related programs are popping up all over the world.  New “expert” companies are entering the market space weekly with the newest protective technology, chemical agents, or protective plan to repel pirate attacks.  Some work and others are dismal failures.  The maritime security industry continues to put a band-aide on a severed limb.  Experts and government officials meet regularly to determine how best to mitigate the threat of piracy but avoid the 800 pound gorilla in the room…the complete political instability and lawlessness in Somalia and surrounding countries.  Until this issue is addressed and solved, piracy will continue to escalate regardless of the measures taken by shipping companies, governments, and private security contractors. 

The approach to solving the piracy problem is going to involve worldwide public and private resources including military, law enforcement, and private security experts.  One obvious, but undesirable, solution is to stop paying the ransoms.  However, this would initially cause major loss of life for crew members, not to mention the loss of extremely expensive ships and cargo.  Ultimately, this would cause complete chaos in the shipping industry.     

Inserting naval forces has not worked because the naval forces have not been deployed properly.  Currently naval forces conduct patrols and provide escorts to ships through this region.  However, pirate attacks and successful hijackings continue to rise.  Governments have not used naval assets to blockade the Somali coast (naval blockades have been successful in past conflicts).  The successful defeat of piracy will involve a coordinated effort between naval forces and ground forces along with the cooperation of national and international law enforcement agencies. 

Governments and international law enforcement organizations need to freeze bank accounts associated with pirate support organizations and rogue states. They must issue legal and financial sanctions against groups and organizations whose support of ongoing pirate enterprises can be documented.  Pirates who are captured must be prosecuted despite the legal challenges and burdens that imposes.  Efforts must be increased to deal harshly with rogue states that support or turn a blind eye to piracy including international economic sanctions. 

Shipping and insurance companies must work with reputable security companies to develop and implement policies, plans and procedures for dealing effectively with piracy.  There are many ships that successfully avoid hijacking by developing, training, and implementing strong counter-piracy plans, while actively maintaining a good sense of maritime domain and situational awareness.  It seems obvious, but many fail to do this.  During the transit of high piracy areas, all available crew members should be stationed as look-outs and be supplemented by technology-based detection systems.  Additional contract security personnel should be considered to supplement crews of vessels carrying high value cargo, or those ships that are very slow moving or unable to readily alter course.  All vessels need to be in constant communication with the nearest naval assets and other coordinating authorities.  Threat intelligence is essential as well.  Shipping companies that put these measures in place have a much lower chance of being hijacked. 

By working together to form a well-planned, layered security and military approach, the worldwide epidemic of piracy can be effectively mitigated and our global economy and national security can be protected.


*Corey Ranslem is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Secure Waters Security Group, Inc. and a recognized maritime security expert.  Mr. Ranslem has worked in the public and private sector of maritime security for the past 16 years (eight of those years in the U.S. Coast Guard), focusing on worldwide port and maritime security.  For more information please contact Secure Waters Security Group, INC, www.securewaters.com or +1 786 390 0196.

**The Maritime Executive does not endorse or support any opinions in contributed editorial articles.