New U.S. counterpiracy plan gets mixed reviews from MM&P, Capt. Phillips


The following is the text of a news release from World Satellite Television News:

(WASHINGTON) (July 6) — The White House unveiled a new policy to combat maritime piracy that recommends diplomatic strategies and alludes to possible military action to destroy buccaneer bases, which the nation’s leading merchant marine organization and the world’s most-famous mariner applaud but also criticize.

The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots is the oldest and most-prestigious professional maritime officers’ union. Its best-known member is Capt. Richard Phillips — namesake of the Oscar-nominated high-seas piracy motion picture drama, starring actor Tom Hanks.

“The June 2014 United States Counter Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan is the first initiative in seven years that charts a new course for eliminating at-sea outlaws,” says MM&P’s Phillips. “It is time to zero in on the pirates’ nests and eradicate them.”

Phillips was held hostage by Somali pirates after they hijacked the ship he commanded, the Maersk Alabama, while sailing the Indian Ocean in April 2009. He was held hostage in a life boat for five days until U.S. Navy Seal snipers killed his captors.

The new White House Plan highlights, “Pirates require land-based support and access to weapons to commit acts of violence. Piracy at sea can only be reduced if pirate bases ashore are disrupted or dismantled. U.N. Security Council resolutions confer the authority to take all appropriate measures to end piracy, including operations in the littoral and land territory of Somalia. As such, the United States will work with other governments and international organizations to disrupt and dismantle pirate bases to the fullest extent permitted by U.S. and international law.”

Phillips emphasizes, “The governments of most of the countries where pirates operate neither have the strong will nor resources to mount campaigns against these criminals. Therefore, the onus is on the world’s industrialized nations to dedicate assets and attention to combat piracy as are afforded to the war on terrorism.”

He asks the question, “What will it take to evoke the U.N. Security Council resolutions and finally, aggressively pursue pirates in domestic territorial waters and inland?”

MM&P senior adviser, Capt. James Staples, one of the world’s foremost anti-piracy and ship security training experts, explains, “People are being killed, kidnapped and tortured. Ships are being hijacked. Cargo is being stolen. International trade is being disrupted. The ramifications of piracy are deadly and costly.”

Staples and Phillips are longtime friends, sea-faring colleagues and classmates at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. They both agree, “The solution is surgical strikes on pirate bases.”

MM&P’s chief of staff, Capt. Klaus Luhta, points out, “Unlike the 2007 White House counterpiracy policy, the Obama administration’s new plan does not specify that piracy is a threat to America’s national security interests.” He continues, “When piracy is deemed a threat to national security interests that allows for immense presidential latitude, including military action.”

Luhta is a seasoned deep ocean ship deck officer, U.S. delegate to the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization and attorney specializing in mariner crimes, seamen’s rights and regulatory and legislative issues.

Counter Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan

The new White House Plan specifies, “A national strategy for maritime security and a national policy for the repression of piracy and other criminal acts of violence at sea,” including guidelines on deploying  “all appropriate instruments of national power to repress piracy and related maritime crimes.”

While military action is plausible, the White House plan places emphasis on less aggressive tactics. They include criminal prosecutions, diplomacy, intelligence sharing, international cooperation, joint military exercises, law enforcement, naval interceptions, strengthening local governments and other strategies.

The White House plan describes well-funded, organized criminal networks operating in Nigeria and Somali and growing groups in Cameroon, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast and Malaysia.

The pirates are involved in drug trafficking, gun running, hijackings, kidnapping, money laundering, murder, stabbings, shootings, and smuggling. They attack with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They steal oceangoing vessels and use them as “mother ships,” which serve as launch pads for smaller, faster boats able to outrun cargo ships and tankers. They steal and unload cargo, mostly fuels, according to the White House.

It says some pirate groups have equipment capable of siphoning thousands of tons of fuel from hijacked tankers and they have their own ships to transport the stolen petroleum and an infrastructure to resell.

Present-day piracy pandemic: African Atlantic, Asian Pacific, Horn of Africa

“Now is the time for the world to strike with a heavy fist to crush the pirates, if not, they will become stronger, better organized and more treacherous,” warns Staples.

He is a 35-year veteran ship captain and president of Boston’s OceanRiver Maritime Consultancy. Staples teaches an array of counterpiracy, security and other strategic nautical courses at MM&P’s Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in suburban Baltimore. Staples is a frequent guest interview on television news channels and major daily newspapers worldwide.

“Somalia is the birthplace of 21st century piracy. Somali pirates mostly restrict their crimes to thievery, hijackings and crew kidnappings for ransom. They operate in the Horn of Africa region where it meets, the Indian Ocean and the Middle East,” says Staples.

“Captain Phillips was held hostage for five days, other hostages have been held for years. Case in point, on June, 11 crewmembers of an Iranian tanker escaped from a piracy base after three years and seven months in captivity. The ship’s owner refuses to pay ransom. The men recited incidents of inhumane treatment,” says Luhta.

Somali piracy continues but is down sharply since 2006, as a result of increased naval, coast guard and private security patrols, according to the White House.

However, Somali pirates still threaten shipping traffic, especially in the Gulf of Aden, where 12 percent of the world’s petroleum passes, according to Luhta. He continues to explain, “The Somali government is so unstable due to decades of civil war it is incapable and disinterested in combating piracy.”

The growing piracy threats are in the Gulf of Guinea in the African Atlantic where Nigerian pirates are attacking ships, including U.S.-registered vessels and American mariners involved in offshore oil exploration and refined fuels transportation, according to the White House.

“Nigerian pirates are notoriously violent. They have tortured, stabbed, shot and killed their hostages,” says Staples. “West African piracy stems from uprisings in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta.”

While the Somalis are infamous for attacking large ships, such as the Maersk Alabama, the Nigerians target smaller vessels such as barges, tugs and work boats, servicing offshore oil platforms, according to MM&P.

The newest piracy hotspots are in the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Singapore and in the Makassar Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia. Piracy is skyrocketing in these areas, according to MM&P.

Last month alone, pirates in the region hijacked three ships, according to published news reports.

“Asian Pacific pirates are very coy,” says Staples. “As an example, last month, they hijacked a Greek-owned tanker for five days. The pirates held the captain and crew captive while they sucked the ship’s tanks of fuel. Once emptied, the men and their vessel were released with enough diesel to sail back to port. This all happened while the Malaysian navy was searching for the missing ship.”

Unlike Africans, Asian pirates are more interested in stealing cargo opposed to kidnapping for ransom, which the United States discourages, as emphasized in the White House Plan. It explains ransoms fund criminal networks. Although, payments typically set mariners free.

International piracy security dilemma

“Although the White House has established a new policy, the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization must assume a leadership role that includes empowering private armed security patrol vessels to protect commercial ships in both international and domestic waters,” says Staples. “Security escort ships are banned from most domestic shipping lanes. When they do drift into domestic waters, the crews have sometimes been arrested and jailed for weapons violations.”

As an example, 35 members of the U.S.-owned Seaman Guard Ohio patrol boat have been detained for seven months in India, cites Staples.

“As the White House plan mentions, international naval flotillas cannot protect every vessel sailing in pirate-infested waters. Private security forces are essential,” insists Staples.

Past presidential piracy policies

In 2007, President George W. Bush, issued a memo titled,  “Policy for the Repression of Piracy and other Criminal Acts of Violence at Sea.”

The Bush White House memo specifies, “Piracy threatens U.S. national security interests and the freedom and safety of maritime navigation throughout the world, undermines economic security, and contributes to the destabilization of weak or failed state governance. The combination of illicit activity and violence at sea might also be associated with other maritime challenges, including illegal, unlawful, and unregulated fishing, international smuggling, and terrorism.”

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson declared war on the North African Barbary Coast states of Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis. They were seizing American merchant ships and enslaving the crews for high ransoms. The Barbary War was the first U.S. Navy attack on a foreign country and invasion of a foreign country by U.S. Marines.

Piracy price tag and statistics

The sales of stolen cargo coupled with crew-kidnapping ransom payments to pirates is conservatively estimated at $30 billion annually, according to Luhta. This does not include the costs of naval flotillas, private security patrols and others counterpiracy measures.

According to the International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Crime Services Bureau, in 2014 there have been 107 recorded pirate attacks on merchant marine vessels around the globe.

In all of 2013, there were 264 pirate attacks. More than 300 people were taken hostage at sea last year and 21 were injured. Nearly all incidents involved with guns and knives. Twelve vessels were hijacked, 202 were boarded, 22 were fired upon and a further 28 reported attempted attacks.

The number of mariners killed by pirates varies, depending on sources. As few as one and as many as 30, including seamen from undeveloped countries and deep sea fishermen, whose boats were stolen by pirates, were killed in 2013, according to MM&P.

Pirate attacks jumped by a third off the coast of West Africa last year, increasing insurance costs for shipping firms and transport rates for their customers.

Pirate attacks in the Asian Pacific increased by 300 percent.

By Professional Mariner Staff