Shortly before the attack on the containership Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia company officials said that its vessels did not need protection agaist piracy, a source in the maritime protection industry has told Maritime Accident Casebook. After a five-hour battle with pirates 250 miles off the coast of Somalia, Maersk Alabama was boarded by pirates who took control, but retaken by the crew while the the vessel’s master was taken hostage and remains in pirate hands in one of the ship’s totally enclosed lifeboats nearby.
US warships are in the area while negotiators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are talking the pirates. the incident has certainly woken up America to a threat that has existed for years to its economy but largely ignored because until now it has only affected non-US flagged vessels with non-US nationals aboard. The response to Maersk Alabama will certainly be a test for newly-incumbent US president Barak Obama.
Past attacks have usually involved ships flying flags of countries that have little defensive capability, if any, to protect their own ships. These vessels carry crews whose home nations do not the military firepower to defend them.
Ironically, two of the ship’s officers are graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, recently in the news for teaching its students how to fire handguns as part of its baccalaureat course. Significantly, although the Maersk Alabama crew fought back successfully and captured one of the pirates, no firearms were used in its defence. Details of the attack and the circumstances under which the ship’s captain became a hostage are not yet available and it is unlikely that a formal report will ever be made public.
It does, however, appear that the officers and crew were trained and drilled for a pirate attack, as, indeed, has been the case with most ships that have escaped pirates.
Until the taking of Maersk Alabama it was widely believed that the speed of such ships and their high freeboard made them unlikely targets for Somalia’s pirates, known as the Somali Marines. Other shipowning companies believe that the presence of warships from several countries in the area are enough protection. It may be time to revise that estimate and rethink a response.
Arming seafarers or the ships they sail will not be that response. Even where the flag state is one that is casual about firearms the same may not apply to the countries the ship visits. The liability issues arising from arming ships or seafarers are enormous.
Insurance companies have shown little enthusiasm for placing armed guards on ships and one executive has told Maritime Accident Casebook, reiterating a view shared with others in the maritime industry, that the idea was ‘frightening’. A master who’s ship gets involved in a gunfight with pirates may well be charged with criminal negligence if one of his crew is injured or the vessel damaged and pollution results.
The risk, too, of a military response has been highlighted in the retaking of the French yacht Tanit by French special forces.
Some leading security firms which offer protection for ships have unrealistic expectations of the maritime industry’s ability or willingness to pay high fees which can be more than that what would be demanded by pirates. Although effective security is available for much less, the high costs quoted frighten shipowners away from hirinmg protection.
The fact is that the navies present in the area are of limited effectiveness and the industry may have to look to itself to find solutions and appropriate deterrents.
The waters are muddied by arguments about the use of legal or non-lethal force. The former raises legal, political and cultural issues while the latter is often questionabley effective. There is a need for out of the box thinking, such as the ‘less-than-lethal’ techniques and technology being offered by companies such as Sea Marshalls.
What is not an option is not to pay ransoms demanded by pirates. Those proposing it have little understanding of the situation or its complexity. It is not the job of a seafarer to die just to prove what is already known: Not paying a ransom simply ends up with dead hostages while the kidnappers move on to take another victim.
Somali pirates haven’t killed their hostages so far, lives are money in that desperate disaster of a country. So long as ransoms are paid seafarers will stay alive.
It doesn’t help that high officials in the US-supported Puntland government are getting their cut of pirate booty. The US has a poor record of leaving competent, effective and honest governments in place in countries which it has been involved.
Over the years since piracy has become a major threat to the American economy there has been much renting of cloth and nashing of teeth and wiffling about the legal issues involved. There isn’t much glamour in chasing pirates these days. Such issues did not prevent previous administrations from tap-dancing around the US Constitution and abrogating international treaties when they wanted to, but in those cases there was a forceful political will at work backed by a nation that felt itself under threat.
Will Maersk Alabama put some steel into the American backbone? It might. Yet a boots on the ground response, the only one likely to be effective, has in its shadows the events of Black Hawk Down. Ultimately, ending piracy means resolving Somalia, a thorny problem, but a strong government there can tackle the issue.
Indeed, a strong government in Somalia has already shown what can be done. When the Islamists occupied Mogadishu piracy all but stopped. Piracy returned in force when the Islamistc were driven out of the city.
Somalia and Gulf of Aden