Nov 242008

By anybody’s standard the two million barrels of oil aboard the pirated Sirius Star is more than a cup of Crisco. Worth $100m, it represents around 25 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s daily output, 25 lives, a direct assault on the fuel security of the United States, a marked upping of the stakes and the pirate’s confidence, and the blowing of a rather large and loud Somali raspberry at what are allegedly the world’s most powerful military forces.

In an interesting turn of fate the Islamists currently fighting the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia have got their boots on the ground in Haradheere, where the Sirius Star is anchored, searching for the pirates. A spokesman for the Al-Shabab group, listed by the US as a terrorist organisation and which is alleged to be getting payments from pirates, described the taking of the tanker as a major crime and Islamist fighters who descended on the town announced that they intended to punish the pirates for hijacking a Muslim ship.

Before one dismisses the Islamist action as merely a cover for getting their slice of the $150m a year piracy business, with pirates demanding $25m for Sirius Star alone, it’s worth remembering that the only time piracy has slumped in the area is when the Islamists controlled the Somali capital Mogadishu for several months. Brutal and beastly though the Islamists are – there’s nothing remotely civilised about people who stone to death a weeping 13 year old girl because she was raped – they may have a touch with pirates that no-one else has. They may bethe only one’s who can reign in the pirates.

True, over the past week or so the Indian Navy’s Tabar has destroyed a pirate mothership and the Royal Navy clobbered a dhow that had the temerity to fire at forces from HMS Cumberland, ione of four NATO ships in the region, and handed the survivors over to the Kenyan government. That leaves another 1,000 or so pirates to go.

The nation that claims it can win, and is winning, the notional global ‘war on terrorism’ has admitted that it doesn’t have what it takes in ships, manpower and technology to defend its own fuel and food supplies.

Dennis Bryant of Holland & Knight noted in a newsletter “The US Department of Defense =

issued a press release stating that military units and commercial ships must work together to deter piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The United States and other nations are working with the commercial shipping industry and the IMO to ensure that crews on commercial vessels employ reasonable self-protection measures, such as proactive look-outs, evasive maneuvers, and embarked security =

teams… They fail to explain how armed security teams are to embark and disembark when many nations restrict or prohibit possession of the weapons necessary to make these teams effective.  It is also unclear what is meant by the term ‘proactive look-out’; Is that someone who shouts very loudly?

A major question arises with regard to what legal regime would be applied if the private security guards were to kill a suspected pirate and then be arrested ashore. Military personnel are largely protected by the law of the sea and sovereign immunity, but these principles are inapplicable to civilians.  If the solution were as easy as this release makes it sound, the problem would have been solved long ago..

Basically, the US Department of Defense doesn’t get it, or doesn’t want to get it. The ‘War on terrorism is sucking much needed resources away from what navies are actually supposed to do – defend their country’s trade.

It is possible that if US president-in-waiting Barack Obama does fulfil his promises to cut back US involvement in Iraq, more resources may be available for the US and other navies to do the job they are supposed to do.

If the taking of the Sirius Star more than 400miles off the coast of Mombasa isn’t a clear signal that the pirates rule the seas, then someone’s not reading the signals right.

One can expect to see a drop in piracy as winter draws near, but they’ll be back as seas grow calmer. By then prehaps the idea of blockading the ports that pirates need for logistics support might have dawned upon those political bigwigs who currently hamper effect action against the thieves of the sea, but let’s be clear, seapower alone will not wipe out the pirates, boots are needed on the ground in Eyl, Haradheere and elsewhere that have become pirate strongholds. So far only the Islamists have that capability or willingness.

Even so, little is likely to have a lasting effect without a holistic approach that includes tackling the illicit fishing, largely by European-based companies, and the illegal dumping of toxic waste that is sickening people living on the shoreline, stabilising the country itself and fighting that even greater enemy on which piracy thrives, poverty.

Who knows, prehaps instead of shooting pirates someone might think about hiring them to fill the seafarer manpower gap.

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