Murphy on Piracy

Piracy, Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare at Sea

It may be obvious but it has to be said…

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Piracy today and many remarkable similarities with piracy in the past.

My article – Counterpiracy in Historical Context: Paradox, Policy and Rhetoric published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 35, Nos. 7-8, July-August 2012, pp. 507-522 – identifies the salient lessons from three specific periods—the Graeco-Roman, Atlantic piracy and its extension into the Indian Ocean during the early Seventeenth Century, and piracy off China during the Ch’ing dynasty—that can most usefully inform the counter-piracy effort off Somalia. It makes the point that piracy’s sinuous character has always given rise to conceptual and definitional difficulties; but that while law has had an important voice in piracy matters since Roman times it has never been the only voice. It suggests that modern pirate hunters, by treating piracy as akin to a domestic criminal activity, have shackled the effectiveness of violent suppression which their historical predecessors found so useful, while at the same time undervaluing the fundamental roles of politics and economics in piracy formation and the continuous struggle to make the seas safe for legitimate commerce.

Unfortunately it is not available for download.

New Publications on the Arabian Sea and Somali Piracy

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Two new publications.

The first, Piracy in the Arabian Sea, was written for the Washington-based Centers for Naval Analyses (CNA) and is included in the third volume of their Long Littoral Project: A Maritime Perspective on Indo-Pacific Security. It can be downloaded here.

The second, Concerns, Consequences and Resolutions to Somali Piracy is available in Charles H. Norchi and Gwenaelle Proutiere-Maulion (eds.), Piracy in Comparative Perspective: Problems, Strategies, Law. Paris & Oxford: A. Pedone and Hart, 2012, pp. 73-90. It is not available for download.

Written by Martin Murphy

December 17th, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Naval Cooperation in an Age of Austerity

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The Atlantic Council has published an Issue Brief I wrote together with Dr. Lee Willett of the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on the opportunity for the navies of the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to cooperate more closely in order to retain their international influence and help to maintain good order at sea globally.

The Issue Brief can be downloaded here.


Further Thoughts on Deep-Water Oil Rigs as Strategic Weapons

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I have been prompted to return to this theme because Canada has decided – obviously with great reluctance – to approve the take-over of Nexen by CNOOC. The depth of this reluctance has been made clear by the limitations it has placed on such transactions in the future, and surely in cognizance of the warning issued by its own intelligence agency about the risks inherent in acquisitions of significant Canadian assets by companies “with close ties to their home governments.”

The deal, however, is not yet done. The EU and the UK, territories where Nexen has few assets, have both approved the deal. The company, however, has substantial assets in the Gulf of Mexico and the relevant US regulatory agency – the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) – has not, at the time of writing, made its position known.

In the meanwhile there has  been a lively debate in Canadian political circles, in its press and blogosphere about the pros and cons of the deal. Edy Wong in the The Financial Post, for example, saw it as part of the wider “struggle between economic realism and libertarian idealism.” Another commentator, Mark Milke, tackling the issue from another direction wrote:

“State-owned enterprises are a bad idea. Even if takeovers by such entities are permitted in the short term on the grounds of realpolitik, or the need for foreign capital in Canada’s energy patch, or the rights of shareholders to sell to the highest bidder…, such ‘enterprises’ are ultimately not in anyone’s medium and long-term interest: not in Canada’s, but especially not in China’s.”

Another angle might be to ask whether or not Chinese companies currently have the attitudes and skills needed to succeed outside their home market at all. This question is prompted by a Boston Consulting Group study entitled The 2012 BCG 50 Chinese Global Challengers: End of Easy Growth which suggests that that days of easy growth for Chinese companies are over and that they need to overcome a series of challenges including a home market that is growing more slowly, and therefore offering them fewer scale advantages, rising labor costs, thereby eroding their price advantage, and more agile responses from foreign competitors.

It then goes on to ask whether or not the 50 companies it has chosen as representing China’s leading-edge international operators can or will be able to raise their game sufficiently to make it into the top-level of global corporations.  It makes the point that “…while state support is a well-ingrained feature of many national economies, China goes to great lengths to encourage and fortify strategic industries through standard setting, industry consolidation, export support, and financial incentives” but that if these companies are to become truly international they must – in effect – cut these apron strings (or unscrew the training wheels or whichever metaphor is preferred) and develop the ability to trust the people who work for them overseas, regardless of whether they are Chinese or foreign nationals.

After hammering away at the usual points about cost control and lean organization forms, the need to acquire M&A abilities including more widespread use of English,  and the need to invest in R&D, two lessons appear to stand-out. The first is the need for greater transparency, which is essential to building the trust without which Chinese companies will not be accepted as partners by governments or potential commercial stakeholders.

It is this point, of course, that brings us back to the statement about oil rigs as ‘strategic weapons’ because CNOOC is one of the companies BCG lists in its Chinese top 50. As the report’s authors put it “a lack of transparency…creates uncertainty among potential partners and targets in mature markets and leads to increased government scrutiny of large-scale transactions” and feeds off “the inability of Chinese companies to build respected global brands, the limited trust that policymakers and executives have in Chinese companies, and the failure of Chinese companies to build strong ties with global stakeholders.” A small number of Chinese companies, recognizing these issues, have begun to manage overseas acquisitions such as Volvo and OZ Minerals at arms-length.  CNOOC has stated that it will retain Nexen’s Canadian head-quarters and set up a separate CNOOC office near-by which suggests that it has least understood it is important to be seen to be doing the right thing. Evidence that it is capable to going beyond this and shaking off Beijing’s shackles will be vital if it is to make its potential acquisition of Nexen work.

The second challenge facing Chinese companies must overcome is building global organizations capable of implementing global and local policies with equal sensitivity, ones that can walk the fine line between over-centralization and over-delegation. These aptitudes – which have taken the great global companies such as Unilever and GE decades to get right and which demand constant adjustment – is likely to come hard to any company that shapes its policies to Beijing’s political will. Talk of business assets as ‘strategic weapons’ does nothing to build international confidence nor does it serve China’s economic well-being. On current evidence the Nexen take-over will, as Mark Milke suggests for other reasons, be bad for Canada, bad for the US and bad for China.


Deep-Water Oil Rigs as Strategic Weapons

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This, at least, is how Wang Yilin, Chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), chooses to view them. He reportedly told an audience at CNOOC’s headquarters in Beijing in May that ‘large-scale deep-water rigs are our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon’.

Chinese oil rig in South China Sea

This writer is no Sinologist and lacks the qualifications to parse his words for hidden meanings. At the same time people are all-too familiar with the sound of public figures “mis-speaking’. Nonetheless, it appears prudent to assume that the man knew what he was saying and that we should accept his words at face value. If we do we should be disturbed.

Six concerns spring to mind.

First, that the statement appears to reflect the mercantilist thinking of China’s ruling elite. Mercantilism, the trading philosophy that prevailed before open markets, saw wealth as limited and trade and national power as linked such that it was not enough for one state to win commercially and therefore politically, the other state had to loose. Consequently, when it comes to China’s great commercial corporations such as CNOOC they should not be regarded as being like modern Western companies but as arms of a competitive state in which profit-maximization sits uncomfortably alongside the need to further Chinese state policy, whatever that might happen to be at the time.

Second, the legal position is unclear: the CNOOC Chairman is asserting something that does not exist as there is nothing in the law of the sea that recognizes platforms or structures as sovereign territory, even though they are considered under title i.e. ownership of the state that put them there. In general they have much more salience in the political than in the legal realm and this appears to be what China is attempting to expand. Chairman Yilin’s language suggests that China’s intends using CNOOC platforms to slowly wrest control of offshore areas by creating an ambiguous political-legal aura of authority and control. Possession is nine-tenths of the law in any language and if China – as in the game of Go – can establish an advantageous position then it will do so.

Third, how this view of oil rigs as ‘strategic weapons’, and this peculiar interpretation of their legal status, coincides with China’s ‘Three Warfares’ thinking. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) in its 2011 Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China described this as a three-pronged offensive strategy based on:

  • Psychological Warfare, which seeks to undermine an enemy’s ability to conduct combat operations by deterring, shocking, and demoralizing enemy military personnel and supporting civilian populations;
  • Media Warfare that is aimed at influencing domestic and international public opinion to build support for China’s military actions and dissuade an adversary from pursuing actions contrary to China’s interests; and
  • Legal Warfare that uses international and domestic law to claim the legal high ground or assert Chinese interests, employing both to hamstring an adversary’s operational freedom and shape the operational space. Legal warfare is also intended to build international support and manage possible political repercussions of China’s military actions.

A fuller account of this thinking can be found here.

The nine-dash line

Fourth, the implications of this thinking – and CNOOC’s state-directed role in advancing China’s national interests – in the current disputes in the South China Sea. China is looking to control 80% of its area and is prepared to use all arms of national power – diplomatic, military, paramilitary and commercial – to get what it wants. The starting point is an historic claim which is usually delineated by the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ based on a similar line drawn up by the previous nationalist regime. This line and China’s claims are contested by Vietnam and the Philippines particularly but by other littoral states as well.

A semi-submersible deep-water rig of the type China launched in May – the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981) – and which Chairman Yilin was celebrating when he spoke about a ‘strategic weapon’, would give China access to all but the very deepest seabed areas within the line. The Stimson Center and Collins and Erickson writing in China SignPost, both believe that for the present China will not deploy such a vulnerable asset outside its undisputed EEZ even though the rig now enables it to undertake drilling operations in the deep waters off the Vietnamese coast.

Collins and Erickson (who provide  a useful map illustrating how HYSY 981 extends China’s exploratory range) take the view that

‘for the near future CNOOC’s deepwater drilling operations will remain in the Liwan trough and other areas that lie unequivocally within China’s EEZ. For Beijing, the diplomatic costs of drilling in a disputed zone such as the Spratlys against the wishes of the other claimants would likely substantially exceed the additional oil or gas production gained. Even a large new oilfield producing 200,000 bpd or more in a disputed zone would not be worth drilling unilaterally if doing so catalyzed further development of anti-China regional security alignments.’

This may be true for the moment given that despite its provocative stance vis-a-vis the Philippines off the Scarborough Shoal, and despite the failure of the ASEAN nations to maintain a united front in the face of its brazen manipulation, China lacks the resources to defend the whole of its claim militarily. That it is working to change this is indisputable.

Woody Island

At the same time China – through the agency of CNOOC – has for the first time invited tenders for oil and gas exploration blocks in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast. These blocks overlap already  proclaimed Vietnamese blocks. The consequent uncertainty means that in all likelihood there will be few takers for what is on offer, certainly from major oil companies with the necessary deep-water technology and expertise. Suggestions that this move revealed a lack of policy coordination between the Chinese foreign affairs ministry and CNOOC may, or may not, be true with CNOOC acting on the basis that China’s right to everything within the ‘nine-dash line’ is unarguable just at the moment the foreign ministry was taking a somewhat more conciliatory line. Whichever interpretation proves correct, China is still sending a signal to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries that it will proceed on its terms; one that is reinforced by the declaration of a new prefecture covering the Paracel and Spratly Islands and an increase in the size of the PLA garrison on the tiny Woody (or Yongxing) Island.

China's Indian Ocean mineral concession

Fifth is how this view of the world, and the concomitant view of oil rigs as strategic weapons, could play out in more distant waters where China has similar natural resource interests. Pertinent examples are the emerging oil and gas province off East Africa and the seabed mineral deposits in the South-West Indian Ocean for which the UN International Seabed Authority recently granted China an exploratory license. It is unlikely that China will behave as aggressively in these areas as it is being in the South China Sea, but the grant of the mineral license has nonetheless provoked worries in India about an enlarged Chinese Indian Ocean naval presence.  What its words (and actions) reveal is that it continues to regard the sea as territory, as compared the Western view that has prevailed for the past 300 years of the sea as space open to all subject only to limited restrictions. China attempted to assert its view during the negotiations which resulted in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but failed to have it accepted. Some states are nonetheless sympathetic to its position and, while none assert it as vigorously as China, may well be tempted to follow its lead if it crushes the objections of its neighbors and gains the level of control over the South China Sea to which it feels it is entitled. If its does, and its ‘blue water’ naval capability expands, then it is likely it will be able to subtly shift the international rules governing the maritime domain in its favor.

Sixth and finally, Chairman Yilin’s words do not square with CNOOC’s statement to the Wall Street Journal that it is ‘respectful of the regulatory requirements across all the respective jurisdictions’ and that it aims ‘to cooperate with all regulatory authorities.’ Why this is relevant to the United States is because CNOOC is attempting to buy a large Canadian energy company, Nexen, in a deal worth $15.1 billion. US regulatory approval is required because Nexen has assets in the Gulf of Mexico. While there are good reasons to allow the purchase – the Chinese are arguably over-paying (60% premium over pre-deal stock price) – nonetheless Nexen does have deep-water extractive technology that will help CNOOC in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and could allow it to maximize the return on its investment in HYSY 981 more quickly that it would be able to do otherwise. Is this in the interest of the United States? More particularly, how does approval – and the Obama Administration’s strange reluctance to challenge China’s political posturing in maritime matters – help its Southeast Asian allies who may, sometime in the near future depending upon how the negotiations in which China is aiming to pick them off one-by-one play out, see this rig and others like it parked in waters for which previously they had a valid claim?

Image credit China oil rig: iStockphoto

Image credit Woody Island: Paul Spijkers

Map credit: China SignPost


Two scars on the concience of the shipping industry

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In one taunt phrase British journalist Colin Freeman reminded the world of the fate of the crew of the Iceberg 1 held by Somali pirates on board their own ship in what must now be conditions of the utmost squalor. Freeman has a good sense of what these men are going through having been held by Somalis as a hostage himself.

MV Iceberg 1

Two amongst the crew have died: one by taking his own life and the other from unknown causes. For their part their captors must be desperate to be rid of them. While accounts of torture and mistreatment of hostage by the pirates may have been somewhat exaggerated in the past, incidents of physical and mental abuse for reasons ranging from ignorance of ship workings to putting pressure on families and owners to force larger or more speedy payment of ransom have occurred and must be a daily concern for these men. The IMB and the Oceans Beyond Piracy project have jointly produced an excellent new report that records these incidents in detail.

Now we learn that the stakes have just be raised: a seaman on board a second ship – the MV Orna which has been held for almost as long – has reportedly been killed (and another wounded) in an attempt to force its owners in the UAE to pay the ransom demanded.

MV Orna

Freeman reports that some members of the shipping community feel the industry has failed the crew of the Iceberg 1. This concern will presumably increase significantly if the report about the possible murder on board the Orna is confirmed.

Will it, however, alter the views of those in government concerned with Somali piracy and who advocate that the payment of ransom should be made illegal? This possible policy change has had little public airing. Even though payments are made by ship-owners not insurers, the proposal was repudiated by the insurance industry earlier this year. It is morally repugnant because – in the absence of a coherent political, economic and security policy that addresses the causes as well as the consequences of Somali piracy – insurance is the only way crews can be freed. Although the precise reasons why ransoms have not been paid in either of these cases are unknown the general rule is: No insurance – no freedom. Regardless of this the proposal to make ransom payments illegal continues to find favor in Washington.

Crew standing in full view to demonstrate they are all alive and well prior to a ransom delivery

Payment of ransom other than in terrorist cases is not illegal under UK law. Despite this the UK government established a task force with other CGPSC members and industry representatives to consider options to prevent ship-owners paying ransoms or to help them avoid paying them, to develop alternative strategies, and to reduce the size and frequency of payments if all else fails. Three meeting have been agreed, the first being held in London on May 30th, 2012. This initiative is being pursued despite repeated warnings from the insurance and ship-owning communities that while they dislike paying ransom as much as anyone this remains the only way of freeing hostages in the absence of effective state action. Industry sources have suggested that the fact that it exists at all has already had an effect on the payment process; despite denials to the contrary it is suspected that the US Treasury has taken steps to restrict the supply of dollars to UK banks, although all this might achieve is to drive the locus of ransom payments out of London to less regulated, and less financially transparent, centers in Asia.

It is also noticeable that the deliberations of the ransom task force appear to have taken little account of the effects that making ransom payments illegal might have on hostage problems elsewhere. The task force is due to issue a report later this year. Let us hope it pays more attention to the fate of the Iceberg 1’s sailors and seaman reportedly murdered on board the Orna than wishful-thinking in the corridors of power.

Image source: EU NAVFOR

Piracy attacks drop to zero – why?

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It was been reported that there has been no successful attack of a ship off Somalia since June 19th and no attempted boarding since June 26th. This is good news. No one, however, believes it will last. The decline is attributed to naval action, ship self-protection measures including the use of armed guards, and, most pertinently, the weather. These are certainly relevant but not, perhaps, the whole story.

The effect of the monsoon has historically prevented the pirates from operating. This only changed once the pirates began the extensive use of ‘mother ships’ starting in 2010. At first they used the ships they had captured, keeping he crews on board as human shields. These large ships offered several advantages, particularly range and sea-worthiness, but two major disadvantages: their size made them easy for navies to track and they consumed large quantities of irreplaceable fuel. Consequently, over the last year to eighteen months the pirates have used motorized dhows instead, which are much smaller and ubiquitous. The navies have focused considerable attention on finding ways of tracking these these vessels as they leave the Somali coast, identifying which are engaged in pirate activity and intercepting or otherwise neutralizing their effectiveness.

HMS Cumberland and pirate mother ship

While the pirates may be experiencing less freedom of action as a result of the navies relatively new focus on these vessels, self-protection measures that have now been adopted across most of the international shipping industry have almost certainly been a more effective deterrent. The immediate sight of razor wire and armed guards puts pirates off more than the possible arrival of a naval ship or aircraft. Plenty of local shipping take no – or very few – precautions and they continue to be victimized. Their main protection is that they yield almost no financial return and therefore offer unattractive targets.

Clearly, therefore, pirate attacks are down because naval and industry attention is up. What happens when naval attention declines and industry becomes complacent? The first is happening: the bulk of naval protection is provided by the Western navies that participate in the Combined Task Force (CTF), EU NAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta and NATO’s Operation Open Shield. All three are experiencing falling ship numbers as fiscal pressures ratchet up in Europe particularly.

Industry meanwhile is coming under similar pressures. Declining economic activity globally mean that freight rates are falling while energy costs, which usually decline in tandem, have remained stubbornly high. Saving on protection can help defray these: the two favored avenues are to cut the ships transit speed from the recommended 18kts to the more normal cruising speed of 14kts or, in the case of bulk carriers and tankers, much less. Below 18kts ships with low freeboards in particular are much more vulnerable to boarding. In these cases the burden of protection falls on the armed teams but in any unknown number of cases these too are being weakened through the embarkation of fewer personnel.

These developments lead to two thoughts.

First: If these trends continue then, sooner or later, a ship with an armed team on board will be taken and the game will start over again.  The pirates have proved to be quick learners who can adjust their modus operandi more smartly than the navies can respond. If, as has been suggested, the pirates are most concerned about armed teams then all they need to do is wait and let cost and complacency weaken their prey.

Second: While it is true that the economic effects of Somali piracy are relatively inconsequential when compared to the value of international or regional trade, it is the most significant outbreak since World War II. Inevitably, therefore, it has political significance internationally and also domestically within Somalia. Piracy could not have happened at all if the the country had been stable. The groups responsible for that instability, and which have political power in regional entities such as Puntland and in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in Mogadishu, have pirate interests. The TFG is currently fighting to retain its recognized positioned as the UN-mandated central authority, which enables it to attract international aid and other support. According to a leaked UN report, much of this aid is aid is siphoned off. Given the connections between ministers and officials within the TFG and the pirate groups it seems reasonable to suspect that the pirates have been told to curb their activities while the political leaderships attempts to secure its own position and sources of revenue.

The world is dealing with an adaptable and intelligent adversary that watches and listens to what we do. So long as the potential for significant profits remains – and so long as the pirates’ on-land support infrastructure and international negotiating capacity remains intact – then the incentive to wait until the current counter-measures are stood-down will remain. Baring action against these assets the pirates will be back. Piracy is not over.

Image source: MOD/Crown


The most lucrative piracy in the world: Tanker and crew taken off Togo

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Even while the Togolese government was holding talks with US officials on anti-piracy measures, pirates escaped with a Greek-owned tanker laden with fuel together with 24 Russian hostages. The ship, the MV Energy Centurion, was subsequently released with its crew after three days but minus 3,100 tons of its gas oil cargo.

Is this the first evidence of Gulf of Guinea pirates adopting Somali tactics? No because kidnapping has been a regular feature of piracy in this region. It started with the abduction of oil workers from facilities both in and around the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta before spreading first to Cameroon to the east and now to ships off Benin and Togo to the west. The Nigerian Navy is too short of ships to be able to contain the problem adequately. Even though it has made substantial investments lately, the new vessels will take time to be delivered and the crews trained on their new equipment. With the exception of Ghana, further to the west, the other regional navies are lamentably under-resourced.

Pirate tactics also make their job harder: The gangs, which are all based in Nigeria, have good intelligence about ship locations and defenses. These hijacks are not random. They are able to board, take what valuables they want and leave quickly, if that is their intention, before navies can respond. During their time on board they can act with extreme violence. If oil theft is the objective then they have the connections to be able to position a receiving tanker within range into which a portion of the original load can be transferred and then quickly sold into local markets. As with the Energy Centurion the crew of the original tanker is generally released along with the vessel itself. The potential profit to be derived from crew ransoms would be of little consequence compared to the value of the oil which can greatly exceed the value of the ransoms achieved by Somali pirates. Dollar for dollar, Gulf of Guinea piracy is the most lucrative in the  world.

Valle di Cordoba

The first recorded oil hijacking took place in December 2010, involving an Italian-registered tanker the Valle di Cordoba. However, pirate attacks are under-reported, according to the IMB by half and according to other sources by much more. The scale of oil theft and the income from fraud are also believed to considerably greater than official figures suggest.

Piracy in the region – as elsewhere – originates ashore and can only be solved ashore. It is pointless looking to the regional navies to solve the problem which has its origins in the political corruption in Nigeria that feeds off the nation’s oil wealth. Once it is realized that as much oil is stolen in Nigeria as is produced in Ghana then the scale of the problem become apparent. Multiple gangs are involved in oil theft – known as illegal bunkering – from pipelines on land. The number involved at sea is much less. However they, too, probably also have their origins in Niger Delta but have moved into the Lagos area and, quite possibly, established links with interests across the border in Benin where smuggled oil from Nigeria has claimed a major share of the country’s energy economy for decades.

The Nigerian government declared an amnesty for everyone involved in civil disturbances and oil theft in 2009. Mismanagement of the program means that it runs the risk of collapse. Significant numbers of those who surrendered are, despite what are acknowledged to be generous benefits, threatening to return to their old activities because the government has made few attempts to address the fundamental social and political issues that sparked the militancy in the first place.

It is hard to see how this can be accomplished given the corrupt links between regional and national politicians and the bunkering gangs. Too much money is involved. Nor is this demand in any way diminished by the disparity in oil price between Nigeria and its neighbors that give the gangs their profit.

Energy Centurion image source:

Valle di Cordoba image source:


Written by Martin Murphy

September 1st, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Q&A on West Africa piracy in World Politics Review

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Comments can be read here:

Written by Martin Murphy

November 11th, 2011 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Pirate money flows to al-Shabaab

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Reuters today published a report that pirate money is flowing to the violent Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab. The assumption will be that this proves the existence of a pirate-terrorism nexus. It does no such thing. Reuters, furthermore, first reported on such suspected transfers in 2008.

There is no pirate-terrorist nexus in the sense that pirates and terrorists are cooperating to achieve a common aim. In terms of motivation they remain as far apart as ever.

MV Izumi: Al-Shabaab recieved $200,000 out of $4.5m total ransom

These are deals of convenience. It has been suspected that pirates have used the southern port of Kismayo to refuel and take on supplies. It has been known that since the middle of last year first Hizbul Islaam and then al-Shabaab had been putting the squeeze of the pirates in Haradheere which is the most southerly and therefore the most vulnerable pirate outpost.  Both organizations are heavily dependent on foreign donations. These donations have dwindled significantly over the past few months, especially since the failed Ramadan offensive. Their second source of income has been ‘custom’ dues on port traffic. Hizbul Islam and al-Shabaab shared the income from Kismayo, the most important port in the southern part of the country under their control until they fell out. Al-Shabaab defeated Hizbul Islam which then attacked Haradheere in an attempt to replace its income shortfall. Haradheere is not a recognizable port but it was the best they could get their hands on.

Al-Shabaab followed them but only appears to have gained access to the town once Hizbul Islam fell apart with some of its cadres and leaders throwing in their lot with their rivals. Even then their control of Haradheere appears to be incomplete. An unknown number of pirates were reported to have left the area and moved north towards Hoboyo. Some clearly stayed. Some of these where kidnapped by al-Shabaab and forced to agree some sort of deal to secure their own release (‘the biter bit’) but reports that this involved giving a fixed twenty percent share of all ransoms as reported by Reuters previously is not born out by Reuters’ new figures. The working assumptions has been that al-Shabaab and the pirates do deals ship-by-ship and the shake-down is not even applicable to every ship. It is therefore extortion. (No sympathy for the pirates but that is what it is.)

Moreover, it is not at all clear that the money is remitted to what might be termed al-Shabaab ‘central’. Al-Shabaab has always been a coalition, just like most organizations in Somalia, and appears to have become more so in 2011. Bottom-line: al-Shabaab is under financial pressure; their is no single percentage ‘cut’ for them; the only pirate base affected currently is Haradheere which means all the centers further north are largely unaffected.

MV York: Al-Shabaab received $100,00 out of $4.5m total ransom

Finally, the question that still has to be answered is that ‘assuming there is a pirate -terrorist connection what is to be done’? Send in the Marines? No appetite for that. Make ransom payments illegal? Pressure for that is building in Washington but America does not have a dog in the fight: most of the hostages come from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia which are US friends. Does the US want to provoke rows with these countries? I don’t think so. How many innocent seafarers are worth sacrificing? Given that choice, how enforceable would any legal prohibition be? Leaving to one side the public reaction in countries such as India and the Philippines, consider the legal problems this will occasion for ship-owners and their insurers. And don’t forget that India, the country that has been amongst the most aggressive when it comes to taking down pirate mother-ships, is backing off because of the number of Indian sailors that the pirates are holding.

Photo of MV York credit EU NAVFOR:

Photo of MV York credit EU NAVFOR: