The Piracy Problem

Piracy continues to grab the national headlines, and with the taking of large vessels that are being held for ransoms of many millions of dollars, pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden (between Somalia and Yemen) are a top concern for worldwide shipping companies.

To get insight into this problem, spoke with Corey Ranslem, CEO of Secure Waters, a Florida-based security and risk consultancy firm. Secure Waters, which was founded by former U.S. Coast Guard members, provides a variety of maritime security services, including specialization in the TWIC program, counterpiracy, MTSA and other compliance issues, port security design, electronic security systems use and design, international training, special operations teams and armed security,

Ranslem, a former U.S. Coast Guard team member who joined the company as CEO in 2006, has a background that fits right in with the company’s compliance, risk consultancy, technology and response based approach. He spent 8 years in the Coast Guard working on drug interdiction, trafficking cases, domestic and international port security, and even on the tactical side for law enforcement missions. From there he went to Smiths Detection, a firm which provides a variety of chemical, biological and other threat detection systems. At Smiths he was with the federal government team, working with a number of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. We caught up with him this week to hear what he had to say about today’s piracy situation:

So, is what we’re hearing about piracy actually indication of some sort of increase in piracy, or is it really media hype?

Not to sound like a politician, but the answer is “yes and yes.” You take a look at the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia and on up to the area off Yemen. That is a major shipping lane, and there are about 25,000 ships that pass through that area of the gulf in a year’s time. Year to date, there have been 100 reported attacks on ships passing though that area of the gulf. And in 2008, current with today, there have been 40 succcessful hijackings in that area. Statistically, it’s not that great, since we’re only talking about 40 ships out of 25,000, but what we have seen is the level of violence continuing to escalate.

If you looked back a year ago, the typical pirates had machetes and maybe an AK-47, and they’d try to board the ship and rob the people aboard. Then they started going further off shore, and jumping on the vessels and holding people and ships for ransom. Once they saw that was successful, some began to raise the ransoms into the millions of dollars. The ship companies never offer this information, but from what I understand, the payouts are well into the millions of dollars now. That kind of success [for the pirates] builds on itself.

Are we hearing about all of the events?

We’ve heard a lot about the Saudi tanker and the Ukrainian vessel that had tanks. But there was an Iranian ship that was hijacked [the MV Iran Deyanat]. It was hijacked earlier this year and really didn’t make the news. This Iranian ship is believed to have chemical weapons destined for Islamic militants in West Africa. It was taken into Somalia and they believe there were chemical or radiological weapons on board because majority of crew and the pirates who were on the ship have now died. These are still not internationally confirmed reports.

Recently, there have been two more attempted attacks on cruiseships. Purely from our end at Secure Waters, I think the attacks on cruiseships are going to continue. Looking at the escalation of their targeting, this was the next progression.

It sounds like the targeting of vessels is changing? Is that the case?

This is another thing that has fed into the pirates’ evolution. From our experience, there have always been random attacks in the Gulf of Aden. There was no pattern we could figure out, other than we knew they liked certain types of vessels. But when they got the Ukrainian ship and the Saudi tanker, it appeared to us that they were becoming less and less random. We believe that the Sirius Star [the Saudia Arabia-flagged supertanker which was captured on Nov. 15, 2008] was targeted by the pirates, and we believe that because the hijacking was done so far outside their normal zone. There is speculation that the pirates were operating with an international network to be able to target this vessel.

Are the numbers of attacks and hijackings of sea vessels rising?

According to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau, there were 263 total attacks for all of 2007. In the first half of 2008, there were 114 attacks reported by the International Maritime Bureau, but in the first half of 2007, there were 126, so if you just look at the numbers, they are actually down slightly. Of course, these are numbers for the ones reported to the bureau. What we’ve figured is that maybe only 25 to 30 percent of all pirate attacks are actually reported to International Maritime Bureau.

I get a sense that other than what we’ve seen in the Gulf of Aden, most pirates are simply opportunistic robbers. Is that right?

What is classified as piracy is anytime a ship is boarded at sea for robbery or hostage taking. Basically everywhere else in the world, the pirates are simply petty thieves and robbers who are out for money or items of high value that they can sell. But we have seen escalation of violence in other areas of the world like we’ve seen in the Gulf of Aden. They are not as scared of the crews anymore; they know the crews are generally unarmed.

Then what is the answer – putting armed teams and weapons aboard a ship?

We approach it from a different view. I’m not a big advocate of putting armed people on every one of the ships that goes through the Gulf of Aden. It is expensive and it doesn’t match the statistical data. We tell our clients, let’s take a look at the threats, the routes, the readiness of the crew, even the ship’s ability to outrun the pirates. One of the things we’ve seen is that the majority of the pirates are attacking during daylight hours. I’d say that 95 percent of the attacks are during daylight. Route and trip planning can mean going through these areas at night. That might sound crazy at first, but it is much harder for pirates to identify and board these vessels at night.

We look at other things, like whether the ship has fire hoses to potentially repel pirates? We ask if you can pull the lifelines up so pirates don’t have a way to get their way aboard.

There are also less-than-lethal technologies. There is a sound device that puts out a pulse blast of sound which can temporarily incapitate the pirates. But this isn’t foolproof. They are known to use multiple vessels, sometimes as many as five vessels, and a single one of these sound devices can only point in one direction. There are also vision impairing devices with essentially what are lasers, but anything you have to aim, the sea conditions could make this difficult to use. I have also heard of the availability of some type of electric pulse devices that can stun attackers.

Arming vessels is usually one of the last recommendations. Arming your own crew takes a good deal of training. It’s not impossible to do, but it takes an awful lot of training.

The other option is to put armed teams aboard ships. If you put an armed team aboard where the flagged state [the vessels country of origin] doesn’t allow people to have weapons, then you are breaking the law of that country. If we put aboard a team which then shoots and kills a pirate, we could potentially be tried for murder or manslaughter. It makes it really interesting to put armed teams aboard; you really have to understand the laws. Additionally, it’s not logistically easy to get a team onboard ships.

What I definitely would not recommend is adding unarmed security. Unarmed security on a vessel adds no more readiness than a general crew.

Is that actually being done?

I didn’t think that was happening until a chemical tanker was hijacked. Pirates hijacked the vessel and there were reports of an unarmed British security team aboard. When the pirates boarded, they were said to have jumped overboard into the water. That team was lucky that there was a Dutch naval vessel nearby to rescue them.

Back to the issue of armed teams -- there are certain vessels, that with other options exhausted, they would be candidates for an armed team. Cable ships might be one option. These are the ships that move very slowly, dropping communications cables along the bottom of the sea. They are very slow, and sometimes might have a max speed of 10 knots [approximately 11 miles per hour]. They might be a good candidate to embark with an armed security team.

Are there any technology applications which could have prevented or minimized these attacks?

Some of these attacks could have been prevented with an early warning from the crew if they had more surveillance. Navigation radar is not set up to see smaller vessels. What we want is early detection and warning of these vessels approaching. We recommend they look at infrared, night-capable, high-end zoom camera systems. If you can use a camera system to help out on your detection, then you might just have enough time to start your maneuvers, raise your speed and put up a piracy watch with your crew. We’re using technology from a company called IEC Infrared.

In access control, you could look at superstructure access once pirates are on board. Doors that are all locking from the inside. You could lock down the superstructure so they couldn’t get into controls, engine room, etc. This isn’t foolproof. If the pirates are on board, what’s to say they couldn’t climb up to the bridge or find access through a cargo hold.

Once a ship is hijacked, what can be done other than paying the ransoms? Can a team of tactical ops professionals be put aboard to retake the ship?

Do we have the ability to take the ship? Yes. Sure. 100 perent. These are former U.S. Coast Guard tactical guys and former special ops teams members and Navy Seals guys. But it still puts the crew at risk. We don’t know where the crew is located. Are they scattered? How many pirates are aboard? I think the costs far outweigh the benefits in terms of retaking one of these ships. These pirates use a lot of force. Some of these have 15-20 armed pirates aboard. Once they hijack a vessel, they bring them as close to shore as possible. They can raise alarm with other pirates. And being that they are aboard the ship, they have a tremendous advantage. So the answer to “Is it possible?” is “yes,” but I think the casualties would be too high.

So if use of force isn’t necessarily the answer here in most cases, what are we looking at?

From a historical perspective, piracy has been around since people first sailed the sea.When the first guy built a pirate shp, some other guy built a ship so he could board that ship and steal that cargo. I don’t think it’s something that will ever go away. I think piracy will continue to increase around the world because other groups are seeing what is happening in Somalia and thinking “Why couldn’t we do that?” Haiti could have that potential. We’ve already seen the propensity of violence in that area. We think they might go after mega-yachts.

We seem to be victims of history, and not students of it. There have been piracy warnings for this area of the world for the past three years. It’s not surprising that it’s happening. It is surprising that it is happening at the level it is, but it is not surprising that piracy is happenign there [in the Gulf of Aden]. It’s going to be a difficult problem to solve. It’s really a geopolitical problem that is going to involve multiple nations and involves quality of life issues and national stability issues. Sometimes we have to ask, is it a naval problem where countries need to bring in military vessels, or is it really a local law enforcement problem where these pirates live?