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Time to Take a Harder Line Against Maritime Piracy

There's been a notable shift in the world's attitude toward maritime piracy in recent months.

Consider some recent developments. China's Cosco Shipping and Sweden's Wallenius Lines both announced that they were manning their vessels with armed guards to protect against pirates. Cosco, which was also throwing in bulletproof vests for its crew, said the move was necessary because its ships are too small and slow to fend off an attack through preventive measures. Wallenius said its guards will be equipped with precision sniper rifles. Meanwhile, the Russian navy is reported to have taken punitive action against pirates, including the alleged on-the-spot execution of Somali marauders on at least one occasion. (There's also a video that has been circulating on the internet for about a year, which purports to show Russian commandos handcuffing Somali pirates to their own vessel, then blowing it up.) Notwithstanding the protections offered by international navies, the shipping industry is adopting a much more aggressive stance to the problem.

It wasn't supposed to come to this. Initially, both the International Maritime Organization and International Chamber of Commerce urged shipowners not to fight fire with fire. Having weapons on board, they said, would endanger crews, raise questions of liability and lead to a tit-for-tat escalation of violence. They recommended that ships transiting high-risk areas such as the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Somali coast adopt defensive measures such as plywood and razor-wire barriers, horns and water sprays, and simply outrunning the pirates' vessels. In addition, they counseled ships' masters to stay within protected transit corridors, even if that meant lengthening travel time.

The latest statistics on international piracy show just how well that strategy has worked. It has been a record year for pirate activity, with 266 attacks in the first half of 2011, 60 percent of them carried out by Somali pirates. That compares with 196 incidents in the same period of 2010. Ransom demands, which once were in the neighborhood of $1m to $2m, now average more than $5m and can run as high as $30m.

Estimates of maritime piracy costs are ranging from $3.5bn to nearly $8bn a year, according to Ron Widdows, group president of Neptune Orient Lines and chairman of the World Shipping Council. As of the middle of 2011, Somali pirates were reported to be holding 26 vessels and more than 518 crew members for ransom, while another seven vessels and 200 people were being held elsewhere in the world.

This latest rash of attacks is an outgrowth of the Somali civil war, which has caused political chaos and severe poverty in that country. In addition, local fishermen have complained that big commercial vessels are fouling their waters and ruining local fishing grounds. All of that might have been true at one time, but the tenor of the attacks has shifted in recent months. There are indications that maritime piracy today is being fueled by international terrorist organizations and drug cartels, according to Lew Knopp, chief executive officer of Templar Titan, Inc., a private security firm founded in 2001. The success of the attacks off the Somali coast has likely encouraged pirates elsewhere in the world, including Indonesia, Malaysia and even Venezuela. Once motivated by political and social grievances, many of today's pirates are in it for the money.

Knopp relates his frustration over being unable to convince the IMO, IMB and private insurance companies that tougher measures against the pirates were called for. "Two years ago, I went to them and said this epidemic was not going to change," he says. "They said to me, 'Oh, you Yankees - you just want to shoot and ask questions later.' They chastised me."

Knopp's views are now being borne out, in the form of ever-increasing numbers of attacks the world over. What's more, the pirates are much better equipped than ever. They have motherships from which to launch strikes far out at sea, as well as huge caches of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, acquired from places like Yemen and the black market in Mogadishu. So much for the IMO's fears of escalation; it's already happened.

Knopp, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, says shipowners should be considering the option of placing armed security teams onboard. So far, he says, not a single vessel thus equipped has been successfully boarded, or experienced any loss of life to crew or security-team members, due to piracy. The price of that option isn't cheap, of course, but it can be partially offset by the fuel savings derived from slowing down a well-protected ship. And the cost of ransoming a vessel and its crew far exceeds anything the owner would ever pay for security.

An effective team must be experienced, disciplined and well-trained, Knopp stresses. Firing a weapon with accuracy on a moving ship is a special talent that most land-based personnel don't possess. "Tactics, training and firepower usually win," he says. The number of individuals on the team can range from four to a dozen, depending on the size and configuration of the ship.

One big problem stands in the way of a global solution to maritime piracy: national laws. Many countries forbid the entry into their territorial waters of commercial ships carrying individuals with automatic weapons, even for defensive purposes. Italy, for one, is said to be close to passing a law that permits armed security teams, but others continue their strict bans. That state of affairs must change if piracy is ever to be brought under control.

Knopp believes that will happen, as the U.S. and other nations join to combat this latest threat to free trade and global commerce. Within a couple of years or so, he expects to see the formation of an international body to address the problem, and put a stop to the latest wave of piracy once and for all. (Not the IMO, Knopp says: "They shouldn't have any regulatory role.")

In the meantime, shipowners need to protect themselves from a growing crisis. Even if a small percentage of vessels the world over is menaced by piracy, the costs are immense. Getting product to market shouldn't be a life-threatening enterprise. It's time for the shipping community to fight back with more than plywood and razor wire. Says Knopp: "There's no way this can be allowed to go unchecked."

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