The New Anti-piracy: High-stakes Hijacking on the Open Sea

Posted by Ryan Hagen

What do you do with a captured pirate? In the murky world of pirate hunting, it's anybody's guess.

The morning after pirates hijacked the North Korean freighter Dai Hong Dan off the coast of Somalia, the North Korean government got Noel Choong on the line. They'd never dealt with him before, but he has a publicly listed number. And when pirates attack, Choong is the person you call."We don't have a warship, of course," says Choong. "Even if we did, we couldn't go into any country's territorial waters." Instead, Choong acts like a global 911 dispatcher. He coordinates with government officials, directs an intricate network of informants, and passes on reports of pirate attacks to a navies with the firepower to break up a hijacking in progress. He does all this as the director of the Piracy Reporting Center, a watchpost and intelligence outfit in Kuala Lumpur, which operates the world's only 24-hour piracy hotline.So when the North Koreans rang about their hijacked freighter, Choong handed off their report to the U.S. Navy headquarters in Bahrain. The Americans quickly dispatched a destroyer to intercept the ship, and rescue its 23-man crew. It remains the only time the U.S. military has aided North Korea since the outbreak of the Korean War, nearly 60 years ago.  But when I ask Choong if that makes this kind of rescue extraordinary, he says "Not at all.""You are talking about life and death," says Choong, his Malay-inflected English delicate and precise. "The U.S., British, or any other military, if there is any problem at sea which involves life, they will respond without questioning politics." And so that's what they did that day in late October, 2007. Of course, it doesn't always go so smoothly.In Asia, when ships are hijacked, Choong says, "we have informants, we have people to go out to meet our informants, to pay for information. We then pass that on to law enforcement agencies." But  those informant networks don't extend to the Horn of Africa and the waters off Somalia, where the number of reported pirate attacks has more than doubled since 2007, and where, in late 2008, two high-profile hijackings focused international attention on the pirate menace.When pirates attack in this part of the world, people rely on Choong, and a multinational taskforce of warships patrolling the area. And increasingly, as piracy grows as a problem-and as the international community tries to sort out whose problem it is to solve-more and more shipowners are turning to private security firms to keep their freight safe. Some of these firms are backed with decades of experience and strong reputations. Others are known for being staffed with trigger-happy mercenaries who will patrol and fight for the highest bidder, no matter what side they're on.The good news, if you can call it that, is that the trouble in Somalia isn't the first outbreak of piracy in modern times. After its golden age in the 1700s, piracy was mostly eradicated from the world's oceans, reappearing only after the end of the Cold War. Between 1961 and 1986, there were a mere 300 pirate attacks reported around the world. In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, pirates struck 48 ships. By 2001, that number had mushroomed to 469, most of them concentrated in and around the strait of Malacca, a narrow and heavily trafficked stretch of sea between Malaysia and Indonesia. There, as in Somalia, piracy began as a rash of maritime muggings-crimes of opportunity with small payoffs-and quickly escalated into a problem of international proportions. In 1992, there were nearly as many pirate attacks in the strait of Malacca as there were last year near Somalia. That's also the year Choong was hired as founding director of the Piracy Reporting Center, which was put together to bring piracy under control in the region. If anyone knows what went wrong-and right-during that pirate crisis, it's Noel Choong.His work isn't without its risk-he has been the target of assassination threats, and keeps a low public profile. But thanks to the PRC, more stringent patrols, and strengthening economies across Asia, piracy has been on the decline around the Malacca strait. Just two incidents were reported in 2008, down from the peak of 119 reported attacks in 2002.As Choong will tell you, most pirate strikes follow the same pattern. A group of raiders come at a cargo carrier or cruise ship from behind, using a small motorboat to conceal themselves from the ship's radar. (More brazen attackers simply motor into the ship's path and open fire with AK-47s, then hop onboard.) Pirates use grappling hooks or ladders to climb onto the ship where-thanks to modern automation systems-they could be met by as few as two dozen unarmed men, even on the largest ships. Once pirates get on board, their fight is as good as won. In the 1980s and early 1990s, pirates would mostly rob the crew, take what cargo they could, and bolt. More recently, though, pirate gangs discovered they could extract far more money by hijacking a ship and holding the vessel and its crew for ransom. Ship owners are almost always willing to pay up.
Blackwater Worldwide announced it will send its own private warship into the region, and several other private security contractors are already operating in the area.
Over the years, shippers have tried ways to prevent pirates from coming aboard. They've deployed sonic guns that blast deafening sound waves, or instructed crews to use on-deck fire hoses to blow their attackers overboard. In a recent controversial move, some ship owners have supplemented their crews with armed "protection teams," supplied by private security contractors, who can shoot back when pirates come near. Choong is skeptical of the approach, which he says opens up a set of uncomfortable and complicated legal questions."There are so many aspects you have to look into," he says. "If the protection team, or mercenaries, have encountered a suspicious boat, and actually fired at the boat, and the boat is actually fisherman, who is going to take the responsibility? Is it the flag state? The protection team? If the crew is shot in a gun battle, or even the pirates, who is going to take responsibility?" He worries that the proliferation of private security forces in shipping lanes will spark an arms race with pirates, endangering the lives of crews in the process.With his by-the-book approach and soft-spoken dedication, it's easy to cast Choong as a good cop in the anti-piracy world."Who do you think is the bad cop?" says Captain John Dalby. He's joking, but over the last 10 years he and his company, Marine Risk Management, have made a name for themselves as a firm with a talent for recovering ships "from some pretty nasty little places."Based in the United Kingdon, Dalby's company has built a private team of pirate hunters made up of ex-special forces from Britain, Israel, and the United States. They guard ships at sea and act as a rapid reaction force to quietly retake hijacked ships.If you've got the guns, keeping them off of a ship is relatively easy: Most attackers turn off as soon as they're fired upon. Tracking down and recovering a ship after it's been snatched is a little trickier. For that, Dalby's team has at their disposal a small fleet of private jets, helicopters, amphibious marine craft, and a lot of firepower. But unlike some of the newer forces at work in antipiracy, Dalby says, discretion has always been the rule at Marine Risk Management. "When we started putting our act together we very carefully vetted a lot of people from different backgrounds. And we had lots of applications from around the world-a lot of jarheads who wanted to just go in and kill people. We still get them. The only personnel we'll take are ex-special forces. They don't have this sort of gung-ho attitude. They are more stealthy and sneaky, and more calm," he tells me.Dalby spent 20 years as a merchant sailor before starting Marine Risk Management in 1986. Originally, his was a service to help shippers combat cargo fraud. Then one day a law firm called. "They said, ‘Look, we've got a problem out in China. We have a ship and the owner isn't paying the mortgage. We want you to repossess it and get it out of there.'" So, Dalby sent a team to retrieve the ship, and began to routinely field requests from banks to recover boats, yachts, jets, even airliners, from owners who had either run out of money, or were trying to dodge their payments altogether.Pretty soon, Dalby says, "we were being sent out into some very risky situations. So I started employing ex-British special forces to help my seafaring guys. And then it just went on from there."In the 1990s, as piracy in Southeast Asia was "hotting up," as Dalby likes to say, an agent from insurance giant Lloyds of London asked if he might be interested in getting into the anti-piracy trade. A couple of years later, in 1997, he started the world's first private recovery service for ships hijacked by pirates."Shortly after we launched, we were called a bunch of mercenaries, in the politest possible way," he says. If Dalby chafes under the mercenary label, it's because he knows how dodgy the business can be. He doesn't like waterborne mercenaries, most of whom, he says, "don't give a fuck about the crew. They care about their bottom line, which is getting the ship and the cargo back."
Brazen attackers simply motor into the ship's path and open fire with AK-47s, then hop onboard.
Rampant piracy has created a big market for private security firms in Somali waters. Blackwater Worldwide, for example, has announced it will send its own private warship into the region, and several other private security contractors are already operating in the area. The dash for security contracts concerns Dalby. "The past performance of certain contractors gives me a great deal of cause for concern," he says. "I'm not pointing fingers, but I am, if you understand."The U.S. Justice Department recently indicted five Blackwater guards on charges of voluntary manslaughter for an incident in Iraq in 2007 that killed 14 civilians and wounded 20. A sixth Blackwater guard has pled guilty. Blackwater's experience in Iraq, Dalby says, "shows they are willing to go in guns blazing, Wild-West style. And that's not the way to go about it. People are going to get hurt and killed and there's going to be a lot of damage."Complicating things further, governments that can't afford a navy to patrol coastlines might hire private security firms to go after pirates, which can be its own source of problems. In 2005, the fragile Somali transitional government gave $50 million to a U.S. company called Topcat Marine Security to protect ships in its waters. The company turned out to be a fraud-its New York offices nothing more than an automated call center. No protection was ever provided.Dalby says the Topcat scam isn't unusual for developing countries contracting with private security. "It's typical," he says. "They'll be doing it with a third world country, and con them out of a few million bucks and just walk. And that country, whether it's Somalia or New Guinea, they don't have the resources to do anything about it."Of course, true mercenaries follow the highest bidder, on either side of a conflict. Dalby says he suspects the Somali pirates have hired rogue ex-special forces soldiers from Eastern Europe to train them for ever more sophisticated attacks. "Shipowners are still of the opinion that it's a bunch of fishermen who have got hold of some AK-47s somehow," says Dalby. "This is serious stuff, now. These guys are trained, and it's extremely well coordinated-and funded."The recent attacks near Somalia have revealed a lot about the anatomy of a regional piracy outbreak, and the evolution of international efforts to stop it. "Let's not forget that the initial motivation for Somali piracy was illegal fishing," says Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Fishing trawlers, especially from Taiwan, were illegally fishing off the Somali coasts. There were skirmishes in the mid 1990s. The reason the fishermen went to sea at that time was to fight the trawlers, who were coming with bigger nets, they were armed." With law enforcement nowhere in sight, they quickly evolved to include maritime muggings of cargo ships. "Somalis justify piracy on the grounds that their resources are being plundered. So why should they not raid the ships that are plying the routes?" Abdi told me. That's the context in which the Dai Hong Dan was hijacked: Seven Somalis, hired as guards to protect against pirates, turned their guns on their shipmates and demanded $15,000 in ransom-a pittance compared to the multi-million dollar demands that made headlines at the end of last year.Since piracy thrives wherever well-traveled shipping lanes pass near countries too weakened by political instability and chronic poverty to patrol their coastlines; the waters off Somalia-which has lacked a stable national government for nearly 20 years now-are particularly vulnerable.To wit: In the months following the attack on the Dai Hong Dan, what had started as a rash of isolated stickups had grown into an elaborate criminal enterprise, some of it carried out by gangs of well-trained and heavily armed marauders. And by the end of 2008, there had been 111 attacks in the waters off Somalia that earned the pirates an estimated $150 million worth of goods and ransom money. As piracy surges in the area, so too has a multinational crackdown. The overwhelming majority of world trade-from food to manufactured goods to oil-is transported, unprotected, by ship, and runaway piracy could put an enormous strain on an international economy that's already in tatters.
These days, as many as 30 warships from the United States, Canada, the European Union, Russia, India, and China patrol the region.
These days, as many as 30 warships from the United States, Canada, the European Union, Russia, India, and China patrol the region. The problem is considered serious enough that Japan has strained against its pacifist constitution to send two destroyers to join the efforts there.Still, that cooperation has its limits. Long after Choong has done his part, and the navy has done its, it remains unclear what, exactly, is meant to happen next. In the 18th century, the British declared pirates legally hostis humani generis-enemies of all mankind. By law, pirates could be hanged on sight, and hunted without mercy on land and at sea. These days, maritime law is much less clear on how to handle pirates: Since most attacks happen in international waters, there is usually no nation with automatic jurisdiction. Further complicating the legal picture, the nationality of most cargo ships is just as confused-a ship might be owned by a company in Greece, fly a Nigerian flag for tax purposes, and be operated by a crew from Thailand.This confusion hamstrings the legal fight against piracy, but it also opens the door for private contractors, Dalby told me. "It's easier for us to operate because there's so much entanglement. Nobody knows what the hell is going on, really. If we're invited on board by the owner of the ship, and by default the flag state, we're there legally, provided the ship is in international waters. Are the Somalis going to arrest us and take us to court? I don't think so."Every country, too, responds differently. In some cases, captured pirates can be returned to their home country for trial. The Chinese government has been openly brutal in its punishment of Chinese nationals guilty of piracy, for instance. But Somalia doesn't typically prosecute or imprison pirates, and most of neighboring countries don't want the burden. The British navy, meanwhile, has decided not to take any pirates as prisoners, for fear that they might request asylum.It's easy to find navies and mercenaries to fight pirates. The problem is finding a country willing to prosecute and jail them once they're caught.By 8:30 the morning after the Dai Hong Dan was hijacked, a helicopter from the American destroyer USS James E. Williams was circling the captive ship. Three hours later, the Somali pirates gave up and tossed their guns into the sea. One of them was dead; three were wounded. So were three of the North Korean crew. The Americans tended to the wounded, and the six surviving pirates were taken into custody. It was the first time a hijacked crew in Somali waters had successfully fought back against pirates.As for what happened to the captured pirates, nobody can say for certain. Pirates captured off Somalia are sometimes sent to Yemen or Kenya for prosecution, but because international piracy law is so murky, the pirates are often just thrown overboard and set adrift. According to accounts, the North Korean captain offered to toss them overboard and let them drown at sea, but the American captain insisted the pirates be conveyed to Yemen to stand trial. The North Koreans agreed, and the two ships went their separate ways. But though the Dan arrived in the Yemeni port city of Aden six days later, no records indicate that the pirates ever made it ashore, or back to North Korea. They simply disappeared.If pirates make their living outside of international law, they risk meeting their ends that way, too. And experts caution that even if piracy is brought under control in Somalia, we can count on it to creep back up somewhere else. Because anywhere the conditions exist, organized piracy won't be far behind."It's going to happen in Nigeria within the next three to five years, or off the coast of West Africa," says Captain Dalby. "Keep that in the back of your mind."Photos courtesy of the U.S. Navy and the USS James E. Williams.