To Catch a Pirate

It’s harder than you think.

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After five months of work, and some careful legal pruning, TIME has published my latest long-read: The Most Dangerous Waters in the World.  According to the UN’s latest study (spanning 1995-2013) the high seas and commercial channels of Southeast Asia are home to the world’s most active pirates. While the location might surprise some (What about Captain Phillips?) piracy’s persistence shouldn’t.  Piracy is the world’s oldest international crime and has confounded even the world’s strongest (and most adept) navies for more than 500 years.

In June, I spent time with the Indonesian marine police. Based on the northern edge of Batam Island, the police outfit was tasked with patrolling a seemingly endless coastline —stretching from the Port of Singapore out into the deep waters of the South China Sea.

Towards the end of one patrol, the crew spotted a wooden skiff angling across our intended path, headed to Belakang Padang. In the 1980s, that small group of islands was a pirate haven. On sight of the vessel, however, the second in command, an officer named Borish, decide to investigate.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Indonesia’s marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship “looked wrong” and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

As we pulled alongside the ship, Borish walked to the bow of the police vessel, tossed an anchor rope across the void and called out to the captain. With the boats steadied, captain of the skiff, carrying a small, dust-worn backpack, climbed aboard. He pulled out a series of permits —required by Indonesian law for any vessel transporting cargo— for Borish to review. The documents checked out, but Borish wasn’t convinced. “It just looks wrong,” he said, as he walked out of the cabin.

Indonesia's marine police stop a vessel during their afternoon patrol off the coast of Batam Island. When asked why, officers noted the ship "looked wrong" and wanted to investigate. Beyond piracy, marine authorities contend with high rates of international smuggling in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Before leaving the ship, officers uncovered a hidden compartment in the bow of the ship. It was empty —on this day. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

The skiff was crudely crafted out of raw wood, sporting multiple cracks. The crew’s wet laundry was hung to dry over a taut, rusty wire strung between two wooden pillars that propped up the boat’s slanting roof. Making his way past a stack bagged cement sand, Borish checked the engine hold, looked at the motor, and then rooted through various storage compartments. These were the easy locations to hide contraband, he later said. Finding little of interest, Borish walked to the bow of the boat, shifting empty crates to reveal a large, concealed stowage area —empty, save some residual sand and paper refuse. “Not today,” he said, as he stepped back onto the police vessel.

A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
A member of the Indonesian marine police jumps from the deck of a moored, confiscated, Thai-registered fishing boat to the dock outside police headquarters in Sekupang, Batam Island in Indonesia. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

On each patrol, Indonesian officers estimate they stop between two and five boats —few registering anything more exciting than some expired permits. But traveling for hours, transfixed by the crystal blue of the open water, I tried to comprehend just how difficult the search for pirates is. Even months later, I’m left with a clumsy metaphor:

Pretend you are in the middle of a pitch-black football (soccer) stadium. Hundreds of people are walking in various directions, silently, around you. Among them are a handful of criminals, largely indistinguishable, who intend to rob others on the field. Your job is to track and stop them. But instead of a flashlight, you carry a lantern, casting weak light in all directions.

How many could you catch?

Challenging Pirates in Tempestuous Seas

In keeping with the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” argument, most countries have a non-engagement policy with pirates: paying a ransom is seen to incentivize the illegal activity — to give rise to a new wave of open-sea scoundrels eager to exploit the lucrative shadow world of transnational crime. But as the tactics used by the private sector are incompatible with the strategy taken by states, pirates are left to exploit the middle ground.

Two days ago, I wrote about the issue of piracy, specifically off the coast of Somalia. Known as the Gulf of Aden, this treacherous strip of blue water is traversed by nearly 20,000 vehicles each year. While only a small percentage of those vessels are attacked by pirates, the criminal enterprise is estimated to cost nearly $7 billion dollars annually —in ransom, insurance or surrendered goods. With piracy being an internationally recognized crime, it stands to reason that the response would be swift, coordinated and effective. However, piracy off the Horn of Africa persists —and exists— because the many of the proposed solutions are mutually exclusive.

Piracy primarily affects private vessels. While most of these boats are commercial, the goods in any one vessel can range from food stuffs to oil/natural gas resources. This variability means the potential losses —financially— also vary widely. For private companies shipping their goods through the gulf, insuring their property can be an exorbitant cost. After a rash of pirate attacks in 2008, these individual insurance premiums rose even further, making insurance rates almost unworkable.

Interestingly, the high cost of insurance persists despite the low likelihood of pirate attack —even in the 2008 spike, only 40 boats were affected. As a result, companies often decide to take their chance. The problem sharpens when their luck runs out.

When a boat is commandeered by a pirate group, the real money is in the ransom demanded for crew and goods. For obvious reasons, it is easier to extort cash from a private company that to dock the hijacked boat, unload the goods and resell the materials in a local market. *(Considering the state of the Somali economy, combined with the lack of infrastructure to transport anything quickly and easily to other grey or black market locations, ransom becomes standard operating procedure.)

Now, if companies have failed to purchase the overpriced insurance —and when you factor in the moral imperative to negotiate the safe return of their employees— companies often pay the ransom, reward the pirates, and free their ship. The only issue, however, is that this course of action is diametrically opposed the tact taken by states.

In keeping with the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” argument, most countries have a non-engagement policy with pirates: paying a ransom is seen to incentivize the illegal activity — to give rise to a new wave of open-sea scoundrels eager to exploit the lucrative shadow world of transnational crime. But as the tactics used by the private sector are incompatible with the strategy taken by states, pirates are left to exploit the middle ground.

For nearly a decade, states have been trying to shrink this middle ground through a renewed security operations, particularly in the Gulf of Aden. Due to the importance of the region to the global merchant economy (the gulf is primary sea-lane for commercial shipments from east to west and vice versa) US, Chinese, and a constellation of NATO naval campaigns have assumed the costs of patrolling the international waters. But even as naval patrols and international security alliances work (at great cost to the sponsoring nations) to repel pesky pirates, the practice continues unabated.

Geographically, the extensive size of the sea makes effective patrolling nearly impossible, and has led most patrol vessels to merely escort commercial vehicles through the narrowest (“pinched”) stretches of the gulf. These inlets force larger ships to slow down, thus allowing quick moving pirate skiffs to board and commandeer the vessel. While most pirates flee as soon as naval vessels arrive, the deterrent effect of these patrols is still quite weak.

In part, this is due to the very triggers of piracy: a weak Somali state without a functioning (or followed) rule of law, means that pirates can abuse the legal system while remaining immune from its punishment; their shuttered economy cannot be addressed by an international naval strategy intent on rooting out the very pirates forced into the world of crime after their country’s insufficient infrastructure completely collapsed in the 1990s. And, if both the above are true, then the costs associated with being caught pale in comparison to the potential gains of successful pirating: where else would an impoverished Somali ex-fisherman find 30,000 USD?

For any spectator, and certainly for most analysts, the greater Horn region presents myriad challenges to security, order and growth —conditions necessary to create the institutional strength  many believe Somalia sorely needs. But the challenge of piracy highlights a harder moral, intellectual and political calculation: what can be done to crackdown on the practice today, if the causes of piracy will take decades to address?

While the answer isn’t clear, some ideas have been proffered. Those, however, will be tackled in a later post.

The Power of Pirates

More than two years ago, I spent six months studying piracy off the coast of Somalia. The problem then, as it is today, is that piracy is one of the most trying “tragedy of the commons” challenges facing the east coast of Africa’s horn and the Gulf of Aden.

This most trafficked shipping way has been the target of significant pirate activity over the past decade, growing steadily since the collapse of the Somali state in the early 1990s –most will know this only by reference to the US’ Blackhawk Down fiasco.

But as government order broke down and the international waterways were soon poached by hungry foreign fishing vessels, Somali fisherman became desperate. If their livelihoods were being erased by boats flying foreign flags, the Somalis would police the waters themselves–exacting tariffs and taxes from any boat they could.

This gave rise to the Somali Marines, a group now considered to be the first–and perhaps strongest– of the pirate gangs. Time has splintered this group further, and the influence of foreign military engagement in Somalia (Ethiopia in 2006, for example) has polarized a number of groups against other political factions and, in the case of Al Shabaab, towards an extremist ideology akin to Al Qaeda.

What becomes clearer, however, is that the scourge of piracy (and it’s continued growth) is not solely a consequence of politics and insecurity, but a function of economic collapse, opportunism, and recognition that the interest of states, local communities and the private sector (the companies whose staffs and stowage are targeted) might be to eliminate piracy, even when their proposed solutions often make the problem of piracy worse.

More to follow.

Silent in Somalia

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at the changing footprint of American forces in the Horn of Africa. The piece, hopefully completed by the end of the month, will tackle questions of Africom’s [Africa Command] future (a topic oft-ignored in the discussion of Obama’s drone warfare in a increasingly hostile Middle East) and how the fight against terrorist cells across North Africa and the Middle East has become the administration’s “catch-22” moment.

However, a story published on the front page of The New York Times today highlights the role private contractors —clandestinely— are playing in the Horn of Africa, and in particular the fight against piracy in the sea of Aden. While the reporting hints at the now-unveiled nefariousness of private security firm called Saracen, whose reputation is sullied further through ties to Blackwater-mogul Erik Prince, one of the more telling conclusions should be the lack of oversight —whether the actions undertaken are those of private contractors of governments alike.