Published 13 Nov 07
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Responding to Piracy and Other African Maritime Security Challenges
While most of the battles, both political and military, in the ongoing Somali conflict have been on land, recent events have highlighted that the instability emanating from the failed state is not without its maritime dimension:
- On October 28, a 12,000-ton Japanese-owned, Panamanian-flagged chemical tanker, the MV Golden Nori, was hijacked off the coast of Somalia. Together with the Comoros-registered cargo ship Al Marjan, which went missing in the same waters the previous week, and two South Korean-owned, Tanzanian-flagged fishing boats and a Taiwanese ship seized brought the total number of vessels being held to five. Although United States Navy personnel did not board the vessel, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Porter fired on and sank two skiffs belonging to the attackers which were tied to the Golden Nori, while the Porter's eponymous sister ship, the USS Arleigh Burke, entered Somali waters to monitor the hijacked vessel.
- Two days later, October 30, responding to a distress signal passed on by the International Maritime Bureau, USS James E. Williams, another Burke-class destroyer, helped the crew of the North Korean cargo ship MV Dai Hong Dan regain control of their vessel after members of a Somali clan who were supposed to be guarding it off the port of Mogadishu turned around a hijacked it.
- On November 4, the two South Korean fishing vessels, the Mavuno 1 and the Mavuno 2, and their crews, which had been captive since May, were freed and left Somali waters for Yemen under U.S. naval escort.
- The following day, November 5, the 90-ton Taiwanese fishing vessel, the Chin Fong Hua No. 168, which was captured some 130 miles off the Somali coast in April along with its crew of thirteen, was freed after its owners paid a ransom reported to be $220,000. (One Chinese member of the original crew was killed in June when the owners failed to raise the ransom, which was set at the time at $1 million.)
The attacks off the African coast and the U.S. Navy's role in combating them certainly lend themselves to a nostalgic recall of the era of the "Barbary Pirates" two centuries ago when the young American republic fought corsairs preying on merchant vessels off the fabled "shores of Tripoli." In fact, rather coincidentally, the USS Porter was christened partially to honor Commodore David Porter who, during the First Barbary War, served as a first lieutenant on the frigate USS Philadelphia, which was captured by the bey of Tripoli, and subsequently as acting of captain of USS Constitution (the Porter's name also commemorates the commodore's son, Admiral David Dixon Porter). The historical parallels, however, have their limits, which ought to be recalled in crafting a response the challenge faced.
First, the threat that American and European shipping faced off the North African coast in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was not, technically speaking, piracy, but privateers. With the exception of those who, sailing from Moroccan ports, depended upon Alaouite dynasty, the predators of the "Barbary Coast" were actually licensed agents of the Ottoman Empire who owed allegiance to the Sublime Porte through the pasha of Algiers and the beys of Tripoli and Tunisia, who received a portion of the proceeds from their attacks. Consequently, the response to the threat was a conventional military confrontation, the First Barbary War (1801-1805) and the Second Barbary War (1815, also known as the Algerine War).
In contrast, the attacks which have made the waters off of Somalia some of the most dangerous in the world – on October 31, a statement from the director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Captain Pottengal Mukundan, noted that while "this region has been perilous for seafarers for a number of years," up until this year there was an overall decline in the frequency of attacks but "2007 has shown a complete reversal of this trend, with the number of acts of piracy already well surpassing those that occurred during the same period in 2006" (according to an October 16 report from the IMB, up to that point, some twenty-six incidents had been reported this year against eight for all of last year) – are hardly a state phenomenon, if for no other reason than, as repeatedly argued in this column, the very idea of a Somali state is, at best, a fantasy. So, while an illegitimate and ineffective pretender regime, the "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) of Somalia, and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), which intervened in the country late last year to stop an Islamist takeover, battle an Eritrean-backed insurgency which embraces broad spectrum of forces ranging from Islamists with foreign ties to alienated members of marginalized clans, local criminal elements, armed with little more than skiffs with outboard engines, automatic weapons, satellite navigational and communications equipment (Abu Dhabi-based Thuraya seems to be the service provider of choice), and a good knowledge of local waters, have wrecked havoc with shipping.
Second, while the term "piracy" is thrown about in connection with these incidents, its use is more nuanced than even the IMB reports aver. The international legal definition of piracy, as given by Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is as:
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed: (i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).
The operative qualifiers are "high seas" and "outside the jurisdiction of any state." The question is how many of the attacks in Africa chronicled in IMB reports are, technically speaking, acts of piracy. Some, if not most, of the incidents in the October 16 report – including twenty-six off Nigeria (compared with nine last year) and nine off Tanzania (compared with four last year) – were not piracy sensu stricto, but rather matters which are more properly the concern of coast authorities. Two months ago, in fact, Nigeria set up a Maritime Guard Command under the authority of the Nigerian Maritime Administrative and Safety Agency (NIMASA), albeit with some support from the Nigerian Navy.
Of course, this leaves unresolved the question of areas like territorial waters of the former Somali Democratic Republic where there is no government to speak of, much less one capable of launching a coast guard. This legal point is not unimportant. In the case of perpetrators of the recent rash of attacks emanating from Somalia, while the jurisdiction of the U.S. and any other civilized nation over them is undisputed should the incidents occur in international waters (several of the incidents, like the capture of the Chin Fong Hua No. 168, clearly took place on the high seas), legal authority is less clear when they take place within territorial waters, even those of a defunct state.
Third, aside from the juridical concerns, there is a question of capacity – not just of our under-resourced African partners, but of our own forces. Notwithstanding the dangerous shrinking of our blue water fleet – the 600-ship Navy of the Cold War has shrunk so much that, notwithstanding the pledge in last year's Quadrennial Defense Review to "build a larger fleet including eleven carrier strike groups," it is barely holding itself above 300 vessels – the conventional superiority of the U.S. Navy remains, at least for now, assured. The Navy has also made progress towards assuring its command of the coastal waters as well with the development of its "littoral combat ship" (LCS) next generation surface vessels which are designed with operational flexibility to execute focused missions in the "green waters" close to shore. However, as I have previously argued in this column, the challenges like those recently encountered off the Horn of Africa will not necessarily involve either of these two capacities. Rather, the likeliest engagements for what will become the naval component of the newly-launched U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) will probably take place in the "brown waters" of delta and other riverine environments – if not at anchor in port – or just off of them. This means that littoral waters will be, at least in this theatre, more than the bridge between the Navy's area of responsibility and those of land forces. The Navy, together with the Coast Guard and other support elements, will need to be able to operate across an entire continuum.
Fortunately, progress is being made. Last month, for the first time ever, the maritime forces of the United States – the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard – came together and presented a unified maritime strategy, a document entitled A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. The strategy expanded the "core capabilities" of the services to include forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response. In particular, a propos maritime security, the document noted:
The creation and maintenance of security at sea is essential to mitigating threats short of war, including piracy, terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug trafficking, and other illicit activities. Countering these irregular and transnational threats protects our homeland, enhances global stability, and secures freedom of navigation for the benefit of all nations…We also join navies and coast guards around the world to police the global commons and suppress common threats.
As a first step, the African Partnership Station (APS) in form of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry arrived in Dakar, Senegal, last week at the beginning of a seven-month deployment during which it will be joined by the HSV Swift. Led by U.S. Naval Forces Europe, APS is an international interagency effort – European and African sailors join their American counterparts as well as civilian personnel onboard – aimed at enhancing regional and maritime safety and security in West and Central Africa through assistance in developing maritime domain awareness (MDA, that is, a clear picture of maritime traffic), maritime professionals and infrastructure, maritime enforcement capabilities, legal and regulatory regimes, subregional cooperation, and public awareness of maritime security issues. APS 2007 will conduct training with partner nations as well as carry out community relations projects. Current plans include visits to Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, Gabon, and São Tomé and Príncipe, with other engagements to possibly be added. As AFRICOM stands up, it needs to consider a similar initiative for the Horn and East Africa, where the recent spate of high-profile incidents have taken place.
While the most recent attacks from the Somali coast were repulsed through the fortuitous presence of no less than three U.S. Navy destroyers, neither such a robust presence on station nor the relatively less worrisome criminal motivations of the "pirates" will always be the case. The attackers, after all, could have been some of Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked radical Islamists or the naval elements might well have been deployed elsewhere. Thus the incidents should be taken as a salutary reminder of the need to cultivate the capabilities of and relationships with both enduring and new partner states in the geopolitically critical waters off Africa as well as redoubling our own vigilance against the threat of lawlessness on the waters, both deep and shallow.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2007 J. Peter Pham
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